Hitting new heights: learn how to be an Alpinist in Chamonix
Aspire to be an alpinist? Head to Chamonix to master mountaineering at the annual Arc'Teryx Alpine Academy.
“Lean back and trust the rope,” says Guillaume, my wavy-haired French alpine guide. I’m reluctantly abseiling over the edge of an icy cliff, somewhere deep within Mer de Glace (‘sea of ice’), France’s longest glacier. I kick the spiky tips of my crampons into the ice wall, as a bitter wind bites through the sunshine. Far below, fast-flowing meltwater cuts a frozen ravine into the glacier; above, on the horizon, the Grandes Jorasses arête, a narrow ridge of rock that separates two valleys, soars with terrifying verticality. Am I a real alpinist now?
I’m in Chamonix, in the shadow of mighty Mont Blanc, for the four-day Arc’teryx Alpine Academy. My goal? To taste what it feels like to be a bona fide alpinist, venturing over glaciers and up rocky peaks in Europe’s grandest mountain range. I have two decades of hill experience, but only as a hiker. I know nothing of ropes and carabiners. Crampons and ice axes are alien to me, and I’m more accustomed to rolling, grassy hills than crevasse-ridden glaciers. But this weekend of horizon-broadening activities should change all of that.
My boots crunch into the snow at the cliff’s base, and Guillaume whoops to congratulate me. His weathered face — battle-scarred from a lifetime of high-mountain exploits — belies a youthful enthusiasm. “Time to ascend now, you’ll be fine,” he shouts, leaving me no time for the fear to crystallise. I jab my crampons into the near-perpendicular ice, wield my axes frantically and nervously climb. Guillaume guides my every move, barking instructions on how to balance my centre of gravity and ensure the ice picks grip securely, and finally I top out onto safe ground. Half-relieved to be alive, half-inspired for more, I pause to take it all in. Maybe a hillwalker can learn to be an alpinist, after all?
The next few days are a similar baptism of fire (or baptism of ice, perhaps?). On the Level 1 mountaineering course, I learn to rope up with a figure-of-eight knot, use the 10-point crampon technique and correctly traverse mixed ice and rock, while scientist Luc Moreau delivers a sobering account of the Alps’ glacial health during the permafrost clinic. My festival companions, Rory and Matt, have equally intrepid endeavours. Rory runs part of the iconic Tour du Mont Blanc trail and Matt spends the night on a portaledge (a dangling cliff-side tent), an experience he describes as “awful sleep but epic adventure”.
Away from the ice, Chamonix is a place of glorious contrasts: one minute you’re running through the hills into town, sweaty and dishevelled; the next you’re sipping melapeño cocktails (rum and chili-spiced melon juice) in swanky Swedish-Asian fusion restaurant Mumma. By day, you’re a regular tourist soaring skyward to 12,605ft on the Aiguille du Midi cable-car; by night, you’re vibing to legendary DJ Gilles Peterson’s set from the Planpraz pop-up stage, 6,565ft above sea level.
The academy crowd — commonly found at the festival village in the Place du Triangle de l’Amitié piazza — is similarly diverse. You’ll meet athletic European Millennials wearing multicoloured sunglasses, grey-haired US retirees with epic adventure tales from their ’70s heydays, and everyone else in between — including eager-to-learn alpine virgins like myself.
The Chamonix Arc’teryx Alpine Academy will take place June-July 2023 (dates TBC in March 2023). From Geneva, transfer to Chamonix with Mountain Drop-offs. Hotel Le Faucigny has doubles from £73 per night, B&B.
Further info: mumma.fr montblancnaturalresort.com chamonix.com
Learn new alpine skills with group tuition from professional mountain guides. Activities include everything from glacier trekking and ice climbing to crevasse rescue and big wall climbing. For beginners the level 1 mountaineering course is a perfect introduction to alpinism, with lessons on how to use crampons and ice axes safely, while intermediates can sign up for more technical pursuits such as multi-pitch climbing and alpine bivvying.
Featuring the very best of adventure filmmaking, including world premieres, the festival’s outdoor cinema is the ideal place to unwind after a long day of glacier trekking or trail running. Located in the town square at Place du Triangle de l’Amitié, under a dramatic skyline of jagged peaks, the atmosphere is relaxed and informal. An outdoor bar serves cold beers and local wines, and rows of deckchairs face the big screen — 2023’s lineup of inspirational films will be announced soon.
‘Do right’ clinics
Give something back to the mountains with these climate change-themed seminars. Help repair erosion, cut back vegetation, renew signs and build stone-pitched stairs with Chamonix valley’s trail maintenance team, or learn from research scientists about how unprecedented glacial melting is changing life in the Alps forever. Or, some gentle action for nature-lovers, take part in a group botanical survey, identifying the flora and fauna of the Mont Blanc massif.
Live music & guest speakers
It might be summer in the Alps, but you can still indulge in some après fun. The festival village hosts daily guest speakers, including talks from the world’s top alpinists, as well as a programme of live music. Last year’s musical highlight (both literally and figuratively) was The Scene concert at Planpraz, 6,562ft above sea level, with high-profile DJs and artists rocking the crowd in front of an eye-watering Mont Blanc panorama.
Three more to try: Alpine outdoor festivals
Ultra-tour du Mont-Blanc, Chamonix, France
UTMB is the world’s most iconic festival of trail running. Elite athletes including four-time champion Kilian Jornet run a mind-boggling 105 miles around Mont Blanc, cheered on by big crowds, while amateurs take on mountain races ranging 10 to 35 miles. 28 August to 3 September 2023.
Verbier E-Bike Festival, Verbier, Switzerland
From gourmet tours to endurance races, this four-day festival is all about the battery-assisted joy of alpine exploration on two wheels. Intrepid riders race 155 miles around Valais canton, while beginners can e-bike on easy downhill tracks before soaking up the cosmopolitan vibes of beautiful Verbier. 10 to 13 August 2023.
Culinary Way of St James, Paznaun, Austria
A tantalising combination of fine dining and alpine scenery is on the menu, as top chefs bring their culinary delights to the mountain huts of Paznaun, one of Austria’s best hiking destinations. Over seven routes, participants trek hut-to-hut each day to be rewarded with a foodie masterpiece every night. July to September, 2023.
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