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The magic of the Alps

Words: Fiona McIntosh | Photos: Shaen Adey

Chamonix Mont Blanc has been the centre of alpine adventure since 8 August 1786 when local mountain guide and crystal collector Jacques Balmat and Doctor Michel Paccard made the first recorded ascent of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Host to the first Winter Olympics in 1924, the alpine village, aka the extreme capital of the world, is still at the sharp end of snow and mountain sports.

Fiona McIntosh joined fellow addicts for the Chamonix Mountain Festival 2014.

Photo credit: Shaen Adey

The snow was bucketing down as we strapped on our crampons and roped up. Francois Lombard, our guide, was soon out of sight, 'lost' in the white-out. We plodded behind him in single file, our only orientation the rope that bound us together. Not the best night for a sleep out at 3,300 metres!

An experienced alpine guide, Francois soon identified a flat platform where we could pitch the tents. "We're away from any avalanche zones and there shouldn't be any crevasses here," he assured us in his sexy French accent. But we remained roped up as he probed the area, just in case. Once a 'safe' area was marked out the fun began.

The objective of the exercise was to test out some brand new SlingFin tents and Valandré sleeping bags. Julia Friisbol, their marketing fundi, quickly explained how the tents were erected and in no time we had three shelters pitched on the ice.

The deluge continued, ruining the plan to have supper outside, so six of us squashed into one tent as Julia knocked up supper. You have to hand it to the French, they know how to do things in style. No dehydrated meals for us – out of her backpack came two bottles of wine, charcuterie and all the ingredients for a fondue. Camping will never be the same for me again. Surfeit and exhausted after our efforts at altitude, we retired into our cosy goose down bags and fell asleep to the patter of snowflakes.

The morning dawned bright and clear and we unzipped the tents to survey a dramatic alpine scene. The great granite tooth of the Dent du Géant towered above us and is the most striking peak in the horseshoe of ridges and spires. The familiar roar of the MSR Reactor stove heralded morning coffee, then we popped out into the warm sun for breakfast.

The event wasalso an opportunity to test mountain equipment during the GearFest, which preceded the Chamonix Mountain Festival. Not that we needed new gear – we’d come well equipped in K-Way clothing, including eye-catching red waterproof jackets, softshell pants, down jackets and even down vests. However, the chance to try out brands that we don’t find in South Africa was too good to resist.

With many of the well-known manufacturers, including Black Diamond and Mountain Hardwear, offering tempting expeditions led by their sponsored athletes to try out technical equipment and clothing, we struggled to decide which to choose before finally settling on a compromise – lightweight, high-spec Mountain Hardwear clothing and specialist ice-climbing gloves supplemented by harnesses, ice axes, crampons and a big backpack to carry everything in from Black Diamond. We were like kids in a toy shop.

Photo credit: Shaen Adey

Wrapped up warm and 'oohing' and 'aahing' at the shiny new gear, we headed out to test it, in earnest, on a traverse of the knife-edge ridge of the Aiguille d’Entrèves. Our experienced and tireless 62-year-old Canadian room-mate Ilze joined us on the rope along with a wide-eyed but game Julia, who later confessed that she’d never been in big mountains before! Our late start (most alpine adventures start pre-dawn) and delight at being in this incredible snowy setting was nearly our undoing. We made the last cable car down with 29 seconds to spare.

Over 40 mountain lovers from around the globe gathered that night at the UCPA hostel in the centre of town to kick off the main event, the week-long Mountain Festival, a relaxed celebration of Chamonix’s place as the alpine capital of the world. Shaen and I spent a week in 'Cham' a couple of years back, but had barely scratched the surface of what the Mont Blanc region had to offer.

For us, the chance to take part in the festival meant not just that we could take advantage of the special all-inclusive accommodation and lift pass but we could also tap into the abundance of local knowledge and logistical help offered by the festival organisers.

The briefing that night was perfect for us relative novices. We were shown useful websites, guidebooks and introduced to fundis who would guide us in our choice of routes and whisper insider tips. The vast array of different lifts, mountain trains, crags, snowy peaks and glistening glaciers laid out before us was bewildering, so we were extremely grateful for the advice.

In case you’re not into mountain sports and have never heard of Chamonix Mont Blanc, let me set the scene. This vibey town on the banks of the River Arve is recognised as the birthplace of mountaineering and now hailed as the extreme sports capital of the world.

Our flight to Geneva, less than an hour from Chamonix, was full of tanned, toned men and women, including a gaggle of lean runners on their way to the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships. Almost every bag on the carousel was a backpack or duffel bag. Whether you’re into rock climbing, skiing, mountaineering, paragliding, trail running, mountain biking, kloofing (canyoneering as it’s known outside South Africa) or freeriding, Chamonix is Mecca. Somewhere you simply have to visit before you die.

Not surprisingly, the streets are lined with specialist equipment shops, the window displays a mouth-watering smorgasbord of cutting-edge gear from the world’s top outdoor brands, which had us drooling even more than the appetising displays of French cheeses, cured meats, patisseries, fresh fruits and fine wines.

Eager to start our week of adventures, we were in the queue by 7 a.m. for the first lift up to the Aiguille du Midi, the iconic cable car station perched on a steep needle of rock nearly three kilometres above town, jostling with the guides and other early birds. Twenty minutes later, we emerged at nearly 4,000 m to gaze out at the imposing snowy slopes that led to the summit of Mont Blanc.

Purists will feel otherwise, but having done my fair share of trudging up 4,000 m peaks I’ve developed a penchant for mechanised lifts. This cable car holds the world record for the highest vertical ascent in the world, whisking passengers up 2,800 m to a vertiginous platform from where you can 'Step into the Void', a glass skywalk perched over a kilometre-high sheer drop. Despite being climbers used to exposure, it was exciting stuff and we felt like real tourists as we joined the happy-snapping throng.

For most visitors a visit to the Aiguille du Midi is about the exhibits and a chance to enjoy coffee and croissants or a glass of wine on the terraces, while soaking up the sun and views. But for us, the cable station was a gateway to the glacier walks, granite spires and high mountain peaks. So we roped up, put on crampons, grabbed our ice axes and started the hairy descent of the steep, knife-edged ridge that led down to the Mer de Glace, the sea of ice that lies at the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe.

Thirty centimetres of fresh snow had fallen overnight, the new powder squeaking under our boots. The sun sparkled off the snow-covered domes and ice fields; jagged ridges stretched out towards the verdant valleys and we could see the colourful canopies of paragliders in the deep blue of the sky. It was indescribably beautiful. My heart soared.

That day we crossed the glacier and climbed an exciting, exposed, but easy rock ridge on the Pyramide du Tacul, listening to the sound of avalanches crashing off nearby slopes. Again, we made the last cable car by the skin of our teeth and established our pattern for the week. Despite maximising our time in the mountains and attending the various optional seminars, workshops and slideshows in the evenings, the week passed too quickly.

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve travelled the world skiing and mountaineering. But for my money there is nowhere, simply nowhere in the world that beats Chamonix Mont Blanc. If you’ve always wanted to visit the Alps and rub shoulders with the world’s top mountain athletes, the Chamonix Mountain Festival is an incredibly affordable and fun way to do it.

More information
For more information on the Chamonix Mountain Festival visit www.chamonixmountainfestival.com