Bonjour, Chamonix

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It worries me that Robert, my 13-year-old son, has no fear. His freak fall in 1998 that fractured his femur and the shoulder he broke in a freestyle contest the year before should have eroded his self confidence. Not so. As the 60-person tram skims above the Aiguille du Midi's forbidding blue ice and black rock north wall, he does not blink when Mark Jones tells him, "People ski that." n Robert could have said many things. "No way!" would have been a good start. Or even, "You're kidding!" Instead he nods and observes, "Cool." What frightens me is that he's not joking. Whether it's his lack of experience or simply a profound faith in his own immortality, as I lead him onto the knife edge that splits the Vallée Blanche Glacier from the North Wall of the Aiguille du Midi, I have no doubt he'll vote for the North Wall.

If bringing a 13 year old to Chamonix, France, seems wildly extravagant, after three days in this mountain village I'm convinced the exact opposite is true. For both fathers and sons, 13 is not for the faint of heart. During the past year Robert has grown 6 inches and gained 20 pounds. When I now hug him goodnight, I'm acutely aware that he is taller than I am. At the same time, his voice has dropped two octaves, his shoulders have broadened and a blonde stubble sparkles across his cheeks. If I anticipated the physical changes in Robert, I was not prepared for an accompanying loss of closeness.

Friends remind me that 13 is a state of mind-a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners rebellion founded upon constantly changing but non-negotiable demands. In Robert's case, what exactly those demands are is unclear. While he gets good grades, excels at athletics and exhibits a remarkable indifference to pain, he is far too serious for 13, and his answers to my questions, though polite, typically amount to a simple yes, no or OK. In my heart of hearts, I hoped Chamonix would offer us common ground in a foreign country-time to talk on chairlifts, on steep snow-covered faces and over dinner in dimly lit, backstreet restaurants.

Then too, Chamonix worships youth. Here in the Haute Savoie, skiers, boarders, climbers, hang gliders, base jumpers and other adrenaline junkies have made a lifestyle out of risking their lives in sheer icy chutes, on overhanging rock walls and beneath turbulent skies. First mentioned in 1091 in a document donating the valley to the Monastère de Saint Michel de la Cluse, Chamonix survived off herding, hunting and a brief growing season until 1741, when English tourists William Windham and Richard Pocock visited the Mer de Glace. Dr. Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat then climbed Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak in 1786, launching Chamonix's centuries-old fascination with risk.

Back home in Idaho, the promise of Chamonix lit a fire under Robert. He quickly located the village on a French road map, learned to say s'il vous plait, merci beaucoup and bonjour then crossed the days off a calendar until we boarded the Swissair flight from Los Angeles to Geneva.

Following an hour-and-a-half drive from the airport we arrive in Chamonix under cloudy skies and a steady snowfall. It is late afternoon when we check into the Hotel Morgane. I'm inclined to guide Robert straight to the village square, feeling that his first impressions of Chamonix would be his most valuable. I am convinced teenagers should be exposed to foreign languages, haute cuisine and strange customs. And I believe getting lost, being confused and struggling to make yourself understood teach valuable life lessons. I have no doubt that Chamonix's idiomatic French, high-altitude sun and sport shop windows filled with packs, skis and crampons will speak to Robert, as they had first spoken to me the year before he was born when I made my first visit to this capital of extreme. I want Robert to wander down Chamonix's alleys, buy French pastries, learn to order at a sidewalk cafe and realize how lucky he is to ski iFrance.

Handing him 100 Francs, I watch him cross the bridge on the River L'Arve to the Rue du Docteur Paccard, where he tentatively turns toward the village center. He returns an hour later with a grilled cheese and ham panini, three postcards and a bar of Swiss chocolate. He also has a question. Studying the Aiguille du Midi brooding among the clouds, he inquires, "Which of these Aiguilles things are we going to ski first?"

We meet Mark Jones the following morning at the Aiguille des Grands Montets. A 42-year-old Canadian speed skier now living in Le Planet above the village of Argentière, in 1994 Jones skied 212,000 feet off the Grand Montets' upper tram to set the 12-hour world vertical record. Quiet, self-assured and a superb skier with steel gray hair and a model's chiseled jaw, Jones has lived in Chamonix for 20 years. He speaks passable French and has carved a lifestyle out of climbing, skiing and bicycling. Robert is clearly taken with Mark and for the rest of the day shadows him across the Grand Montets, which dominates the north end of the Chamonix Valley above Argentière.

Starting in 1893, skiing in the Chamonix Valley has grown to include 12 separate ski areas and dozens of trams, gondolas and chairs. Here skiers can find a range of resorts from the sunny Le Brévent and La Flégère above Chamonix to the intermediate Prarion-Bellevue above Les Houches to the Col de Balme above the village of Le Tour.

Les Grands Montets is by far the most famous. Accessed by two trams that vault 6,774 vertical feet from the valley floor to the summit, this massive mountain mixes intermediate and beginning groomed pistes with huge, challenging bump runs, shadowed chutes and 400-foot-deep crevasses that wait like unsprung traps within the rivers of ice.

Robert has apprenticed on Sun Valley's Freestyle and Nordic teams. And though he has skied in Canada, Colorado, Idaho and Montana, it's obvious from his expression that he has never encountered anyone quite as weird as the Rasta extremists waiting in the tram line. The dredlocks, piercings, tattoos and packs festooned with crampons, ice axes and ropes scream of a lifestyle that is rare, if nonexistent, outside this glaciated valley. Then, too, the Grands Montets' seductive laissez faire attitude-its lack of boundaries, ropes and helpful lifties catching the chair-offers a powerful contrast to U.S ski resorts. As we load the upper tram, Robert is assaulted by the rich melange of foreign languages, the stunning vistas and the promise of first turns in France. After just a few days in Chamonix, he already seems more confident, more focused and, despite the fact that he struggles with the language, more verbal. Robert's inexpert grasp of French turned "Francs" to "Frankies" and "bon" to the more emphatic "bon, bon, bon."

Mark Jones is training for a new attempt on the world 12-hour vertical record. Running down the upper station's concrete and steel stairs, he steps into his skis and, with Robert on his heels, blisters down the Pylones Run that traces the tram line to Canadian Bowl and the Lognan Tram base. I'm more than a minute behind, and when I ski up they greet me with a studied nonchalance. Comparing Robert's 186 cm Dynastar SFs to Mark's 215 Atomic downhills, I advise Jones it is only a matter of time before Robert will crash trying to keep up. Never having had children, Jones is surprised by my observation, but later admits his time with Robert has taught him a lesson about the joy and responsibility of parenthood.

Next, Robert wants to explore the Aiguille du Midi, which, after Mont Blanc, is Chamonix's most dominant feature. Pointing a crone's accusing finger at the Haute Savoie sky, its wind-swept basalt cliffs and sheer icy walls are both wildly seductive and incredibly dangerous. The truth is, less then two dozen extremists have survived the shadowed side of this exposed pinnacle. Why Robert would consider jumping from edge to edge down this vertical ribbon of ice and snow is beyond me. If the point of bringing my son to France was to experience Chamonix, I've since learned he needs new brakes.

A precipitous trail falls away from the Aiguille du Midi's upper tram station to a low saddle that in turn cascades down a south face to the Vallée Blanche. At best, this trail is unpredictable. Deep powder one day, glare ice the next, locals have long since lost count of tourists who, while attempting to descend in ski boots, lost their footing in the icy rut, started to slide and cartwheeled 3,000 feet down the north face.

Tightening the crampons that bristle from Robert's ski boots, Jones cautions him, "Remember to place your feet slightly apart, keep your weight centered and your shoulders square to the fall line." Then taking a final tug on the crampon's toe strap he glances up for confirmation and warns, "If you snag your ski pant, you'll trip and fall. And, falling is not an option." Nodding seriously, Robert shoulders his skis and follows Jones through an ice tunnel to the trail. Once outside he pauses to study the crowded knife edge that snakes toward the enormous glacier, then observes, "Why are all these people walking? We can ski this!"

The morning sun has softened the snow and we slowly descend to a small plateau above the Vallée Blanche, where we step into our skis and follow a moguled face onto the Mer de Glace. Translated to "Sea of Ice," it is fed by a dozen glaciers. Three rivers of ice flow underfoot while others drape like massive blue and white tapestries from the glaciated walls.

To avoid the hundreds of skiers who dot the vast white plane, Jones leads us on a circuitous route across the gentle Glacier du Géant to the sheer Pyramide du Tacul where the snow softens even more and the grade increases. Robert has never seen a glacier before and is clearly fascinated by the alluvial blocks of broken ice that have fractured off the blue cliffs. For the next two hours we navigate around the sérac, through the crevasses and down untracked faces until we reach the rough, snow-covered road that descends through the forest back to the village.

We moved out of the Morgane that day, and Jones invites us to stay in his apartment in the Hotel Le Planet. Though the Hotel once served as a tuberculosis ward, we gladly settle into his spare room. Our days pass in the sunny bowls of Les Grands Montets' Glacier du Rognon and shadowed faces above the Bochard Gondola, and our nights are devoted to pasta dinners, baguettes, goat cheese salads, red wine and good conversation. Needless to say, Robert is both smitten with Jones and awed by the chance to share an apartment with such a renowned skier and mountaineer.

I have often wondered if Chamonix's mountains inspire men to skiing prowess and other great deeds. I've known Pierre Carrier since I stayed in the Albert Premier in 1994. In the years since, he managed to earn a second Michelin Star at the same time he assembled the materials, designed and contracted the "Fermes du Hameau Albert Premier," a farmhouse with 12 suites and its own restaurant.

Pierre is a seventh-generation Chamoniard born to a family of hoteliers. His great grandfather was a carriage driver who in 1903 shrewdly built the hotel near Chamonix's central train station. Pierre's father was a Michelin-rated chef who never doubted his son would take over the family business. Pierre, however, had other ideas.

In his youth, he considered taking the rigorous Chamonix Mountain Guide exam. By that time, he had climbed the exposed south wall of the Aiguille du Midi, the snow-covered North Face of the Tour Ronde, as well as the Couloir Gervasutti. He had skied the Col de la Bûche-a sunlit sliver of snow-and had a passion for cross-country racing. When he graduated from school, he had to choose between guiding clients up Mont Blanc and following his father into the kitchen of the Albert Premier. Pierre ch down this vertical ribbon of ice and snow is beyond me. If the point of bringing my son to France was to experience Chamonix, I've since learned he needs new brakes.

A precipitous trail falls away from the Aiguille du Midi's upper tram station to a low saddle that in turn cascades down a south face to the Vallée Blanche. At best, this trail is unpredictable. Deep powder one day, glare ice the next, locals have long since lost count of tourists who, while attempting to descend in ski boots, lost their footing in the icy rut, started to slide and cartwheeled 3,000 feet down the north face.

Tightening the crampons that bristle from Robert's ski boots, Jones cautions him, "Remember to place your feet slightly apart, keep your weight centered and your shoulders square to the fall line." Then taking a final tug on the crampon's toe strap he glances up for confirmation and warns, "If you snag your ski pant, you'll trip and fall. And, falling is not an option." Nodding seriously, Robert shoulders his skis and follows Jones through an ice tunnel to the trail. Once outside he pauses to study the crowded knife edge that snakes toward the enormous glacier, then observes, "Why are all these people walking? We can ski this!"

The morning sun has softened the snow and we slowly descend to a small plateau above the Vallée Blanche, where we step into our skis and follow a moguled face onto the Mer de Glace. Translated to "Sea of Ice," it is fed by a dozen glaciers. Three rivers of ice flow underfoot while others drape like massive blue and white tapestries from the glaciated walls.

To avoid the hundreds of skiers who dot the vast white plane, Jones leads us on a circuitous route across the gentle Glacier du Géant to the sheer Pyramide du Tacul where the snow softens even more and the grade increases. Robert has never seen a glacier before and is clearly fascinated by the alluvial blocks of broken ice that have fractured off the blue cliffs. For the next two hours we navigate around the sérac, through the crevasses and down untracked faces until we reach the rough, snow-covered road that descends through the forest back to the village.

We moved out of the Morgane that day, and Jones invites us to stay in his apartment in the Hotel Le Planet. Though the Hotel once served as a tuberculosis ward, we gladly settle into his spare room. Our days pass in the sunny bowls of Les Grands Montets' Glacier du Rognon and shadowed faces above the Bochard Gondola, and our nights are devoted to pasta dinners, baguettes, goat cheese salads, red wine and good conversation. Needless to say, Robert is both smitten with Jones and awed by the chance to share an apartment with such a renowned skier and mountaineer.

I have often wondered if Chamonix's mountains inspire men to skiing prowess and other great deeds. I've known Pierre Carrier since I stayed in the Albert Premier in 1994. In the years since, he managed to earn a second Michelin Star at the same time he assembled the materials, designed and contracted the "Fermes du Hameau Albert Premier," a farmhouse with 12 suites and its own restaurant.

Pierre is a seventh-generation Chamoniard born to a family of hoteliers. His great grandfather was a carriage driver who in 1903 shrewdly built the hotel near Chamonix's central train station. Pierre's father was a Michelin-rated chef who never doubted his son would take over the family business. Pierre, however, had other ideas.

In his youth, he considered taking the rigorous Chamonix Mountain Guide exam. By that time, he had climbed the exposed south wall of the Aiguille du Midi, the snow-covered North Face of the Tour Ronde, as well as the Couloir Gervasutti. He had skied the Col de la Bûche-a sunlit sliver of snow-and had a passion for cross-country racing. When he graduated from school, he had to choose between guiding clients up Mont Blanc and following his father into the kitchen of the Albert Premier. Pierre chose the kitchen and was awarded a Michelin Star and Christian Millau Golden Key before he reached 30.

Pierre insists he is just a "cook"-a simple man of the mountains who just happens to love climbing, nordic marathons, extreme skiing, classic cars and fast motorcycles. Pierre and his wife, Martine, are typical of Chamoniard hospitality. Over a glass of champagne in the Albert Premier, they insist Robert and I stay for lunch. The combination of soup, garden vegetables, squab, breads, cheese, desert and an incredible Chenin Blanc that I allowed Robert to try is simply the best meal either of us had ever eaten.

Pierre and Martine appear as we finish desert. Acknowledging our praise with self-conscious smiles, they inquire, "Can you take time to ski with us?"

Robert and I graciously accept the offer, and a half-hour later we unload from the Aiguille du Midi's first stage and follow Le Pré du Rocher, a vertical sketchy pitch that drops toward the village center. We explore a broad ridge that fades into a bump-filled gully and funnels onto a narrow logging road that had been swept by February avalanches. Stopping to take a photo, I watch Pierre, Martine and Robert work their way through the debris to a narrow path that finally emerges above the Aiguille du Midi tram station.

It is late afternoon when we part ways at the tram. Pierre shakes hands with Robert and inquires, "Do you plan to come back to Chamonix?"

"Oui," he nods. And then summoning his limited French, adds, "Bon...très, très bon."

Bonjour, Chamonix: Almanac

Bonjour, Chamonix: Mountain Tour

Bonjour, Chamonix: Photo Essaye chose the kitchen and was awarded a Michelin Star and Christian Millau Golden Key before he reached 30. Pierre insists he is just a "cook"-a simple man of the mountains who just happens to love climbing, nordic marathons, extreme skiing, classic cars and fast motorcycles. Pierre and his wife, Martine, are typical of Chamoniard hospitality. Over a glass of champagne in the Albert Premier, they insist Robert and I stay for lunch. The combination of soup, garden vegetables, squab, breads, cheese, desert and an incredible Chenin Blanc that I allowed Robert to try is simply the best meal either of us had ever eaten. Pierre and Martine appear as we finish desert. Acknowledging our praise with self-conscious smiles, they inquire, "Can you take time to ski with us?" Robert and I graciously accept the offer, and a half-hour later we unload from the Aiguille du Midi's first stage and follow Le Pré du Rocher, a vertical sketchy pitch that drops toward the village center. We explore a broad ridge that fades into a bump-filled gully and funnels onto a narrow logging road that had been swept by February avalanches. Stopping to take a photo, I watch Pierre, Martine and Robert work their way through the debris to a narrow path that finally emerges above the Aiguille du Midi tram station. It is late afternoon when we part ways at the tram. Pierre shakes hands with Robert and inquires, "Do you plan to come back to Chamonix?""Oui," he nods. And then summoning his limited French, adds, "Bon...très, très bon."

Bonjour, Chamonix: Almanac

Bonjour, Chamonix: Mountain Tour

Bonjour, Chamonix: Photo Essay