Chamonix: Adrenaline Central

Continuing our series profiling the world’s top adventure playgrounds, Sarah Stirling celebrates Chamonix, the world Capital of mountain sports.

“So, you want to do some acrobatics?” Baptiste suggested. I was dangling under flimsy red fabric, thousands of metres high. My tandem paragliding pilot just happened to be France’s reigning Champion of Solo Acrobatic Paragliding, as well as a high mountain guide, pro rider on the speed riding competition circuit and ski instructor. Watching my sun-tanned pins dangle over peaks, eagles and glaciers, I reflected that you often find this kind of super- qualified hero guiding in Chamonix.

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OE Mag: Adrenalin Central Chamonix

On previous visits here, I’d learnt to wield an axe and climb chandeliers of ice under the wing of top mountain guide goddess, Isabelle Santoire. I’d picked up climbing tips from former James Bond stunt double turned mountain guide, John Falkiner, and taken a ski mountaineering and avalanche safety skills course. In summer I’d hiked the peaks and in winter I’d snow shoed and cross country skied the valleys. Once I’d crammed much of the celebrated 7- day ski tour, the Haute Route, into a long weekend with ‘Alpine Princess’ mountain guide, Zoe Hart.

Chamonix is home to the oldest, largest and most prestigious mountain guide company in the world: La Compagnie des Guides, established in 1821 and based since that time in an old building in the bustling Place de l’Eglise. Over the centuries, Chamonix has evolved into an exaggerated caricature of a mountain town. The small (10,000) population comprises a high percentage of the world’s crème de la crème of mountain heroes and guides from all over the world. After pilgrimages to the World Capital of Mountain Sports, they’ve made it their spiritual home.

They live and work amongst exaggerated, super-size scenery, too: hulking masses of rock, snow and ice, including Mont Blanc (4807m), Europe’s highest mountain tower. Then there are the glaciers, including France’s longest, the Mer de Glace and the Vallee Blanche, one of the world’s longest and most famous glacier off-piste ski runs. The super fit compete in the annual mountain marathon, completing a 170km circuit of the Mont Blanc massif in under 24 hours. It takes mere mortals around a week to walk this classic long-distance route.

It’s hard to imagine that before 1741 Chamonix was a community of farmers gathering a small living from oats and rye, unaware of the cash-in value of the landscape they grew up with. After two Englishmen, Pococke and Windham, wrote about their adventures here, Chamonix hit headlines across Europe and evolved into the first, and still arguably the best, alpine ‘resort’. Nowadays there’s a small town feel but a cosmopolitan vibe. A friendly clashing of accents and cultures on the slopes and in the bars. Everyone knows everyone, and if they don’t they’ve got a love of mountains in common.

By night, Chamonix has one of the liveliest and most diverse après ski scenes in the Alps. A favourite spot is the MBC brew pub. The local band, Gary Bigham and the Crevassholes, have a jam night on Fridays. The lead singer of the most legendary band in the Alps is something of a character. Last time I was there, there was a buzzing atmosphere and lots of dancing. Legendary pioneer of extreme skiing, the multi-coloured-mowhawked Glen Plake and his glamorous wife, had pulled up chairs right in front of centre-stage. Perched there exchanging pleasantries with well-wishers, they looked like royalty.

So, here I was again in Chamonix, feeling safe enough to try something beyond my skills in the hands of another top mountain guide. “Did I want to do some loop the loop?” Baptiste repeated. OK! With him calmly telling me which line to pull, and where to lean, we spiralled rapidly down towards the landing meadow. oe

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