The Alps to the power of three
If you could sum up the Alps in three faces, three challenges, three terrific playgrounds, you’d choose north faces with little hesitation, and then the conversation would throw up the names of three monuments: the north face of the Matterhorn, the north face of the Jorasses, and, of course, the improbable and terrifying north face of the Eiger.
These vertical compositions of rock, ice and vertigo exerted such a pull that, once conquered, alpinists had to invent a new way of confronting them. Why not a trilogy? The first was completed in 1952 by Rebuffat (it took him seven years), followed in 1961 by Schlömmer (less than a year), then in a single winter season in 1978 by Ghirardini and Tomo Cesen in a week in 1986 (still controversial).
Time was accelerating, compressing – modern alpinists were fast, methodical, well trained. Then, in a feat that seemed to spell the end of History, Profit completed the trilogy in a shade over 40 hours (including helicopter transfers), with a livewire hot on his heels: Eric Escoffier.
These three faces, enchained in one fell swoop in 1987, chiefly symbolize the variety of terrains and mountain cultures that form the Alpine mosaic. At the foot of each: three guide companies (Chamonix, Cervinia, Grindelwald), and guides who follow in history’s footsteps. Different mountains, but the same mountaineering ethos.
do guides actually differ
between valleys and countries?»
aged 32, guide with Chamonix Guides Company.
Irrespective of the country, as guides with leading companies, we’re part of the age-old organizations that are benchmarks in the professional community. I think the guiding cultures in the three countries are moving closer. In France, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was a cult of performance with iconic coaches, but we’re now leaving that culture behind.
aged 38, guide with Cervinia Guides Company.
From country to country, the basics are always the same. French guides used to have a spectacular style, always looking to stretch the limits, but that’s settling down now. In Italy and Switzerland, we have a calmer approach. Maybe the big difference is that in Cervinia we have far fewer tourists than in Chamonix, where there are mountaineers all year round. Our resort is much smaller, with a lot fewer alpinists during the season, so it feels wilder.
aged 41, guide with Grindelwald Guides Company
I’d say Chamonix stands apart: it’s really serious terrain, with big glaciers and big mountains … so if you have a problem, there are big consequences. Chamonix is the mecca of climbing, so everyone’s there to prove something. Even so, I’d say there are more similarities than differences between the Alpine countries. After all, we’re alpinists and mountain people, and we all want to go home in the evening!
People still talk about it, and I’m still in awe of it! Enchaining the three big problems in the Alps, solving them in less than 2 days … in terms of physical stamina and commitment, it still seems incredible. Doing it faster won’t be easy … and maybe such an enchainment will never be repeated because helicopters are no longer used, and without a chopper it’s just not feasible. But it certainly gave Ueli Steck and Dani Arnold a few ideas...
Christophe Profit is a guide and Company colleague, and when you know him, you realize it’s not by chance that he was the one who did it – he’s a visionary, he has an aura about him … I’d add that perhaps his finest achievement is what he did next: opening a route up K2 with Pierre Béghin. In my view, that’s one of the top 10 ascents of all time. Nowadays, elite alpinism is performed differently – in the Himalayas, Alaska, Patagonia, on more remote and complex mountains.
The trilogy still has a mythical appeal in the imagination, whether you’re a guide or a mountaineer. Enchaining the three walls in your lifetime is a culmination for many, guides included, because not all guides have achieved this, and fewer have done so with a client. I’ve scaled all three faces – but not in the same year! The trilogy left its mark on an era, it was the start of something. Things really began to change, and it produced people like Ueli Steck – the sons of the big shift that Profit’s trilogy represented.
The three faces have one thing in common: their awe-inspiring, majestic allure. Down below, you feel very small! But they have different characteristics: the rock on the Matterhorn and Eiger is of poorer quality, the Eiger is the most technical in mixed-climbing terms, and Jorasses offers the elegance of climbing on granite and technicality (depending on your chosen route). The Matterhorn, which I know best, is the easiest technically speaking but the hardest with regard to assessing the conditions.
The new generation talks more about what’s going on now than what was happening 30 years ago. I was eight back then, so for me it’s a long time ago! I think that every generation has rolled back the limits. Here in Grindelwald, people talk more about Ueli Steck, who lived 20 minutes away in the valley. He’s a local hero. But if you know a few things about mountaineering history, if you’re a little bit interested, you understand that Profit’s trilogy was a real watershed. People realized that big faces could be climbed in a very short time. It’s the next step up from enchaining two summits, and the 1987 trilogy suddenly opened up tremendous possibilities … The next generation will always look for the toughest available challenge.