I’m a hillwalker, not a mountaineer, I thought to myself as I stood in the dark tunnel staring out into the light. Below I could see the arête, a white knife edge at around 3,800m with the narrowest of paths trodden along it. On its left, there was a drop that would take me back down through the thick cloud to Chamonix in an instant, and on its right, a similarly threatening situation. I’d naively agreed to lead at the front end of the rope with nine other people attached to it behind me. I wished I hadn’t said yes, I wished I had spent more time looking into what the ‘Glacier Walk’ clinic would involve when I booked onto it, and I also wished I hadn’t given myself a slight hangover from the party the night before.
Learning the Ropes
A day and a half earlier, I’d arrived in Chamonix for my first taste of alpine mountaineering on the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy. The event, held every year, provides an opportunity for mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts of all levels to get together for field lessons from some of the world’s top mountain guides and athletes. There’s glacier walking, climbing, trail running and clinics in survival, altitude training, navigation and more. Then to top it off, the evenings are filled with live music, films and talks at the lively Academy ‘Basecamp’ right in the centre of the town.
On Day One at the Academy, I’d been out on the Level 1 Mountaineering class. For this we explored the Mer de Glace over the course of a beautiful blue day in the Alps that set the glacier shimmering. One of our guides was Arc’teryx’s Paul McSorley, an alpinist from the Canadian Rockies with a number of first ascents to his name. For someone used to long expeditions on big walls, usually with one other climbing partner, he had remarkable patience for our group of beginners trying to put on their harnesses backwards. But he got us all up to speed quickly, teaching us rope, ice axe and crampon techniques until we were familiar enough to each try our hand at climbing our way up an ice wall.
“What course are you doing tomorrow?" I remember Paul asking me. “The glacier walk, so that should be fairly chilled out," I said. “I’ll see you at the party for a few drinks tonight, right?"
In the Shadow of Mont Blanc
15 hours later, I was roped up, leading a group out from the tunnel at 3,800 metres down onto the famous Aiguille du Midi arête with a slight hangover, but one that I’d quickly forget about.
I shuffled along steadily, with my knees almost locked, down onto the powdery ridge as the group behind me followed silently. Ahead, I knew there was a glorious view of the Alps, but I kept my eyes firmly to the metre-wide path. Eventually my focus distracted me from the slight sense of dread and my step eased up a little as the rest of the group also adjusted to the scenario. We were soon off the ridge and down onto the glacier, all giddy from the adrenaline kick and thin air.
Our guide was one of those grizzled old school alpine climbers with wind worn eyes behind his glacier glasses. He seemed to know every other guide we passed on the mountain well enough to throw, in his French tongue, what would sound like an insult at them.
He took us across the wide, snow-covered glacier that sat like a lake across the Col du Midi, all the while making sure we all kept in line and clipped in, and pointing out areas where he knew the threat of crevasses lay below. When we paused for a break, Mont Blanc appeared through the clouds right in front of us and, with his ice axe he drew a line in the distance that would lead climbers to its summit. He also showed us the routes he had taken himself over his many years in these mountains. At this point, two ski mountaineers began climbing a sharply angled slope and he despaired at their foolishness to make such an ascent at a time of day when the snow had begun to loosen and pose an avalanche threat.
Arc'teryx Alpine Academy: Mountains into Molehills
The group I was with was made up of a number of different European nationalities, including Polish, French, Germans and Swedes. Like me, they had all come for their first taste of alpine mountaineering, and from what I gathered, they had come specifically to the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy because they knew it would give them the chance to gain experience with some of the best guides around, and at a subsidised price.
It was certainly noticeable how amazingly accessible the Arc’teryx Academy makes gaining experience and lessons in mountaineering. It’s like a pay-to-play situation for a pursuit that, it’s fair to say, tends to be a logistically difficult and costly one to participate in. You can even borrow certain items of kit there if you don’t have it (for no fee). I got my crampons, ice axe and helmet all from the Petzl stand, and when my guide tutted at the thickness of my gloves I had brought with me, I was able to nip over to grab a pair of winter gloves from the Arc’teryx stand, and an extra layer of insulation just because I could.
After exploring more of the playground above the clouds on the Aiguille du Midi and practising more mountaineering techniques, the light began to retreat from the valleys below us and we made our way back down to Chamonix, eventually arriving there with the dozens of other groups from the Academy in a flood of brightly coloured mountain clothing. Just in time for Happy Hour.
The clinics I had chosen gave me a beginner’s taste of mountaineering at the Academy, but that’s not to say it isn’t for those who’ve seen a thing or two. More technical clinics include ski alpinism, splitboarding, training in high altitude medicine and even big wall climbing – I think I’ll need to take a few more trips to the Academy before I try that one though.
Read about the author's final day, on the mountain running clinic here. Tickets for the 2018 Arc’teryx Alpine Academy go on sale around March. Keep an eye on our social channels where we'll be announcing the official on-sale date.