By Jed Porter, IFMGA Ski and Mountain Guide
The Haute Route takes all kinds. All kinds of skiers. As a “bucket list” adventure for an entire world of ski fanatics, the backgrounds of her suitors are varied and interesting. Many are curious about what it takes to do the deed. The most recent IAG Haute Route trip and group were fairly representative. We had strong downhill skiers, varied touring experience, and the entire spectrum of ski mountaineering conditions and weather. We did not complete every single section of the route, but that is far from the only measure of success up there. If you expand your definition of the Haute Route to its broadest terms, it is skiing, wine, and culture. We had all that, even without visiting the final hut or making the final ski descent.
Whether you are just curious, or wish to calibrate your own preparedness, a little profile of each skier on this particular trip is apt to be interesting. Here’s the team.
John is a 60-something physician from New Brunswick, Canada. He’s been a “Maritimer” (Canadian slang for those living in the eastern coastal provinces) all his adult life, except for that one winter ski patrolling out at Apex Mountain in British Columbia. John is the ultimate “bucket lister”. He’s done it all, seen it all. He’s sailed across oceans, taken up dancing as an adult, slogged through Quebec’s Chic Choc mountains, and taught some of the first ever wind surfing classes in the ‘70s. He ice skates and cares gently and effectively for other rural Maritimers. Prior to the Haute Route, however, John had basically no backcountry experience. In what is one of my favorite new phenomenons in the backcountry skiing world, John did his training by skinning up his local Crabbe Mountain ski hill. Backcountry skiing is a complicated beast. There is the uphill, the downhill, the equipment, and the hazards. Most aspiring backcountry skiers have the downhill portion pretty well sorted out. Learning the skills for ascending on skis is best done in a safe, familiar environment. More and more resorts allow uphill traffic, and more and more skiers are participating. This allows people to skin where they already know where to go, to skin where it is at least relatively safe to do so, and to skin sometimes on man-made snow when there is no snow in the wild. It’s brilliant. A number of times in recent years we have had folks just like John dedicate months of preparation for the uphill portion of a backcountry trip completely inside a ski resort boundary. John’s preparation paid off. He won’t say it was easy, but he had what it took to complete each day with enough energy to find the next wine glass. That’s success!
The Haute Route was Scott’s first guided ski adventure, ever. The same could be said of other participants on this trip, but it isn’t as notable as it is for Scott. Scott has been skiing the backcountry for about 20 years. He is a competent, accomplished backcountry skier (Jed’s note: I should know. I’ve skied, recreationally, with Scott since 2003). By all measures he has the skill and experience to complete the Haute Route, unguided. He chose to come with International Alpine Guides for our intimate logistical knowledge and the margin of safety that comes with excellent guidance. Scott races bikes, skis the backcountry around his home in Bishop, CA a couple times a week, and takes at least a couple ski trips out of the area each year. He and a partner put up a respectable time at a very cold running of Colorado’s “Elk Mountain Grand Traverse” ski mountaineering race just weeks before the Haute Route. In short, Scott had no problems with the athletic portion of the Haute Route. For that matter, he had no problems with any portion of the Haute Route. He was a solid guest, for whom the most remarkable observation is his humility in choosing to employ professional oversight. We appreciate Scott’s participation, and you will appreciate professional oversight, regardless of your background.
This is Gavin. Gavin’s crazy, and he’ll admit it. He’s crazy smart, crazy motivated, and just crazy. Gavin grew up in Michigan shredding trash heap ski hills. He’s spent most of his adult life in, of all places, Florida. He took some time to ski bum in Summit County, Colorado, but was mainly a free-diving, jet-setting, big-game fishing Florida redneck until very recently. His world shook up a couple years back, and he hightailed it back to Breckenridge. It was there that he found the backcountry. With a few days of touring, and an AIARE level one avalanche course, a fledgling idea to someday ski the Haute Route seemed way more realistic. Notable about Gavin’s preparation is that he injured himself just over two months prior to the trip. He has athletic prowess in excess, but a broken leg is a broken leg. In spite of his own crazy, he absolutely “toed the line” with his medical oversight and his physical therapy, while keeping us guides apprised of the situation. He bought trip insurance. He got the “go ahead” from his medical team just days prior to the trip, came with an open mind, took great care of himself (he didn’t drink, even on the wildest party night) and finished stronger than he started.
Isaac and Nicki are married, California working professionals. They strike their own balance of career and mountains by living in Folsom, CA and tele-commuting. They are young, motivated, and well-conditioned to the backcountry. They, like Scott, have skied a bunch on their own in the wild. They met one another during collegiate gymnastics careers (Nicki was New Zealand’s all-around National Champion gymnast in 2003. But she won’t tell you that. Joke’s on you Nicki, Google knows…). This shared gymnastic background shows.
Their respective ski histories are different (Isaac’s been at it longer. Gavin summed up all of our sentiments when he said “I want to ski like Isaac when I grow up") but the foundational athletic prowess developed in the gym is evident. While Nicki has picked up the backcountry skills pretty quickly, even doing recent annual "women's weekends" each spring to ski things like Mount Dana and the Bloody Couloir, she also learned new things on the Haute Route. When refreshing kick turns in the Vallee Blanche on day 1, Nicki noticed that even she had refined her technique. Isaac pointed out, with excellent married-man self-awareness, that "that's probably because it's someone other than your husband teaching you".
Lucien came the other way around the world for the Haute Route. While the rest of us are North American, Lucien came from Australia for the trip. He insists that Australia has some skiing, but he also seems to talk it down regularly. I suppose that’s indicative of their upside-down self deprecation there. He has worked a few seasons as a weekend patroller at the resort six hours from Sydney. He describes long drives, rock hard snow, and insane winds. Working that way for your skiing is bound to cement an appreciation and toughness for the sport.
Additionally, Lucien pulled up roots at one point for four years and moved to Denver to ski. My guess is that his solid performance on the Haute Route is due in equal parts to the Australian resourcefulness and the Colorado mileage. Overall, Lucien has skied for 20 years. I know this because, on day four of the Haute Route, on Rosablanche, in a spectacular sunny day in perfect glacier powder, Lucien stammered at the end of an amazing pitch of mellow fast turns, "20 years of skiing and this is the top, this is... This is amazing". It’s ok, Lucien, words don’t matter. Skiing is perfection.