On the afternoon before the start of our ski tour I get a call from our guide, Daniel. "Hi Ross, I think the conditions in Grand Paradiso will be bad, how about doing a tour in the Valais instead?". Respecting Daniel's experience I agree so after weeks researching the maps of Northern Italy we end up spending 5 days among some of Switzerland's most impressive 4000m peaks on the "Haute Route Imperiale" from St Luc to Zermatt.
We meet up with Daniel outside Martigny and drive up a spectacular road to St Luc, a small resort high above Sierre. Quite a big group of ski mountaineers are already gathered by the funicular when we arrive - in fact they are doing exactly the same route as us. At the top of the funicular, three drag lifts, one of which is the longest I have ever been on, take us to the Pas de Boeuf, high up at 2950m, just below the Bella Tola peak. We ski to the edge of the resort and then skin up a small ridge to get amazing views of our route over the next few days (below). The high peak to the right of centre is the Weisshorn - in two days time we will be on top of the Bishorn just to its left.
We have a great ski down in spectacular surroundings to reach the Turtmann valley. Fine spring snow at the top turns to a slushy traverse as we lose height. Eventually we reach a river and sink into the snow as the skis come off. From here we skin up, sinking into the soft snow, to reach the corner of a dam. We cross the lake then up the last 450m (below with Tommy showing a bit of leg) to the hut, high on the ridge above. In fact we need to do a big loop, followed by a long steep climb to reach the Turtmann Hütte. It is a nice old hut with a great cook! Tommy impressed as we have a whole dormitory to ourselves and a four course dinner at which David enjoys about 5 helpings of soup.
We are up at 6am on day 2 and most of the others have already left the hut so we have a breakfast of yoghurt and meusli, bread, cheese and tea on our own. We are heading up the Turtmann glacier and cannot work out how we are going to get across some horrendous hanging glaciers. It turns out that there is a less steep (but still exposed) gully in between which we climb. At the top of the first steep section there is a spectacular crevasse (below) at the base of the glacier which makes a great photo stop. We follow the glacier for another 30 minutes then Daniel tells us to swap skis for crampons and ice axes. We then climb a 'short cut' to get over to the Turtmann glacier via a nice ski.
Once back on the Turtmann Glacier we follow an increasingly steep climb on skins. Eventually it is so steep that we take skis off and climb with skis on shoulders to reach easier ground. From here we follow a more gentle slope up the glacier and then a short climb to the hut. The Cabane de Tracuit (below) is one of the Swiss Alpine Club's most modern huts, completed in 2013. Fabulous floor to ceiling windows along the front of the hut give amazing views of the Zinalrothorn, Besso, Ober Gabelhorn, Dent Blanche, Grand Cornier and more peaks that we will see in a couple of days time. The boys' stomachs are filled by a fine rösti and around 7:30 the clouds clear and we get spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.
The big question is what will we do on Wednesday. The forecast had been pretty poor but Daniel thinks that we will get a window of good weather before the clouds come in. Sure enough at 5am it is clear and we excel ourselves (well done Tommy) by being the first out of the hut. The good weather gives us a chance to climb the Bishorn rather than skiing down to the valley. There is a fine sunrise over the mountains as we head off over the glacier. The going is easier at first but gets steeper as we weave around crevasses. Daniel puts in the track in a long session that takes us to a ridge with fine views. Lines of other climbers are coming up behind us. We push on and eventually reach the col, just below the summit. It is over 4000m and we are puffing from the skinning. Here we leave our skis, put on crampons and scramble the last 30m up steep snow and ice to pull up onto the summit (below). Amazing views and the Weisshorn ridge behind us. Daniel has timed it perfectly - the clouds start to come in as we ski off back towards the hut.
Apart from one tricky crevasse crossing we have a smooth run back to the hut and an added bonus for Tommy is the discovery that Liverpool has beaten Man City 1-2 away in the European Cup quarter final! We celebrate our return by tucking into another hearty rösti and then relax in the hut for the rest of the day before continuing our journey in the morning.