It turned up one day in the post. At the mairie. I found this while clearing out the attic and it doesn’t belong to me, so I thought I should send it here, the letter inside explained. And there, wrapped in tissue, was a small, dusty green moleskin notebook, worn velvety soft and battered with use. The long-lost guide’s logbook of Philippe Mermoud, mountain guide in the 1930s, from one of the oldest Contamines families and an elder of the village until his passing in 1991.
His grand-daughter, Valeri Depraz-Depland, is the local librarian and coincidentally the book was returned to her just the day before I went to ask for her help in researching the history of the Contamines guides. She kindly let me look at it and take a few photos.
It is wonderful. Inside are not only the official pages showing his qualifications (brevets) but also testimonials from clients, like the one from a Mr Barthélemy in 1933 expressing his sincere thanks “au gars solide et résistant qu’est Philippe Mermoud” for the ski tours to the Col de Joly and Col de Voza and for “sa complaisance et sa courtoisie, jointes à ses qualités professionnelles.”
And to think that, when this was written, the Contamines guides company had already been in existence for more than 80 years. Founded in 1850, it is the second oldest anywhere as far as I can see, after the one in Chamonix (established in 1823).
In the early 1800s, tourism was just taking off in the Chamonix area and, inspired by the first famous ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, demand soared for guides to lead people to experience the majesty of the mountains for themselves. The first guiding companies were formed to maintain professional standards, to be a contact point for clients, and also to provide support for families in the event of injury or death.
Today, mountain guide standards and qualifications are internationally maintained and regulated, explains Olivier Begain, head of the bureau here in Les Contamines (and also of the ESF). But the company is still a community of support for guides and their families, and a guardian of the traditions of this highly skilled profession in the valley, celebrated every summer at the Fête des Guides.
“What’s great,” he says, “is that for a long time we had no new intake at all here and now we have four new young guides that have joined us recently and another youngster in training.” Most are from local families. Every guides company has its own particular character – what makes the Les Contamines bureau special in part is that “we are not too big, there’s a good mix of older and younger guides, and they are all real ‘montagnards’.”
Olivier himself is approaching his 40th season as a guide, an articulate yet humble leader of his profession and as passionate as ever about his work.
The best part of his job? It’s the people, he says. He tells me of one client who was an enthusiastic beginner when he took him on his very first route, the Traversée des Crochues. He climbed with him on progressively more difficult routes for the next 25 years. He wasn’t rich, he recalls, but he lived for his climbing holidays and planned for them all year. Another client didn’t start climbing with him till he was in his ‘50s. “Over ten years, we did lots of different routes he never imagined he’d be able to do and, when he eventually had to stop because of a knee problem, he was in tears.”
I don’t think they have guides’ logbooks any more like they used to in the 1930s, but I’m guessing the heartfelt enthusiasm of the testimonials from clients today, like that of Mr Barthélemy from Paris, has not changed.
The Contamines guides office operates year-round offering ski touring and freeride, snowshoeing and walking, mountaineering, rock climbing, ice-climbing, parapenting, canyoning and via ferrata, in groups or individually. For more information please see www.guides-contamines.com or stop in at the bureau next to the Tourist Office (shared with the ESF).
Thank you to Olivier Begain, Director of the Bureau des Guides des Contamines and the ESF, and to Valeri Depraz-Depland and family!