Tested by Mountains
It’s the end of March and a small band of skiers are approaching the Argentière Hut, located at 2,691 meters above sea level like a spaceship in the terrain, a few kilometers northeast of Chamonix. The big north face of Les Droites looms high above the glacier that stretches out below them. Surrounding mountains cast big shadows on the hut’s wall. In a few hours, the skiers will be put to the test by the very same mountains.
Chamonix ski-patroller Johann Vienney leads the group, accompanied by Chamonix local and former freeride world champion, Aurélien Ducroz. With them are former World Cup slalom skier Mattias Hargin from Sweden, Canadian Olympic alpine skier Erin Mielzynski, and former alpine skier turned big mountain skier Marcus Caston from Utah. They are all highly competent skiers, but they’ve never skied together, and Erin has never skied mountains like these.
They met for the first time in Chamonix a couple of days earlier. Now, having left the comforts of the town, best known as the extreme skiing capital of the world, the temperature has crept well below zero degrees Celsius. The skiers are happy to enter the warming atmosphere of the legendary hut, well-aware that they are destined for a day of challenges, both as individuals and as a group.
Trust in your knowledge & gear
Spending the night in a hut far up in the mountains with the wind howling outside is both soothing and exciting. It’s tempting to remain within the warm confines of the hut, but they’re on a mission that does not allow for indoor slumbering. After a few hours of sleep, the group leaves the hut at 3.58 a.m. and start skinning towards Tour Noir by the light of headlamps.
As the sun slowly begins to rise, the north faces of the mountain chain from Aiguille Verte to Mont Dolent are touched by the first, gentle sun rays in the distance. It’s an impressive view for those who have not been here before. For Johann, it’s good, classic ski terrain. For Marcus, it’s a terrain filled with “super steep gnarly classics,” as he puts it. “Spending a few days in Chamonix, it’s crazy to see that the level of normal, everyday skiing here is just way beyond anything I’ve ever seen before.”
They start ascending while the sunrise still glows its orange beams. Johann in front, still discovering new elements in the region he calls home. He moved to Chamonix in 2001 and has worked as a ski patroller and mountain guide for the past 10 years. It’s a job that’s synonymous with seeing, on a daily basis, how people test mountains, and to a larger degree, how mountains test people. His experiences have taught him how to handle himself out there, and to know that mountains have the upper hand.
“There are two important things when I decide whether to go into the mountains or not. I must be mentally ready, that means I must trust my mind, my body, my physical abilities. And, I must prepare myself by studying the terrain, the snow conditions, the forecasts, all that the trip requires. If it’s the first time I ascend a mountain or go into an area, I seek advice from local people, I check good guidebooks, I educate myself about the place. Then I prepare my backpack, my gear, my rescue equipment. I check that all the gear works. If all looks good, if I feel ok and trust myself, I go. And still, it’s always important to have an opportunity to abort the mission and go back.”
Trust in the people around you
Guiding the team from the Argentière Hut to Tour Noir (3,836 meters) requires the same preparations as always. Building trust between guide and the group, and within the group, is a critical and ongoing process. “When I’m guiding, it’s very important that people listen to what I say, and vice versa, I must do my best to listen to the individual team members. I always encourage questions. I try to explain things, about safety, about the terrain, about mountains. I want everyone to feel confident and free to be themselves.”
The conditions in the mountains change all the time, and even for experienced guides like Johann, there’s always a level of uncertainty. It’s not possible to stay fully confident at all times. He has, however, developed a couple of tricks to deal with the shifting conditions of both mountains and confidence.
Firstly, keep cool, take your time, try not to rush. Secondly, never lie. “In the mountains, you can’t lie. If you lie, you close your emotions and your sensations. So, you can’t lie to yourself. And the goal is to not lie to anyone else either. If someone is afraid, it’s not always possible to see it in their eyes on the mountain. That’s why it’s so important to be expressive and share how and what we feel. Especially in moments when we’re exposed to risk, it’s very important that communication runs smoothly. And I think the mountains help us do that. I think the mountains can help us feel good about ourselves and the people around us. I think the mountains can teach us to embrace simplicity.”
Trust is #1
In the end, it boils down to trust. The mountains will at some point surely test anyone venturing into them, and having trust at that point is key.
Today is no different. The sun has risen, it’s getting a bit warmer as they progress towards the peak. The risk of avalanches and falling ice and rocks must be considered continually. Conditions are changing from one area of the mountain to the next. They know that when skiing down later, high speed can make it difficult to foresee changes in the snow. They also know that great things can happen when people and mountains meet, and that being able to trust in themselves, in their gear and in each other, is a recipe for magic.