The Amazing Haute Loop Tour by Holly Yokum and Peter Adamco

All teams arrived in France with the hopes of completing Martin Volken’s Haute Loop, a ski tour from Chamonix, moving into Switzerland, circling south through Italy before finishing in Chamonix, three countries and six days later.  The Haute Loop tour will challenge the participants daily with a Detour, a task that all members of a team must complete and a Roadblock, an unforeseen obstacle, which may delay one or all members of a team or the entire group.  Each day will end at a predetermined hut, bivouac or hotel, the Pit Stop for the evening.  A team arriving last at a Pit Stop runs the risk of sleeping in a bunk next to a smelly, snoring ski touring freak with 4:00am departure plans.  Hotel Gustavia was the site of the mandatory gear check meeting and subsequent panic buying of additional unnecessary items.  Our host and leader, Martin Volken, co-leader Margaret Wheeler and Nick Pope introduced this tours’ contestants.

Alex Gorohoff, Matt Hestad and Jason Ramsey all hailing from Seattle.  Alex, master of several previous ski tours.  Matt and Jason, graduates of the PGS Intro to Ski Touring classes and eager to showcase their textbook skills.  All three friends, young, fit and good-natured: a formidable team.  

Greg Allen, also from Seattle.  Experienced ski-tourer and a veteran of multiple Haute Routes.  Strong, and reckless enough to compete as a team of one.

Peter Adamco and Holly Yocum, married slackers from Incline Village, Nevada.  Marginally skilled, fresh off the couch and un-phased by finishing last.

Day One.  Chamonix, France to Cabane du Trient, France.  Catch the 7:20am bus from Chamonix to Argentiere and Grand Montets ski area.  Safely navigate up stairs, through turnstiles, scanning lift tickets, while carrying skis and poles with sharp objects attached to your pack, enter and exit sardine crowded trams to the ski area summit at 3295 meters.  Descend in brilliant blue skies and knee-deep powder to Glacier d’Argentiere.  The elation ends quickly with skin up the treacherous Col du Chardonnet, following route markers over the Fenetre de Saleina, across the Plateau du Trient to the Cabane du Trient, the pit stop for this leg of the tour.

Detour.  “Step or Slide” In this detour teams can choose from the following two options, both involving the removal of flesh and/or ski base on the exposed rocks in the couloir.  The first option: Be lowered by rope approximately 70 meters with one skier side slipping, skis on, the other teammate kicking snow steps in ski boots, with the second member unfortunately leaving skin on the rock band in the couloir.  In this option, teams roped together may descend quickly, but rarely at same speed.  Second option:  Be lowered two at a time, side slipping with skis on, with a French client from another group crying between you and your partner, and a torrent of French instructions raining down from above.  

Roadblock.  Skin up the vertical Fenetre de Saleina, demonstrate agility by falling during a kickturn, rolling onto your back and stopping just before hitting the only rock on the slope.  After recovery, enjoy the spectacular views of Plateau du Trient and nice snow on the descent to the pit stop.

Pit Stop.   Cabane du Trient with rest and relaxation.  Hang out on sun drenched deck.  Enjoy the company of the other teams.  Multiple bowls of budget bouillon to stave off hunger and thirst.  Spaghetti for dinner and fruit cocktail for dessert.  Four, maybe five hours of sleep.  Tour continues tomorrow at 7:00am.

Day Two.  Cabane du Trient, France to Cabane du Mount Fort, Verbier, Switzerland.  Skin 600 feet up to the Col Droit, bathed in a beautiful sunrise, and drop onto the Glacier de Saleina.  As promised by the host, enjoy a 6000 foot ski descent to the typically meticulous Swiss town, Praz de Fort, before a taxi transfer and tram to Verbier.  Survive an overly cheesy rosti and beer while soaking in sun, before loading into another tram and skiing spring snow to the Pit Stop for today’s section of the tour.

Detour.  “Bust the Crust” In this detour all teams must ski 6000 feet of breakable sun crust, between icefalls and bottomless holes on the right and almost continuous avalanche chunder on the left.  Teams in the front may arrive at Praz de Fort first, but they run the risk of a greater number of heinous falls.  Slower skiing teams will be able to follow the troughs left by the faster skiers, possibly making for a somewhat less painful descent.

Roadblock.  In this roadblock, the group must quickly and unanimously choose between several changes in the tour, Options A through D, after consuming quantities of beer and sitting in the midday sun, without frustrating the host.  After a group consensus, the trip evolves from the Haute Loop into the Haute-L Loop, with an upgrade in nightly accommodations.  Note to host, in the future require decisions first, beer second.   

Pit Stop for this leg of the tour.  Cabane du Mont Fort.  Same routine with rest and relaxation.  Sunny deck, an unusual abundance of Americans.  Replenish fluids.  Spaghetti for dinner, again and pudding for dessert.  Four, maybe five hours of sleep.  Tour continues tomorrow at 7:00am.

Day Three.  Cabane du Mont Fort, Switzerland to the Hospice at Col du Grand St. Bernard, Switzerland (barely).  Skin up Col de la Chaux continue to the Col de Momin and summit Rosablanche 3336 meters before skiing descending feet to Fionnay and frosty beverages on a deck.  Complete a taxi transfer to Bourg St. Bernard, the Swiss entrance of the St. Bernard Tunnel and then use a tram to gain 3000 feet in elevation before traversing in the direction of the col and the ancient Hospice/monastery, this evening’s pit stop.

Detour.   “Powdered Potatoes “ In today’s detour contestants will enjoy beautiful powder turns off Rosablanche, the snow firming and becoming corn below Col de Cleuson.  As the teams descend and the team members are funneled into a narrow, rock walled canyon, the snow will morph into mashed potatoes mixed with avalanche debris, before spitting the group out into a spectacular valley and Fionnay.

Roadblock.   A twist in today’s Roadblock.  After a long day in ski boots, the tram will not be running due to high winds, and the group must skin/diagonal stride approximately 4 miles under a dreary sky to reach the Hospice.   During this event, blisters will need to be treated, additional snacks will be consumed and water containers drained.  

Pit Stop for this leg of the tour.  Hospice St. Bernard, Switzerland.  Following a brief lecture on proper conduct in the Hospice, an enormous array of recovery food, cheese, sausages, bread, biscuits, chocolates, coffee and tea, arrives served by monks in the 1,000 year old traveler’s refuge.  Chicken and rice for dinner and ice cream for dessert.  Five, maybe six hours of sleep.  Tour continues at 8:30am in the morning.

Day Four.  Hospice St. Bernard, Switzerland to Hotel Vallee Blanche, Palud, Italy.  Ski into Italy (just outside of the Hospice), through a tunnel and up Mont Fourchon 2902 meters, with no visibility to allow the host and crew to easily navigate.  Descend in fresh snow and clouds to the Italian side of the St. Bernard Tunnel and walk into quaint and quiet St. Rhemy to await a final taxi transfer into the Aosta Valley and Hotel Vallee Blanche, the Pit Stop for this leg of the tour.  A mandatory dinner meeting has been scheduled by the host at Maison de Filippo, walking distance from the hotel.

Detour.  “I See Noth-ing” For today’s detour, a cloud laden and snowy route will require that Martin, Margaret and Nick must guide the teams to Mt. Fourchon using only a map, compass and one of them in front as the bearing marker.  For the descent, Margaret will closely follow the skin track to allow the teams following an opportunity to enjoy skiing fall line.  It is a Detour with consequences only for the host and crew.

Roadblock. Teams must eat at a traditional Italian restaurant (not your neighborhood Olive Garden) featuring multiple courses of succulent dishes, including the flesh of local defenseless animals, many bottles of wine, more laughing than is socially acceptable and a walk back uphill, yes uphill, to the hotel.

Pit Stop for this leg of the tour.  Hotel Vallee Blanche.  Comfortable lounge featuring adult beverages and the site of a pre-dinner party.  Six, maybe seven hours of sleep.  Tour begins with a tram to Pointe Helbronner in the morning.

Day Five.  Hotel Vallee Blanche to Pointe Helbronner, Aiguilles Marbrees , returning to Col Orient de Toule and the stairway down, down to Glacier des Toules.  Teams will have an opportunity to sample mountain fare at Refugio Pavillon on the descent and enjoy a leisurely tram ride back to Hotel Vallee Blanche, the Pit Stop for a second leg in a row.  An afternoon excursion to nearby Courmayeur and dinner at Pizza du Tunnel is scheduled. 

Roadblock.   Today’s Roadblock features a multi-story, open and non-OSHA approved metal stairway from the col to the glacier that may test the nerves of weaker teams.

Detour.  “Stairway to Heaven??”  The Detour for this leg of the tour requires all teams to successfully ski down 1300 meters through some of the heaviest snow possible while dodging more avalanche chunder and gaping holes.  Pinwheels and rollers will cascade from each turn rolling into oblivion.  The contestants may tire and want to stop to rest, but if they do, conditions will only continue to deteriorate making their descent more difficult.  Consensus is that PGS now stands for Punish, Grind, and Suffer.

Day Six.  Courmayeur to Chamonix, via Pointe Hellbronner, Plateau du Geant, Mer de Glace and Montenvers.  Devour some of the best snow of the trip, while joining the masses of backcountry wannabes on that well-worn glacial freeway called the Vallee Blanche.  Return to Chamonix via the Montenvers train, and “dude” watch on the terrace at the hard partying Hotel Gustavia (Hey, is that Glen Plake?). No Roadblocks, no Detours, just a winning ski day and vin blanc et rouge to toast the completion of the Haute-L Loop with a group dinner at Maison d’en Bas.