In 1989, back when Arc’teryx was still called Rock Solid, the company’s first line of products was climbing gear. So, staying true to their roots, it’s no surprise that this very likeable brand from Vancouver still produce some of the best equipment and clothing in the alpinism and climbing markets.
Of course in recent years Arc’teryx have made their mark not just in mountain sports. With their 24 Collection and the separate Arc’teryx Veilance and Arc’teryx Leaf collections, they have also taken an unusual path into the areas of spartan outdoor lifestyle and law enforcement, proving, especially in the case of Veilance, the importance of design and a particular aesthetic, which is then mirrored in the classic outdoor collections.
But Arc’teryx’ passion for the mountains never cooled so it was almost a logical step five years ago when the company opened the first Arc’teryx Alpine Academy precisely to share this passion by offering outdoor enthusiasts a variety of clinics and workshops on every aspect of mountain sports, and at affordable prices.
The location: the legendary city of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in the French Alps, which has, since the Winter Olympics of 1924, been the centre of alpinism. It now serves with its perfect geographical location as Alpine Academy’s playground.
The number of places at the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy 2016 is limited so I was very happy to have been able to participate. Anyone looking at the clinics available is completely spoilt for choice; the number of courses offered was enormous. Splitboarding, Overnight Bivy Course, Alpine Photography, Ice Climbing, High Altitude Medicine, Basic Mountaineering Education—I could go on and on. Ideally, I would have loved to have taken every clinic but seeing as they were all intensive courses where the guides take extra time for each topic and for each participant, it was only possible to take one clinic per day. I decided on the Glacier Tour, something that was totally new to me, and the Multi Pitch Rock Climbing clinic, hoping to build on my modest climbing experience.
The Alpine Village is located in the valley of Aiguille de Midi, a small city of tents that Arc’teryx shares with partners of the Alpine Academy. For example, you can go to the Gore-Tex shop and have you Gore-Tex items washed or repaired free of charge, or borrow gear to try out from Petzl and, of course, Arc’teryx. The latter made my participation in the courses a lot easier as the weather turned somewhat unfriendly and rain became our constant companion.
Day 1: Mountain Clean-Up
The first day of the Alpine Academy began with the traditional clean-up of rubbish from the last winter season. Equipped with a lunch ration and a black garbage bag, we took the La Flégère cable car up to the 2000 metre-high slope north of Chamonix and started our clean up. „How much rubbish can there be,“ I thought on the way up, but what we brought back by the end of the day was horrifying. My garbage bag alone was, after 4 hours, so heavy that it was an effort just dragging it back to the meeting point. Cigarette stubs, chewing gum, packaging, plastic bottles, and countless other types of rubbish were picked up by hand and brought back into the valley. I was overcome with sadness looking at all the full bags. How can anyone, especially here in the mountains, treat nature with so little respect?
Still the day had been fun. The amazing views and the fresh mountain air did wonders after the long day of travel to get here, and, in the end, the feeling of having done something good and of having given something back to Mother Nature is itself reward enough.
In the evening there was a small presentation from Arc’teryx showcasing Norvan VT, their first trail-running shoe.
Day 2: Acclimatisation
Because heading up into high altitudes when your body is not used to it is not particularly good for us humans, it is recommended that we take at least a day to acclimatise to the conditions. Naturally, the Alpine Academy in their experience and wisdom offer a trip exactly for this purpose, and so it was that we set out in 7-person groups from Alpine Village to Montenvers, 1900 meters high and with a view of the Mer de Glace glacier. Luckily the rain stayed away that day and the views were, despite some fog, excellent. The others in my group were all very nice and we were able to slip easily into conversation, which made the hike quite entertaining and made for a happy atmosphere. After a short visit to an ice cave carved into the Mer de Glace glacier, we took the famous red Montenvers railway back to the valley.
Day 3: Glacier Tour of Vallée Blanche
My legs were already a little sore by the morning of the third day but I was pumped as I climbed into the rocking gondola that was taking our 6-man group to the top of the 3,842 meter-high Aiguille du Midi. Unlike the previous two days, the sun was shining and the view of the Vallée Blanche glacier was overwhelming. But there was little time to gape and take photos because I had to put on my crampons and the FL-365 harness that I borrowed from Arc’teryx and take my place in the rope team. The first steps with the crampons were somewhat unusual but I quickly got used to them and was surprised at how firm and stable they were to walk with even on the steep descent over hard snow to the Vallée Blanche. Still I had to really concentrate on where I was going and was embarrassed each time I tripped on my own foot because I was distracted by the breath-taking panorama. The Vallée Blanche, famous for its freeriders, looked like a postcard winter paradise in the sunlight. Here and there were other rope teams like ours and also ski groups. After a half-hour’s march we arrived at a good spot for demonstrating how to rescue a group member from a crevasse. Our guide was both friendly and experienced and made the exercise not only entertaining but extremely informative. Being one of the most important things to know when hiking a glacier, we repeated the procedure until each and every one of us had mastered it.
As is typical for mountain weather, the blinding sunshine now turned into a small snowstorm. It felt quite adventurous in such a setting, but also somewhat dangerous, so we started heading back. Despite being a climb all the way, our slow but steady tempo made the journey not as strenuous as I had feared.
The day was rounded out with the official Academy Dinner in the Alpine Village where we had the opportunity to catch up with the people we’d met over the last couple of days over a delicious BBQ. It was a nice atmosphere despite the rain returning. Another good reason to squeeze up and enjoy a cosy movie night. Various films of famous sportspeople were beamed onto the big screen including clips of the climber Ines Papert.
Day 4: Multi-Pitch Rock Climbing
I have to confess that I skipped a few experience levels when I picked the Multi-Pitch course, so I was nervously excited to see what was in store for me. Luckily our tanned and charismatic Patagonian guide quickly put a check on my worries. „No problem,“ he told me, instantly putting my concerns to rest. And it really was „no problem“ in the end for me, who was only used to indoor climbing, to learn to climb using the multi-pitch techniques.
I remember looking down proudly after a particular pitch into the valley below where it was again raining. It was also a good opportunity to really assess the FL-365 harness from Arc’teryx that I had borrowed the day before and I was impressed by the softness and comfort of the material. It had definitely been worth it to leave my old climbing harness at home.
After a short break we learnt some more about equipment and also some further climbing techniques. I love the feeling of having learnt something useful, something that takes me forward, and it also strengthened my resolve to further expand on my climbing experience in the future.
On the way back to the airport, looking across at the passing mountains, I suddenly fell into a heavy melancholy. The time at the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy had been too good, I could have easily stayed another week and taken more clinics. I had met people who I hope to keep in touch with, and Chamonix did not lack in charm, despite its popularity with tourists. I comforted myself with the thought that I would be back. Why not, Alpine Academy 2017 is just around the corner! Right now, looking out my office window at the grey city, I can think of nothing better.