Most sports enthusiasts have a list of destinations that make it onto their “bucket lists”. For the baseball fan, it might be watching a Sox/Yankees game at Fenway Park. For the golfer, it might be playing a round at Pebble Beach. For the serious ski enthusiast: the trip that makes most skiers’ list is almost certainly spring skiing in the French and Swiss Alps. This April, I was fortunate to guide some of the best ski mountaineering circuits in the Alps, as well as do a little bit of skiing with friends in Chamonix.

Before we dive into just how good it was, and all of the you-shoulda-been there’s, I must preface by saying that the winter of 09-10 was one of my biggest and best seasons around Crested Butte. I deliberately limited my work schedule to make time to explore the local mountains and re-kindle my enthusiasm for skiing in big terrain. With a wealth of strong partners and free time, I become completely re-motivated by steep terrain in the CB area. By April 3, when it came time to head to Chamonix I was reluctant to leave my many unfinished projects.

Cincopa WordPress plugin

Scenes from winter 09/10. One could see why it would be hard to leave home.

Upon arrival, I explored a new method for beating jet-lag; a non-stop logistical frenzy. I landed in Geneva, transferred to Chamonix and immediately met a group of 7 skiers that would be joining myself, and John Race for for the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route with Northwest Mountain School. With the group sufficiently curious about their guides’ sanity (JR had just completed a Haute Route that very day!), we departed the next day on what turned out to be one of the best weather windows of the 2010 season.

Chamonix to Zermatt showing huts along the way

The Haute Route has many variations,  all of them complex and all of them spectacular. Snow conditions often range from awe inspiring powder skiing to even more impressively challenging breakable crust. This trip was no different, but ultimately we nailed it with the weather. About 50cm of fresh snow before the start of the traverse, with about one half-half day of poorish visibility.

J.R. paces the group below Mont Blanc du Chellon

As an aspirant guide, I am able to work along side full mountain guides while guiding in the Alps. While much of my guiding experience has come in the form of ski mountaineering guiding in the United States, my supervising guide John Race was an excellent mentor for me throughout our trip. I can only hope that once I complete my full guide certification, that I will continue to work along side experienced guides like J.R. Despite what many are lead to believe, American guides are generally welcomed and treated as equals by the local French and Swiss guides. After all, it is our passion for the mountains and similarly rigorous commitment to the profession that earns the title of Mountain Guide.

Guide art at the Mont Fort Hut
the inscription reads: “Discover the mountains with a guide”

Part of what makes the Haute Route atmosphere so unique, is the rich mountain and guiding culture. For instance, the original Haute Route was first completed in 1911. For reference, that is 28 years before the first chairlift was installed in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Anyone who has attempted to explain backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering to a North American layperson has experienced the relative obscurity of the sport. Skiing the Haute Route is an excellent way to immerse oneself deep into that mountain culture and be surrounded by huts filled with skiers of many nationalities excited to share their passion for skiing.

Having previously only completed sections of our route, I was slightly skeptical if the tour would measure up to it’s reputation. The awe and psyche experienced by our entire group on each stage of the journey, certainly confirmed it’s reputation. I felt fortunate while being continually reminded by John, a relative veteran of the route,  that “it’s never been this good”… That may have been the case. But as far as I can tell, it’s always spectacular!

The final descent into Zermatt, below the iconic Matterhorn

Having completed the Haute Route under such ideal conditions, it was hard to believe things could stay this good. Stay tuned for the second part of “April in the Alps”.

For more information about the Chamonix to Zermatt itinerary, have a look at our Haute Route page.