The tended line of a skier’s life

Bruno Compagnet draws inspiration from a Chamonix start-of-season classic to explore a guide’s profession. Lots of navigation in the high mountains for a few powder turns, love is not to be counted in numbers.

An experience between man and mountain…

Strong personalities, hardened characters are the words that spring to mind when describing Stéphane, Julien and François…But then there’s individuality and originality since it’s difficult to categorize them or discern any kind of mold they might come from, which makes them all the more captivating in such a standardized world.

Any skier who has conquered steep slopes, even on just one occasion, cannot deny: skiing evokes really strong feelings of freedom and fleeting pleasure. It liberates and alienates in equal measure. It’s highly personal and addictive. For me, a ski descent is neither a sport nor an art but a microcosm of life with a beginning, middle and end. Since a while back now, couloirs like the Cosmiques, the Glacier Rond or the West couloir have been really popular. When the conditions are good you can count dozens of skiers waiting their turn to ski, with or without style, these classics that, while trivialized, still count as extreme skiing. Things change when the mountain become a bit more hostile and that’s when tranquility reigns once again.

Amongst the “guardians of the temple”, some are guides taking their clients. As many amongst them are friends of mine, I am sometimes fortunate enough to join up with them. This represents a chance for me to see a different aspect of our passion where it’s not just about going out skiing with your buddies but to bring and (especially) to bring back clients. Depending on the conditions, these days of guided skiing alternate between wonderful descents in fresh snow and high octane adventure skiing. Guides have to call on all of their experience to reassure their clients who, although an excellent skiers by obligation, would be stumped if they had to face all the intricacies of such an itinerary alone.

Sunday stroll

I went through the turnstile at the Aiguille du Midi with a ham sandwich in my mouth, a takeaway coffee in one hand, skis and poles in the other to join Julien, Stéphane, Sergey and Sergey junior as well as Rob who I had met the night before in the bar in town. As for Layla, she’s still pretty quiet, just having leaped out of bed a half an hour before.

A good sub-twenty people were on the unequipped arête. Sometimes it’s so nice to find yourself up there alone that you forget about skiing. The wind savagely battered us, propelling clouds of fresh snow into the sky. We finally enter into winter and for once, I’m aroused not because of Layla.

In skiing, as in the Jacques Brel song, it’s a waltz in three-quarter time that gives you time…One to get there, two to check the conditions, three to make the decision and, on with the music. Hanging like a sausage, I try to keep my balance on the slippery rocks as Casa reels me to the rhythm of untangling his 60 meters. We cut a little platform then Fanfan sends me the whole band of merry men. We attack a pocket of soft snow. It’s really nice, probably the best turns of the start of winter but it’s also really dry so the sharks are on the prowl…Then followed a little delicate passage between the rocks before opening up but after that there’s no more snow. It’s the best skiing of the descent. Then the reality of joining the glacier hits. Welcome to the three dimensional labyrinth of Les Bossons! We have to tread lightly in this minefield but the snow is still nice. Fanfan rolls himself a cigarette as we adjust our crampons. The sun has been gone for some time now. The final moraine costs us dearly in time and energy. Finally we get to the mid station at Plan de l’Aiguille…only to find out that the last bin has just left.

Returning to Chamonix through the forest under the moonlight accompanied by Julien’s singing remains one of the most memorable moments of winter so far…

Bruno, January 9th 2017

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