Journey through the Alps

 

 Despite the importance of ski touring and ski mountaineering in Switzerland there is no established ski route that crosses the country from the western to the eastern frontier. The highest ground lies along the southern border close to Italy and it is logical that the best route will be found in this region. There are well-known multi day traverses in the West of Switzerland (the Haute Route) and in the East (Engadin and Silvretta) but research is needed to find a continuous route through the central section of the country.

The Swiss TOPO maps are excellent, and the 1:50,000 series are available in a ski edition showing ski routes that are cross referenced to a series of guidebooks. The 1:25,000 map series is better for detailed navigation. Online versions of these maps can be used to create a detailed GPS routes. The route described here along with the alternate routes was almost entirely created by linking the ski routes shown on the Swiss maps. However some caution is needed as glacial recession has rendered several of the marked glacier ski routes obsolete. Elsewhere the ski routes often concentrate on ascents of peaks and ignore obvious passes that can be crossed by ski if these do not form part of a route to a known summit.

Chamonix to Zermatt

The Chamonix to Zermatt 'Haute Route' is the best known multi day ski tour in the world. The ‘purist’ version via La Fouly and the Great St Bernard Monastery is an excellent seven day tour that avoids any road linkages. I have completed this several times usually in February before the huts are open for the season. It was always my intention to start the traverse of Switzerland with this tour via Le bivouac de l’Envers des Dorées, La Fouly, GSB, Valsorey hut, Chanrion hut, & Vignettes hut. We arrived in Chamonix on 5th Feb prepared to spend 5 weeks crossing Switzerland. However our departure was delayed for over a week by prolonged bad weather and heavy snowfall. When conditions finally improved ten days later it was obvious that our preferred route was unacceptably dangerous and would remain so for several days. We wanted to avoid any further delay and make a quick start to the trip. So we chose a lower level alternate route that enabled us to get going while the avalanche risk at altitude was still high. Following close to the summer TMB route from Argentière to Champex gave some fine skiing on good snow. The challenge of finding the best ski route between Champex and Cabane Mt Fort brought its own rewards (34km of travel with 3297m of climbing in a little over 2 days). We must be among a tiny number of people who have completed the Verbier version of the Haute Route (Chamonix to Zermatt) in its entirety, skiing the whole way without using any road transport or ski lifts. From the Cabane Mt Fort we were on familiar territory enjoying empty huts and uncrowded slopes.

Zermatt to Simplon Pass

The most direct route for this section is obvious. However two out of the three days are quite long. It would be possible to avoid making the long climb from Zermatt to the Adler Pass in a single day by adding an overnight at the Monte Rosa hut. However this adds an extra day for little benefit.

Simplon Pass to Airolo

This is a popular area with skiers particularly the central and eastern sections. There are many huts and a multitude of tracks linking them. The huts on the Italian side of the frontier are popular with Swiss skiers keen to avoid the high prices in the Swiss huts. We chose what appeared to be the most direct line linking huts on the Italian side of the frontier. The journey linking Simplon Pass / Alpe Veglia  / Castiglione / Margaroli was more difficult than expected. This may have been due to the bad weather we experienced and the total lack of other skiers or tracks. In retrospect this is probably still the best route to follow, although a northerly alternative via the Bintal Hut would have avoided some of the difficult route finding in Italy. The two hotels at Riale provide a welcome change from hut life and a launch pad for the final 2-3 day push to Airolo. There are several huts that can be used on this section (Maria Luisa, Basodino, Cristalina). I planned an interesting route between the Cristalina hut and Airolo that would have avoided the 10km road walk from Ossasco. In the end we did not try this as we were tired and looking for the least complex option at the end of a long day. If starting out from the Cristalina hut a route via the Passo del Naret and the Passo dei Sassi would allow access to the Airolo ski slopes.

Airolo to Splugen

I was lucky to find the website of a Swiss guide offering this journey as the Tichino Haute Route. There is a single obvious route with few attractive alternatives. The lack of winter accommodation in the Lucomagno valley was a concern but the excellent Cadagono and Bovarino huts facilitated an enjoyable journey. It was not necessary to spend a night in the 'perhaps open' hotel at Campo Bleino. There are 2 Adula Huts, one SAC and one UTOE. The latter is higher up and a good starting point for the ascent of the Adula.

Splugen to Bergun

This was a difficult section to plan with no obvious through route. After much research I opted for a route via Splugen Pass, Inerferrera, Sur and Jenatsch hut. On arrival at Splugen we found that the only hotel at Inerferrera was closed. This forced us to change plans and the slightly convoluted route via Zillis was chosen. The traverse of Piz Curver could have been a long and difficult day, but we benefited from existing ski tracks on both the eastern and western side of the mountain.

The plan was always for the route to pass through Preda as this was the last logical place where a choice could be made for the onward route: north via Klosters or south via Livigno. There is a discussion of these two alternatives on the 'Austria 2017 Alternate routes' page.

From Preda it would have been possible to exit Switzerland and enter Austria in about a week. However the time lost to bad weather in Chamonix in early February meant that the time I had available for this project in 2016 had run out.

 

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David Hamilton
High Adventure
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