Long-legged and annoyingly fit, the Spaniard overtook us on the chalky steeps below the Haute Route’s Plateau du Couloir, ascending the switchbacks at twice our speed, kicking aggressive turns in tight tights, exerting himself enormously. He was oblivious to the massive ball of mucus frozen on his upper lip, but my two friends- Ethan and Hà¥kon-and I could focus on little else. As we stared in disgust, the Spaniard, wearing face-hugging sunglasses and standing on skis no wider than two toothpicks, glanced dismissively at my heavy Völkl G4s, Ethan’s Dynastar Bigs, and Hà¥kon’s Rossi Triple-Xs. The smugness in his face suggested that we were the freaks.
If an ethos can be embodied in a ball of snot, the Spaniard’s frosty lip ornament spoke volumes. It said: Soy un hombre who’s too tough and too determined to waste even a second wiping my nose. It revealed a deranged love of uphills, a maniacal devotion to speed at the expense of fun and hygiene. We ran into this sort of mania quite often on the Haute Route. The previous morning, we’d seen two Frenchmen with metal baskets on the ends of their poles. Their wafer-light gear was too flimsy for descents, so they used the “witch technique,” wherein they slowed themselves by sticking the poles between and behind their legs and digging the baskets into the snow. That night we would meet a sinewy German couple at the Chanrion Hut, who told us they were going to do the entire six-day route “in two or three days…we’re not sure yet.”
Too many Europeans-and some Americans-suffer from the Spaniard’s delusion: that it’s fun to ski uphill. They believe that ski touring is about touring, not skiing-that how far and how fast you go matters. They’re lost souls, really, climbing so they’ll be fit to climb later, training for a lifetime of runny beaks.
According to this logic, he who attempts the Haute Route with alpine boots and fat skis-he, in this case, being us-is both heretic and fool. “Normal” on the Haute Route is bright Lycra. Normal is Dynafit and noodly Trab Piuma skis. Normal is the slime-faced Spaniard. I like to think our slow-and-heavy Haute Route trip put a little of the “ski” back into ski touring. For six days, we appeared to be the only people with fat boards, the only ones struggling against the so-called weight penalty. When our lungs heaved on ascents, we rested. When our noses ran, we wiped them. But we always made it to the next couloir to reap the “weight reward”: the chance to fly down slopes the Euros had to sideslip, to lean into our turns, to float as skiers of this millennium were meant to float. During such moments, there is no better setup than wood-core skis and a 12-pound pair of boots.
Did the Spaniard envy our ability to make big turns? Tough to say. But I’ve got a photograph from that day of the 800-foot descent following the long slog up to the Plateau du Couloir. On the right side are our tracks, big and bold, snaking down a sun-drenched face. True to form, Hà¥kon made only five turns in 300 feet; Ethan made six; I made eight. And on the left side are the Spaniard’s tracks, squiggles really, the 30- or 40- or 50-odd hack turns made by a miserable phlegm-dolloped man who was clearly pining for the next grueling ascent. What that picture reassures me of is this: I didn’t envy him then, and I hope I never do.