Dates of Trip:
On my first day at my new job, in a new city, in the new year, my new colleague Lisa invited me on an adventure. I was coming off a harried Fall of marketing myself to The Academy (:/) and finishing my dissertation. I forgot to take a break: I defended my dissertation at the end of December, moved to New Haven on New Year's Day, revised my thesis a bit, and started my post-doc a week after turning it in. So I was in the market for a post-PhD celebration adventure, and Lisa needed a third person for a trip. Having said no to too many adventures in grad school, I said yes to this one. I joined my new colleague (/sort-of boss) and her brother on the Haute Route, a breathtaking ski tour in the Swiss Alps.
The Haute Route is a classic traverse of the Alps, beginning in Chamonix (in the shadow of Mont Blanc) and finishing in Zermatt (beneath the Matterhorn). There are a number of variations. Lisa and her brother had planned a route that would measure 7 days, 50 miles, and 20,000 feet of climbing. Trips always pose a tradeoff between accomplishing objectives, allowing for flexibility, and developing skills. In our case, hiring a guide proved crucial to accomplishing our objective, which was to traverse as much of the route as possible conditional on avalanche hazard, weather, visibility, and other alpine risks. Lisa and her brother had contracted Craig Ross, a guide from Patagonia whose help proved crucial for navigation, hazard assessment, logistics, and ski-skill support.
Spending a week in the Alps was even more magnificent than I expected. First: the hospitality. There is a robust hut system in the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps, which means skiers only need to carry a sleeping bag liner and the rest is taken care of. The caretakers at the huts serve up fantastic meals, colorful humor, and (sometimes) persnickety preferences about guests' tidiness. During April--when we went--reservations are mandatory. The huts run from cozy to cramped, but they're full of friendly adventurers and aren't as stinky as you might expect. Nothing rounds out a day of ski touring like a hot rosti: a buttery, crispy pile of shredded potatoes topped with melted gruyere cheese and a perfect over-easy egg.
Second: the mountains. We experienced every kind of snow conditions, from bouncy powder to bullet-hard ice. A low-pressure system sat on the Alps for several days of our trip, which meant we had to improvise a couple days' routes. But the great thing about the Haute Route is there is almost always a way to ski down, hire a car to drive around to another entry point, and ski back up to the next hut. Twice we had to do this because of poor visibility or unacceptably high avalanche risk, and neither time did I feel cheated out of a day on the Haute. To the contrary, we covered some awesome terrain on these trips down and back up. On the second of these improvised days, I met my first poma lift, which stretched over 2,000 feet. Other days felt like walking in a milk jug and brought their own kind of meditative serenity.
But when the clouds broke, we were treated to stunning panoramas and phenomenal snow. We bounced through knee-deep powder and glided through stunning glacial valleys. Through the course of a day the conditions might change from fluffy powder to thick, sticky mashed potatoes to crunchy or wind-scarred ice, depending on the time of day and elevation. This variability helped me stay present in every moment and attuned to the experience. On the last day, from the summit of Tete Blanche, we could see both where we came from (Mont Blanc) and where we were headed (Matterhorn), and those were just two of the stunning peaks among which we stood perched.
Third: the challenge. I went resort skiing with my family once a year until I was about 14, and after a long hiatus picked up backcountry skiing last winter. So this was a big trip for a relatively new skier and, while I felt ready to take it on, I also felt humbled by the experience. While skiing, as with most sports, I really come alive on the uphills. So naturally, the beast awakened on the slog up to the Berthol hut (perched on a clifftop) at the end of Day 6. Powder and mashed potatoes are new for me though. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of it, I took a spiraling, somersaulting fall, right in front of my group and a dozen shredders from Colorado and Washington. On this trip I learned that, for me, the toughest part of falling is getting back up and regaining the confidence to continue down a tough slope. The Pigne d'Arolla--the highest pass we crossed--also presented a tough challenge. We skinned and eventually bootpacked up a windy, steep, icy slope for a few hours before summitting and skiing down. Even though I'm used to tough winds on Mount Washington, encountering them in unfamiliar, steep terrain was unnerving and exhausting.
The challenge helps make the experience meaningful though. Life is all about working hard to get to stunning views, delicious food, and friendly folks, right? I am incredibly grateful to Lisa for inviting me to join her trip with her brother, to the Collier Adventure Grant for helping me say yes, to MITOC for helping me develop the skills I needed to go, to Craig for guiding us on a fantastic experience, and for the good health that allows me to keep getting outside.
Photos by Craig Ross, Lisa Fernandez, Andrew Fernandez, and Parrish Bergquist.