That famous Alpine pathway, the Haute Route, is better known to summer hikers than to skiers, for reasons that become obvious the minute you step into your bindings. Yet every year since 1911, the first year anyone successfully skied this formidable seven-day slalom, others have followed. Why? That, too, becomes obvious.
The Route, which runs through France, Italy and Switzerland, dates back to the mid-1800s. At one end is Chamonix, France; at the other, Zermatt, Switzerland. In between are enough glaciated ridges and sheer drops to make you wonder why you didn't just stay home. But by no other means will you enjoy so intimate an experience of the winter Alps. Both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn are on the Route, and the scenery's scale is never less than majestic. Nor will you suffer much privation, since, at intervals of approximately one day's travel, a stone hut like a little castle awaits you, light and warmth emanating from its windows, food simmering on the stove and wine waiting in the larder.
Each hut has its own personality and accommodates from 30 to 70 guests overnight. For $80 to $100 you get a bunk (including blankets) and two meals: a carb-heavy dinner and a breakfast of coffee, milk, bread and sometimes porridge. Many huts have toilets that use glacial melt. Only one, Prafleuri, has a shower. Drinking water, which must be helicoptered in, costs $12 a liter.
The best time to go is April, since by then the worst winter storms have petered out and an accumulation of snow fills crevasses. You'd be wise to book in February, however, since competition for the best guides is keen. Having a qualified guide is essential not just to your safety but to your comfort, as it's the guides, typically, who make reservations for the huts; they can snag a spot when a mere novice might not.
When we attempted the Route last April, we did it with two friends—Riley Scott, 30, a business school student in Paris, and Thomas Pennington, 31, a Portland, Ore. civil engineer. With our guide, Frenchman Denis Gonzalez, we set out in the morning from Les Grands Montets, a Chamonix resort whose highest point is 10,761 feet. After a farewell gulp of espresso, we glided off on beefy German-made Völkl M Rock skis fitted with Swiss Diamir Fritschi alpine touring bindings, down a steep pitch, to the Argentière Glacier 2,300 feet below. There our real toil began.
In our packs we each carried about 30 pounds of gearwater, clothing, shovels, snow probes, crampons, ice axes and climbing rope. The extra mass made turns difficult, but after a few unsteady arcs we learned. We wore climbing harnesses at all times, owing to the danger posed by crevasses, which can be hundreds of feet deep. They are covered by fragile snowbridges. If a bridge collapses, the skier falls, sometimes onto a lower bridge. A fallen skier must keep perfectly still and wait to be fished out by his harness. (That's the best-case scenario.)
The 40-degree (Fahrenheit) air made the snow wet by 10 a.m. We shed our jackets and fit our skis with climbing skins, whose tacky bottoms would allow us to ascend the Chardonnet Glacier. Higher up, on a slope protected by shadow, the snow was bulletproof hard. To get better traction we fitted our bindings with crampons, jagged metal teeth that give skis better grip. Their pinging as we stomped in unison accompanied the rest of our ascent.
Four hours and 2,400 vertical feet later we reached a pass and sat down for sandwiches and a brilliant view. We felt good. Better yet, we could now ski downhill—or so we thought. But the route below revealed itself to be a 70-degree snow-caked rock face. So we rappelled down, skis strapped to our packs. One problem: The drop was 300 feet; our rope was 200.
Riley went first. When he reached the end of the rope he began bashing a boot into the hard snow to dig out first one foothold, then another. He kept on, and the rest of us followed. After 20 minutes we at last found skiable snow and took off on more descents and ascents, the last of which took us to our first day's hut. Never were four men happier to see masonry.
Safe and warm inside the French Trient Hut we sat silently sipping beer as the sun set, too exhausted to talk. After dinner—a lukewarm attempt at spaghetti—we retired at 7 to our bunks amidst cacophonous snoring.
Next morning, after breakfast, we set off at 6 a.m. to avoid avalanche danger (worse in the sunny afternoons). With our skis on our backs and crampons on our boots, we reached the next pass, Col des Ecandies, at 7:30 and were rewarded with a 4,300-foot ski down into the Swiss town of Champex.
At the Prafleuri Hut we were exposed to our first rösti, a Swiss dish. It's a giant pile of skillet-cooked potatoes flavored (in this case) with ham and cheese. It's tastier than it might sound, especially if you're hungry. Our French guide repeatedly raised his beer to the sky and, in exuberant mock-German, shouted "Rösshhhti!" Food at the Swiss huts, to our surprise, was better than at the French.
So it went for the remainder of our trip—up one ridge and down the next, with a few more röstis and the occasional near-death experience. On a steep slope above Lac des Dix in Switzerland Riley slipped, fell and began sliding. He dug his pole grips into the slope to arrest his fall. Eventually he stopped. His sunglasses, however, kept going. They banged and slid 500 feet down the ice. We watched as they disappeared. "Damn," said Riley. "I borrowed those from my wife."
The stunning Vignettes Hut, a day's travel east of Prafleuri, has a latrine deserving special mention. It is anchored by chains to a cliff. From the hole in the floor, it's a pulverizing 2,000-foot drop to the rocks below. At Italy's Nacamuli Hut, we had to deal with another cliff-hanging toilet, this one more daunting because the Italians use much smaller chains.
On our last day we zigzagged down the Stockji Glacier, around rocks and crevasses, to the Zmutt Glacier, which yielded soft corn snow and craggy blue seracs (ice pinnacles). Our path led us around the Matterhorn, giving us an ever-changing perspective of this giant. Down and down we skied, toward Zermatt, until we were inside the boundaries of the Swiss ski area. In town we ducked into a small café. Ordering was academic: "Rösti!"