….. aka an alpine kick up the arse ..
The Arc’teryx Alpine Academy is described by Arcteryx thus:
Welcome to four days of education, inspiration and connection with a community of like-minded mountain enthusiasts. This is the one-of-a-kind opportunity to take your mountain experience to the next level with top-notch clinics led by world-class athletes and certified guides. Join us and immerse yourself in a full blown mountain culture festival with concerts, world premieres and free activities for everyone. Check out the offer of more than 80 different clinics for all skill levels, fitness, and for all budgets, across mountaineering, climbing, hiking, trail running, and many more. Highlights include priceless experiences such as Climb & Portaledge Night, Reach Your Best Rock Climbing Level, Vallée Blanche Glacier Tour, Trail Running Best of Tour du Mont-Blanc, and Photography in the Vertical Environment. The wide selection of clinics will also be supported by IFMGA mountain guides and world-class athletes such as Will Gadd, Jonathan Siegriest, Johanna Åstrom, Ines Papert, Martin Kern, Max Kroneck, Nina Caprez, Hamish McArthur, Jordan Cannon, and Luka Lindič, and many more.
I’d had my eye on the Academy for a few years but work and life had got in the way. And then I booked it. And then I cancelled my booking (work pressure). And then I thought sod it and booked it anyway.
It was a sort of 50th birthday gift to myself. I used to climb in the Alps quite a bit up until maybe 15 years ago. This was a kick up the arse to get back in to it.
There was also a bit of me (and i explained this to some trail runners on the way home) that thought there must be a catch. How is one of the foremost equipment brands offering clinics in the Alps that anyone can apply for (as long as you meet the ability criteria).
Anyway, i booked what i thought was 7 days of clinics …. but had double booked myself on the Saturday … then i started to pack
And whilst packing i managed to put a hole in my head with the garage door …
I used Easy-Jet from Manchester to Geneva. Stood in a ‘non-EU arrivals’ queue for 90 mins …
and then used the excellent Mountain Dropoffs to get to my little AirB&B apartment in Chamonix Sud.
A quick unpack
and orientation walk and it was time to go to the Chamex office for a briefing.
As i presumed my alpine skills to be faded i booked the 4 day ‘intro to alpine mountaineering’ clinic to begin with. This precedes the main Academy weekend and seems to be less well known about.
I met the other 17 participants of this clinic and the guides, and itineraries were discussed and equipment issued where necessary. The Chamex office is underneath the Aiguille du Midi Telepherique … and sitting there for the briefing, with the sun belting down, and the Aiguilles soaring above was quite imposing.
I also managed a quick chat with Sebastien Rougegre – the owner and director of Chamex. Chamex organise all of the guiding and instruction at the academy – no mean feat – there were about 450 participants this year from 30+ nations. Some feat of organising for anyone …… but Seb was doing all of this under the weight of a recent tragic bereavement. I grew to have a great deal of respect for him during my visit.
Day one was climbing (single and multi pitch and abseils and problem solving) at Les Gaillands crag. It was swelteringly hot. we wore mountaineering boots just to up the fun level !!
… our two guides for these 4 days turned out to be rather talented too !! IFMGA guides and Arcteryx ambassadors Benjamin Ribeyre and Fred Degoulet. The learning-through-osmosis of being around people who guide in the high alpine 300+ days a year is profound.
For the first 4 days of the Academy we 18 participants were the only folks there so the renowned ‘Village’ hadn’t been built yet.
We went towards the Mer de Glace, but rather then walking all the way to the (rapidly shrinking) glacier, we walked to the ‘old tunnels’ and did various skills stations on movement, crampon and axe ability.
Benji described the tunnels as ‘Disneyland for adults’. I spent some time with him in deep discussion about the irony of people (including me !!) flying here to mountaineer and by doing so directly contributing to – for example – the disappearance of the glacier that we had come to climb on.
… the arrival of a French TV camera crew led to all sorts of filming shenanigans.
After the train back down from Montenvers to Chamonix we had a briefing at Chamex to split us in to groups by ability for the next 2 days in the high alpine.
An early start for one of the first cabins (aka ‘bins’) up the Aiguille du Midi. A point here was that Chamex / Arcteryx paid for the uplift and hut fees for the next 2 days – a very generous gesture.
It was probably 15 yrs since i was up here. Memories came back as i stood in the cold of the alpinists tunnel donning my gear before stepping out on to the exposed ramp down to the top of the Vallee Blanche.
the day was spent on glacier travel, skills, and a traverse of the Arete a Laurence to the Refuge Cosmiques – our home for the night.
Not going to go in to the ‘fine detail’ here but there is a water issue at this refuge and this, exacerbated by the popularity of the hut for one of the routes on Mont Blanc – made for an unhygienic stay. Tipping buckets of human waste on to the flanks of the Aiguilles du Midi in the year 2023 is reprehensible.
I struggled with the altitude in the night and on the 4th day. A traverse of the Cosmiques Arete followed before descent back down as the afternoon weather got quite feisty.
The ‘Alpine Village’ was opened at 4pm on the Thursday.
A community. The opening ceremony of the main weekend of the Academy with words from many people associated with the brand, the town of Chamonix, Chamex and the guiding community hereabouts.
Then we were all silenced by the arrival on stage of a small boy in a wheelchair. Marin Lagesse was climbing on the Midi Plan several weeks ago with his father Yves, when his father was killed in an accident. He spoke of his deep love for his father and also of his fathers love for the mountains and the sea. Yves had been a pillar in the guiding community, in Chamex and in the Arcteryx Academy for many many years. In the middle of the words by Marin there was an enormous roar of thunder close overhead and the rains fell and the eyes of many of the guides and visitors in the crowd were wet with tears.
The curtains of rain were a hint to the impact that the weather would have on Day 1 (my day 5) of the Academy – most clinics had to be cancelled.
Rain stopped Academy play
A schlep up the ‘vertical kilometre’ path to Planpraz and then via the telepherique du Brevent to a small patch of rain lashed snow at 2525m, a luke warm instant coffee from a shed and a view out to about 15 metres. Then back down the quick way. That was my Friday.
Every morning (of the main Academy) you gather in the ‘Village’ and look for the sign advertising your meeting point and meet your fellow participants and your guides … Où iras-tu aujourd’hui et que feras-tu ? // Where will you go today and what will you do ?
This was a really good day. Dr Anne-Marie Magnan works in the altitude and cold injuries department in Geneva Hospital. Along with one of her senior nurses and Yves a senior IFMGA guide they imparted their deep knowledge of altitude and cold injuries.
My trip up to 3777m on the telepherique and then down to 1200m in the Gamow Bag (used for treating altitude sickness) then back to 3777m then on down to the Vallee Blanche properly confused my heart rate, my O2 sats and my Suunto (my altimeter had had me at 6000m )
Some shelter work and improvised evacuation stuff as well in addition to current thinking and deep experience in the afternoon …
Oh and a marmot came to view proceedings …
Then back down to the Arcteryx Village for free beers …
‘Level 3 Mountaineering’ day which was sort of a revision / practise / Q&A of the previous 6 days …
…. and that concluded 6 days of clinics in 7 days.
Other notes and info
The Partners for the event included Gore-tex, Recco, C.A.M.P, Scarpa, Samaya, Compagnie des Guides Chamonix and Fixe. There was a gear library in the village where you could take equipment from these brands and use it in the mountains – for free.
A big doff of the cap to the BD Alpenglow Pro Hoody – easily the best sun protection garment i’ve ever worn. The hood fits over a helmet. Game changer for me and my easy-burn skin.
Like many folks i spent a few evenings in Big Mountain Bar enjoying their 1.2%alc Micro Beer and their food – great vibe
One of the weird things about the event is that there is nowhere at the Academy to buy Arcteryx gear. I found this odd …. but it reinforces that the brand is more about the event than the sales in this case. It was interesting to chat to the guides about which items they used at the ‘sharp end’.
Despite the temptations of every second shop in Chamonix being a gear goldmine i managed to avoid buying anything other than a replacement BD ATC guide belay device as i had left my other 3 at home !!
I shared a baguette with an Alpine Chough one day … a remarkable bird which will eat from your hand if you’re patient … beware those talons though !!
Une Belle Trace
July 2022. Two high mountain guides, Frédéric Dégoulet and Benjamin Ribeyre embark on a journey around the Mer de Glace through the most mythical peaks of the Mont-Blanc massif.
This obvious line on the map was still unprecedented, although located in one of the busiest massifs in the world. After an aborted attempt in 2021, the trip turns for the duo into a race against time and temperature, while the heat wave is raging across the Alps. // I had the great privilige to be guided and entertained by Fred and Benji this last week at the @arcteryxacademy . They’re a little bit good. Fred won the 2018 Piolet d’ Or as part of a 3 person French team on the South face of Nuptse Nup II (2,200m, WI6 M5+, 8-days, alpine style) in Nepal.
I don’t think guiding me tested either of them too much !!
‘Une Belle Trace’ should be available to stream once the mountain film festival circuit is finished.
The Academy reinvigorated my passion for the high alpine. I found some of the time up there hard work (research needed as to why !). I met some great people and had some great days in the mountains.
I’ll definitely go back next year …