Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Alpine ski touring

Scaling steep slopes and traversing in metre-deep snow on a historical smugglers’ route, James Henderson crosses the Franco-Swiss border the extremely hard way.

November 13 2010
James Henderson

“On the border at 12…”

It sounds like a truly dodgy assignation, and of course it is. Or was, more accurately. For centuries, though, the French-Swiss border around Morzine and the Val d’Illiez has been porous as a sponge. Contrebandiers, local smugglers, would take pretty much anything that could be carried. The crossing was easier in summer, of course, but enterprising early skiers, camouflaged in white, would also use the long hours of winter darkness.

Whatever their motives, these were mountain men on a mission, prepared to put themselves through extreme hardship and physical endeavour in beautiful alpine surroundings. An ideal template for an arduous weekend’s ski touring – which itself has increased enormously in popularity in recent years, as skiers look further afield for a challenge. It enables them to hike almost wherever they want to in the mountains in winter.

FRIDAY 1700

Ah, the pleasure of London City Airport. I leave the office at a respectable time for a Friday and board the Swiss flight an hour after stepping on the Docklands Light Railway. Arrival in Geneva is so smooth that I pitch up before my taxi driver, who helpfully wears a Mexican hat.

FRIDAY 2100

While the Portes du Soleil – the ski area straddling the border – is not high for alpine resorts, it is close, and so I am in La Chamade restaurant in Morzine just after 9pm local time. The artsy presentation of the food belies its alpine solidity. And the hefty portions; knowing my energy use in the coming 36 hours, I opt for tartiflette, a hearty combination of bacon, potato and reblochon cheese, with some Savoyard white wine.

After a quick brief on the weekend’s route, our guide, Marco, veers onto the theme of contraband. Smuggling has always had an economic imperative – to avoid customs duty, largely. In the early days smugglers carried goods unavailable in one country or other – sugar, coffee, spices. Then, oddly, came high-quality English cloth; later, gold and counterfeit notes. In the second world war there were refugees, along with matches and playing cards, and in the 1970s it was cigarettes, Rizla papers, video cassettes and later DVDs. At one stage there was even a market for butter and cheese (all that risk for a sack full of Emmental).

You don’t want to burn the candle too much at the evening end before ski touring, but we head out to a bar, Coup de Coeur. Surrounded by wine-rack walls and a green chalk-board ceiling, we are a quiet clutch among the braying of the powder hounds, all wind-blown faces and shocked blond hair. My first mention of the Vallée de la Manche elicits this response: “Oh, you’re one of those people who are happy to ski uphill as well as down, are you…?”

It’s time for bed. After a quick equipment check, I apply the skins to my skis and turn in.

SATURDAY 0900

We arrive in Erigné at the head of the valley, as remote a way as you can go around the resorts of Morzine and Avoriaz, and consequently the favoured domain of contrebandiers. As the light seeps wanly through the pointed trees, the weather is crisp. “Monstre-froide!” says Marco. He means dry as well as cold.

We shoulder the rucksacks and clip in to our skis, toes only, so that our heels are free to “walk” uphill. Technique is vital, so I recall a few rules. Consciously I lift my heels, keeping the ski tips flat on the snow bed. And spacing, too. I stick to Marco’s tracks, but four or five metres behind, so that I don’t trap his skis.

As we pass into the snowbound mountain silence, a rhythm settles. The physical action is mesmerising – the swish-swish-swish of the skis, an occasional crump. There is also the pleasure of the remote. It is truly spectacular here; momentary views to the mountaintops flash between the trees.

SATURDAY 1030

With Erigné 400 vertical metres below us, we pause for a break in the thinning tree line. Ahead, the ridge where the border rides the peaks is now in full sun, above a vast expanse of snow – an easy place to be caught. We set off again, climbing the last 200m to Col de Bretolet.

I am reminded that ski touring is extremely hard physical work. The cold, the sun and the plain exertion, hefting even these lightweight skis, boots and a rucksack, all take their toll. For the downhill you need skiing fitness, sure; but on the way up it’s pure aerobic graft, and soon every pace hurts. A mix of sweat and sunscreen runs steadily down my face.

SATURDAY 1100

At the col we stop again, briefly in the stiff wind, to remove our skins and pack them away. (Originally, “skins” were sealskins – uphill, they glide, but with downward pressure, the fur would catch and hold in the snow.) Without them, we are on standard, lightweight off-piste skis. I throw on jacket, hat and gloves, tighten my boots and swivel the rear bindings to lock my heels solid. Passing an old border post, we slide away and into Switzerland.

This is what it’s all about. We glide beneath the Dents Blanches, a vast escarpment on our right topped by a cumulus of rock. “We make our own tracks,” says Marco. This trip isn’t intended to be a full-blown assault on the classic Haute Route in just a weekend. Morzine is not actually that remote, but there is plenty to explore away from the ski lifts (though with such an exhausting sport, it is a small comfort to know they are close to hand, actually). Eventually we reach the tiny community of Barme, with the furthest-flung refuge in the area. Lunch; rest; drink.

It’s easy to imagine the contrebandiers sneaking by quietly in this remote valley. Mostly they were family men, bringing anything to make a simple farming life more comfortable, and earning a little money on the side. But the cloth smuggling in the late 1700s was a truly ingenious industry. Farmers would shear their sheep, wrap rolls of cloth around their back and belly, and reapply the wool. Then it was a case of the herd “straying” conveniently close to the border at an agreed point, and a quick handover.

SATURDAY 1400

We skitter down the valley towards Champéry. The spooky silence encloses us again. There is a final climb into Les Crosets. We halt and make the change as quickly as we can. Skis and rucksack off, skins on, switch bindings, outer layer off and away. Marco takes the lead and heads around a hillside. Traversing in deep snow is excruciating, adding discomfort to brute effort. With every pace, I have to drag my lower leg uphill.

SATURDAY 1700

With limbs like lead (mine are, at any rate), we arrive at L’Etable, our hotel for the evening, which has a cheery bovine theme in white, black and multifarious browns; wooden doors, chairs and bedheads are all covered in imitation cow hide. I made sure to book a room with a bath; I have a sublime soak. Eventually, I emerge for a coup de rouge, which makes my face glow like a bulb. I step outside momentarily, and virtually feel capillaries snap-freezing in the cold. The dining room at L’Etable is mock regency run riot with chrome, in pink and black, but all I notice is my system, screaming “SALT ON EVERYTHING”.

SUNDAY 0930

It’s a later start as I settle up (in Swiss francs) next morning. In 15 minutes we are away from the pistes, heading for the ridge via the Chavanette couloir. Peaks hover tauntingly above us. At the first hint of an incline, the energy fairly sluices out of my legs; the puffing begins.

SUNDAY 1100

Skins can manage surprisingly steep slopes, but approaching the top we have to zig-zag. At each turn we kick up our skis and place them parallel in the other direction in some macabre, mock-balletic plié (with an involuntary sit down into the hill, in my case). I imagine negotiating this while hefting 40kg. Chavanette was one of the couloirs des contrebandiers. Amazingly, smugglers did use it. To descend, they would belay themselves by rope. Grunting, sweating despite the freezing February air, I find it a mercy to make the top. The border. At, well, 12 midday…

Where a smuggler might have approached warily – dropping his load without even approaching his partner in crime, in case of a customs stitch-up – I emerge into a crowd in technicolour Gore-Tex, at the top of a ski lift. Contact is momentary. Soon we are tramping south along the ridgeline, beneath rocky outcrops. Suddenly a vast expanse of mountainside opens ahead. Whoopee! Skins off, fleece on. We fly downhill, over huge, humpback slopes, swinging left and right down clefts and gullies, slicing hillsides and hanging double helixes into the untouched snow. Incomparable Alpine emptiness – and the perfect escape route for a contrebandier. Finally we are back at Erigné. After a hot chocolate and a shower, I head for Geneva.

SUNDAY 1915

London City Airport again. The unromantic truth is that, since 2008, when Switzerland signed up to Schengen, there hasn’t been much smuggling between France and Switzerland. Apparently. And frankly, it would be easier to go by car anyway. No doubt, one day, for some reason, smuggling will start again. As for me, lurching off the aeroplane with dissenting legs and wracked ribs, I make a mental note about fitness before I take on ski touring again.