This weekend saw the third Arc'teryx Alpine Academy take place right here in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, giving people the chance to learn, build on and practice their mountaineering skills with some of Europe's top mountain guides and athletes.
Having taken part in the Academy last year I was keen to sign up again, along with some 400 other participants from over 20 countries across the globe, and take the step towards the next level of my education. With a huge range of clinics to choose from, including crevasse rescue, ice climbing and mountain first aid, I decided to carry on from where I left off in June 2013 - having completed Introduction to Mountaineering level one, I got ready to tackle Technical Mountaineering Education level 2.
British Mountain Guides teamed up with Compagnies de Guides de Chamonix and international Arc'teryx athletes to mentor and lead the various clinics over the weekend which added up to an astounding 180 guide days over the course of the three day summit. With official partners Petzl, Scarpa, Gore-tex and Hilleberg Tents on site at the Aiguille du Midi base station there was plenty of opportunity for participants to sample and demo the necessary mountaineering equipment, as well as the technical clothing range from Arc'teryx. The first lesson you learn when going into the high mountains is that you need to be prepared and your equipment is a huge part of that so I was very glad to be able to borrow an ice axe and brand new Petzl helmet before I headed up the Midi lift with my group.
Andy Perkins, British Mountain Guide based in Chamonix, was our guide for the day and brought a wealth of experience not only from the guiding world but also from a lifetime spent enjoying and learning in the mountains. It was his job to lead myself and 4 others across the glacier towards Pointe Lachenal in order for us to consolidate the various mountaineering and rope techniques needed to complete a traverse of the Lachenal ridge.
Being the only female in the group I was nervous to say the least, not only about my abilities but also my fitness! As it turned out both were fine...until the return journey that is, back up to the Aiguille du Midi, but more about that later. The day began with rope techniques and a refresher on how to walk together safely on a glacier; then, roped up in 2 groups of 3, we took off across the Mer de Glace towards Pointe Lachenal. Passing some huge crevasses on the way makes you acutely aware of what dangers lie in the terrain underfoot. On reaching the bottom of the Lachenal ridge we moved closer together on our ropes to begin the steep ascent. I was asked to lead at this point which meant not only selecting the route up but also breaking trail through the snow and ice for others to follow, a tiring and demanding job which definitely tested my physical and mental skills.
Our guide, Andy, then led most of the traverse which included some technical mixed climbing, on both snow and rock, some scrambling and a bit of down climbing on some steep ice faces. As a group we worked well together and managed to negotiate the traverse relatively easily and were rewarded with a really fun abseil off the ridge to get us quickly back down to the Mer de Glace before an approaching storm headed over towards us. The return journey became more urgent as the storm closed in and the once blue skies were now dark grey, with rumbles of thunder and low visibility.
On the climb back up to the Midi arete and cable car station I started to feel the effects of the altitude and also probably dehydration and I found myself not only slowing down in pace but also feeling quite sick and light headed. Andy was particularly patient with me during this journey, even though we were under pressure to reach the station before the threatening storm became worse. On the climb we passed several other people who were struggling with altitude and exhaustion and I was impressed to see how quickly the guides reacted in these situations to work together, relay information between each other and the Aiguille du Midi staff and make sure the participants were moved to safety as efficiently as possible.
I am happy to say that our group reached the station in safety and then descended by cable car - instantly making me feel better!
I finished off my day with a celebratory beer at the Alpine Movie Night at the Midi base station on Saturday evening where over 600 people crammed in to watch the latest short films by some of the top mountaineering athletes, including Tanja Schmitt, Luka Lindic and David Lamas.
The Arc'teryx Alpine Academy will be back in Chamonix in 2015, so watch this space for details of event and registration dates. Demand for the clinics is high with many selling out within the first hour of registration opening so make sure once the registration dates are released you have them in your diary.
Many thanks to Arc'teyx for a fantastic weekend and to all the guides who took part.
Location: Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley