Couttet Champion | The Pedagogue

Couttet Champion

the inspiration behind the French Ski School

Couttet Champion and his pupils in front of Montroc school in Chamonix

First ski racing school

Aware at an early stage of the importance of winter sports and mountaineering to the development of tourism in the Chamonix valley and the Alps in general, Alfred Couttet founded a ski racing school in Chamonix in 1908. His aim was to encourage vocations and train future French ski champions. Some of his pupils went on to become great champions in the image of their teacher, including Kléber Balmat, Gilbert Ravanel, James Couttet and Régis Charlet.
In 1928, this school became the first FREE ski school for Chamonix schoolchildren. Every Thursday, the children of Chamonix were taken to the valley's ski slopes to learn telemark skiing, cross-country skiing and ski jumping, so that one day they too could teach these skills to tourists.

In 1908, COUTTET CHAMPION had 9 pupils, in 1926 there were forty and in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, the school had 96 pupils.

This is how the first ski instructors were trained, such as Roger Frison-Roche, who gave the very first course at the Mont-Blanc Federation school, which replaced my grandfather's school at Le Prarion. This is how COUTTET CHAMPION's ideas were handed down from generation to generation. Incidentally, Frison-Roche, an early pupil at the CHAMPION ski school, in turn taught skiing to a certain Émile Allais, another emblematic figure in French skiing. And rather than talking about a chain reaction, I think it's more appropriate to say that my grandfather's teaching had a snowball effect, hadn't it?

But his vocation as a teacher did not end there. In 1932, he wrote and self-published one of the very first ski teaching manuals. And while skiing technique has evolved considerably, whole sections of his Petit Manuel pratique de Ski (Little practical Ski Manual) are still relevant today, as he explains the technical basics of the sport that earned him his reputation and his nickname of CHAMPION.

Couttet Champion and his guide friends who came to help him prepare the Gaillands school wall

The Chamonix Climbing School

In 1915, he founded the Chamonix Climbing School on the Gaillands rock face. After a stay in the Eastern Alps, he brought back the idea of building a rock face in the Chamonix valley that could be used as a place of learning and training for the students of the Climbing School. So he set about finding a wall in the valley that was easy to access and had enough routes of all levels of difficulty for him to be able to train and teach there. This is how he discovered the site of what is now the Rocher des Gaillands. In 1928, with the help of a few guide friends: André Clérico, Camille Couttet, Marcel Bozon, etc., he set about cleaning and equipping the first routes on this cliff to make it suitable for teaching climbing. Every year on 15 August, the traditional Fête des Guides takes place on this now-famous rock face. It has become the Chamonix Climbing School, and since the creation of the National Mountaineering School, it has even become the compulsory route for the High Mountain Guide exams.

Alfred COUTTET quickly realised that good technique and rigorous, regular training were the keys to success. This school would enable all the new generations of climbers to put into practice the principles of this brilliant teacher.

At the Rocher des Gaillands, where every summer on holiday at my grandfather's house I wore out my shoes and walked in his footsteps, he taught the art of climbing to the younger climbers and prepared his clients for difficult routes. His vocation as a teacher gave him a completely different mindset to that of conquering for glory and personal satisfaction. Look for the guide, the teacher is never far behind.

Before any technical teaching, he knows that his role is to teach the mountain, its rules and humility. That's why he makes it a point of honour to do all his first ascents with his clients. Perhaps that's why his book of firsts isn't as full as others, but they're all the more beautiful for it. The real challenge was to know which clients to take on which routes, to assess their ability to resist and their technical level in order to achieve the feat and bring the whole party back safe and sound. This was not the case for all the guides in the valley, who sometimes got carried away by their thirst for glory. These slender heights seem to taunt the conquering audacity of the guides who have sworn to subject themselves to everything that nature has devised that is more risky and more coldly deadly, he said.

Couttet Champion gives a telemark lesson to a student

the one who shows the way

Alfred COUTTET, who loved nature and his job, always took his clients into the mountains with the idea in mind that a guide is, as his name suggests, an initiator, a teacher, someone who shows the way. In doing so, he was able to help them achieve one of the most beautiful victories of all, the victory over oneself when one succeeds in a great mountain race or when wisdom calls for the renunciation of such a race. With such lucidity, Alfred COUTTET had made such a reputation for himself that he had one of the most numerous and beautiful clientele a guide could ever dream of.

A guide is a man in good physical and moral health. On the first point, he must be able to demonstrate his virtuosity when climbing. It's acrobatics, no doubt, but it's a method that can get you out of a lot of scrapes... It's true that the climber who sets out for the first time to tackle a famous summit is overwhelmed, supported and galvanised by emotion, joy, hope and pride. But the vigilant, prudent, indefatigable and helpful helper and adviser to whom you have entrusted your safety is undertaking a task that you would consider thankless if you had to take it on yourself. He takes moral responsibility for your life and must uphold his reputation. He must make the day ahead pleasant and charming, the day after less difficult, and the hours when you remember your exploit very sweet. The alpine guide is the friend of the mountain, and he is your friend: he is the link between you and the mountain, and he would so much like to sign a contract of admiration and attachment between the white expanse and its new conqueror!   Alfred COUTTET

It's clearer now that his ideas have become the very foundations of Alpine Technique, including skiing and mountaineering, and how inspired this precursor was with his humanist visions. And I know today that the millions of apprentice skiers of all ages who have come and gone in the Ski Schools, as well as all the aspiring guides who have passed, are passing or will pass through the Rocher des Gaillands, are all in some way his pupils, his friends, his children.