Seated in the garden behind the Chamonix house, a glass in hand and dreamy eyes on the peaks above, I set my thoughts adrift and land in Côte d’Azur, long, long ago.
Tucked against a small cape covered in towering pine trees and lapped at by the scintillant Mediterranean Sea, the flowery town of Antibes might as well be my birth place as it is where my first solid memories emerge from the void.
Growing up there in the seventies meant spending summers at the beach and in those days the water was pristine and teeming with life. We carefully collected sea urchins, chopped them in half and ate their tiny orange reward on the spot. My dad also caught octopuses right off the beach and I remember the thrill of that hunt, the concept of cruelty not having yet dawned on my innocent youth. It is only much later that I realized how finite the sea’s resources were, and how soon our abusive complacency would deplete those.
But we also enjoyed mountains as a secondary playground. The Southern Alps rise so close to the coast that they form a permanent backdrop to beaches and pinèdes, their summits heavily coated with snow in the winter, like a ragged bar of white chocolate laid flat on the horizon, teasing, calling.
Our family road trips took us through four or five alpine countries, initially camping and later sleeping in our Kombi, and mountain hikes were always my favorite activity. We routinely saw chamois, ibex and marmots. I wore the biggest boots I owed, tucking my pants into them to mimic climbing attire, and brandished a token ice axe, a “piolet” purchased at a souvenir store for a few francs and that would have died prematurely of its first strike into said ice, which I carefully avoided. I must have been ten.
Then we moved to Aix-en-Provence and since gymnastics had been a burden happily left behind, my dad got me interested in rock climbing, cleverly luring me with the proximity of a charismatically pyramidal Sainte-Victoire Mountain and the idyllic bleached cliffs of the Calanques de Marseille.
The most established French climbing organization, the Club Alpin Français or CAF1, then required its new applicants to be at least sixteen years of age. He managed to convince them to accept me at thirteen with the condition that he would be present—if not actually climbing since while an ex-paratrooper, age had dealt him an unfortunate fear of heights—on the first few outings.
I was shy and introverted but began to nurture what would be my first true passion. I had not until then cared about anything with such intensity, nor had I ever even considered what I wanted to be or do later in life. But soon I was collecting climbing magazines and devouring classics such as Herzog’s Annapurna premier huit mille, Messner’s The Seventh Grade and Frison-Roche’s Premier de cordée (First On The Rope) saga. I was… roped in.
In the absence of immediate cliffs, I would daringly climb anything I could get my hands and feet on, stone walls, fences, trees. I rappelled from our tallest parasol pine and improvised an artificial route across our house’s southern face, using homemade climbing tools and dangling from the overhang of the front balcony in my best Rébuffat2 style, one leg bent and the other nonchalantly stretched horizontally.
Repetitive weekend CAF outings slowly taught me to negotiate wonderful—and increasingly challenging—climbs on Sainte-Victoire and in the Calanques, surrounded by adults and trying hard to fit in.
Sainte Victoire’s southeastern face rises sharply into the deep blue sky of Provence, as immortalized by painter Paul Cézanne. The routes are aerial and exposed, and the smell of thyme and lavender seems to rise from the hypnotic song of cicadas, following one high up on the white limestone. The Calanques are less imposing but their cliffs plunge straight into the sea and climbing right above the pristine turquoise water makes for a magical, almost surreal ambiance.
After about a year, I signed up for a summertime mountaineering class which the CAF was organizing in the Massif des Écrins, near the village of La Chapelle-en-Valguaudémar. My dear aunt Marie had bought me actual mountain climbing boots, the heavy-leather ankle-high workhorse worn at high altitude—they were Galibier Super Guide if I remember well—rigid enough to allow frontal ice climbing.
I spent a week in the mountains learning basic crampon techniques, self-arresting falls in the snow, managing my energy and realizing how debilitating altitude can be to the newcomer. Raised in a family where treats were not routinely at hand, I also took pleasure in freely raiding our kitchen tent for condensed milk, lard, saucisson, nuts, dates and candy.
One day that week, nudged by the memory of unsuccessful fishing expeditions with a long-lost uncle, I rigged a fishing line and a hook, found a nice little nook in the river flowing through town, perched myself on a rock and after a few attempts, managed to catch myself a small trout. Ecstatic, I made a small fire by my tent, somehow managed to gut and clean the poor fish and cooked it as-is. When it was ready, I sneaked back into the tent, lifted some red wine, strawberries and sugar and readied desert. I cannot really remember if the trout was actually well prepared but the memory is glorious to this day.
We would climb for a couple of days, come back down to the valley and rest, then set out again. High in the mountains, far above the world’s pettiness and daily preoccupations, intimately involved with weather, rock and ice, and roped up to someone who depended on me as much as I on them, I discovered true freedom and a simple yet incredibly fulfilling way of life I immediately embraced. Studying the sky became a meaningful, meditation-like occupation. Mountaineering, I learned, was not only about skill, technique and endurance; it was also about tuning in to the world, listening to its alternating whispers and shouts, translating those into a coherent voice, and acting consequently.
The crisp sound of crampons biting the snow in a pre-dawn’s bitter cold, the thundering clap of rocks falling off the mountain’s face like tears of frustration, a hauling wind sneaking into the gaping planks of our high altitude hut, the tumultuous development of clouds as they rose from deep dark valleys to greet us in the sun, those were the many clues to reading the alpine world and its complex moods.
Then I was back in Aix considering my military service options (it was still mandatory back then) and weighing the pros and cons of joining the Chasseurs Alpins3 as opposed to the Air Force. By signing up early, devancer l’appel as it was called, I could choose my branch. The Air Force still appealed most but my grades in math were awful as I had finally made friends in school and was spending too much scoundrel time roaming with them when I should have been studying, so I had no hope of a flying career.
Life, however, had other plans for me. After my parents finally split up, my mother, sister and I moved back to Québec on a whim.
A page was turned. Gone were my beloved mountains and the uplifting CAF environment. I soon stopped climbing for lack of true mountains, mentors and inspiration. Unbeknownst to me, I was going to learn to fly after all. But that is another story.
In the meantime, my heart had forever been imprinted with the majesty of the Alps, the ringing of cow bells, the crisp song of mountain streams and the thin air that makes one pant like a happy dog after the ball is caught. Throughout the years, I revisited the Alps a few times, and actually learned to paraglide near Chamonix in 2002.
Chamonix is considered by many to be the cradle of mountain climbing. It hosted the first Winter Games in 1924 and has become one of the world’s most famous outdoors hot-spots. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, its streets and cafés abound with climbers, hikers, skiers, trail runners and cyclists, paraglider pilots and other outdoor enthusiasts, each targeting a season, a window, an opportunity.
So being back now in 2019 is sweet and bitter, because this beauty I so deeply crave and feed on hungrily will be ephemeral. But we make the best of our time here and even walking through town is a rare pleasure. Lavishly roaming up and down the main stretch, Marie and I hunt for charcuterie, other edible goodies and outdoors stores. The latter are a fantasy of mine. A kid in a candy store would look utterly bored compared to me salivating at the sight of high-tech jackets, GORE-TEX boots, outrageously colorful expedition gear, GPS watches and the likes.
We stock up at le Refuge Payot whose saucisson selection is like nothing I have ever seen. Marie is kindly offered a taste of génépi liquor made by the Chartreuse monks and falls in love. Some of it will fly back with us.
Scouring through bookshops for Samivel drawings, I am told that they are out of print and will not be brought back. Samivel, like Frison-Roche, is someone I would like to have met. Born Paul Gayet-Tancrède (I had to look that up), he actually borrowed the Samivel nickname from Dickens. Illustrator, writer, cinematographer, mountain climber, adventurer, early conservationist and advocate of national parks, he was a gifted and passionate human being and I hate to see his legacy now slide into oblivion.
My silly drawings below were inspired by his lovely illustrations, most of which depicted the mountain world in a humorous way. I cannot remember how old my sketches are as they just materialized out of a dusty box recently, but they probably date back almost four decades and I am pretty sure I plagiarized and copied style and ideas here and there, so they will serve mostly as a wink and a nod.
Chamonix is a three-dimensional universe. Nowhere in the world have I seen so many people interact with altitude, or even simply walk around with their heads tilted upwards. The mountains have such a strong, mesmerizing presence that they draw the eye and the mind even when one’s preoccupations are firmly grounded into the reality of shopping or eating.
Just outside of town across the river, beautiful trails allow for easy walks by the rock climbing school of Les Gaillands, established by Roger Frison-Roche early in the twentieth century. The cliff is actually in sight of our house’s garden and we check on climbers nightly while having dinner.
Our local routine often takes us across the Arve where benches around an adorable little lake are begging passers by to sit and relax. A bit after sunset, while pale light lingers on high summits above the valley, bats and trouts compete for their common insect diet and the world is at peace.
One day we drive south around the bend to Val Montjoie, a valley flanking Mont Blanc to the southwest, and park above the village of Les Contamines-Montjoie where Samivel lived for a while. A very steep and lovely trail leads up into the forest and we hike to the tiny Lac d’Armancette without meeting a soul along the way, other than a couple of guys silently bouldering some distance off the trail.
The lake sits at the bottom of a wide amphitheater of definite glacial origin, just below the tree line, a bit like the one we had found on Mt Baker. We settle on a large rock for our picnic and Marie, to my absolute delight, suddenly spots dozens of salamanders in the clear water.
On our last night, we reward ourselves with a cheese fondue at the restaurant Atmosphere whose covered back balcony overhangs above the river flowing through town, fast and milky from its snowmelt origin. Being on keto, I only allow myself a few pieces of bread and finish the dish with a spoon, a sacrilege I happily commit in the name of science.
Life has a way of making it up to us if we know how to be patient and open-minded. In September of 2004, while category five hurricane Ivan was devastating my home the Cayman Islands, I had been sitting in that same restaurant, my unused paraglider packed in its bag for lack of flying desire, pondering the fact that I might no longer have a house nor any personal belongings and very confused about who I was or where I was headed. It was there that the decision to depart from Little Cayman first shaped itself in my head.
I ended up leaving the islands the following May, landing in Québec briefly before I headed west to Vancouver. The rest is history.
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1. CAF has now become Fédération française des clubs alpins et de montagne
2. More details to come in Part 3
3. Specialized mountain infantry corps, traditional in Europe where so many wars have been fought in the mountains