Skiing the Haute Route – What does it take?

If you’re a backcountry skier you may have heard of the famed Haute Route ski tour from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. You’ve probably heard tales of skiing through dramatic glaciated terrain, quaint alpine huts serving heaps of great food and the final ski descent into Zermatt under the Matterhorn. You may have thought, “Can I do that?” Well, here’s a run down on what skills you need to have to successfully complete the Haute Route ski tour.

The Haute Route is a 6-day point-to-point ski tour in the Valais Alps of Switzerland (Only the first half day is in France). The equipment used is telemark or alpine touring skis with skins, ski crampons, boot crampons and ice axes. It is true ski mountaineering. This is not a ski tour to be taken lightly and it is no place for cross-country skis or modified resort skiing equipment. It is not terrain that is suitable for splitboards, except for possibly the most skilled who are proficient at “skiing” their board in split mode. The areas of ability that matter fall into three categories: downhill skiing skills, backcountry skiing/mountaineering experience and physical fitness.

Downhill ski ability

The downhill skiing on the Haute Route is usually not too difficult and even the tricky sections are not very sustained. However, you may find yourself on icy steep sections (sometimes by headlamp) where a fall may not go well. And keep in mind that continuous falls on even easy slopes while high up in remote glaciated alpine terrain can catch up to you. In other words, you must be solid.

You must be an expert level skier that is comfortable linking solid parallel turns while skiing backcountry ski slopes equal in steepness to black diamond runs at a ski resort… in any conditions. And by that I mean deep powder, crud, crust, icy hard pack, choppy wind board, frozen avalanche debris, navigating tight trees… the whole gamut. While skiing high in the Alps you can encounter just about any condition imaginable. And there are the short sections of slopes that are double black diamond in steepness.

As for other specific skills needed, you should be very comfortable at controlled side slipping on steep hard snow and using the falling leaf technique. You must be well versed in the stem christie turn (a modified wedge turn). There is also the downhill kickturn, which must be mastered on steep terrain without falling over. Hop turns come in handy at times.  But above all you must be in control at all times. You don’t have to be the prettiest skier or the fastest, but you must be solid.

Backcountry Skiing and Mountaineering Experience

The skills and experience needed here are dependent on whether you are going on a guided Haute Route ski tour or tackling it on your own. For a guided ski tour you need to have experience using skins on steep and sometimes hard pack snow. You should also have had many backcountry ski days under your belt and possibly a previous multi-day ski tour. Overall, you need to have your equipment and systems dialed. As for mountaineering experience, not much is needed here if you are going with a guide as the guide’s expertise can make up for much of that and they will teach you the techniques you’ll need to know. The mountaineering done on the Haute Route is at a beginner level.

Moving beyond a guided ski tour and the level of experience and skills goes up considerably. For an unguided Haute Route tour, you should have many years of backcountry skiing experience and have been on numerous multi-day ski tours.  Experience skiing and traveling on glaciers is a must. You must be proficient in crevasse rescue techniques with skis and have had experience on steep snow climbs (up to 45 degrees) using ice axe and crampons. The high alpine terrain of the Haute Route is no place to be figuring these things out.

Also, do not underestimate the navigation skills required if tackling it on your own. It is easy to get complacent when you’re simply following the track in front of you for days until very suddenly you find yourself in a whiteout and the track has disappeared. You must be prepared with a whiteout navigation plan and be very skilled in using GPS, map, compass and altimeter for navigating. Putting together a written trip plan, such as is taught in avalanche courses, is important.

And then there’s avalanche training. The absolute minimum would be everyone in the group having taken a level-one avalanche course with level two being more appropriate. You must have the ability to evaluate the snowpack and the weather to make sound judgment calls. Keep in mind that the snow stability issues you may face in the Swiss Alps can be very different than what you have seen in your home range. Once again, this is not required for those on a guided ski tour.

Skiing your first Alps ski tour with a certified ski guide is an excellent way to gain the experience to ski tour in the Alps on your own. 

Physical Fitness

All of the above skills are for nothing if you are not in proper physical shape and are unable to complete the tour. Also, you do not want to be completing each section physically maxed out. You need to have reserves to enjoy yourself and for when things do not go as planned. Physical fitness is another area that is commonly underestimated.

Specifically, you should be able to climb up to 4000 feet a day on skis and travel up to 8 miles on skins with some reserve left over. On some days of the Haute Route you may need the stamina to slog it out for 8-9 hours straight, but most days are in the 5-6 hour range with the option for more. The largest descent of the tour is about 6000 feet. You do not need to be a fast uphill skier or climber, just steady. However, there may be times when the pace needs to be picked up for safety reasons.

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Altitude does play a role, although the tour is mostly below 11,000-12,000 feet. It’s an excellent idea to spend some time skiing in Chamonix prior to the tour to gain some acclimating. Once again, moving slow and steady is key with altitude. Look for a future blog post on physical training for long Alps ski tours.

So there you have it. If you feel you may be borderline on some of the above, keep in mind the season for the Haute Route ski tour is mid March to end of April so that gives you almost a full season to work on any weakness'. The Haute Route can be a wonderful adventure and a very rewarding experience provided you come prepared.

Dave Miller
IFMGA/UIAGM certified ski guide

For more information check out our 2016 Haute Route Ski Tours