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Staying Alive in the Death Sport Capital of the World

“The sign reads, ‘World Capital of Skiing and Alpinism.’ I call it the ‘Death Sport Capital of the World.’” – Mark Twight

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“The sign reads, ‘World Capital of Skiing and Alpinism.’ I call it the ‘Death Sport Capital of the World.’”

– Mark Twight, Kiss or Kill

Climbers descend a ridge into Vallée Blanche from the upper Aiguille du Midi cable car station.Mount Blanc, Frendo Spur, Petit Dru, Les Jeurs, Les Courtes, Aiguille du Midi, Aiguille Verte, Aiguille du Géant, La Dent du Géant, Col du Géant, Glacier du Géant, Glacier d’Argentiere, Glacier M’Fréty, Grandes Jorasses, Valleé Blanche, Val des Dix.

These are the names that inscribed the gravestones of Le Cimetière du Biolay in Chamonix, France—the names of mountains, of spires, of glaciers, often followed by Mort en Montagne, Disparu, Fell Together.

I walk past Edward Whymper’s grave, “Author-Explorer-Mountaineer,born in London, died in Chamonix. Green lichen adorns the top of his rough-hewn stone, a mini mountain rising above a bed of purple and white pansies, yellow daffodils and bulbs that haven’t bloomed.

A few plots down lies Lionel Terray, 1921-1965, and his wife Marianne, 1912-2007, sharing their own rough-cut, lichen-covered rock. There are no cookie-cutter headstones here, no towering, polished obelisks. I see a grave with a pair of bronze skis, one with Tibetan prayer flags, an ice axe resting against another.

At the end of the row, I find a monument to the guides: A la Mémoire des Guides Morts en Montagne—three granite blocks with three bronze plaques, dating from Pierre Carrier on Mount Blanc, 1820, to Philippe Chillet on l’Abaron, 2014. A total of 84 names. The third plaque is unfinished.

Cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi.Chamonix is at the center of the ultimate alpine playground. The mountain accessibility is unmatched—it’s beauty, draw and danger. Cable cars whisk you away from the shorts and sandals of Cham to a world of rock and ice. The Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi has a near 10,000-foot gain in altitude in a 20-minute ride.

Happy hour is in full swing when I wander back the l’Aiguille du Midi base-station. It’s day two of the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy and everyone is excited to share what they learned in the mountains.

I find a friend nursing a tall Kir. He lifts his shades, revealing reverse raccoon eyes in contrast to his sunburned face. “How was your day man?” he asks.

“It was good,” I say. “We came down early though because the weather report called for afternoon electrical storms.”

“We had a pretty short day too. It’s so nice though to just jump on the cable car and be back in town.

“Like yesterday, I went to solo this long alpine route but backed down after the first few hundred meters because the snow conditions were bad. I rode the cable car to the top and climbed a different route, and was still back in town by lunch!

“Pretty crazy. Only in Chamonix.”

Chamonix. Here, it’s easy to forget the seriousness of the mountains. It’s easy to become complacent and to adopt a lax attitude, to be sucked into the casual ambience.

The author, climbing into the storm (and to the cable car station), Mount Blanc Massif. Photo: Sam Pastuer.

There are so many factors beyond our control in the mountains, from weather to snow pack to rockfall and icefall. But what we do have power over is preparation—having the physical fitness, the skills and technique. Knowing when to back down—and having the fortitude to do so. And the best way to learn is to climb with the best. Clinics, like those offered at the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy and similar events, are invaluable opportunities for new climbers and veteran alike. Preparation, along with gumption and a bit of luck, will keep you climbing for years to come.

The mountains mean nothing unless you return.