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ISM Introduction to Ski Touring April 1998

 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
Yes, you read it correctly… this is a trip report from 1998. Soz for the delay but I’ve been a bit a busy… and I was waiting for SH to be invented Toofy Grin Toofy Grin At the time I was young, free and single, I’d been doing 2, occasionally 3, weeks a year for about 6 years and heading off piste a fair bit. I’d bought all the ava gear. I then heard about this ski touring lark. I liked to hike in the mountains a bit in the summer and the combo of ski hiking and downhill appealed. As did getting away from the lift system into what the yanks call the back country.

I decided to enroll in a weeks Introduction to Ski Touring with the grandly titled International School of Mountaineering. The instructor/guide was from Stoke! More on that later. ISM still exist and going strong None of the guys I was skiing with at the time had the time, money or inclination to do the trip. Not that it mattered. All the people on the trip were singletons. So I booked up.

IIRC it was something like £700 for accom, transport, equipment, etc. ISM is based in Leysin in Switzerland. I got some ludicrously expensive flights to Geneva for IIRC £270 return (Easyjet!) as I was booking quite late. From Geneva I got the train out to Leysin. I remember arriving and walking down the road in the dark with the snow coming down and wondering what the week held.

I found the Hotel, which seemed nice and was welcoming. I then met my room mate while we were staying in the Hotel. His name was Hugh. He was in his late 50’s. He’d taken early retirement from BT and was doing some of those things you always say you gonna and never get the chance with work and bringing up a family. I then met the other two guys doing the week. Ross from Edinburgh and Gary from Surrey,  both a similar age to me 30ish. It was April and Hugh and Gary were intending to do the Haute Route in May, separately).

Later in the evening we met our instructor/guide for the week. Terry Ralphs still works for ISM and was a thoroughly pleasant and helpful chap. Quite reserved and not inclined to make a fuss about anything. Anyway after a meal, a drink and a chat we all hit the sack at a suitably reasonable time.

Day one we headed first to the hire shop to get some ski’s with touring bindings and skins. I think one or two had bought touring boots but I and at least one other were using their normal ski boots. I had a walk mode on my boots at the time which may have helped a tad but in general it wasn’t a big issue. Unfortunately being a size 12 foot they didn’t have any Fritschi bindings and I had to use some older type that proved a bit troublesome over the week. But it wasn’t the end of the world. Then it was back in the van and off to the local lifts of Leysin for a local day “initiation”. I have a sketchy note on a half of A4 of the peaks we did that I wrote at the time. It's a bit like one of the Mallory Everest expedition artefacts Laughing Anyway using this and the wonder of the modern day Google I was able to piece most of it together.

Day 1 says “Truex 2200m”. I found this interesting old website with lots of piccies of some of the places I went. Here's Truex I don't remember loads about the first day other than the weather was a bit iffy and it was great fun.

After a good nights kip it was back in the van for another day tour. I believe this was my favourite day. We seemed to start at the end of someone's garden but soon ended up skinning along the bottom of a lovely wide valley (over Lac Lioson I believe). We then hooked a left and started climbing steeply. Straight and to the right was a cliff band. Towards the top we then hooked a right for the last little climb to the peak of Pic Chaussy at 2350m. There was an abandoned lift station at the top. We had lunch and then a lovely long powder ski down in the sunshine. Some old piccies here including the lift when it was operational! We came up from the left of the lift and skied down under it (were it still there when I was!). I remember we also cut a section out of the snowpack to do the layer check.

Day 3 and it was off to Les Diablerets. I recall we made some use of the lift system and then headed off up to the peak at 3200m and then skied back down off piste for a while and then back into the resort pistes. Not a bad day under mainly blue skies.

The next 3 days were a mini tour. We left behind the luxuries of the Hotel and drove to what I now know was Leukerbad. Here we took the Gemmi pass cable car up a very steep mountainside. The first day of the tour we just skinned up from the top of the cable car to the mountain hut, which I believe was this one

The second day we did a loop – I have written down Wildstrubel , Rothorn (??) and Schwartshorn I remembered that being an excellent day with some great climbs and powder skiing. It was a great atmosphere in the hut, and a beer at the end of a long day was most welcome.

The final day we headed to the Dauberhorn We donned crampons to get the peak, essentially a cliff edge. I was like Bambi on ice with the crampons! We ended off with some excellent skiing and then some crevasse rescue training (which of course I've now completely forgotten).

And that was that. We all headed back to the Hotel and a big farewell meal and a few drinks. Then in the morning we all made our way home. It was a great little adventure and for a kid from the burbs a real taste of mountaineering. It was made to be the start of regular ski touring trips but things didn't work out that way. One day I will get back out there, I will I tell you!

Some piccies:

Top of Pic Chaussy 2,350m

I think maybe from the top of Truex

My man Ross from Edinburgh - I did meet him for a beer a year after.

Heading up to the Gemmi Pass
From left to right Gary, Hugh and Ross

View down to Leukerbad

Skinning up

View from the hut in the evening or maybe dawn

Me in the early morning as we set out from the hut

Climbing hard up the Daubenhorn

At the top of the Daubenhorn 2,942 m

Last edited by Poster: A snowHead on Thu 13-02-20 17:09; edited 1 time in total
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The follow ups to the story:

Hugh and Gary went on to complete the Haute Route and I thought I would share their reports below. In Hugh's case posthumously as a few years after I sadly received an email from his wife to say he'd passed away. Obviously quite young, especially for someone clearly so fit.

First of is Hugh's who went straight into it with same guide:


By Hugh Tulloch

10th - 17th April 1999

Hi Guys,

The bottom line is that we got to the last hut before Zermatt with two days to go and were then unable to do the last 6 hour ski down due to bad weather and avalanche risks. However the 4 hour ski down to Arolla in perfect visibility was a good consolation. My wife says that to all intense and purposes we did it, and indeed the last stretch can be completed on another occasion. In fact I have already done this stretch in the summer of 1997. So this is how it went:

Day 1:
Preparation in the morning and skied to the Argentiere Hut in the afternoon in dreadful visibility. About 30 others in this cold hut with no running water and an outside bog. The water used for drinking was the worst I have ever tasted.

Day 2:
The night cleared to enable us to be first out at 6am. A beautiful, cold, icy morning with clear views of all the mountains. Up the Col du Chardonnet (not as bad as it looks) and down the other side (steep and needing a 2 x 40 metre rope descent). Across the Glacier de Saleina to the Fenetre de Saleina. The last 50 metres of this Col were steep and icy, and nearly the cause of my undoing. My crampons worked fine, but ski poles are no substitute for an ice axe when front pointing on ice. I had decided NOT to take an ice axe due to weight, but now realise a small light weight ice axe is a big plus if ice is to be expected. I was eventually saved by Terry Ralphs who took my ski sticks and gave me a rope to pull up on. It was one of my two bad moments of the week as this part is steep and icy, and bodies were falling down everywhere. Down the Plateau du Trient and PAST the Trient Hut to do two days in one. Down the top end of the Trient Glacier (narrow, big crevasses but not too long) and then down the Val D'Arpette to Champex by 3pm. The Val D'Arpette is one of the best and most beautiful skis on the Haute Route and we had the whole untracked valley to ourselves. A 1500 metre descent. It was a little bit crusty at the top, then powder, and then almost spring snow to restore any battered skiing confidence. A splendid 9 hour day ending in a comfortable bed and good dinner in Le Chable (below Verbier) as Terry had been unable to get us into the Mont Fort hut. Oh dear, what a shame!

Day 3:
Back to the bad weather with low clouds and snow. We got the first lift up to Verbier and Attelas 2, only to find Verbier covered in new snow and deserted. Most of the lifts were not working (including the Mont Fort cable car) which meant an additional 3 hour slog. We were by ourselves until about midday when we were caught up by two French groups. Visibility was very poor but at least we were not out in the frying sun. One French guy was caught in a small slab avalanche and took a 20 metre slide. A pleasant ski down to the Prafleuri Hut which we arrived at around 5pm. Another long day but a good achievement under the circumstances. The Prafleuri hut turned out to be guarded ( we had assumed it was not and had taken our own dinner) and the electric cable to the hut was down leaving the hut with almost no heating. A bucket of snow in the dormitory in the evening had shown no sign of melting by the morning! The hut had no running water and the only outside toilet was unusable. What is one supposed to do I wonder?

Day 4:
First out by 7am to blaze the trail. A beautiful day with sunshine and perfect visibility. A gentle traverse along the Lac des Dix on what is a renowned avalanche slope. Once it gave a loud crack where we were standing but nothing further happened, thank God. Some debate now as to whether we should go to the Dix hut and then go by the Pigne, or go down to Arolla and proceed via the Bertol Hut. I was in favour of the latter if only to get a little comfort for the night. Also the weather was breaking up and Terry did not think groups would be able to ascend the Pigne the following day, due to the weather. This later proved to be the case. So up now through the Pas du Chat and onto the Pas de Chevres ladders. This was my second wobbly of the week. I had managed to get to the back of the group due to attending a blister. Normally I was not the slowest up and certainly not the worst skier down. The last bit to the bottom of the ladders is steep and in deep snow. Therefore we took our skis off and strapped them to our sacks, which then made them weigh a ton. Not easy to stand upright in ski boots and lethal to others when you get on your hands and knees. Terry then roped us all together and we shot up the ladders together like a champagne cork out of a bottle. I was one from the back. At the top Terry was working the ropes, and as I popped out at the top of the ladders he instructed me to get the rope off and move to the right. As the flimsy hand rail is to the left I was not happy about this, as I did not know how much ground there was behind me, and feared slipping on the ice in my ski boots with no Vibram sole and ending up at the bottom of the ladders again. As I fell on all fours for security, I must have nearly bludgeoned Terry with me skis, as he was not well pleased. Somehow it all worked out but happily my heart rate was not recorded. A very good hour ski down to Arolla followed by a very comfortable evening in a 2* Hotel.

Day 5:
Out at 7am and up to the Bertol Hut. The weather was low cloud with snow later and almost zero visibility. A bit of a puff but not too bad in the cool of the day. How Terry can navigate in this stuff is beyond me. Also he had to break trail in soft snow (steep in places) which meant stepping up to knee height for hours on end. Much easier to follow in his trail. The last 200 metres up to the hut was hairy and looked very avalanche prone. Definitely a ‘one at a time job’ and pray. Finally got there at 2pm. A French/Swedish group followed us in at around 4pm. With two days following we are all very confident of getting to Zermatt. However, it was snowing hard now and there was zero visibility. Learnt later that a Belgium group had left the Refuge des Bouquetins earlier in the day and were lost somewhere on the Arolla glacier. Rather them than me.

Day 6:
Terrible visibility and more snow. The French/Swedish group could not get to Zermatt, and as they had run out of time, they had to go back to Arolla. We decided to sit out the storm in the hut for the day and hope that Day 7 would be better. Terry thought it would clear during the night and once again he was right. Belgium group still out there somewhere and still calling in to the emergency services. The day passed reasonably harmoniously but bad news was to follow in the evening. There had been a avalanche outside of Zermatt and no further groups were to be allowed down on Day 7. Temperature dropped to -20C at night which meant the 15 metre trip to the one outside loo was cold and snowy.

Day 7:
Awoke to beautiful visibility including the Tate Blanche, and Zermatt beyond. Also the Pigne D'Arolla and all that side as well. The temperature had now warmed up to -15 C in the sun so things were looking up. In such ‘fine looking’ weather it was really hard to turn our backs on the Zermatt route and to make our way back to Arolla. However with the Mountain authorities and hut wardens advice NOT to go on, it was more than Terry's job was worth. In the event they proved to be right, as we were to find out later in the day. The ski down to Arolla was brilliant in spite of spending one hour looking for one of the group members ski. I did not fall once during the way down but managed to fall twice on the Langlauf trail, with released heals, immediately outside of Arolla. Belgium group reported to be on the Stockji glacier, and unable to go on or get back. Eventually they were rescued by helicopter from Arolla but they all looked fine when we saw them. Took the bus down the valley and saw many spectacular avalanches, including a massive snow avalanche from around the Tate Blanche area. In spite of the poor weather and disappointment at not reaching Zermatt, the week was more that worth it. It is going to make piste skiing in future with the crowds all feel rather dull.

Finally a salute to Terry Ralphs. Top guide - top man.
The drive home to the UK saw snow all the way down to Geneva from Chamonix, snow in the Jura Mountains west of Geneva, and a snow storm in the evening in the Rheims area north of Paris. IT’S REALLY GREAT TO BE HOME.
I am proposing to knock out a few notes on equipment and what to do with blisters and snorers etc. Let me know if you are interested.
Best wishes and good skiing.

He also commented that:

Skiing: Not as difficult as the Intro course. In ability terms I was about in the middle of our group. So no pressure here.

Company: Our HR group did not gel as well as the Intro Course.

Which was interesting on both counts.

Here is Gary's report done with a different guide/company:


By Gary

May 1999

I promised to let you know how I got on with the Haute Route.
Well the good news is that we made it to Zermatt !

The Team:

Jim Blyth - great guy, I would highly recommend him. Has great amount of knowledge and a very good teacher. I will definitely be using him in future for further ski touring

Frank (31) - very good climber, had done a lot of ski touring in Austria
Roger (61) - had just completed a ski tour intro week with Jim the week before, and was amazingly fit - put us 30 year olds to shame.
Dave - Paid but never turned up, got no messages from him so remains a mystery.

This is how it went:

Day 1 Argentiere Hut

Had a morning shake down at Grands Montets - found out that the skins that Snell Sports had rented to me were a different length, so had to go down and rent some more from Argentiere. While were in the shop we learnt that a ice avalanche had occurred that morning from the Aiguille Verte, and caught 5 ski mountaineers on there way to the Argentiere Hut and a rescue was under way. In the afternoon skied past the avalanche - horrible feeling knowing that people were still buried. Stayed in the Hut that night, this was by far the worst night in the Huts - lots of people (May holiday), hot, noisy and poor food. Learnt that night that they had managed to save 4 people from that the avalanche, but sadly one had died.

Day 2 Champex

The day started with fairly good weather (the forecast for the week was good - however this didn't prove to be the case). Climbed the Col du Chardonnet - fairly icy, needed ski crampons then needed the rope to get down the other side. Climbed the Fenetre de Saleina on foot and had a nice ski down to the Trient Hut in the afternoon - however the visibility was getting worst. The plan had been to stay at Trient that night, however the weather forecast had said that a big storm was moving in and knowing that the route down from the Trient Hut was dangerous after heavy snow we decided to make an escape down to the valley that afternoon.
The ski down Val d'Arpette was horrible - wet, heavy snow and crossed a lot of avalanche debris (probably came down that afternoon). Made it to Champex late in the afternoon - Big day! Found a great gite in Champex - finished off a lot a wine knowing that tomorrow would be a easy day waiting for the weather to improve.

Day 3 Mont Fort Hut

Got a taxi to Verbier in the morning. It rained most of the day, however in the afternoon we got the last lift up and skinned to the Mont Fort Hut. In the evening the weather started to clear up.

Day 4 Prafleuri Hut

Weather was much better. Climbed the Rosablanche had had some great spring snow down to the Prafleuri Hut. Sunbathed in the afternoon - we were the only people at the Hut.

Day 5 Dix Hut

Climbed the Col des Roux and then traversed Lac des Dix. Blisteringly hot in the afternoon for the final pull up to the Dix Hut. Not the best day of the Haute Route.

Day 6 Vignettes Hut

Left the Hut at 4 am to make the most of the snow on the decent to the Vignettes Hut. Climbed the summit of Pigne d'Arolla.. great snow for the descent (fresh tracks). Told that the weather was about to take a change for the worst.

Day 7 Vignettes Hut

Started the day at 3am into a snow storm. Jim wanted to give it a go up to the Col de L'Eveque and then decide what to do. Roped up to cross the glacier got to the top of the Col and decided to return to the Hut.

Day 8 Zermatt

Woke up at 3am to beautiful clear morning. Skinned across the glacier with a full moon shinning in the sky - Just magic !!! Lots of fresh powder snow and we were the first to reach the Col de L'Eveque so we had it all to ourselves. Long hard push up to the Col de Valpelline and then a fantastic descent down past the Matterhorn. Had a 4k walk to Furi and a well earned cold beer. Best day skiing I have ever had.

We went straight back to Chamonix that afternoon and skied the Vallee Blanche the next day.

Best wishes, hope to see you again in the mountains

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