From the beginning of mountain tourism, terror and delight have gone hand in hand. On June 22 1741, Richard Pococke and William Windham clambered up the mountainside above the French town of Chamonix to see a glacier.
The climb was perilous – they scrambled over avalanche debris, the ground gave way beneath their feet, and they had to dig staffs into the earth to stop themselves sliding over the precipice below. But, after nearly five hours, the young Britons had an unforgettable reward, an “extraordinary” view over the snows and sparkling ice caves of the Mer de Glace. In a letter to a friend, Windham spoke of sheer drops “terrible enough to make most people’s heads turn”, of bottomless crevasses, ice blocks “as big as houses”, and of witches who came to dance and “play their pranks” on the ice.
That letter, and its evocation of a landscape that was thrilling and threatening in equal measure, helped change our relationship with the mountains for ever. When published in London, it sparked a fascination with the Alps and made them an essential stop on the Grand Tour. Soon, artists and poets, including Byron, Wordsworth and Goethe, were flocking to Chamonix. Mary Shelley was so impressed by the Mer de Glace she used it as the “awful and majestic” location where Frankenstein meets his monster. Her husband Percy described the edge of the Bossons glacier as “the most vivid image of desolation that it is possible to conceive”. In his poem “Mont Blanc”, he looked up past the glaciers, creeping “like snakes that watch their prey”, to their source in the high peaks, a “city of death, distinct with many a tower, and wall impregnable of beaming ice”.
It is in this city of death, high above the Bossons glacier, that I find myself, preparing to ski the longest and steepest run of my life. I have abseiled through a band of rocks close to the summit of the 3,842m Aiguille du Midi, and on a snowy ledge must put on my skis. Below, a narrow strip of snow, the “Cosmiques couloir”, falls away for hundreds of metres, bordered on both sides by jagged rocks. My head swims as I bend over to clear ice from the sole of my boot, momentarily taking me off balance.
“Concentrate please,” says our guide, Rémy Lécluse. “This is a serious place. If you fall here, you will not stop.”
Lécluse, 48, is famous in Chamonix and beyond for his descents of slopes so steep and narrow they are normally the preserve of climbers using ropes and ice axes to inch their way in the opposite direction. On these slopes, any fall would be fatal. “People think I’m a nutter,” he admits.
With 64 first descents to his name in the Alps, Andes, Himalayas, and Atlas mountains, Lécluse is one of the world’s leading proponents of steep skiing. What really sets him apart, though, is that he is also prepared to lead paying clients on to these precarious slopes. At least three times a year, he stages week-long courses to introduce novices to steep skiing – what must be the world’s most extreme ski school.
The Cosmiques was to be the final test of my course, after a week of instruction and increasingly challenging descents around the Chamonix valley. The first morning’s lesson begins on the Pentes de l’Hôtel, on the Brévent side of the valley. Lécluse refers to this as his “nursery slope”, but it also serves as the venue for the Chamonix leg of the Freeride World Tour, Europe’s most extreme skiing competition, in which competitors leap from the cliffs and speed down the vertiginous faces to the applause of crowds assembled below.
That this is to be the site of our first run on the first day says something about the course, but it soon becomes clear that such showboating antics are anathema to the Lécluse school of skiing. “Don’t ever try to impress anyone this week, OK?” he says sternly. “Leave your ego at home.”
Instead, skiing with Lécluse is all about precision, efficiency and control (“anything else is bullshit!”). We spend the morning like rookie marines, being broken down and rebuilt in Lécluse’s image. I must unlearn years of wild jump turns and move my legs much wider apart. My fellow student, Chris Hall, a 33-year-old nuclear engineer from Newcastle, must calm his upper body movements and learn to keep facing down the fall line. Both of us need to learn to ski far more slowly and to adopt the “double-pole plant”, a technique that brings stability and more contact with the snow, for really steep slopes.
Several techniques come with dark illustrations of their importance. Lécluse tells us about Heini Holzer, whose single pole plant broke through an icy crust on the Piz Roseg, throwing him off balance so he fell to his death. While warning us to check and double-check our bindings before we set off, Lécluse refers to his friend, climber and instructor Jean-Claude Mosca, whose binding released and who slipped to his death while he tried to refit the ski. That was on the Cosmiques couloir.
While there is no doubting the danger of the slopes, we have plenty of time to appreciate the peace and beauty that goes with it – a key by-product of this kind of skiing is that it takes you where few people will follow. On the second day, we climb up over the Col de la Floria and ski into the deserted valley beyond, before descending beside a frozen stream to the hamlet of Le Buet. The following day we drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel and take the cable car up the Italian side of the mountain. My heart is thudding as we drop into the 50 degree Marbrée couloir but an hour later, we are eating pasta and wild boar ragù on a sun-drenched terrace, looking out over the peaks of the Aosta valley as an eagle soars overhead.
Encounters with wildlife are frequent. In a steep couloir on the north-west face of Mont Jovet, we look up to see three black-furred chamois are following us, bounding along a knife-edge ridge then pausing to peer down at the strange interlopers in their domain.
Surrounded by wild, high mountains, Chamonix is the perfect location for a course like this. Thanks to the attention brought by the Romantics, the village developed quickly, getting its first luxury hotel in 1816, a professional mountain guides’ organisation in 1821, and hosting the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Today it is unlike any other ski destination, not a mountain village or chichi holiday resort but a bustling town, capital city of the ski world. Climbing harnesses are de rigueur in the après ski bars; more shops sell technical ice axes than designer clothing; even the café on the main square offers “extreme sandwiches” (half a baguette long).
At Chalet Les Pelerins, where the course is based, the decor is chic and Scandinavian but, beside the white orchids and freshly baked cakes, the coffee table is covered with maps and books on off-piste skiing rather than style magazines. In the wood-fired hot tub in the garden, Chris and I spend our evenings stretching muscles and looking nervously up at the Aiguille du Midi, the dramatic granite spire that dominates the town and is the starting point for our final day’s test.
On the snowy ledge where we put on our skis, I shuffle nervously while Lécluse prepares the ropes. Peeking down into the couloir below, I feel a growing sense of disbelief. We have become so used to being bound up in health and safety regulations, that it’s a shock to have the liberty to really hurt myself. In Canada a month previously, I had to sign a risk-assessment waiver form before having a massage. Here there are no forms, no legislative safety net – my survival is my own responsibility.
Or rather Lécluse’s. Over the week I have grown to trust him so absolutely that when he says I will be safe abseiling from the summit (despite my last attempt being on a school trip 20 years earlier), I happily walk backwards off the cliff.
On the first pitch of the descent the angle of the slope exceeds 50 degrees; in places it is so steep that you can reach straight out at shoulder height and touch the snow. Lécluse attaches a rope to my harness, and tells me it is time. I slowly ski forward, then make my first turn, while Lécluse lets the rope slide around his shoulders. I try to clear my mind. I know I’m technically able to ski slopes of this gradient but, after two or three tentative turns, the silent noise of the situation – the eyes watching me, the seemingly endless slope pulling me down, the consequences of a mistake – grows so loud in my head that I can no longer remember how to turn. I slump sideways against the slope, sliding for several feet before Lécluse brings me to a halt, shaking at the end of the rope.
After that, the gradient begins to ease slightly and we ski unroped, gradually linking our turns and building some rhythm. I am conscious of being scared but also of a building sense of joy that I must suppress lest it destroy my concentration.
Eventually we emerge from the couloir and begin skirting the edge of the Bossons glacier. Lécluse suddenly shouts a warning and we look back to see a huge cloud of snow billowing down the mountain. A serac, or ice cliff, has collapsed high above us, dislodging a huge quantity of snow. We hurry on.
Three hours after leaving the top of the Aiguille, we arrive back in Chamonix, a descent of 2,800m. We fall into a bar and raise a toast to the couloir. At first, I feel drained by the exercise and anxiety, and begin to question the sanity of the day’s endeavours. But then, perhaps helped by the soothing effects of the beer, I realise that the fear is an essential part of the elation, that the doubt goes hand in hand with the delight – the same mix of conflicting emotions that has been fuelling Chamonix for centuries.
Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor
Tom Robbins was a guest of Mountain Tracks (www.mountaintracks.co.uk), Chalet Les Pelerins (www.chalet-in-chamonix.co.uk), and British Airways (www.ba.com). Mountain Tracks’ five-day courses led by Rémy Lécluse cost £895, and private sessions can also be arranged. A week at Chalet Les Pelerins costs from €500, half-board. BA flies from London to Geneva up to 11 times a day, from £96 return. Touring skis, skins and crampons are available to rent from Coquoz Sports (www.mountainshop.com) from €140 for five days