Fortunately, the conditions were on the turn: with every few metres we descended, the wind dropped slightly and the visibility improved. Our guides, released from subsistence skiing, suddenly dropped off the edge of the piste into a vale of untouched snow. There were surprises lurking here and there under the surface, but the occasional jolt underfoot seemed like a price worth paying for finally being let off the leash.
As the lift system gradually reopened, we worked our way towards our destination for the night, the Gandegghütte. After a day of mini adventures including being occasionally thrown off balance by the weight of rucksacks carrying avalanche airbags, shovels, probes and transceivers, as well as our night-time gear — our windswept crew drew up to the mountain refuge, fixed limpet-like on a rock beneath the Breithorn.
Built in 1885, the Gandegg is a relic of pre-developed Zermatt. It now lies within sight of pisted slopes and the cable car but it upholds all the best traditions of the genre. At night, the fug of the dining room was almost overwhelming, a wood fired stove pumping heat to radiators liberally draped with our kit. Andrea, the hut mistress, served up a meal belying the mountaintop setting — a three course feast of broth, macaroni with meat and cheese, then dessert.
For some, the chief flaw of hut living is the shock of the unheated bedroom or bunk dorm. True, the air was bitingly cold as I climbed into bed. Within minutes, however, I was stiflingly hot under the hut’s thick duvets, and flung off clothes to find a better medium.
The next day, the storm had broken glorious skies and sunshine provided perfect conditions for one of the trip’s highlights, a helicopter flight to the Château des Dames, a 3488-metre-high Italian peak, just to the west of Cervinia. After skiing to the landing zone at Plateau Rosa, we crouched low, huddling against the crescendo of noise and blasting snow that signalled the chopper’s arrival. As the guides loaded our gear, we jumped aboard, before a rapid ascent that saw the valley unfold beneath us. It was a sublime (and highly efficient) leg of our journey: within what seemed like seconds, we were disgorging on to a high shoulder of the peak.