From a world to another

Upon exiting the Helbronner cable car, at an altitude of almost 3,500m, Jean suddenly feels overwhelmed. Catapulting passengers from one world to another, the cable car is the promise of almost instantaneous teletransportation. It takes about 20 minutes to migrate from concrete to ice and reach new heights, both literally and figuratively. Faced with such beauty and the tranquillity of the mountain, in striking contrast with the effervescence of the Inn’s last service, Jean Sulpice is overcome with emotion, and soon I am too.

Next to him, a dozen experienced mountaineers are bustling around a large blue trunk. Equipped with enough gear for a Himalayan expedition, they’re trying to fit as many bulky bags as possible onto two narrow pulks. Tied up with metres of rope, the two sleighs wobble, drift and sometimes tip over, escaping the trail at the first opportunity.

In the foreground, the chef watches over his frail crew. A swarm of ropes and willing arms hold, pull and push the pulks as best they can. Where on earth are they going, and what are they planning to do with that equipment? This is probably what the other climbers on the trails are wondering, but very few would dare ask it out loud! Some know each other and are aware of their preference for alpine climbs, light and fast trips equipped with 40L backpacks rather than a couple of mysterious sliding sarcophagi... Especially on the slopes of Mont Blanc!

The Combe Maudite

The purpose of this expedition draws its roots from a genuinely mad idea: Set up a high-altitude base camp in the Combe Maudite, at the foot of the Alps’ highest peak, and serve exceptional guests a dinner worthy of the surrounding mountains. But this time without relying on high-altitude porters or yaks, only the very best French and international mountaineers gathered around a talented chef.

It would have been more reasonable to charter a helicopter to airlift the hundreds of kilos of material needed for such an endeavour. But the effort, the struggle and the complicity necessary to reach this goal are what constitute the journey’s real value. The caravan struggles past some of the most beautiful monoliths of the massif. These rock sentinels watch over the deafening quietness of the attractive yet menacing Combe Maudite. While Jean seems more accustomed to the harmonious proportions of the peaks that overlook his Inn than to the threatening giants above us, I can see on his face a mixture of respect and admiration, tinted with envy.

It is in this nearby and accessible, yet remote and wild setting that the crew decides to set up the camp. The view is breathtaking, the surface flat, and the surrounding crevasses small enough to limit the risks and ensure the safety of all involved.

Altitude dinner

Just like after a rain shower in the desert, pink and blue mineral domes bloom in the snow, illuminating the monochrome landscape. On a sea of ice, several hundred metres deep, stands a Mess tent surrounded by an archipelago of a dozen colourful sleeping tents. This is where we’ll install our ephemeral kitchen, and set the stage for high-altitude cuisine.

The mountaineers and Himalayan climbers, who are used to carrying their own tent and making do with freeze-dried food, have no idea of the surprise that awaits them at base camp. In such a familiar environment for them, everything has been thought out to make bivouac a five-star memory!

Like them, we believe that luxury is not always where you expect it, and that nature, especially in high mountains, can offer unparalleled beautiful moments. That a sky made up of five billion stars and a simple tent can compete with the fanciest five-star palaces. That certain landscapes offer views that no art gallery can match. And that the hunger experienced up there also deserves to be quenched with the finest food!

What better than Jean Sulpice’s cuisine to honour such an exceptional event, in an exceptional setting, imagined for exceptional guests? A true lover of high mountains, always willing to take up a new challenge, the chef exceptionally left his beloved Inn behind to come and cook for us in the rarefied high-altitude air.

Closer to the sky

Philippe Héritier Magnum corks start popping as the first sumptuous pâtés en croute make their way to the tables. What an incredible challenge it is to cook with your feet deep in the snow, on stoves nothing like those of professional kitchens. I know the instrument doesn’t matter when the melody comes from the heart, but everyone spontaneously cheered when the rabbit soup with capers and lemon was served. It all seemed unreal, and the flavours so foreign. In such a hostile environment where living is surviving, sensations are tenfold. Every dish is passionately savoured. Mature Dubouloz cheese is tasted with slow and careful consideration. As a dessert trolley made of snow and ice makes its rounds, everybody feast on sweets and mini-pastries as if dining closer to the sky had elevated our sense of taste.

This base-camp dinner, which was meant to be a celebration, becomes an hallucination. Philippe’s biodynamic wines set the evening alight, and make a few heads spin! Tasting such nectars in beautiful stemmed glasses against the backdrop of the south face of Mont Blanc is a most unique experience. A superlative and sumptuous event that will leave a lasting impression. Smiles on the guests’ chiselled faces are reminiscent of the unwavering joy going around on the summit after a memorable ascent.

Two tightrope walkers

The night is still pitch dark when Jean and I make our way onto the Géant Glacier. It would have been unthinkable for the chef to climb up Mont Blanc without reaching the summit. But in order to be back at the Inn early enough to manage the midday service, we had to start our climb at dawn and get a move on, fast. Halfway between the world above and the world below, we push forward on the Aiguilles d’Entrèves like two tightrope walkers. Our ridge, made up of short climbing sections, is dotted with obstacles that we must step over or around. In this environment where emptiness prevails, Jean is fully committed and focusing on every movement, something he is very familiar with in his work. For him, beyond the trust he places in me, this ascent is a step towards the unknown. But isn’t it the path to greatness to know how to throw yourself into a new venture, to commit and sometimes exit one’s comfort zone? The mountain teaches humility, as it always will. At every moment, our ropes are here to ensure our safety.

Mountaineering reminds us of our taste for life and highlights our desire not to miss out. Climbing is something magical that can tip you over into another world. With body and mind fully mobilised, our actions are self-sufficient. When you climb through a tricky section, you can’t think of anything else or check your phone. It is as if switching from the horizontal to the vertical plane somehow alters our relationship to the body, space and time. In these sections, I like to observe Jean, more focused than ever.

The mountain doesn’t leave you any choice: It mobilises you in everything you are, and makes you forget who you think you are. This is perhaps its most beautiful impact, forcing you to stop thinking and simply leaving you with the possibility of... being.
“Mountaineering reminds us of our taste for life and highlights our desire not to miss out.”

At the summit, faced with the beauty and immensity of the world, Jean and I share our immeasurable happiness to be there. We both want this moment to last forever. Or just a little bit longer. We realise that this fabulous dinner and this ascent are both milestones that  if only for a moment  have the power to make time stand still.

Writing : Christophe Dumarest | Photographer : Marc Daviet
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