No Sleep ‘Til Zermatt
Ski touring the Haute Route in a single push
Written by Aaron Rolph
Photography: Mark Chase on behalf of the British Adventure Collective
My heartbeat is pounding through my head like a drum, and although I’m at altitude, I realise I’m pushing a little too hard. Picking up a skin track that meanders through the fresh snow in the glaciated valleys above Chamonix, I’m letting the excitement of this big adventure get the better of me. If I’m to ski the Haute Route in a single push, I need to settle my nerves and temper my speed. After all, I’m no superhuman skimo racer, but a 90+kg Brit who learnt to ski pretty late in life, attempting to do in a day what capable skiers aspire to do over a week.
As I approach the Aiguille du Tour, well over 100km away from my end goal of Zermatt, I realise I’ve caught up the group making the very tracks I’m sliding over; I soon find myself traipsing through a few feet of deep powder attempting to bootpack up the steep col that leads eventually to the Glacier de Trient plateau. This is meant to be the easy bit, the section I know the best, the well-trodden part. Instead, every step is making my lungs burn a little more in the thinning air. After this anticlimactic col reaches its high point, the slope gradually starts leaning in my favour. But this expansive glacier is giving me no free rides. Instead I’m forced into a sort of Telemark running technique which proves to be the most effective way of making headway through the untracked snow, using up yet more valuable energy.
The glacier does, however, start to drop away, rewarding me with a series of incredible deep powder turns, although impressive crevasses and daunting seracs force me to stay alert. Taking a hard right, I slide as far as I’m able towards the climbing pitch of Col des Ecandies (2793m). Assisted by the fixed line, I make quick work of the mixed scramble, relieved to settle into a proper descent down the stunning Val d’Arpette. Once again, there are sections of amazing snow, and any slow progress before now fades into insignificance as the smiles take over. I think to myself, not only am I attempting to ski this huge route in one day but I’m even getting face shots of pow – my kind of Haute Route.
I usually find the first third of an expedition or endurance challenge the hardest. I’d already covered a respectable 25km, with over 2350m ascent, a big day in itself for me and many ski tourers in ordinary circumstances. And yet these were no ordinary circumstances. With some fatigue already starting to set in, I had barely scratched the surface of my unapologetically ambitious goal.
If I’m to ski the Haute Route in a single push, I need to settle my nerves and temper my speed. After all, I’m no superhuman skimo racer, but a 90+kg Brit who learnt to ski pretty late in life, attempting to do in a day what capable skiers aspire to do over a week.
By now the sun is starting to dip below the horizon. I find myself strangely excited, if somewhat apprehensive, about the long night ahead. I bid farewell to my support crew legends Katie and Mark who I won’t see until the morning with around 40km and 3000m ascent between us and the next stop, Arolla.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Haute Route, it is a 125km high altitude journey that connects the iconic Alpine towns of Chamonix and Zermatt. The route was first pioneered by the English Alpine club as far back as the 1860s, and has since become arguably the most prestigious and coveted multi-day ski tour in the world. There are numerous route options to choose from, with most opting to go via Verbier to utilise the resort ski lifts halfway through their six- or seven-day trip. After doing some digging, it appeared none of the successful single-push attempts had taken the Verbier route and furthermore it had only ever been achieved by international skimo racers and the most decorated of mountain guides. Could an “ordinary skier” join the Alpine elite in completing this truly iconic challenge? After putting my kit through a serious diet (although I drew the line at Lycra), I was ready to give this 8000m ascent day my best shot.
So when I finally reach the Swiss resort of Champex – some 38km into my route – I connect the short road section to Verbier via bicycle, upholding my purist tendencies by going self-propelled but also providing a pleasant, albeit brief, change of transport. Although losing valuable altitude, the fun continues with the cycle descent down the valley. I can’t stop grinning from ear to ear. Despite the baking hot afternoon sun, I get into a good rhythm on the switchbacks and swiftly climb back up to Verbier’s 1500m, where I get back onto skis for the remainder of the route.
By now the sun is starting to dip below the horizon. I find myself strangely excited, if somewhat apprehensive, about the long night ahead. I bid farewell to my support crew legends Katie and Mark who I won’t see until the morning with around 40km and 3000m ascent between us and the next stop, Arolla. I’d always envisaged this section of the route as the crux, both mentally and physically, but I anticipate thriving in this situation that demands so much self-reliance.
Energised by what feels like an everlasting sunset, I make steady progress touring up closed pistes while the vivid oranges turn to pinks and eventually fade to darkness. As the air cools, the stars gradually make themselves known while I meander up the natural groove between the surrounding giants Mont Fort and infamous face of Bec des Rosses, an intimidating peak which has been shadowing me from the shimmering moonlight. Eventually reaching Col de la Chaux, this high point feels like a gateway into the Alpine wilderness, and after clipping in I set about skiing my first downhill at night.
The snow is hard and heavily rutted, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I can see in the beam of my powerful head torch. I feel a palpable sense of relief that my first night descent goes off without a hitch, and before long I’m back on the skin track touring up towards my highest point for the night, the 3335m Rosablanche.
By now I’m starting to grapple with the real loneliness of my position. Instead of worrying about the risks, however, I feel a heightened connection with the mountains. After all, it’s just us now. It seems as though the whole world is sleeping as I slide effortlessly across these firm white mountains, the snow glistening under my headtorch. Now over the halfway point, and having been skiing for over 18 hours straight, I feel remarkably awake – alive in fact – and although I’m tiring physically, I will soon be reaching another peak.
After checking my trusty FATMAP route, I traverse left of the peak in search of my couloir entrance. During route reconnaissance weeks prior, with my friend and talented splitboarder Ollie Walker, I naively set off a wet slab in this very gully. The consequences weren’t serious but the result was dramatic: the entire face slid, and tonight the gully is still littered with avalanche debris. There is a way around this steep section, , but it’s an indirect one and I don’t have the energy to spare.
Before dropping in, I can’t help but remind myself this a serious place where a mistake or changing conditions can yield unthinkable consequences. As recently as 2018, seven perfectly skilled skiers tragically lost their lives not too far from here with an experienced and fully qualified mountain guide. By assuring myself that the accident took place in a bad storm, I’m able to keep focused on the task ahead. No one can afford to underestimate this route.
Carefully side-slipping the initial icy slopes, I tentatively put my first few turns down the 40-degree incline hardpack. This is a relatively committing ski at the best of times, so navigating the huge ice chunks in the dark demands my full attention. Gradually the slope pitch starts to mellow and I’m able to open it up at the apron and begin tracking high above Lac Dix. This feels like a key part of the night ski, being slightly more technically demanding but also a way of maintaining good height to save my finite energy. With the extremely firm snow, I’m able to hold good edges and make it to the foot of the final but significant climb before the end of this stage of the ski.
Knowing the gradient of this well-tracked slope, I fit my ski crampons and eat the remainder of my dwindling food supplies. I’m setting into the real graveyard shift. It is at this time in the morning, before the sun returns, when everything in your body wants to shut down and sleep. I find staying warm a challenge, and the sustained exertion is starting to take its toll on my stomach. Ski touring can feel like slow progress at the best of times, and despite the ever-present will to be round the next corner, I start to feel totally empty, a real pit-of-the-stomach depletion. I know however, this can be quickly remedied with food. Incredibly, my friends Katie and Mark havepromised me eggs and bacon on my arrival into Arolla. If that doesn’t keep me going, then I don’t know what will.
Carefully side-slipping the initial icy slopes, I tentatively put my first few turns down the 40-degree incline hardpack. This is a relatively committing ski at the best of times, so navigating the huge ice chunks in the dark demands my full attention.
We experience the full range of snow conditions, from beautifully light powder, to hard crust, and then into spring corn. After a somewhat arduous combination of traversing, skating, and poling, the slushy runs come to an end and I finally reach the mountain town of Zermatt.
I tell myself that as long as one foot is sliding past the other then I’ll get there, and eventually I see a flickering reflection from my headtorch. At first a little confused, as I near the vast rock face, I realise as I near the vast rock face that they’re markers for the ladders over the Pas de Chèvres. Making the final approach on my boot crampons, I tip my hat to the wild mountainscape I’m leaving behind and climb the metal ladders, then test the legs with some more skiing – and yet more rock-hard and rough ice – down to breakfast.
(NB: Wanting to be totally self-sufficient in COVID times, I opted to lose valuable height and restock water and food in Arolla, rather than going over the Pigne d’Arolla route. It also felt like a safer route choice moving solo through the night.)
Somehow ahead of schedule, I reach the sleepy but smiling pair at around 04:30 in the morning. Katie and Mark have been ollowing my Garmin LiveTrack and have got the stove cooking with some much needed “proper” grub. There is nothing I need more. Finally stopping, and with little energy left, I feel my core temperature dropping. Even jumping in a sleeping bag for five doesn’t stop the aggressive involuntary shivering. But lo and behold: 20 minutes after eating, I experience a miraculous rejuvenation. I’m back in the game!
With daylight starting to dawn, I set off towards daunting Mont Collon, which stands tall above the route. My heavy legs start to feel lighter with each hour that passes as the sun comes up. This now feels like the home straight, albeit a long one, and I’m pleased to have some company from Mark, who has agreed to join to take some more photos. That said, 24 hours after departing from Chamonix, I still have a 30km journey ahead of me with yet another 2000m of ascent, as well as an all-new high of 3500m to overcome before reaching Zermatt.
The Glacier d’Arolla is a beautiful mellow tour where it’s easy to feel small as the smooth glacier snakes up the never-ending valley. I eventually reach the ever-elusive Col du Mont Brûlé, changing to crampons for what I hope is the last time. The air feels thin and my legs like lead, but I’m overwhelmed to see the crest of the very last ascent far in the distance. Appreciating that we’ll be touring in Italy for the next couple of hours, spirits are high, and I take some comfort from seeing that Mark appears to be feeling it too.
After a short descent onto the high Glacier du Tsa de Tsan, we set about my tenth and final climb of this big adventure. The glacier plateaus somewhat, yielding more slow but steady progress before gradually steepening to become the Col de Valpelline (3551m). The sun is back with a vengeance and the heat is inescapable. The final hour is tougher than all those before as fatigue and altitude take their toll. Driven to the top by summit fever, and a grit to get the job done, I finally top out and the Alpine giants of the Matterhorn and Dent d’Hérens present themselves.
As far I’m concerned, with all downhill from here, this is the finish line – and what an incredible place to finish. The Stokji glacier feels like an otherworldly ski experience. I can’t help but stare at the overhanging seracs as I weave through crevasses that could swallow whole buildings. It is a truly fitting finish to such an epic route. We experience the full range of snow conditions, from beautifully light powder, to hard crust, and then into spring corn. After a somewhat arduous combination of traversing, skating, and poling, the slushy runs come to an end and I finally reach the mountain town of Zermatt.
I’m hot, sleep-deprived and a little shell-shocked seeing people again, but as I crack a beer to celebrate, it finally dawns on me that I’ve become the first person ever to succeed in skiing the Verbier route in a single push. And the craziest thing about it all? I enjoyed every minute.
Aaron covered 124.43km climbing 7934m ascent in 31 hours, 27 minutes.
British Adventure Collective is a collaboration of UK athletes looking to explore, share and inspire others to experience their own outdoor adventures. For details, visit www.britishadventurecollective.com.