I thought the Haute Route was going to be easier than the Engadin, the cross-country ski marathon I recently completed in St Moritz. I was very wrong. It was sold to me as an 180km ski-touring trek from Chamonix to Zermatt. I imagined lovely powder skiing in bubbly snow, floating down unmarked tracks under blissful blue skies, with the odd sighting of chamois. The reality was a five-day, mostly uphill trek through patchy cloud with a heavy rucksack on my back. In my case, a rucksack the size of my torso and almost half my weight. But I loved it really.
What made my rucksack so heavy? Well, I had to pack my Cheltenham fur hat, various other bits of clothing that PR people have sent me, and several signed copies of my book Celebrate. No, not really. In fact, it was mostly taken up with various crampons, a harness with karabiner, avalanche probes, snow shovel, ski skins, and the all-important under-thermals.
I had thought of myself as quite a competent skier before this trip, and was full of confidence having finished the Engadin — but on day one I felt like a total beginner again. I couldn’t execute my kick-turn. I managed to fill my gloves with snow while getting into my skins. I put my crampons on wrong. ‘Pippa is this a ––––– joke?’ shouted our strikingly handsome guide, Matthieu. He was half-joking, half-cross. I was devastated.
I took comfort in my thermals. On the Haute Route, thermals are your best friends. You wear them day and night, for breakfast, lunch, supper and bed — the tighter, the better. Practicality becomes style. Of course, I spent hours each day debating whether to wear the bodyfit 200 Icebreaker crew or V neck, the Odlo breathable ‘ninja’ long johns or the 100 per cent merino wool onesie with rear flaps.
The hardship on the Haute Route is not simply the physical exertion but the mountain hut experience. Let me give you a small insight. You arrive exhausted from the day’s hard slog and are given a ‘prison box’ in which to unload your rucksack. Ice axes are to be kept outside, you’re told, not under your pillow. You are given a pair of Crocs — colour coded for size — in which to shuffle around the hut. Each party is assigned a table where you eat, drink, chat and play games. None of us could work out if our headaches were from altitude or the local red wine. You ‘sleep’ in dormitories with numbered beds; women alongside men, who are generally unwashed and snoring. At night the cold creeps in through your thermals, but by the time you wake at 5 a.m. it feels like a sauna. There’s an absence of ventilation — and the room stinks of sweat and boys. This is not luxury.
I try not to obsess over calories and weight, but the joy of all this skiing is that one can eat as much as one wants, guilt-free. For at least a week before any major physical challenge, I try to load up on carbs to boost my energy levels. This time, I ditched the usual diet of sushi, Vietnamese spring rolls and tangerine and saké jellies, and feasted on Alpine food, which I love: tartiflette, rosti and raclette. Nothing better.
Yet what really sustained me on the Engadin and the Haute Route were the energy gel packs — tubes of unpleasant fruity slime. It’s like drinking mayonnaise in a Frubes packet. I have been to Snow+Rock several times this year already just to stock up on this horrid substance. The thought of it now gives me shivers, but it keeps you going.
Unfortunately, due to the bad weather and avalanche threat, we had to abandon the Haute Route only three and a half hours from our final destination, the Matterhorn and Zermatt. I was gutted. We had to ski back down to Arolla. We all glugged down vin chaud at 9 a.m. to soften the blow. More headaches. At the airport, I walked past the Toblerone bars in Duty Free; the logo is an image of the Matterhorn. It was a sorry reminder of what we nearly, but didn’t quite, achieve. Another year, perhaps.
Back home in London after my Alpine challenges, I can now pursue less demanding hobbies in my spare time, such as ping-pong. I’m informed that Boris Johnson, former editor of this magazine, wants to be ‘whiff-whaff’ world king even more than he wants to be Prime Minister. I’m also told the Johnsons are almost as competitive as the Middletons. So I’d like to lay down a challenge to the Mayor. My only stipulation is that I can use my favourite Dunlop Blackstorm Nemesis bat, which I used when I played in the Milton Keynes U13 National Championships, don’t you know. Bring it on, Boris.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 April 2013