When your friend is a mountain guide and needs a guinea pig for his first tour on one of backcountry skiing's all-time classic routes, the Haute Route, you just say yes. Especially when said friend is experienced alpinist and Tacoma, WA climbing gym owner Tod Bloxham.
As details emerged it quickly became clear the trip was to be a rare one indeed—we were to trek from Chamonix to Zermatt, taking us through beautiful and treacherous terrain in the high peaks of the French, Swiss, and even for a few minutes on the final day, the Italian Alps. So, this past spring, I kissed goodbye to my mileage account and booked a series of cheap red-eye flights that eventually brought me to Zurich, Switzerland to begin our journey.
I could have been in better shape, sure, but nevertheless I was ready to face my fears and earn those final beers in Zermatt under the towering Matterhorn.
Chamonix was the starting point, and the "classic" Haute Route was our plan. This had been the original route first taken by members of the English Alpine Club in the 1800s, and in the time that’s elapsed the terrain has grown no easier to navigate. Nowadays, of course, you can enjoy beer and wine each night, along with prepared meals in backcountry huts that resemble hostels.
It's a pretty unique experience to be able to make this journey without carrying a tent and other overnight gear, and having the security of solid structure waiting for you each night. That said, the trek still takes about a week to wind through the stunning glaciated terrain and required us to ski up and down thousands of feet per day, often using crampons and ice axes for the steeper portions with our skis on our backs.
In the end, after such preparation, travel and effort, we were blown off course by a very unusual storm that brought winds of above 100 kilometers per hour and spewed dangerous amounts of snow. After making a somewhat adrenaline-fueled hasty exit mid-tour and paralleling the route on trains and taxis (without having packed street clothes or even normal shoes), we still managed to spend two nights in the backcountry huts, with a handful of other day trips off-piste.
Certainly I could have spent those miles in worse ways.