This is the Dave Butcher photo diary of a Chamonix and Zermatt Haute Route ski mountaineering trip in 1993.
Probably the best known ski tour in Europe, if not the world, is the Haute Route between Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland. We took just over 6 days to complete the route and went via Verbier. The weather was pretty good the whole way, which was lucky for us.
The guides: Our mountain guides were Brian Hall (from Derbyshire near where I live) and Jon de Montjoye (English but now living in Vallorcine near Chamonix). There was also an aspirant mountain guide, Richard Masters, an instructor from Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms.
The people: Mark Rogerson (pathologist from Northwich), John Cameron (garage owner and ski instructor from Perth), Mark McDonnell (marketing manager), Michael and son Mathew from Toronto, Gian (Radiologist from the Wirrall), John Carney (on extended 9 week leave from his job), Team Purple (7 friends who all wore purple Buffalo windroofs and were dubbed Team Purple as a result, including Kate and Patrick). We were also joined by professional photographer Jess Stock and Vaila MacDonald (his wife and extreme ski world champion). Jess was taking photographs for a book on ski mountaineering around the world with a chapter and one iconic tour for each month of the year.
Our guides Brian and Jon had arranged for the group to have a practice day using the Le Tour ski lifts to practise off-piste technique, including side slipping down steep slopes and abseiling over an overhang while roped up. We split into 2 groups and I was mainly with Jon and Team Purple was mainly with Brian .
Day 1, Sunday 18th April 1993: We started in Argentiere (1251 m) by taking the early lifts up to the Grand Montets (3250 m). Then at 9.10am it was time to put skis on and skied down with Jon to the Argentiere Glacier, put skins on and at 10.15am started up the Chardonnet Glacier to the Col du Chardonnet (3323 m) which we reached at 12.45pm. There was quite a queue to descend here and when the tiem came for us the steep descent from here was aided by a rope so that we could abseil-cum-sideslip down. Then on to the Fenetre de Saleina (3261 m) and over to the Cabane du Trient (3170 m) at 5pm for the first night. My relatively new Nikon FM slr broke a shutter blade and was unusable for the rest of the trip.
Day 2, Monday 19th April 1993: Breakfast was at 7am and we put our skis on at 7.30am. We skied with Brian steeply downhill keeping to the right flank of the descent route, side slipped a steep section above a heavily crevassed Trient Glacier and then skied the traverse to the foot of the Col des Ecandies (2796 m). From here we walked up to the col and skied down in deep powder and then heavily mogulled slopes and on through woods. Mark M fell and split his lip in the breakable crust snow and Gian did a temporary fix to hold lip together. We stopped at a chalet cafe and waited for the other group. Then we skied on to the village of Champex (1465 m) taking skis off just a few hundred yards from the village. From Champex the snow ran out so we were ferried in taxis to Verbier (1490 m), where I bought a Nikon AF2 compact to replace my broken Nikon FM slr. Here we used ski lifts to get above the Cabane du Mont Fort (2457 m) so that we could ski down to it for our second night, reaching it at 4.30pm.
Day 3, Tuesday 20th April 1993: We were up in time for 6am breakfast and skiing with Jon by 7.10am on another cold bright morning. There was lots of avalanche debris to ski through, some bits the size of houses brought down by the hot weather. We reached the Col de la Chaux at 8.454am. Then we had a long downhill section on good snow before skinning up to the Col du Momin (3003 m) and on to Rosablanche (3336 m) with a short detour to the top at 11am. Then down to the Cabane de Prafleuri (2624 m) refuge through very heavy difficult snow where we had to fend for ourselves (no guardian to cook for us). In fact Jess and Vaila cooked for us a kind of thank you for allowing them to join our group.
Day 4, Wednesday 21st April 1993: Breakfast was at 6am and we were skiing with Brian by 7am. We reached the Col des Roux above the hut at 8am and then it was down and across the slopes above the frozen Lac des Dix (2360 m), covered in fresh avalanche debris and difficult to ski through. Then it was time to zig-zag up a steepish slope at the head of the valley. We skied around the back of the Tour Noir until we were quite a bit above the hut. From here it was a good ski down to the Cabane des Dix hut (2928 m), a busy hut at 1pm. Fantastic views all around from here.
Day 5, Thursday 22nd April 1993: It was breakfast at 5.30am and skiing with Jon at 6.30am the short distance down to the glacier to put skins on. We headed up steep and crevassed slopes of the Glacier de Tsena Refien with a couple of inches of snow on the slopes overlooking the very impressive Mont Blanc de Cheilon (3870 m). Next was the Col de Tsijiore Nouve and then under some very large ice cliffs and over a heavily crevassed area to the Col de Brenay, a large plateau which heli-skiers were using as a drop-off point to ski back to Arolla in the valley below. It seemed somewhat perverse that it had taken us 5 days to reach the point they had reached in 5 minutes! We dumped our gear and quickly skied up to the top of the Pigne d’Arolla (3796 m) at 9.50am. There was blue sky and a few clouds but the weather started to turn and we skied down in thick cloud to the Cabane des Vignettes (3160 m) which we reached at 11.20am. This has a very impressive position on top of high cliffs, and the outside toilet is the most impressive of all bolted to the side of a cliff with an enormous drop beneath the toilet seat! By 2.30pm the weather had closed in completely and blizzards raged outside. Without a doubt this was the most spectacular hut of the trip.
Day 6, Friday 23rd April 1993: Breakfast was at 5am and we needed crampons just to get out of the hut door because of the sheet ice. Once across this we changed to skis and with Brian were off over had 3 cols to cross: Col de l’Eveque 3392 m in the clouds but with a good ski down a slightly mogulled slope, round a rocky bit called La Vierge and onto the plateau opposite the Bouquetins Hut. Then it was a long easy skin most of the way up the next col but with a sting in the tail of very steep ice near the top so lots of kick turns on ice needed to reach the top of the Col du Mont Brule 3213 m. We had a long break and lunch at the top waiting for the others. Time to take off the skins, a long traverse and down to reach the plateau of the Haut Glacier de Tsa de Tsan in clouds so a bit cooler now and with a cool breeze. It was a 2.5h skin to reach the Col de Valpelline 3568 m but no views to the Matterhorn because of thick cloud. Shame, should have been one of the highlights of the trip. We skied down the heavily crevassed Stockji Glacier and then Jess Stock thought it would make a good shot for the book if we skied into a crevasse with a snow bridge part way down and back out again, which several of us did. Then it was south of Stockji to the Tiefmatten Glacier. Quite dull now and we went under some enormous ice cliffs keeping fingers crossed nothing would break off as we skied past. Then we put skins to get above the hut and ski downhill the last section to reach the Schonbielhutte (2694 m) at 2.30pm for our last night in the mountains. A long day which ended with us sitting on the terrace of the Schonbiel hut sipping beer looking straight across the valley at the north face of the Matterhorn (4478 m) as the clouds parted later on. Quite a way to end the day.
Day 7, Saturday 24th April 1993: Breakfast was at 6.30am and we started skiing at 7.30am. It was quiet in the hut, most on the Huate Route carry on to Zermatt instead of stopping here. We skinned away from the hut and then skied down onto the Schonbiel Glacier on fresh snow. Then down through the trees to the Restaurant Stafelalp at 9.30am. We had hot drinks while we waited for the others, Jess took the team photo outside and we skied down the Weisse Perle ski piste towards Zermatt where we had a leisurely ski down to the flesh pots of Zermatt (1614 m) via the Furri lift!
Cameras: Nikon FM2 35mm camera + 28 mm lens to start with but the shutter blades broke on the first day, so I bought a small Nikon AF2 35mm compact camera in Verbier so that I could continue taking mountain photos. The Nikon AF2 went back for repair after just 6 months (the rewind mechanism broke). I bought a Mamiya 6 MF medium format camera and sold all my Nikon gear after this!
Film: Ilford FP4 and 100 Delta 35 mm