The Apprentice

Ski and climbing guide Michael Silitch is the only American working for the Compagniedes Guides de Chamonix, the exclusive, secretive outfit that runs the show in France's most extreme winter-sports town. It's a good life, but like any outsider, he knows that no matter how hard he works, he may never make it all the way in.

Silitch inside the Aiguille du Midi lift station, Chamonix, France     Photo: Photograph by Patrik Lindqvist

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Michael Silitch

A très bon professionnel

Michael Silitch

Silitch and the author playing chutes and ladders above Chamonix

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The door is heavy and Gothic, with an iron latch and metal rivets pounded into smooth, tawny wood. It's small, barely five feet high, and set into a cold stone frame. I'm not allowed past this door few people are but someone forgot to shut it. Orange light slips around the edges. Maybe I'll just peek.

"I wouldn't do that," says Michael Silitch, annoyed. "That would be very, very bad."Silitch gives me a stare that could bore through ice. He has a square, angular jaw and a thin, crisply etched nose. This is the second time he's had to intervene. Earlier, I snapped a photo of a list of names tacked next to the door, and that got me hauled outside for a talking-to. Don't take pictures of "sensitive" things, he said. Be quiet. Take off your hat. Above all, respect that door; Silitch has been working for years to get past it. His tone is clear: Don't screw this up.

It's a cold April evening in Chamonix, France, and Silitch and I are standing inside the Maison de la Montagne, a three-story building with thick walls and a copper roof. Outside, a church bell tolls as the last pale rays of winter light pool on a clutch of ragged peaks. For years now, Silitch, a 47-year-old American, has worked in Chamonix as a ski and climbing guide, ingratiating himself as few others have. He lives here year-round. His entire family speaks French. He knows the local customs, sends wedding gifts, and goes to funerals. For Silitch, as for any skier or climber, the soul of alpinism lingers over Chamonix as free as the air. But its heart rests behind a squat medieval door through which only an elite handful of Frenchmen pass. Beyond it lies the innermost sanctum of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, the world's first and arguably most exalted mountain-guiding service.

 

"It's an extremely prestigious group," says Kathy Cosley, an expat American guide who runs Cosley & Houston Alpine Guides, a climbing company in Chamonix. "They are badasses, but it's a different kind of badass here in France. Everyone looks to them as the experts in guiding."

In case you didn't know, recreational mountain climbing and (years later) extreme skiing pretty much began in Chamonix. The town of about 10,000 people sits in an ancient glacial valley an hour's drive south of Geneva, Switzerland, squeezed by some of Europe's most spectacular topography. Granite ridges wheel above cobblestone streets. Glaciers seem ready to spill into homes. Most impressive of all, Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak, rises more than 12,000 vertical feet over the Place de l'Église in staggering, Everest-like relief. When two men from Chamonix clawed their way to its 15,771-foot summit in 1786, a new sport was born.

From that point on, mountains could make heroes, and gentleman adventurers flocked to Chamonix. Back then, the town was populated mainly by chamois hunters and crystal gatherers (the Alps here twinkle with gorgeous octahedrals of pink fluorite), who knew the mountains better than anyone. In 1821, they organized to form the Company, a cooperative guiding service that eventually helped create laws considered sacrosanct today, one of which is that guides not clients are the ultimate authority on decision-making. In the seventies, extreme-skiing pioneers like the legendary Anselme Baud carved lines so bold that a new rating took root: abominablement difficile. Of course, the penalties for failure are huge, and over the past 187 years nearly 90 Company guides have died in the mountains.

"This is almost a mythical place," says Vincent Lameyre, a Company guide. "Many would like to be company guides, but very few will. That's just the way it is."

That's because the group is notoriously parochial. With rare exceptions a German around 1940, a Belgian in 1970 no one born outside the valley could even apply. In 1930, Roger Frison-Roche, who helped organize the inaugural Winter Olympics here, in 1924, became the first "outsider" allowed in. He was from a few valleys over. Marseille's Gaston Rébuffat, one of the world's greatest alpinists, had his Company application rejected once before becoming the second prominent French outsider admitted, in 1946.

Which helps explain why Silitch is so fussy. As an "American specialist in the Alps," as his business card puts it, he's on a path that may lead to his being the first Yank to crack the code. Over the past seven years, he's made it through two of the four stages of becoming a Company guide. He's now a renfort prioritaire a "priority reinforcement" which entitles him to do some Company work, a first for an American. If he hopes to make it all the way, he has to work hard and blend in.

"I got pulled aside a few years ago by a company guide who told me that if I was here to try to change things and to speak out, then that wasn't going to work," Silitch says. "But I don't want to change things; I want to become a part of it. This is something that makes you deeply proud of your profession. If I stay here long enough, show them I'm serious, and that I'm here to stay, I think I'll eventually be voted in."

Or maybe not. There's no tenure track for this, and Silitch may never get in, simply because he's an outsider.

And that's OK too. Even if Silitch peels back Company curtains only to find more curtains, he still gets what American guides at home rarely do a fat paycheck for skiing and climbing in a place like Chamonix. He can be a dirtbag without the dirt.

Little wonder, then, that he hardly blinks when someone shuts the door.

DESPITE ALL THE INTRIGUE, what goes on behind that door isn't terribly exciting. But it's steeped in tradition, and if you want to get in good with the French, you need to know how things work here.

Let's say you and some pals come to Chamonix for a ski holiday and you'd like to explore the backcountry. If you are Henri de Lestapis, a Parisian writer who's in town with eight buddies, you'll walk down to the Maison and fill out a green ticket listing your experience level and what you'd like to ski.

"Someone will call you with the details," the receptionist says, and off you go.Around 5 p.m., guides filter into the Maison. Silitch comes in, takes off his hat, and greets other guides with a "Bonjour, ça va?" He asks about avalanche conditions and other guides' families. Right now there are about 150 Company guides in all, but not all of them show up. Those who do slip behind the Gothic door to begin the tour de rôle, a system that allows guides their pick of the day's green tickets. Silitch has to wait outside until every Company guide has made his choice. Juicy assignments, like heli-ski­ing, get snapped up immediately.

When it's Silitch's turn, only scraps remain. As usual, he gets what is considereda junk job: He and another Company hopeful, a Frenchman named Patrick Pessi, will shepherd nine mostly inexperienced Parisian skiers down the Vallée Blanche.

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Only in Chamonix would this be seen as a disappointment. Although about a dozen ski areas line the valley, the best runs are in Chamonix's endless backcountry, and little can compare with the epic grandeur of the Vallée Blanche. When it's good, skiers can ride a cable car to the 12,605-foot summit of the Aiguille du Midi and porpoise through powder for as long as 12 miles and nearly 9,000 vertical feet, skiing through an icy jawbone ringed by Mont Blanc, the Aiguille Verte, the Grandes Jorasses, and scores of other famous peaks. There's a rock hut halfway down that sells sausages and beer. The route is so popular that mogul fields will form, but it's best to go with a guide.

"People think they can ski it like it's a run at a resort," Silitch says. "My father-in-law did that. He's just ripping all over the place and skis over a crevasse. It opened up under him it was huge but, lucky for him, he didn't fall in."

We meet the Parisians the next day at the tram terminal below the Aiguille du Midi. Six feet of snow has fallen in the past two weeks, and the lift station is a zoo. Pessi and Silitch carry backpacks stuffed with harnesses, ropes, and avalanche transceivers. One of the Parisians has cigarettes and a cell phone tucked into his front mesh pocket.

"For most of these guys, it's their first time in the high mountains away from a skiresort," Pessi tells me as the tram climbs steadily upward.

Pessi, now 39, came to Chamonix from southern France in the late nineties to study at the National School of Ski and Alpinism, which sits in the center of town. Every mountain guide in France has studied there, including Silitch, who did a short course with Anselme Baud. Pessi was there for three years, studying geology, wildflowers, and French mountain law, and he passed a comprehensive test called the tronc commun. Then came practical training, in which students guide real clients, who get discounts for being cobayes, or "guinea pigs." In 1999, Pessi passed his final exam and became an internationally certified guide. So far he, like Silitch, is just a reinforcement.

At the top, we rope up and step out onto an exposed ridge. The Parisians slip on the steep snow, but the rope keeps them safe. We work our way down to a saddle, where we can untie and put on skis.

"You take the lead," Silitch says to Pessi in French. "I'll bring up the rear."It's warming up fast today, and the Parisians flail badly in the mashed-potato crud. It doesn't seem to bother them.

"La neige!" yelps one, happy with the quantity of snow.

"Mais vas-y!" shouts another, hurrying a buddy so he can drop in.

Silitch never makes a scene, but I can tell something bothers him by his cracked lips, which are thin and drawn.

"I would have picked an easier route down," he says later. "Sometimes guides have their own agenda. You have to make calls based on the group, and this group is having problems."

Everyone needs a break by the time we reach the Requin Hut, a stone building perched where two glaciers crash into a third, the Mer de Glace. Inside sits a forty-something local wearing the Company's distinct green jacket and devouring a croûte savoyarde, a cheesy potato casserole. He has perfect boy-band hair and a confidence that teeters on cocksure. We sit at his table, which seems to bug him.

"I remember when you were the new guy up on Mont Blanc," Silitch says playfully in French.

"I don't climb that anymore," the guide fires back.

"You climbed it a lot," Silitch says, almost apologetically.

"Seventeen times that first summer."

"Wow, that is a lot," I say, trying to exude a friendly vibe. He ignores me.

"How many times did you have to climb Mont Blanc before you got into the Company?" Silitch asks, trying to salvage the encounter.

"That has nothing to do with it," the guide snaps, steam curling off the food on his fork. "You have to be from Chamonix."

EVERY COMPANY GUIDE I asked had only good things to say about Silitch. He is sympa, says Eric Mathieu, meaning "friendly." He's a bon guide, says Daniel Simond. He's a très bon professionnel, says Lionel Pernollet.

Still, while no one would ever say such a thing outright, odds are that some guides probably wonder about Silitch's qualifications, simply because he's American. While places like France, Italy, Switzerland, and Canada long ago adopted a stringent curriculum that all aspiring guides had to complete before being allowed to work, for many years in the U.S. you could become a guide simply by working for a company that said you were a guide. It wasn't until 1997 that the Boulder, Colorado based American Mountain Guides Association created guiding schools acceptable to the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, the Switzerland-based body that oversees worldwide accrediting.

"A friend of mine heard a guide talk about an American once as a candy' guide," says Kathy Cosley, "like he wasn't the real deal."

Silitch spent years working and passing international tests in ice climbing, alpine climbing, and ski mountaineering, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. Now that he's internationally certified, he can guide independently in more than 20 countries, including France. This irks other French guides, who can't guide independently on, say, Denali, because they'd need a permit from the National Park Service. Those permits are already locked up by six authorized concessionaires.

 

Silitch will never be French, of course, but his background has prepared him to fit in, as both a guide and an expat. The son of a folk-artist mother and an engineer father, he began learning French in kindergarten at a private school in Annapolis, Maryland, where he grew up. When he was five, his parents divorced and he stayed with his mother, Natalie. She bought a white VW van and took him and his two younger sisters camping on road trips to Florida, Canada, and Oregon.

"There I was in the sixth grade having to read the maps, light the camp stove, and set up the tents," Silitch tells me over crab cakes at Munchie, a Swedish restaurant off the Rue des Moulins. "I never thought about it, but I guess that was my first time acting like a guide."

Silitch was a quick learner, but he did only so-so in school. His mother decided he needed a masculine influence in his life, so in ninth grade he was sent to Purcellville, Virginia,to live with his dad. Peter Silitch had remarried an Austrian countess, Elizabeth Colloredo-Mansfeld, and she got her stepson to buckle down by rewarding him with wine if he finished his homework before dinner. Today, Silitch drinks so infrequently that even a digestif will make him gag, but her methods worked. He got straight A's, earned the highest score in the state on a standardized French exam, and won a scholarship to a private boarding academy in New Hampshire called Holderness School.

Holderness sits near the Rumney cliffs, and Silitch dove into rock climbing. Soon he and Kevin Dippy, a housemate, were roping up every chance they got. "Kevin and I would sneak off to Cannon Cliff or ride our bikes out to radio towers that we could climb and rap off," Silitch says. "We planned to take a year off to go to France to pick grapes and climb, but then Kevin died."

Silitch isn't chatty to begin with, and here he trails off. He typically slots words into sentences with the precision of a climber plugging protection into a crack. Talking about his friend seems to gunk everything up, so he retreats. He'll add only that Dippy and a partner had been climbing near Telluride, Colorado, when an anchor failed. Both of them died.

After Dippy's death, Silitch headed into the blank pages of the American West. He skied big lines in North Cascades National Park and bagged Mount Baker, South Early Winters Spire, and Monte Cristo Peak. In 1980 he was in a couloir in the Enchantments when Mount St. Helens erupted and covered his car in ash.

Silitch graduated from St. John's College, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1986. After several years of bouncing around working for Outward Bound in the West and taking a sports marketing job with Nestlé back east in 1994 he signed on with the American Alpine Institute (AAI), in Bellingham, Washington. He led doctors and lawyers up routes in Canada, South America, and Alaska. He started to think: He could either keep guiding those guys (and make $120 a day) or become a doctor himself and work on Denali. A few years later, he signed up for premed classes at the University of Colorado in Boulder and aced the coursework with a 3.9 GPA.

He never went to med school, though. One day at his condo, he looked at a copy of Holderness School Today, his alumni magazine. He saw a short announcement from Nina Cook, a native of Maine and a Holderness grad who'd moved to Boulder to teach. "It said something like I'm new to town,' and it listed her phone number," he says. He called and offered to make her pancakes.

"Sure, it was a little weird," Nina says. "But he had real maple syrup."

The two hit it off, climbing and running and skiing together. "Then Michael starts talking about going off to Antarctica or to med school in Des Moines," Nina says. "No way was I going to Des Moines."

One day, the phone rang with a job offer from the AAI to spend a summer guiding in France. Michael turned to Nina and said, "What about Chamonix?"

THE SILITCHES HAVE NEVER looked back. They now have two handsome French-speaking boys and a pleasant three-story wood chalet surrounded by the homes of Company guides. One of them, Lionel Pernollet, has become such a close friend that Silitch asked him to be his firstborn's godfather.

"Michael made the choice to live in Chamonix, to learn our language, and to raise his kids in our valley," says Pernollet, a third-generation Company guide. "His kindness and discretion have made it very natural for him to be welcomed and appreciated by the Company."

It was Pernollet who helped Silitch get started, six years ago, by introducing him to Company director Jean-Francois Collignon. "They made me a reinforcement, which was great," Silitch says. He got bumped up a notch to priority reinforcement meaning he gets first pick of the scraps in late 2007, after he approached the Company to emphasize again his interest in joining them.

"La Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix represents a brotherhood that I respect," he wrote in immaculate French to the messieurs of the Company. "I will be proud to be a part of it."

 

There's not much more he can do. He has to wait for a committee of 16 peers to approve him as a stagière, or "apprentice." Company bylaws give people from Chamonix first dibs, followed by France as a whole, followed by the European Union and whoever else. Even if he gets voted in as an apprentice, he'll have to put in two years, and then the entire Company will have to vote on which apprentices can become full members. No more than four make it every year. "When I was younger, working for the Company would have been like playing in the NBA," he says. "Nowit's more of an honor thing."

To cap our day of skiing through the Vallée Blanche, Silitch and I make plans to spend the night in a hut off the Aiguille du Midi at around 12,000 feet. Chamonix is littered with huts perched in impossible locations. Some are three stories high, with beds for hundreds of people. Nearly all of them offer hot soup, fresh bread, and wine. So we race into town, where Nina meets us in the family's blue minivan to ferry us to the tram. I hop in back with two-year-old Anders, their youngest.

"In the states, guiding means hauling in a heavy pack, sleeping for weeks in a tent, and being away for a long time," Silitch says. "Here, I ride the tram up, skip the slog in, and climb all day in incredible terrain, and still come home to play with the kids. Guiding is not just something to do in your twenties. Here you can grow old doing it."

He won't go broke, either. There's a joke that the difference between an American mountain guide and a large pepperoni pizza is that the pizza can feed a family. But Silitch does fine, earning about $100,000 a year with a combination of independent and Company-sourced guiding jobs and paid sponsorships from Petzl, Backcountry Access, and the North Face. In the U.S. he'd be lucky to make $30,000.

Silitch hugs Nina and Anders goodbye, and we board the last cable car for the Aiguille du Midi. When we were here a few hours ago with the Parisians, the top station was packed with tourists and Vallée Blanche skiers. Now the scene is hardcore: Down-swaddled mountaineers line the frigid halls in bivy sacks and sort their gear, ready to spend the night in the building. Silitch and I rope up and climb over a railing outside to reach the Cosmique Ridge, a rock fin right off the terminal.

The plan is to work our way down to a snow slope where we can strap on skis and skin up to the Cosmique hut, a metal-and-glass marvel on a promontory at 12,000 feet. It's about $60 a night for a flushing toilet, a warm bunk, a hot dinner, and breakfast. You can sit on the deck, watch deadly seracs collapse off Mont Blanc du Tacul, and then ski for miles into Italy or back to town through the Vallée Blanche.

"Keep me tight here," Silitch shouts as I belay him down a wildly exposed section above a lonely glacier. Clouds surge over the ridge like sea foam; Silitch disappears into the fog. To my right, a door swings open and a tram worker starts sweeping the balcony. I can't tell, but it looks like he's bored.

A storm rolls in just as we make it to the hut, which is empty except for three skiers on vacation from Marseille. The next morning, the storm clears by 10 a.m., so we head back out through the Vallée Blanche. It's the best Vallée experience I've had: boot-deep powder, pink light swaddling purple peaks, no one around. Even Silitch, who's skied it far more times than he can count, calls it great.

THE LAST DAY I SPEND with Silitch is supposed to be his day off. It's his turn to watch the kids, who've been bouncing off the walls. "I have a lot of work to catch up on," he tells me over the phone. Problem is it snowed again, and clouds are clearing to reveal a sparkling blue sky.

"Maybe you could just come guide me for a half-day," I suggest. "Let's go ride the lifts and you show me areas to ski out of bounds. That's a big part of your winter business, right?"

In less than 20 minutes, his minivan comes screaming into my hotel parking lot, the tires skidding on slick cobblestones. Silitch already has his helmet on.

"Good thing you're wearing that," I say when I open the door.

"I'm a professional," he says. "Get in."

On a powder day in Chamonix, the best thing you can do is make a beeline for the open, steep slopes of the Grands Montets, a ski area at the top of the valley near the Argentière Glacier. Since there are no laws about where you can ski even private land becomes public once it's covered in snow jumping into the backcountry from there is ideal.

We ride up on the tram, and for the next few hours I follow Silitch into gullies, off cornices, and down knolls with powder welling up to our waists. Both of us are charged, maybe too much so; I'm beat by early afternoon.

Silitch drops me off and I wander around Chamonix, past the newly smoke-free bars and down a quaint little alley by the burbling L'Arve river. I stop at a wine shop that smells like musty cheese and buy a bottle before heading back over to Silitch's house to meet one of his neighbors. On the way, Silitch walks fast, even after hours of hard skiing. I point it out.

"Everyone has their thing," he says.

We knock at the door of a tidy house near the train tracks. A man in torn purple sweats and a teal sweater embroidered with the Company logo opens the door. He is stocky and balding but spry. Armand Comte, 73, is one of the oldest Company guides still working.

"Please, please, come in," Comte says, leading us to a creaky room with smoky crystals displayed in a glass cabinet. "My grandfather was a crystal gatherer," he says. "He was also a guide."

Silitch explains how he's working as a reinforcement for the Company and asks Comte to share some of its history with us. Comte speaks slowly, telling us how his grandfather, born in 1868, traversed the frightful ridges of the Dru five times in the summer of 1911. That, along with other exploits, was enough for the Company to honor him with a commemorative medallion, issued posthumously in 1975. "He was sure, prudent, and modest," Comte says of his grandfather. "Me, I was never a brilliant climber, but in bad terrain I was good." He and Silitch then swap stories about routes and peaks and huts that have come and gone.

We are there for nearly two hours before Comte's wife comes in to tell him dinneris ready. As we rise to leave, Silitch asks Comte about his grandson, who goes to the same preschool as Silitch's son Birken. The whole time he's been speaking to Comte formally, using French's polite vous to address him, instead of the informal tu. Comte interrupts him.

"Stop with the vous," he demands. "You can say tu. Me and you, we are the same. We are guides."

He leads us outside and waves goodbye. When I turn around, the door is still open.

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