Touring on telemarks
4th August 2010 | Philip Maddox
The classic ski tour between Chamonix and Zermatt has been done many, many times but not that often on telemark skis. Our reporter and guide, Philip Maddox, begins a 3-part story of his group’s epic journey last Spring.
When I was asked to guide a group on telemark skis I jumped at the chance.
A couple of friends of mine, Richard Simpson and Bob Lovett, both fancied completing the famous and notoriously classic Haute Route by way of ski mountaineering.
Sometime late last year Richard asked if I was busy over the proposed period and if I would like to guide his expedition over the Haute Route.
‘Yes’ sprung to mind immediately as it is a classic and very arduous and very enjoyable experience – not a chance to be missed.
We were based out of Les Contamines and although limited to local ski mountaineering and glacial areas to perform training days there was still enough for me to get a look at the group and assess the ability, knowledge and fitness before actually committing to the journey.
The Haute Route is a high level ski or walk traverse of the French & Swiss Alps, historically commencing from Chamonix across to Zermatt.
There are a hundred-and-one variations and there are also other Haute Routes known by their region name for example: The Italian HR, The Oberland HR or The Verbier variation HR – all still with varying difficulties and degrees of isolation and inherent high alpine dangers associated with travelling in the mountains.
None of these trips should be considered without first doing some research into what the whole trip entails; snow conditions, weather, ski ability, personal fitness, equipment requirements, group numbers to name but a few.
Although these trips are undertaken by a large number of enthusiasts yearly there are also a number of trips cut short or groups evacuating early from their chosen route due to a number of factors many of which human rather than environmental.
And so to the trip.
Day 1 – This was a shake-out ski day on and off piste up on the slopes of Les Contramines-Montjoie. The snow was fantastic and the off piste was pretty good too.
Although there had been no recent snowfall there was plenty to ski, on and off piste, but there was an associated avalanche danger; according to local sources there had been an unprecedented amount of high winds for most of the winter season making lots of pressed, hard wind-slab in lots of off-piste areas.
This is valuable information and something to watch out for as we progress out onto the more isolated routes where avalanches can be deadly.
All of the guys are skiing well and even with rucksacks on didn’t seem to be too many problems.
The weather really closed in and so made for an interesting ski down the “Bumps field” without actually being able to see the bumps until they hit you. Some said they were attacked by the snow which made them fall over.
Day 2 – And so to the real stuff of ski touring & ski mountaineering.
The Tre La Tete glacier (Les Contamines) and the Domes De Miage, Le Pain du Sucre and Mt Tondu (the latter 3 easily accessible from the Tre La Tete & Les Conscrits Alpine huts) were our playground for the next few days.
We set off up the hill with skis strapped to the side of our sacks and walked up the hill until we met the snow line or the hut, which ever was to come first.
We soon came across the snow line but decided to press on walking to the hut as it was not really that much further; it is approximately 2-3hrs uphill walking to the hut and is always a welcome sight.
Alpine huts are sometimes very full and even though the hut warden will generally never turn anyone away it is always strongly advisable to phone ahead and book your bed space.
Some huts at the height of skiing & touring or walking seasons will be full to capacity and just don’t have the space to accommodate – a night under the stars in the hills can be a very long, lonely and cold night. Be warned.
On this occasion we had the hut to ourselves.
Whilst sitting round the table enjoying our drinks, out came the maps and we planned the next 2 days touring. Planning and discussing routes is a very important part of any excursion into the mountains.
Amongst other things we discussed the weather, never to be paid lip-service, and the local avalanche warning level.
Route planned and discussed off to bed and rest ready for the next days tour.
We’ll bring you the next part of the journey in a few days time.
Suffice to say the group encountered some highs and lows including altitude sickness for some members of the group. And a slight change in plans.
For the spirit of the mountains