For one long weekend every year, the beautiful town of Chamonix becomes home to the Arc’teryx Academy, a haven for mountaineers, climbers, trail runners and all other kinds of of alpine adventurers. People come from all over the planet to meet in the French Alps and celebrate a joint passion for the outdoors.
Looking to escape the grit of London’s sweltering summer, we joined the Academy a few weeks ago to find some calm in the mountains and to try our hand at learning some new skills.
The Academy is designed in a way that allows participants to do as much or as little as they want over the weekend, with workshops and talks at the festival’s ‘base camp’ for those people who don't fancy spending the entire time up the mountain. Book however many separate clinics you fancy through their website and choose the skill level you feel is right for you.
The Academy’s set up is an incredibly accessible way to gain experience and lessons in mountaineering and adventure. Sports that usually tend to be difficult and costly are at your fingertips and if you don’t feel like you want to splash out on equipment, you can even borrow from the Academy for no charge, with an Arc’teryx stand set up in the base camp every morning.
I decided to go for a mountain trail running clinic, keen to give my legs a run out in the alps and a women’s glacier tour, excited about the chance to try out an adventure for the first time, surrounded by awesome, like-minded women and guides.
On the first day of the Academy I wake at 6am to my first daylight view of Mont Blanc outside my chalet window. After a cup of coffee appreciating the view, I head off to the town centre to find the Arc’teryx village and my first clinic of the weekend, the mountain trail run.
I’d comfortably call myself a runner, I run a solid 25 kilometres over every week and over the last few years I’ve pounded my way through many pairs of trainers. So when I saw the option for the Trail Running Clinic, I felt confident enough to book into level one, the easiest of three options. Arriving at the stand in leggings and my discount price backpack however, I spy the rest of my group in shorts, with support tape bound knees and high tech running packs, and start to think that I’ve possibly underestimated the intensity of my 'easy' morning of running.
"Running portions of the trail, even the most experienced among us have to stop as the trail becomes too steep, or so technical that the only choice is scrambling"
The leader of our running clinic is the ultra runner Tiffany Saibil. Small, smiley and energetic, Tiffany is everything you expect from someone who spends their life testing their body and exploring the world through running till their legs ache, she's focused and single minded, while constantly having fun in the moment.
"How long will we be out running this morning?" I try to ask with the air of someone who regularly rolls out of bed and runs up a mountain. I can tell she clearly sees through my attempt. "Probably about five hours" she says, with the same ease as someone announcing they're going to wander down to the local shops. "We'll cross town then start climbing the mountain pretty much straight away. Then we'll traverse across the top trail for a few kilometres and finally run down back to the village." It's an intimidating prospect, but looking around I realise that the same look of concern is on the faces of all my lycra clad companions. This will be a challenge.
Over the next few hours, we make our way up the trail path that ascends around the valley. Running portions of the trail, even the most experienced among us have to stop as the trail becomes too steep, or so technical that the only choice is scrambling. We all find our natural pace and after the first 30 brutal minutes of warming up, the trail stops looking quite so scary. Our legs ache and our breathe stays short as we climb, but as our surrounding turn from forests, to foggy trails, to open mountain views over the next few hours, the effort only adds to the experience of running this incredible route.
As we reach the top, the trail levels out and we can finally run freely on the mountain. Though my legs are already tired and the air is noticeably thinner, I find myself running faster and with more power than usual, relieved to no longer be running the steep climb of the mountain. The group surrounding me clearly share the feeling and we chat and laugh as we run. As the fog clears and I get a clear view of the valley so far below me, I actually feel a lump in my throught and a surge of pride and inspiration. I realise that what seemed impossible only a few hours ago has become the most meaningful run of my life.
The inspiration of the Academy isn't just resigned to the clinics. Back at base camp, red faced and happy adventurers were starting to return from their own clinics, pleased to find cold beers waiting for them and deckchairs to rest their aching muscles in the sun as renowned rock climber Mina Leslie- Wujastyk came onto the stage to give a talk.
After a day of running up the Mont Blanc's mountain paths with a strong female trail runner like Tiffany, it feels almost overwhelming to sit with hundreds of other adventure loving women, listening to Mina speak about her experiences, struggles and triumphs in climbing, as well as giving tips on how we can all harness our own strengths to do incredible things. While the adventure sports industry might still be overwhelmingly male, the power of its women is felt strongly tonight.
As my last day at the Academy comes around, I see out the weekend out with a hike across Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc’s incredible glaciar at 3842m. The sky is bright blue and the day is hot as we hike across the incredible landscape, spotting other Academy clinics climbing, hiking and more around us. It feels as though we’re walking across an alien planet and I could happily explore for hours longer, but my transport to Geneva is calling and dragging me back to reality far too soon.
As I head back to the valley below, I come across many of my companions from previous days and we swap our adventure stories. Some have been mountaineering or hiking like me, while other more experienced adventurers have tales of huge ice climbs and splitboarding. The mix really shows how successful the Academy has been in creating an event where participants can either get their very first introduction to mountaineering, or join the best mountain athletes in the world for truly hardcore adventures.
Leaving Chamonix and seeing the Academy base camp for the last time, I feel overwhelmed at the amount of once in a lifetime experiences I’ve packed into just three days. While I’ve only dipped a toe into the world of mountaineering, I feel as though I’ve had a glimpse of the true experience of being a mountain adventurer. This weekend was just a taste of what the Arc’teryx Academy can offer, I will be going back next year to experience some more.