"Hey Daniel, you have changed your car" we say as we greet him outside a cafe in Martigny Croix. It is exactly a year since we went touring on the "Haute Route Imperiale" and we are all geared up for another week in the mountains. After dropping my car by the station we pile into his 'new' machine and head up the hill towards La Fouly. From here we will traverse the western valleys of the Pennine Alps between Chamonix and Arolla dominated by the imposing peaks of the Grand Combin.
Our route starts on the edge of the Tour de Mont Blanc in Val Ferret and includes a big stage of the Classic Haute Route (day 5) which is our day 4 from the Valsorey Hut to the Chanrion Hut over the 3664m Plateau de Couloir - a "serious stage demanding a high level of ski-mountaineering skills" according to the Cicerone Guide to the Swiss Alps. We then head off across the Val D'Heremence leaving all the Haute Route skiers to go north while we climb Mt Blanc de Cheilon and then cross to the Val D'Herens by the Pas de Chevres and descend to Arolla.
Leaving La Fouly we pass a pretty chapel in Ferret then along the road through woods before starting to climb the side of the valley (above). It is pretty hot, we spot chamois, bouquetin and marmotte and the snow starts to stick to our skins as we cross the Lacs de Fenetre. Sun cream on the skins helps to stop the sticking! We cross the Italian border at the col de Fenetre d'en Haut by which time we are pretty bushed. Skiing down to the Col de Grand St Bernard we skin through the trafficless road tunnel to reach the huge St Bernard Hospice. Here I recover thanks to friendly monks doling out large jugs of tea. Then we ski down the Combs de Morts passing a semi naked skinner (??) to Bourg St Bernard where we have a short skin up to the very jolly Plan de Jeu hut.
Plan de Jeu hut with big Jack Daniels theme!
The Patron, Francois, treats us royally including a digestif of Maple Syrup Whisky and bacon and eggs for breakfast. We also pick up a young family friend, Norris, who accompanies us to the col the next day.
Tuesday presents more excitement. We are only half an hour out of the hut, traversing on icy snow, when a pin shears on David's skis. Lucky really that we are so close to the road - David puts the skis on his back and starts walking back to Plan de Jeu where Francois takes control, books a restaurant and taxi and even a bed for the next night and a skidoo ride down to the road. While David searches hire skis we head on up into a high combe with great views of Petit Velan. As tougher parties carry straight on we head up a steep slope on the left, practicing our kick turns to reach a col (Montorge) at 2922m. Great views of Mt Blanc and the Grand Jorasses with the Grand Combin ahead of us.
On the Montorge col. Mt Blanc in the centre
A great powder ski down to 2300m then up again on a rising traverse with Grand Combin straight ahead. I am just reaching some rocks when I hear a shout from Tommy. The whole slope is moving and he slides down with the snow for 150-200m. Fortunately the slide is quite gentle - but Tommy says making a noise like thunder - he gets his skis off but keeps then and avoids any other trouble. Huge sigh of relief when it stops and Daniel goes down to help and bring him back up. Soon they are skinning up the ridge to join me. The hut warden skis down to us and is as surprised as Daniel. In ten years, he tells us, that slope has always been stable.
(l) Tommy at the base of the slide (r) his view of the slide
The Velan hut is one of the new generation of modern designed huts. Built by the Geneva SAC it has a bright main room with great views and very comfy bunk rooms - Tommy and I have our own bedroom! Also quieter as we are off the main Haute Route.
Next day is easy for us as Daniel skis down to the valley early to pick up David. While they head up from a side valley at 6, we have a lie in and meet them on the glacier for the skin up to the Valsorey hut. The valley between Mt Velan and Grand Combin was once full of clashing glaciers and now there are big walls of moraine where they met (below). We climb one of the moraine walls then a long zigzag ascent of the slope above on icy snow. Ski crampons on as we try not to slip on the turns. The Valsorey hut at 3033m is much busier (28 skiers) as we are back on the Haute Route. Daniel does not rate the catering highly but we have a good Boeuf en Daube for dinner. Click the view of Mt Velan with hut on right and our tracks centre for the last two big days of the tour.