With the Dent d'Hérens looming in the background, the author and his team cross the heavily crevassed Stockji Glacier en route to the Schönbiel Hut. | Photo by PatitucciPhoto
I marched up the Glacier du Mont Miné, my boots crunching a thin layer of ice that had formed overnight. I'd craved another cup of instant coffee at the Cabane de Bertol, a hut improbably perched atop a rock fin at 11,000 feet, but I wanted to climb while the glacier's surface was still frozen hard. So, in the morning dark, I descended 20 stories of steel ladders from the hut, dropped onto the ice, and roped up.
"Travel is glamorous only in retrospect."
Now a day and a half from the terminus of the Haute Route, the classic alpine line between Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland, I plodded across three miles of yet another glacier as the world around my headlamp turned from black to dark blue. I kicked steps to the summit of Tête Blanche, where I dropped my pack and looked east toward the dominating snow-and-rock sculptures of the Matterhorn and the Dent d'Hérens.
A century and a half ago, Frederick Jacomb of the Alpine Club stood on this peak and looked down the valley toward Zermatt—just out of view behind the Matterhorn's northeast ridge. He was elated to have discovered a new col, another pass for the High Level Route the club envisioned. The next year, 1861, the route was complete, and it eventually spawned variations like the winter Haute Route for skiers and a Haute Route for hikers. Today, more than 5,000 travelers make some variation of Jacomb's journey each year.
Five hours of glacier, rock, and trail walking later, I sat in the sun at the Schoenbiel Hut drinking coffee and munching rösti, Switzerland's crisp delicacy of fried potatoes, cheese, and eggs. I lifted my head to look around every hour or so, when I heard the thunderclap of rock and ice ripping down the great north face of the Matterhorn. That peak made the rest of the Haute Route look tame, a half-day downhill stroll. I took a sip of coffee and waited patiently for the next avalanche to drum down the mountain. —Brendan Leonard