L'Esprit de Chamonix

In the Mountains' Embrace
  |  Gorp.com
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The next day we pushed our luck. The money we saved on the do-it-yourself Vallie Blanche trip we decided to spend on a real backcountry adventure. So we hired Didi. Didi, a certified French guide, is the quintessential Chamonix local. A friend of mine who'd spent several winters in France suggested I look him up. He was 27 years old and had a baked-in mountain tan, an incorrigible mop of hair, and an insatiable adventure addiction. His ego could fill a blimp. He drives the streets of Chamonix as if he's training for Indy. His real name is Andri Rhem, but everyone calls him by his nickname. The first time Didi snowboarded, eight years ago, he broke his back. He's since completed dozens of first descents. Now he has plans to surf off the summit of Mount Everest.

We caught the first tram of the morning up to La Flighre, then dropped off the gently sloped backside, away from all the resort skiers, and removed our snowboards at the bottom of a large elliptical cirque. We attached pink plastic snowshoes to our feet and began a long slog up one side of the cirque, toward a distant ridge. As we approached the ridge and my view sharpened, the topmost part appeared to grow more and more vertical. Then I realized that it was vertical. We were penned in by a 50-foot wall of rock and ice.

Didi didn't pause. He removed a rope from his pack, tied it around his waist, then scampered casually to the top of the cliff. Anne and I tied into the other end and worked our way slowly up. The rock was wet from snowmelt and my snowboard boots had terrible traction. This was not a good place to fall: It was possible that a tumble could drag all three of us over the sharp rocks. We made it to the top, panting from nervousness, and lunched on the thin ledge. Then we spent the afternoon riding down the far side, all alone, descending from open glaciers to steep gullies to shady pine forests, until we reached snowline at a small village and hitchhiked our way back home.

By this point, l'esprit de Chamonix was in our blood. So of course we risked more — we needed to. We resolved to finish our trip with a leap of faith. Each afternoon as we made our way home from the hills, we watched as the skies over Chamonix filled with paraponters. And each afternoon we became more envious of the fliers. (Several months of the year not even paraponts are allowed to fly, to make room for the rescue choppers.) Finally, we made arrangements with a local instructor, Franck Chapon, to take us on a tandem flight.

Franck was straight out of the Didi mold. He picked us up in his car and raced up to the launching area at road-rally speed. As he drove, he unbuttoned his shirt and showed me the scar zippering diagonally across his chest. He pointed out his tracheotomy wound, and the mass of dead tissue on the end of his nose. He told the story of his speed-skiing career, and his crash. Then, one at a time, we strapped ourselves to this man and launched into flight.

Anne went first, and I picked them up a half hour later at the landing zone, 3,000 feet below take-off. Then we drove up again and it was my turn. Franck and I ran down the gravel launch slope, straining against the blue-and-mauve canopy, and ran right over the edge and into the void. We were aloft. The ride was quiet and soothing. From above, the villages of the Chamonix Valley seemed perfectly calm, simple clusters of red-roofed houses. I admired a dozen different waterfalls. Birds sang. Even the mountains, from our perspective, lost their fierce edge. They were bound to the earth; we were unfettered. I could see the spread of the Alps and the roll of the land, far below my dangling feet. I could blot out an entire mountain with the heel of my boot. It was a comic view, and it made the precipices and the crevasses and the saw-blade ridges seem smaller, almost friendly. And soon enough, sooner than I wanted, Franck and I spiraled gently downward and landed softly in the mountains' embrace.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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