Ski Tour de France
The seven of us convened in downtown Chamonix in late April to prepare for our much-anticipated ski tour through the Alps. Our group comprised Rifle and Snowmass ER doctor Jon Gibans, waiter Ted Mahon of Cache Cache, Christy Sauer of the Aspen Art Museum, former Olympic ski racer Katie Monahan and myself, along with our guide, Dick Jackson of Aspen Expeditions, and his wife, Paulina Vander Noordaa. All were excited and anxious about our impending traverse of the “Haute Route.”
The classic ski tour stringing together mountain huts from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland, is well-known among mountaineers as an extraordinary journey, crossing glaciers, cols (mountain passes in French) and ascending and descending couloirs in the heart of the Alps. Since the mid-19th century, mountaineers have skied it in the spring and winter, and hiked it in the summer and fall.
The trip à la Aspen Expeditions began with a preparation day spent skiing the famous Vallee Blanche in Chamonix, where we readied ourselves for the trek and practiced adjusting our packs and ski gear on the Mer de Glace glacier.
The next morning we set out for our weeklong tour under clear skies and in the heat of the spring sun. We peeled layers of clothing as we climbed to the Col de Chardonnet, the first mountain pass for those who start from Chamonix. Typical of the Haute-Savoie, the mountainous region of France surrounding Chamonix, inclement weather set in and whiteout conditions floated in and out for the rest of the week.
By day we toured through the backcountry, usually out of sight of other groups, but occasionally spotting skiers in the distance. At night we nestled into our mountain cabins, where hut guardians provided our meals.
We hung our damp clothing and gear to dry by the fire, and listened as other groups carried on in their native languages. Germans, Brits, Italians, Frenchmen, Americans and Swiss were all represented. The mountain cabins generally house anywhere from 40 to 100 guests, though we rarely stayed at a hut even halfway full. With food and beverages delivered to the cabins by helicopter, our packs were that much lighter, enabling us to make room for other necessities.
The glaciated route was a mix of crevasses, ice fields, cliffs, steep slopes, boot packs and flat expanses. Below treeline, the snow gave way to dirt trails that descended into the valleys. When we dropped into the town of Champex, Switzerland, and climbed out of the Swiss town of Bourg Saint Pierre, we had to click out of our skis and fasten them to our packs.
After touring the terrain and visiting the series of huts, our tour came to an end as we wrapped around the north face of the Matterhorn. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see it due to the cloud cover.
We skied down as far as the snow allowed, then continued on foot to the Furi gondola for the final descent to Zermatt. When we arrived in the Swiss village we toasted our adventure in true Alpine style ” with biersteins of European lager.
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