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Backcountry skiers tackle Haute Route

Bill Pierce of Spokane plunges downhill near the Matterhorn on the Haute Route backcountry ski trip through the Alps of Switzerland, Italy and France. Courtesy of ERIC RYAN (Courtesy of ERIC RYAN)
Bill Pierce of Spokane plunges downhill near the Matterhorn on the Haute Route backcountry ski trip through the Alps of Switzerland, Italy and France. Courtesy of ERIC RYAN (Courtesy of ERIC RYAN)

High Alps hut system sets this adventure apart

Skiing through the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies and following the Haute Route through the Alps of Europe are both physically demanding and monumentally scenic.

They both pose dire consequences to skiers who make poor navigational decisions or run into foul weather.

“The biggest difference is that Europe has been so heavily populated for so many years, they’ve built this extensive system of mountain huts, lifts and trams to accommodate people in the high country,” said Bill Pierce, a veteran backcountry skier from Spokane.

Pierce, his wife, Debbie, and four other Spokane Mountaineers long on experience in the Rockies made the comparison last season during a six-day, 60-mile variation of the Haute Route – a French term for “the high route” or “mountaineer’s route – between Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland.

These mountain accommodations allow skiers to stay high as they wind through the most dramatic peaks of the Alps from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn.

The term “hut” is an understatement for some of the huge stone buildings that house dozens of guests with staffs that serve all sorts of beverages and food to dozens of skiers at a time.

“Beer was cheaper than water,” Pierce said. “The food was adequate and way better than having to carry it on your back,” he added, noting that the hut system allowed them to travel carrying only light daypacks.

The group of six Spokanites and two skiers from Wyoming usually could take over one room in a hut but sometimes they were packed into dormitories with as many as 25 people.

“The chaos came in the morning when everybody is jamming into the equipment room to get their skis, ice axes and other gear,” Pierce said.

Equipment is a serious consideration on the Haute Route.

“We had boiler-plate conditions that forced us to wear boot crampons and rappel down some couloirs,” he said. “Sometimes we had to wear ski crampons because it was so icy our skins didn’t work. If you lost an edge you would have slid a long way and the results wouldn’t be good.

“On the other hand, we had incredible views of mountains like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc that just knocked our eyes out.”

The Haute Route was pioneered as a mountaineer’s walking tour in 1861 and first traversed by skiers in 1911.

Since then, it’s become a coveted notch in the belt of serious backcountry skiers.

Social time at the huts is enjoyed in a mixture of cultures and nationalities from around the world.

“I wouldn’t do this trip without a guide,” Pierce said, noting the total cost for the trip was about $3,000 per person. “Some serious route-finding decisions must be made depending on weather conditions,” he said, noting that they sometimes ranged in elevation from 4,000 to 9,000 feet during a day.

“Some do-it-yourselfers simply followed the guided groups, but when they got to the huts the staffs would accommodate the guided groups first.”

Some Web sites indicate that about 2,000 people attempt one of the route’s variations each year during the eight-week ski season. Roughly half of them complete it.

The Spokane skiers booked a custom tour with Cosley and Houston Alpine Guides. Mark Houston and Kathy Cosley formerly guided out of Washington in the North Cascades and wrote the skills book, “Alpine Climbing,” for The Mountaineers, of Seattle.

“They are excellent guides,” Pierce said. “On some days, I wouldn’t have had a clue where to go without them.”