At 3 a.m. on January 16, 1903, six Frenchmen emerged from the Chalet de Lognan, above the village of Argentiere, strapped to pairs of primitive skis – little more than roughly formed planks of wood with skins of animals on the base – and began their rise in the history books.
The leader of the group, a mustachioed local doctor named Michel Payot, was what we would now call an early adopter. By 1896 he had acquired one of the first pairs of skis ever seen in the Chamonix Valley and began using them to reach homebound patients in winter. His companion, mountain guide Joseph Ravanel, says his skis are so shiny that he “would never take them off, even to sleep” (until Payot pointed out to him that his wife might object) .
In total, however, their group – supplemented by Joseph Couttet, Alfred Simond and the two young brothers from Ravenel, who accompanied them on the first two days of their trip to transport the photo equipment for the party – had, at most, a handful of winters. experience between them. Yet the five-day route they pioneered between Chamonix and Zermatt – traversing crevice-strewn glaciers, navigating tricky descents and climbing dangerous cols over 3,000m – is still considered one of the toughest challenges in ski mountaineering to date.
Nearly 120 years later, as I cautiously climbed one of those same slopes near the village of Verbier in Switzerland, I found myself in awe of their achievement. Even with all the benefits of modern technology – breathable Gore Tex instead of heavy Gaberdines, two collapsible ski poles instead of a single inflexible alpenstock, and lightweight aluminum ice axes – the climb felt sketchy.
Photographer Dan Medhurst’s camera weighed a fraction of the 19kg the Ravanel brothers carried. But as the incline reached 45 degrees, we were both panting—whether from exertion, adrenaline, or both, it was hard to be sure.
The fact that we were embarking on a first of our own added an extra element of excitement. Since Payot and co arrived in the exhausted but triumphant Swiss resort of Zermatt in 1903, ski tourers have traversed countless variations of what is now known as “the Haute Route”.
In addition to their historic version, there is the more efficient “Haute Route Classique”, first completed in 1911. In 1919, Swiss mountaineer Marcel Kurz and his cloak-and-dagger friend Maurice Crettez, introduced a variant that approached the 4,000 m peaks around Verbier. . Since then, the “Purist” Haute Route and the “Inverted” Haute Route have become popular. Today, around 2,000 skiers tackle one of these routes each season, but at least half a century has passed since someone launched a truly new one.
However, this should change this winter with the inauguration of the Haute Route du Saint-Bernard. The route, a collaboration between the guide office from three distinct regions – Verbier and Pays du Grand Saint-Bernard in Switzerland, and Valle d’Aosta, Italy – combines parts of the classic Haute Route with lesser-known climbs to create a new six-day loop.
The logic of this launch, according to our guide, Raoul Crettenand, is twofold: Firstly, it will avoid certain pinch points that can mar classic routes. “It can be very crowded in some of the mountain huts where we stay. If you want to do [the Haute Route] at Easter you often have to book in November.
But it’s also an attempt to tempt those who may have already checked the Haute Route off their list of things to do in this region. “This Haute Route is more difficult than the classic, with more climbs and steeper descents,” said Crettenand. Even though it was much harder, exactly, even he wasn’t sure – because even though he knew the individual passes and peaks well, we were the first customers to try the whole thing.
As much as the route as a whole was uncharted territory, our first day hiking the Col du Grand St Bernard was the definition of the beaten path. People have been crossing the Alps here for centuries. The Romans were the first to leave their mark by building a temple to Jupiter on the pass in 43. Napoleon followed with 40,000 men a millennium and a half later the march that inspired the famous portrait of Jaques-Louis David. But it was Saint Bernard of Menthon, and the monastery he built there in 1045, who really paved the way for the masses.
Over the centuries, monks have rescued countless poor souls from the snow (often using the dogs that also bear the name St. Bernard) and greeted many weary travelers with a hot meal and a glass of wine from welcome. They even served Napoleon’s troops, with the French ruler apparently promising each man two glasses of the monks’ finest wine if they reached the top.
I’m not particularly religious, but as we stood in the crypt of the 1,000 year old chapel, as the weather gathered outside, the sweet singing of our hosts was undeniably soothing. Moreover, explains Raoul, St Bernard is the patron saint of mountaineers. Considering what we were about to attempt, seeking his blessing seemed wise.
The next day our alarm clock went off at 5:30. This was not the asceticism of the monks, but rather an essential safety precaution. For most of our trip, the weather in late April was glorious, but that meant the snow melted quickly. In the space of a few hours, it went from what Raoul described as “crème caramel” (crispy on top, soft below), to “raclette” (ideal for spring skiing), to “fondue” (dangerously soft ). The way to avoid potentially tricky situations, he told us, was to get past the steepest grades before they started to soften. As the week progressed, our alarm time steadily advanced, until 4:45, then 4:25, and finally 4:00 in the morning.
Each morning involved between 1,200 and 1,750 vertical meters. By 2 or 3 p.m. when we had skied to the mountain huts where we were staying, we were usually pretty well cooked. But the reward was measured in the kind of views only mountaineers would normally see: close-ups of the seracs cascading from the summit of Grand Combin at 4,314m; the reflections of the glaciers, shimmering blue in the beams of our headlamps before dawn; the pink of the early morning alpine glow spreading slowly over the flanks of Mont Blanc. Often the only sound was the rhythmic sweep of hiking skins over snow.
On the fourth day we reached what Crettenand called “the crux of the matter” – the ascent and crossing of the 3626m Col du Meitin, which included a long section too steep for touring skis. Stopping to pick them up halfway up an icy slope went against all evolutionary instinct, but I tried to focus on small tasks: digging my pack into the snow to keep it from sliding , tying my skis to his sides and putting on my crampons with , deliberate movements. After what felt like an age, Crettenand attached our harnesses with a climbing rope, and off we went – ice axes firmly gripped in our increasingly sweaty palms.
The combination of strenuous physical activity and the need to tread carefully, lest a crampon slip or an ice ax bite, left little room for thinking about normal life at home. We quickly settled into a zen rhythm – our minds focused on the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other safely.
The afternoons were mostly devoted to recuperation. Sun-drenched refuge terraces, charcuterie platters and cold beers were a constant, but our hosts’ approach to rest and relaxation varied wildly: from shy and saintly monks to Vincent Muster at the Refuge du Plan du Game, who opened his sprawling liquor cellar, and regaled us with colorful tales of 20 years running restaurants in Tel Aviv. His repertoire of Israeli dishes made a welcome change from the usual Alpine cuisine.
Our hosts for the last night were Olivier Seidler and Sophie Voutaz, a young couple who ran the isolated Cabane de Chanrion. Originally open to hikers in the summer of 1890, Chanrion’s hut had been used by Payot and his companions in 1903 – although they almost didn’t make it there, arriving so late that Ravanel had difficulty finding it in the ‘darkness.
After dinner in the communal dining room, I chatted with a group from Norway who happened to be Haute Route aficionados. Rune Roenvik and his friends had done most of the routes from Chamonix to Zermatt over the years and were eager to hear about our new route.
As we shared a second bottle of wine, I asked what kept them coming back. “With the different variants and snow conditions there is always a new challenge,” Rune said. “And as we get older, the mountains miraculously get higher and the slopes get steeper,” joked her friend Cecilia Schjerven. Since they first tackled the Haute Route in 1996, a lot had changed. But the central appeal of the physical challenge, combined with the ability to explore landscapes few others can see, remained strong.
“What did we bring back from this long but beautiful crossing? Michel Payot wrote in 1903. “Many will say nothing but incredible fatigue. But we don’t care what lay people think. We all keep the desire to continue these beautiful winter adventures. After following his skin traces more than a century later, I felt I knew exactly what he meant.