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 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
Series • 🏔 Week 1: Introducing Chandolin • 🏔️ Week 2: Back to basics • 🏔️ Week 3: Off the beaten track • 🏔️ Week 4: Training with a champion • 🏔️ Week 5: Injury derails plans • 🏔️ Week 6: Nature's beauty and risks • 🏔️ Week 7: Looking the part • 🏔️ Week 9: Staying focused • 🏔️ Week 10: Risk is all around
Week 1: Introducing Chandolin
- In the few weeks Akam has spent in Switzerland, he has sensed an unresolved tension that goes back a century: There is snow but surely not enough white gold
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.
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.
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
Week 4: Keeping up with a champion
- This week, Akam quickens his pace with a champion ski mountaineer and discovers a humbling and heartening experience in the mountains.
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.
Week 5: Injury derails plans
- This week, Akam suffers an ankle injury in the “freeride zone.” He’s forced to take some much-needed rest, while toeing the challenging line between indulging neuroticism and looking after his body.
As my mood darkened, the physical environment seemed to shift. The valley went from a place of beauty to one that seemed topographically overbearing.
Week 6: Nature’s beauty and risks
- This week Akam trained with Swiss mountain guide Pasco Zufferey. Over the course of two days, they went to wilder, emptier terrain above the frozen lakes Lac de Moiry and Lac de Lona.
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.
Week 7: Looking the part
- This week Akam faces the challenge of selecting and buying the right gear for his mountaineering adventuring.
The right thing to do is to know when to indulge and when to resist.
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.
Week 9: Staying focused
- Akam conducts the materialschlacht – literally the “battle of equipment” to prep for skiing down a glacier.
It was crucial to stay focused, to stay aware. These sensations all come at a price.
Week 9: Risks is all around
- Akam faces Rosablanche, a 3,336-metre peak in the Swiss canton of Valaisr.
My overwhelming thought, as I stood on Rosablanche, was that this was a really long way to go.
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.