Norman Goes To the Alps

On French Guides

Norman goes to the Alps

Norman Smith – August 2009

Let’s face it , the French can be a pain in the bum. They smoke vile smelling cigarettes, take interminably long lunch breaks and delight in forcing Les Anglais to try and resurrect their O level French.

So it was with some trepidation then that I agreed to hire a French guide for a
week’s climbing in the Alps this summer. My aim? To reacquaint myself – after a
twenty five year gap – with what Alpine climbing is all about..

First appearances, however were not encouraging. My guide was called Pascal. And
yes, he insisted on smoking pungent little roll ups, including while climbing (a
la Don Whillans.) And yes his English was only rather more lamentable than my
French. And yes, he thought he was God’s gift to women.

But apart from that….well, he was brilliant and I can’t recommend French guides

Here’s why .

When the weather is lousy in Chamonix, the natural recourse of most Brit climbers
and their guides is to retreat to a nearby bar and bemoan their fate. Pascal
however seemed to have an instinctive knowledge of where to go to get some
climbing done, even when the weather was dodgy. So when it was cloudy and wet in
Cham he took us through to Italy to climb Gran Paradiso. And the weather ?
Absolutely brilliant.

Second if you’ve been in a French Alpine hut you’ll know the Hundred Years War
never really ended. Turn up for breakfast in the dawn light and it’s every man
for himself. Frankly, you’ve got about as much chance of getting some quick
service as Josephine had of Napoleon.. However, arrive with old Pascal by your
side and suddenly you’re at the front of the queue. Talk about preferential
treatment. Likewise if you want to get a nice hut bedroom all to yourself
instead of being dumped in the snoring inferno of one of the main dormitories,
then a French guide is the answer.. As for the climbing. Well, as you’d expect
French guides tend to be an inspiration. But what’s really good about them is
their attitude. They’re really not that big on Health and Safety. Or put another
way they’re prepared to let you fail. They don’t just heave you up on a tight
rope. Instead they insist you lead, route find, set up the belay points and
generally make a complete hash of things. It’s not just a lot more fun but it is
the only way to really learn about Alpine climbing

Oh, and one last thing that I found particularly refreshing about French guides
is that they have a healthy disregard for the high tech gear Stasi who seem to
thrive in Britain. Pascal climbed in a pair of old cords and what looked like
gardening gloves. He even expressed some admiration for my ageing and rusty ice

On the downside ? Well, he did insist on trying to rescue every female climber
who got into trouble. But hey, he’s French.

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