This city on the southeastern flank of the Alps may be the birthplace of modern climbing, but today Chamonix is Europe's luxurious epicenter of extreme. Walk down the cobblestoned streets on a summer morning and you see adrenaline junkies of all stripes: BASE jumpers carrying their wingsuits to the Brévent cable car for a ride to the top, skiers lugging their gear for a tour on the glaciers of Vallée Blanche, and mountain bikers downing espresso before heading to the hills. Come dusk, those same characters will be drinking wine and gorging on braised lamb shank or rabbit on the patio of Elevation 1904 or at a corner table at L'impossible.
When I showed up last June, I was simply looking for an introduction to the Alps. I learned the basics of ice climbing on the Mer de Glace, one of the Alps' most famous glaciers. I rode a cable car to the top of the 12,000-foot Aiguille du Midi, a wildly jagged peak where gawking Gallic tourists rub shoulders with hardcore mountaineers. (On the gondola ride down, I realized I was smashed against Spanish mountain runner Kilian Jornet — which, in outdoor circles, is like running into LeBron James in the locker room of your local gym.)
But it was on the third day, during a trek across Vallée Blanche, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, that I was reminded that I couldn't be anywhere but France. I was roped to five other climbers, standing on the edge of a 3,000-foot cliff, preparing to traverse a series of 50-foot granite monoliths on a lower peak jutting up from the glacier. Gesticulating wildly, our guide, Jean Luc, pointed out the various handholds and footholds. He did so in French. I do not speak French, and Jean Luc knew this. Still, he turned to me and said in heavily accented English, with an insouciance only the French can muster: "OK, Ryan, you go first. Good luck."
Fortunately, even with crampons the footwork turns out to be easier than it looks. All it takes is a bit of shuffling along the edge, then waiting for the next person on the rope to make his way across. It all became even more worth it when the route deposited us on the back porch of the Refuge des Cosmiques, a climbing hut with sleeping quarters for two dozen, a kitchen serving hearty soups and stews, and tap beer. Our lunch was capped off with a rich raspberry tart, made fresh at 11,000 feet.
Afterward, as we prepared to recross the glacier to the gondola ride back down, Jean Luc double-checked the knot on my harness. Then he asked, "How many beers you drink?"
Two, I tell him.
"Ah! Good, my friend," he says. "You go first."