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Italian High Level Route Ski Tour and Western Oberland

Easter time is traditionally good for ski touring, particularly the higher level routes and Paul and co had chosen to attempt the Italian High Level route (aka the Spaghetti Tour). This route normally starts and finishes in Zermatt heading over the Monte Rosa massif to the Italian side and in effect circumnavigates the massif with Lyskamm as its hub. High altitude (4000 metre peaks), dramatic glacial scenery and good food are the hallmarks of this little done ski tour and conditions must be stable to be successful. After weeks of weather watching, emailing the local guides on the conditions of the big glaciers (I've descended them in summer and they are frightful) and hoping for divine intervention we were off.

Actually it was a slow start as it was a wet and grey day in Zermatt and we weren't about to head out into one of Europe's largest high glaciers in nil visibility. The forecast was promising though and webcams showed it clearing from the Italian side so eventually we headed up to Klein Matterhorn, put a rope on and headed into the mist. Actually it cleared at the Breithorn pass and we quickly took advantage by bagging our first 4000'er the West top of Breithorn 4165m. The ski off the summit was ok but the snow quickly deteriorated to some of the worst crust I've skied and it turned COLD again.I won't put down in writing how late we arrived a the Ayas hut but it was a wee bit close for comfort and it was a relieved team that got settled in to the delights of a winter hut at 3400 metres. Actually it was surprisingly comfy and I still maintain my 'pan seared chorizo with pesto' was the highlight of the tour.

After the previous day's exploits we felt we were owed a leisurely start and breakfast and I think there are fewer more dramatic places to start from than the Ayas hut. Surrounded by cascading seracs and chaotic glaciers it is a really special place. The descent into Champoluc is a long one (1700m) and traverses crevasses and under seracs but again we were cursed with either a wind or sun crust which took the edge of it. Eventually (after spending a little time doing some avalanche rescue training) we arrived in Saint Jacques where we celebrated with 'stand your spoon in it' hot chocolate and beer. A small, fiat driven taxi service dropped us at a bus stop where we had to break the budget and spend 80c to get to the lift in Champoluc where we stayed at a fantastic refuge (which will remain a secret for now).

The next morning we actually got some turns in, albeit on the piste as we rode lifts over to the Gressoney valley and ultimately the new Indren lift. This lift gives access to some great off piste but also the Gnifetti and Mantova refuges above the Indren glacier. As we arrived in reasonable time we pressed on, after stashing some extra kit (in my case a toothbrush), to Pyramid Vincent 4215m to bag our second 4000'er. The Mantova refuge is a little lower than the Gnifetti but is my refuge of choice and we enjoyed the Italian hospitality there. I think Massimo (a sole Italian skier) was a little confused though when Peter asked him how did Italians pronounce 'minestrone'.

Our 4th day started early and really is the crux of the tour. Failing to get over the 'watershed' of the massif here means you are stuck miles away in Italy and would involve taxis, lifts and potentially even helicopters. Thankfully the weather dawned clear again and we retraced our tracks from the previous day to Col Vincent where we turned left and bagged one of my favourite tops here, the Balmenhorn 4167m. There is a bivouac hut here but also an impressive, gigantic Christ statue which we all clambered around with gratitude (and perhaps silent prayer) before crossing the Lisjoch (or colle del Lys) to the Grenzgletscher. The Grenzgletscher is a genuine labyrinth and must be well filled in to be skied in reasonable safety. Thankfully it was and we whooped it up between yawning voids and underneath teetering blocks before getting stopped at a particularly complicated section. Here we popped our skis off, put a rope on and mountaineered our way through before again sking transforming snow to the Monte Rosa hut.

The weather by now was threatening and ideas about touring from the Monte Rosa hut were being replaced by just making sure we would get out in reasonable order and perhaps still get some touring in. We decided to ski out to our starting point of Zermatt via the Stockhorn glacier and pass. Skiing under the north face of Nordend I thought was really impressive (has anybody climbed here?) but it is a deceptively long way to the pass and the weather had overtaken us as we reached it. We had enough visibility however to enjoy the fresh powder that was still lying on all north aspects and had some exciting steep pitches on the Findelgletscher before traversing in to the resort itself. Here you take a lift (I was impressed that Paul mooted skinning up a piste - Neville I think would have lynched him) for 10chf before skiing all the way in to the town itself. We celebrated in style that evening and reflected on a challenging 5 day ski circumnavigation of the Monte Rosa massif whilst I tried to come up with a finale over the next two days.

With further threatening weather we eventually decided to go to the Western Oberland and the Lammeren Hut. By using the amazing Swiss public transport system we travelled by rail and bus to Leukerbad where we caught the lift to the Gemmipass. From here a pleasant two hour or so skin had us ensconced in the hut which I hadn't visited for over 6 years but is still run by Barbara and Christian (a local Guide). They told us the classic descent of the Uschentaal (all the way to Kandersteg on the north side of the range) was in good condition and as Paul had missed out on this on a previous trip it was decided that was our objective.

We set out the next morning and it became obvious that we were in luck as skies were crystal clear, a fresh mantle of powder lay on the ground and the scenery was outstanding; looking south back over the Rhone valley but also traversing under orange and black limestone cliffs twisted and bent under eons of pressure. Everyone skied well and it was a great experience to have the valley and fresh snow to ourselves. Soon enough we hit the road that zigs and zags to the lift at Eggescmand where we eeked out every last bit of snow before eventually having to put skis on back and walk the last 20 minutes. A really varied, challenging but rewarding 7 days of ski touring (not mountaineering!). Well done to Paul, Emily, Ursula (number 3 UK Ski Champion!), Peter, Nick and Neville!

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