Via the Cabane des Vignettes to the Pigne d'Arolla

Via the Cabane des Vignettes to the Pigne d'Arolla

Falko Burghausen
Falko Burghausen
Published: 2 months ago
Updated: 2 months ago
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The wind. Whistling, howling, cooling, cutting, draining - the list of descriptions for the effect of wind can probably be continued almost endlessly. The fact is that the wind is a constant companion in the mountains, sometimes more, sometimes less noticeable. It ranges from a light, pleasantly cooling breeze to a nerve-wracking, painfully cold storm that finds every leak in your protective outer clothing and mercilessly threatens your painstakingly built-up body temperature.

The Easter holidays in 2024 are characterized by terrible foehn weather conditions throughout Switzerland. The south is drowning in rain and snow, while north of the main Alpine ridge the storm rages with winds of up to 190 km/h, ruining the long-awaited holidays for everyone, whether north or south of the Alps.

A little beforehand, there is another window of good weather, which is ideal for a detour on skis to the Cabane des Vignettes before the bad weather front finally sets in. The ascent from Arolla is just under 1,200 meters in altitude and offers no significant technical difficulties in normal conditions. Initially, you follow the slopes of the small but fine ski area of Arolla, but a little later, the ski mountaineer is already immersed in the impressive moraine landscape, which was formed by the glacier tongue of the Glacier de Pièce and its western neighbor, the Glacier de Tsijiore Nouve, which once pushed much further down into the valley.

The Glacier de Pièce with the 3,153 m high Col des Vignettes
The Glacier de Pièce with the 3,153 m high Col des Vignettes
Barely recognizable as a glacier when so well snow-covered: the Glacier de Pièce, at the upper end of which the Cabane des Vignettes is just visible.
The Glacier de Pièce with the 3,153 m high Col des VignettesBarely recognizable as a glacier when so well snow-covered: the Glacier de Pièce, at the upper end of which the Cabane des Vignettes is just visible.

On entering the glacier basin, the first like-minded people, several groups come towards me on the descent, presumably guided groups that are on the Haute Route stage between Cabane des Vignettes and Cabane de Bertol. The tracks left behind indicate good snow conditions, turn after turn is elegantly strung together, and the fifteen centimetres of powder snow on the old snow surface certainly contributes to this.

The sky is bright blue and the weather is only expected to deteriorate towards late afternoon. Calm winds, sunshine and pleasant, not too warm and not too cold temperatures make for a relaxed ascent up to the Col des Vignettes at 3,153 m altitude. Same route, two days earlier: stubborn snow under the skins, anger, frustration - we've been through this before. Today, however, no problem with the constantly colder temperatures, the phenomenon occurs above all when the snow temperature changes between wet, warmer snow and cold snow (for example when moving from sunny to shady areas). Sometimes, however, even the smallest differences in the exposure of a slope are enough to make the decisive difference between joy and frustration.

The Cabane des Vignettes at an altitude of 3,153 m
The Cabane des Vignettes at an altitude of 3,153 m
The stone hut sits enthroned like an eagle's nest high up in the Valais Alps, directly above the huge glacier plateau around the Col de Charmotane.
The Cabane des Vignettes at an altitude of 3,153 mThe stone hut sits enthroned like an eagle's nest high up in the Valais Alps, directly above the huge glacier plateau around the Col de Charmotane.

Arriving at Col des Vignettes, with the hut to the left, we spontaneously decide to take advantage of the good snow and weather conditions and continue towards Pigne d'Arolla. The ascent also leads over glaciated terrain, so strictly speaking it's not a place to go it alone. However, the above-average snow cover on the glaciers this season in combination with the generally rather crevasse-free terrain significantly reduces the risk, an imminent change in the weather can be ruled out at the moment, so visibility remains good.

More challenging is the fact that nobody seems to have climbed up from the Cabane des Vignettes in the direction of Pigne d'Arolla today, only various downhill tracks in the opposite direction can be seen. This means 600 vertical meters of track work after more than a thousand vertical meters up to here, so I take it easy and cross the passage that became sadly famous in 2018 to the nameless glacier slope, which should then lead me up towards the summit in extensive and mostly not very steep terrain.

L'Evêque, 3'717 m
L'Evêque, 3'717 m
The striking northern glaciated slope on the L'Evêque, an exciting medium-difficulty high-altitude ski tour from the Cabane des Vignettes, depending on the condition of the large crevasse at around 3,300 m altitude.
L'Evêque, 3'717 mThe striking northern glaciated slope on the L'Evêque, an exciting medium-difficulty high-altitude ski tour from the Cabane des Vignettes, depending on the condition of the large crevasse at around 3,300 m altitude.

A good hour and some tedious track work later, the pass between the summit of the Pigne d'Arolla and the nameless point P. 3772. The snow quality is variable and windy, especially in the upper part, which is hardly surprising at this altitude. A little further down, however, the loose powder snow promises a lot of fun on the descent, which will be the reward for the track work.

From the pass, it is only a few windy meters to the flat and unspectacular summit crest at 3,787 metres. Further down: almost windless and pleasant, here suddenly windy and therefore draughty cold. There it is again, the wind. Within a few minutes, even seconds, it changes the whole situation. Visibility and the weather remain good, but I reduce my time to the bare essentials: put on my jacket, drink, take off my skins and get ready for the descent. The wind cools down, situations like this can change too quickly, which doesn't have to happen when you're out on your own. But this way, everything remains under control and the panoramic view of the summit, from the Dent Blanche to the Matterhorn and the Grand Combin in the west, makes up for the effort of the ascent.

Panorama

To the west, we descend into the vast glacier terrain around the 3,633 m high Col du Brenay, a nightmare in the snowstorm and without orientation. Today, however, the view is perfect, with the only slightly higher Mont Blanc de Cheilon looming directly behind, offering an impressive view from the Cabane des Dix with its rocky north face. The Pigne d'Arolla also breaks off steeply to the north, a forbidding block seen from Arolla. The ascent on touring skis, on the other hand, offers no technical difficulties worth mentioning, but the distance in altitude must be weighted accordingly and included in the tour planning.

The descent leads over the Col du Brenay towards the Cabane des Dix, a frequently used crossing on the Haute Route and often the high-altitude highlight on this impressive crossing of the Western Alps from Zermatt to Chamonix. A beautiful descent in a group, also as a day tour with a return to Arolla via the Pas de Chèvres, but not an option on your own due to the crevasse-rich glacier.

As I feared, the start of the descent is rough and windy, but a little later there is an abrupt transition to wonderful powder, which allows me to glide down effortlessly. A handful of touring skiers come to meet me, but overall it is a very quiet day up here. I make another short stop for a panoramic photo before I swing back down to the cairns that mark the transition to the traverse over to the Cabane des Vignettes, my thighs burning.

Panorama

The first small refuge was built on the site of today's hut back in 1924. Over the years, it has been modified and extended several times to become the impressive stone building it is today, which attracts mountaineers every summer and winter thanks to its unique location and offers protection from the weather. On the eastern side of the valley, the 4,357 m high Dent Blanche clearly dominates the scenery, followed by the pointed backdrop of the Aguille de la Tsa and the striking rock wall of the Bouquetins, a 3,838 m high chain of peaks above the Haut Glacier d'Arolla. At their foot lies the small Refuge des Bouquetins, a bivouac hut surrounded by the unique nature of the Valais main ridge.

The Cabane des Vignettes in a unique location
The Cabane des Vignettes in a unique location
Surrounded by famous names, surrounded by glaciers and stunningly situated in the Valais mountains: few huts offer such a location in the high alpine nature of the Alps.
The Cabane des Vignettes in a unique locationSurrounded by famous names, surrounded by glaciers and stunningly situated in the Valais mountains: few huts offer such a location in the high alpine nature of the Alps.

The rest of the descent from the hut: a rollercoaster of emotions, beautiful powder snow in the upper part of the Glacier de Pièce, horrible, wind-worked and hard snow in the lower part - you can't have everything. So I'm glad to be able to cross back over to the ski slope for the last few meters after passing the huge moraines and glacier mills of the Glacier de Tsijiore Nouve again. The daytime warming contributes to the constant rumbling from the porous slopes of the moraines, as pieces of this loose stuff break off and tumble into the depths. Fortunately, my path does not lead me underneath, so that I can safely observe this process of transience.

After almost 1,800 meters of ascent and descent, a spontaneously extended tour to the summit of the Pigne d'Arolla comes to an end, the good weather window has been well used and I make my way home in anticipation of the Easter foehn weather conditions.

FineArt prints from this region

Transience
Transience
Again and again, boulders and sandy rocks break out of the sunlit moraine of the Glacier de Tsijiore Nouve and slide down onto the glacier.
TransienceAgain and again, boulders and sandy rocks break out of the sunlit moraine of the Glacier de Tsijiore Nouve and slide down onto the glacier.

About Falko Burghausen

Falko Burghausen
Falko elevates photography to an art form that goes beyond simple illustrations. His artistic vision allows him to capture the soul of the most impressive moments and transform them into timeless images. With an eye for detail and a sense of the beauty of the world, he creates images that evoke emotion and captivate the viewer.
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