From Skinny Skis to Ski-Mo: Josh Smullin Goes Big on Verbier Haute Route

Jason AlbertMay 16, 2016
Lowering off the Col du Chardonnet. (Photo:Nick Pope)
Josh Smullin lowering off the Col du Chardonnet. (Photo: Nick Pope)

“At some point late in the season, when skiing around on small groomed loops becomes a chore, rather than a passion, it’s time for an adventure where you are going out of your comfort zone,” Josh Smullin, head coach of the U20/U18/U16 teams at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, said of his decision to ski the classic Verbier Haute Route this past March. “I am pretty comfortable in pretty much anything cross-country skiing, but this was a way to go on a ‘bigger adventure.’ ”

That big adventure took Smullin from the whirlwind of coaching and klister at Junior Nationals and SuperTour Finals to a place more sublime — a place where, functionally speaking, a climbing rope, crampons and ice axe are a skier’s best friend: Chamonix, France. It’s there, in arguably the world’s alpine climbing epicenter, that Smullin set off on a planned seven-day, six-night ski tour from Chamonix to Zermatt, Switzerland. On the way, Smullin, 34, would immerse himself in a cycle of rustic fondue meals and ski belays.

He explained the nuts and bolts of the trip require a 35-liter pack, warm and cold weather clothing, and a willingness to be in your ski boots most of the day. Mind some mild discomfort and possible blisters and this hardcore Euro-tour becomes accessible. (Smullin decided to rent boots and skis in Chamonix rather than travel with his personal setup.) The adventure entails long grinds across vast glaciers, boot packing up chutes, and if it’s your first night on the Verbier route, a night’s rest in the classic Trient Hut. Smullin said the Trient was no exception —  each hut seemed like a secluded James Bond lair hanging on a precipice.

But before you think it’s a posh cruiser, to those new to exposed sidehill skinning and switching from ski crampons to boot crampons and back again, it’s a headfirst plunge into ski mountaineering.

“There is a lot of switching back and forth, transitioning between all that stuff,” Smullin said.

Beyond the stellar big alpine-wall vistas, Smullin was there to grow as a skier. “I’m scared of heights,” Smullin remarked of his willingness to tempt himself with big vertical voids. “I’ve repelled two hundred feet. I’ve bungee jumped 134 meters in New Zealand. I’m not paralyzed by height, but for me this stuff was pretty big exposure and I did something that scared me everyday. Something that took me out of my comfort zone.”

Among the objective hazards one might reasonably fear are avalanche terrain, crevasses, high-angle skiing and the likelihood of low-visibility navigation. So that’s where the guide came in — Smullin says the guide made the unsettling and exposed situations tolerable.

“I’m glad that I had a guide, Smullin reflected. “I certainly wouldn’t have been able to go all of places we did, or ski the lines I did by myself.”

Admittedly, Smullin says he’s become a bit of a snow snob back in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

“I’m a fair-weather skier and I go when its powder in Steamboat and that’s about it,” he said. “There [on the Haute Route], you have to be ready for all the conditions.”

In other words, in the likely event you’re not “slaying” powder, you take what you get in the mountains. That could be ice, breakable-crust, corn, navigating through avalanche debris, or unbelievable powder. Expect the full package of snow types — other than at the resort in Verbier, which the group skied during their tour, there’s no grooming along the route.

Beyond the point-to-point ski touring, Smullin craved turns. So having a guide who knew the prime ski lines amongst the maze of couloirs was critical.

“For me, the main reason I had the guide was the actual skiing we were doing in the afternoon,” he explained. Wake up time each morning was a brisk 6 a.m. or earlier, with the day’s tour to the next hut beginning an hour later. Smullin’s group, including a total of three clients and a guide, would arrive at the next hut expecting to make a quick turnaround. “We would not rest for very long. We would get in there, eat something, and then scope out whatever the sweetest line was and give it a go.”

This is where a season’s worth of cross-country ski fitness paid dividends.

Steep skinning up to a col on the Verbier Haute Route (Photo: Josh Smullin Collection)
Steep skinning up to a col on the Verbier Haute Route (Photo: Josh Smullin)

“Being fit you have more options to do more things,” Smullin said. “The majority of people on these trips get to the hut, sit down and get a bottle of wine plus a fondue or a rosti, and chill the rest of the evening. We were in the minority.”

On a cloudless day, with the group scanning the craggy panorama from a hut balcony, Smullin got what he came for: a one-stop shop for fear induced butterflies and Steamboat-like powder.

“We got to the hut and the guide pointed up to the highest peak in front of us,” he recalled. “I wasn’t sure if he was being serious … but he was! We arrived at the spine of the summit and it was a steep drop off on both sides. We were traversing across to get to the tight entrance of this couloir. I was pretty nervous and it was probably the steepest longest powder run I’ve ever done. As I committed to dropping in and made the first turn, my mood shifted from terror to shear joy.”

Two thousand feet later, Smullin was all grins.

Part of maintaining that grin is knowing what you signed up for Smullin said. If you plan on taking Smullin’s lead and booking a post-race season trip next spring, here’s a few key pieces of info.

First, the huts have bunk style rooms and can be a bit noisy. Bring industrial strength ear plugs.

Second, decide if you are willing to join a group made up of strangers, as Smullin did.

“That is a consideration for people. There are some guides that won’t take people that don’t know each other,” he explained. “You have to decide if are you willing to pay more for that and have a group of people that you know their speed, their goals, and are all working together towards that? Or if you go with an unknown group, you have to be OK with going whatever speed the other people in your group are. There can be vast differences in fitness, goals and ski ability, so that is a gamble.”

“The majority of people on these trips get to the hut, sit down and get a bottle of wine plus a fondue or a rosti, and chill the rest of the evening. We were in the minority.” — Josh Smullin

Either way, the Alps’ hut system offers a way for adventurous skiers to move light and fast. The huts are staffed and serve hot meals and drinks. Ski packs along the Haute Route can remain light as the hut’s provide bedding and the next day’s lunch can be purchased along the way.

The Verbier Haute Route isn’t exactly a 20-kilometer skate loop or even a day’s long tour in the Colorado backcountry. It’s part high-mountain culture, part steep skiing, part touring and sight seeing, and a whole big part of living the skiing life.

“I guess, I have skied in some respect nearly everyday of the winter from October on,” Smullin said. “So I could have gone somewhere else, for warmer weather. But, certain times of the year are ideal for some adventures and not ideal for others. The end of the cross country race season matches up quite well with the ideal time to ski the Haute Route. In my mind, skiing the Haute Route is about being a complete skier. It’s an activity where you get the exercise, learn new skills and get the payoff for your hard work with the powder turns!”

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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