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.