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ski mountaineering: my journey

Simon Akam is chronicling his quest to master the art of ski mountaineering, with a new issue in the series published every week

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Simon Akam (bottom left) is pictured with his face bandaged after the rockfall incident on Elbrus, 2017. At bottom right, 11-year old Akam is pictured skiing in Chandolin, Christmas 1996.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Sources: Photos courtesy of Simon Akam

After a brush with death on Mt. Elbrus in 2017, writer Simon Akam came up with a plan: He would return to the mountains to properly master the art of ski mountaineering and compete in the Patrouille des Glaciers, a ski-mountaineering race that takes place every two years across the backbone of the Swiss Alps. The full course entails an alarming 57.5 horizontal kilometres, and over 4,000 metres of vertical climb.

To prepare for the race, Akam is training in a tiny village in Switzerland, and he’s documenting his progress every week for The Globe. Here, we track his journey.

The image seared into my memory is a salvo of falling rocks. None of us were wearing helmets, but they would have made little difference. These were killer rocks

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Akam is revisiting Chandolin, Switzerland to master his skiing skills.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail

Week 1: Introducing Chandolin

In the 1990s, that elevation – which supposedly made Chandolin the highest village in French-speaking Switzerland – was considered enough to ensure reliable snow-cover from before Christmas to at least Easter. By contrast, when I drove in from France on Jan. 7 of this year to deliver my skis, there was little snow here, just sad browning banks by the roadside.

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Simon Akam (in yellow) skis with his instructors in the village of Chandolin in January, 2023. Bottom left, Simon skis with members of his Swiss exchange family in Chandolin, circa Christmas 1996-97. Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail, Sources: Photos courtesy of Simon Akam, Christophe Hagin, Bartek PelczarskiIllustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail

Week 2: Back to Basics

  • In preparing for an epic ski mountaineering race, Akam’s first task is overhauling his downhill technique. He breaks it down and rebuilds on the groomed runs before finally venturing off the beaten track.

There is something profound in the link between body and mind, in particular an unquiet mind, as mine has sometimes been. There is connective tissue between muscle and brain, a line between fear and anxiety. Maybe that was why this process felt so right.

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Writer Simon Akam and his Swiss ski instructor, Bartek Pelczarski, skiing off-piste above the Swiss village of Chandolin last month. The journey for Akam was intimidating following a near-death experience on the slopes six years prior.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Photos courtesy of Simon Akam, Bartek Pelczarski

Week 3: Going off-piste

  • It’s time for Akam to get out of his comfort zone, to train in a way that challenges him both mentally and physically: going off-piste is a thrilling and sometimes uneasy ride.

Going off-piste again this year, I did not feel terror. It would be more accurate to say I experienced a nagging sense that this is an environment where bad things can happen, and beyond that, a blunt recognition that, as with the basics of on-piste skiing, there is just so much to learn

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Competitive ski mountaineer Maximilien Drion, left, notched second and third places in World Cup events in Andorra early this year. Writer Simon Akam, bottom right, got the chance to train with the champion in St-Luc, Switzerland.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source photos courtesy of Simon Akam.

Week 4: Keeping up with a champion

I had to promptly shift any notion of a bro workout session, and instead appreciate that it was just a privilege to spend some time on skis with someone at this level.

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Writer Simon Akam injured his ankle just over a week ago during a solo ski mountaineering session in Zinal, Switzerland. Tonya Olson, a Florida-based physiotherapist, had recommended a ‘modified J-strap’ taping technique, seen below top left.PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL. SOURCE PHOTOS COURTESY OF SIMON AKAM/Handout

Week 5: Injury derails plans

As my mood darkened, the physical environment seemed to shift. The valley went from a place of beauty to one that seemed topographically overbearing.

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In the latest part of his journey to master ski mountaineering, writer Simon Akam trained with Swiss mountain guide Pasco Zufferey, pictured. Over the course of two days, they went to wilder, emptier terrain above the frozen lakes Lac de Moiry and Lac de Lona. At bottom right, Zufferey provided many tips during their sessions, such as tracing diagrams on the snow to indicate the importance of finishing turns to control speed during the descent to Lac de Moiry.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source Photos courtesy of Simon Akam.

Week 6: Nature’s beauty and risks

Zufferey had to remind me, and I had to remind myself that he was here to teach and I was there to learn. As in so many human endeavours, perfection on skis is the enemy of the good.

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Writer Simon Akam’s new lightweight skis are seen at far left, with Switzlerland’s frozen La de Moiry in the background. When ski mountaineering, you need skis and boots that are as light as possible for human-powered ascent, but rigid and stiff for downhill.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source photos courtesy of Simon Akam.

Week 7: Looking the part

The right thing to do is to know when to indulge and when to resist.

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Simon Akam enrolled in a German-speaking Swiss mountaineering school, which included a three-day avalanche-awareness course. There were drills with avalanche transceivers and instructions on how to use telescopic probes to find buried victims.Illustration by Photo illustration by the Globe and Mail. Source photos courtesy of Simon Akam

Week 8: Mitigating risk

  • This week, after two months speaking only French, Akam moves into German to take an intensive three-day avalanche-awareness course.

That joint process of providing care and crossing a linguistic boundary felt like a profoundly human experience, and one that was definitely worthwhile.

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Illustration by Photo Illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source images: Simon Akam

Week 9: Staying focused

It was crucial to stay focused, to stay aware. These sensations all come at a price.

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Clockwise from top left: Descending the ladders on the west side of the Pas de Chèvres mountain pass with Mont Blanc de Cheilon in the background. On the trail run of Patrouille des Glaciers, risk is all around With caution, Simon Akam undertakes a trial run of the Patrouille des Glaciers and embraces the highs and lows of taking risks. The instagram account of the Dix mountain hut (@cabanesdesdix) shows two of the resident dogs. On the trail run of Patrouille des Glaciers, risk is all around. An enlargement of a page from a graphic novel about the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race on display in Arolla. Route planning on a paper map. A screenshot from the Swiss avalanche avoidance app White Risk showing the Dix reservoir. Climbing above the Vignettes hut towards the Pigne d’Arolla peak On the trail run of Patrouille des Glaciers, risk is all around Swiss mountain guide Jérémy Folly on his skis.Illustration by Photo Illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source images: Courtesy of Simon Akam

Week 10: Risks is all around

My overwhelming thought, as I stood on Rosablanche, was that this was a really long way to go.

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In the latest course with Swiss mountaineering school Bergpunkt, over four stormy days in the Bernese Oberland, Simon Akam learned how to operate independently in the high mountains.Illustration by PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL. SOURCE PHOTOS: SIMON AKAM

Week 11: Overcoming fear and dependency

  • Akam’s second-last instalment on his attempt to master ski mountaineering, after he nearly died doing it activity in Russia in 2017.

In many ways I am exhausted, battered by the mountains. My face is sun- and wind-burned; I periodically think that I am forgetting how to speak English; I miss my girlfriend in London. Much of me is ready to go home.

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Tourers gather at the ski depot where they have cached their skis just below the winter summit of Mont Blanc de Cheilon. A party of ski tourers moves roped together in bad visibility. Leaving by torchlight in the early hours of the morning for the long route from the Cabane de Mont Fort to the Dix hut, 18 April 2023. Swiss mountain guide Patrick Weiss on the summit of Rosablanche, a 3,336m peak between Verbier and the Dix hut, 18 April 2023.Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe

The final dispatch: A fantastic voyage

  • In his final entry, Akam writes about ski mountaineering in the Swiss Alps is a physical and personal journey filled with risk and failure – but the trek is also full of promise.

I am using the outer world to leaven my inner landscape, and that’s what I wanted to achieve when I set out on this journey.

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Simon Akam is a British journalist and author. His first book, The Changing of the Guard – The British Army since 9/11, published in 2021, was a Times Literary Supplement book of the year and won the Templer First Book Prize. Simon can be found at @simonakam on Twitter, @simon.akam on Instagram.

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