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SPEED HAUTE ROUTE–Chamonix to Zermatt and back again in five days on skis and bike

A fast and light Haute Route with return by bicycle has been a dream of mine for years and this spring, 25-29 April 2012, I finally put it all together. Graham Barnes and I have been climbing together for over 12 years and when I proposed this trip, he was up for the challenge!

Nina and I have been ski mountaineering racing for the last 8 years and the idea was to put what we learned into the ski tour and make it fast, light and fun; also to use the resources Switzerland has to offer from great ski touring, to a great public train network to send equipment back and forth while remaining “carbon neutral”, to great bike routes.

On the ski tour  we were able to follow much of the famous Patrouille des Glaciers route and plus have hotel comfort. We started from Chamonix and made it to the chic ski area of Verbier for the first night, Arolla (quiet mountain village) the second night, then Zermatt the third! The return trip by bicycle took two days with a stop in the ancient Roman town of Sion in the Rhone Valley. After all the high alpine snow and glacier travel of the first few days, it was great to see flowers and green grass cycling through the valley!


Day 2, descending the steep couloir de Rosablanche and onward towards Lac des Dix.


Part way up the Col de la Forclaz, overlooking the Rhone Valley of Switzerland. Our second to the last col of the trip!



Day 1: Chamonix–Verbier. With a slow start due to the tram at the Grand Montets pretending they would open for a couple hours we finally started skinning from the mid station at 11 am. The weather was not good, but we pressed on towards the Col du Passon, climbed the couloir which despite (actually because of) the Foehn wind was NOT dangerous or loaded with snow. On the contrary the southern wind had scoured the snow from the south facing couloir. Then we crossed the Tour Glacier, and the Trient Glacier descended to Champex where a taxi waited to wisk us to Verbier. A nice dinner and hotel in Verbier awaited us and an early sleep as the next day was the earliest start of the trip, 4 am.

Day 1, skinning up towards our first col of 12 cols in five days. Col du Passon. White out conditions made my GPS extremely useful!


Day 2. Verbier—Arolla. The Verbier gondola opened up at 4 am to bring spectators up high to watch the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race from Zermatt to Verbier. So, that helped us get up high and make it just a short skin to the Col de la Chaux, the Col de Mormin, and then up the very windy Grand Desert towards Rosablanche. Spectators gather there at the Col de Rosablanche to watch the racer hump up the last big climb towards Verbier with their skis on the backs. Supporters are also allowed to feed racers at this point. But we were going the other direction and eager to get across the traverse of the Lac Dix before the snow got too warm. A lot of pushing later we were across and skinning up the Pas De Chat and then up and over the ladders of the Pas de Chevre. In no time we had skied down the Pistes of the Arolla Ski area and were walking into the tiny lost village of Arolla, Switzerland. Arrival at 1:30 pm allowed for pleanty of time for a big meal in the hotel restaurant, a beer and a nap!


Day 2, Beautiful but windy weather on the way to Rosablanche, above Verbier.


A well merited Swiss draft beer in Arolla

Day 3. Arolla–Zermatt. The last ski day, and the Haute Route was already 2/3’s fininshed! A reasonable start of 6 am lead to a pretty hike on foot, then on ski up the Arolla Valley to the foot of the massive Mt. Collon which looms at the head of the valley. A short skin to the Plains of Bertol, then a pretty steep and long climb up the col de Bertol and the cabin. But we didnt stop at the cabin, we pressed onwards and upwards up to Tete Blanche. They we finally ripped our climbing skins off for the last time! Zermatt here we come. With the Matterhorn staring us in the face, we started our last down hill run to town, which would last almost three hours! Always the Matterhorn over our right shoulder, until we skied by it and were literally straight up it’s giant north face from its beginnings. Finally we made it to town and were happily able to ski all the way to town with no walking! We arrived the same day as my my wife’s start of the second wave of the Patrouille des Glaciers at Midnight, which we stayed up to watch.

Day 3 to Zermatt. Our last day was long, but very rewarding once we crested Tete Blanche and descended into Zermatt.

We arrived in Zermatt in time see off my wife, Nina and her teammates, Lyndsay and Sari who were competing in the Patrouille des Glacier ski mo race. Here they are at the start in downtown Zermatt. They departed at midnight.

Day 4. Zermatt—Sion. We had picked up our bikes the night before which were conveniently waiting for us at the train station and had shipped back our skis, keeping the trip carbon neutral by not having cars come exclusively for shuttling our gear. That way as we set off for our two day cycle tour home, we had only a toothbrush and credit card to way us down. The first 30 km are downhill. We arrived in Visp mid morning and found a tail wind that would blow us all the way to Sion that afternoon. Following bike paths and we swept through fields of flowers, cows, goats, and grapes, we felt free and liberated as we spun our legs in shorts in the warm springtime temps. What a difference from the last three days in the high mountains and full winter conditions! Upon arriving in Sion we stumbled across the Tour de Romndie, a Pro Tour stage race with all the top racers including Cadel Evans, winner of last years Tour de France. In chatting to a Liquigas Team mechanic, he generously offered to look at my SRAM Red titanium front derailleur, which sould throw the chain sometimes. He said it was adjusted fine–I was worried about its angle and height off the chainring, but then proceeded to give my bike a full tune up–wheel true, front and rear derailluer tune up, cable end stops, etc. What a generous act from a busy man in charge of the whole team’s bikes.

Day 4. Leaving Zermatt on two wheels with the Matterhorn looming over Grahams shoulder. We started our ride with a 30 km descent!

Flying downhill for 30 km was sure fun. Out of the snow and into……

Day 4. Yes there were flowers and smiles on the floor of the Rhone Valley! Nice bike paths too!

Upon arrival in Sion we found the Tour of Romandie Pro Tour bike race. Posing in front of a Katusha support vehicle!

Got to know a really nice guy and Liquigas mechanic who took a look at my Sram Red/BMC for me! His advice was throw away the titanium front derailleur!


Day 5. Sion–Chamonix. Our last day! We were accomplishing our dream! We set off from the small town of Sion early Sunday morning along the walking streets where there were only a few people strolling around or sitting at the outdoor cafes reading their papers and sipping their coffees. We rolled out of town along quiet roads through vignards and a warming sun shining on us. And the wind, but still at our backs! Soon we stopped in Martigny for a few sports drinks to fill our bottles and snacks for the last two climbs of the whole trip, the Cols de Forclaz and Montets. The Forclaz climb is long out of Martigny and with only 2-3 little breaks on the way up and with a fast clip it still took almost two hours to make it up! A nice lunch stop at the top, then over the last col and a descent all the way back to Chamonix! The weather stayed ok–no rain and we got a good view of the Bossons Glacier upon arrival, but the Mont Blanc summit was buried in clouds. We were tired but excited to be home!

Day 5–Graham and I attacking our big climb of the day, from Martigny, Switzerland up over the Col de Forclaz, over 1000 meter of climbing!

Day 5–our last climb of the trip! Chamonix here we come!


Day 5. We made it back to Chamonix about 3 pm after starting our trip 5 days before from the same place. Here we are on the main street in Chamonix, with the Bossons Glacier in the background.


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