The girls had been fencing in Geneva over the weekend and as it was the start of a half-term break in the UK. We decided, rather than to head back to the UK, we would get the Easybus from Geneva airport over to Chamonix in France for a few days. The drive is only a bit over one hour, so easy access. On the bus I got chatting to one of the other passengers, he was British but lived in Chamonix. Maybe mid forty in age, he was a pilot for British airways and although his actual workday started at Heathrow Airport (UK) his journey to work started in Chamonix (France); bus to Geneva Airport, fly to London, fly to wherever etc.
Thought that was quite a funky way to live your life.
Anyway, he suggested to us that whilst in Chamonix we should ride the cable car to the lookout platform on the Aiguille du Midi. I am not a great man for height, but this sounded like a great thing to do, so the following morning we lined up at the ticket booth for a seat on the next cable car heading up.
The Aiguille du Midi is a 3842m peak in the Mont Blanc massif of the French Alps. This is the closest you can get to the summit of Mont-Blanc (4,810m) without hiking or climbing and is officially the highest mountain peak served by an aerial lift system in the world. The name translates literally to ‘needle in the sky’ (or something like that). The Aiguille du Midi cable car holds the world record for the highest vertical ascent: 2807m (from 1035m to 3842m), this is the closest you can get to Mont Blanc on a lift system. What I’m trying to say is that the ride up (and down) is quite terrifying, unless you are super cool with being in a metal box with windows, swaying in the breeze a few miles in the sky - I was not, and was very much looking forward to getting off.
This was late October and whilst snow hadn’t reached Chamonix village, it was still very cold and on this day, (typical) it was extremely windy. On the platform of the Aiguille du Midi it was -4 degrees and the wind was blowing from the north at 40 miles per hour (I knew this because the weather gauge at the top told me). There are three viewing platforms and at the very top the viewing area overhung a drop that looked straight down a granite rock face for 1000m.
A sheer drop of one kilometre.
I was very hesitant just peeking over the railing, the drop was unbelievable but made worse by the freezing gale.
This was midweek and not a holiday in France so the platform on the Aiguille du Midi was quite empty, with maybe half a dozen people milling around. As I was holding the railing a hand grabbed my arm and I heard an American accent ask me to move aside. I turned around and a guy dressed in one of those flying squirrel outfits begins to climb over the railing.
Let me say that again - he began to climb over the railing! I was speechless.
Squirrel Man was now standing on the other side of the railing and although he was holding on, he was standing on a platform that was no more than 10cm wide. Below him was nothing but air - for a kilometre.
He was being buffeted by the wind, to the point that he was fighting to hold on, and to top it off it was below freezing.
All I could say was, ‘Mate, you sure about this?’
Squirrel Man said nothing - his stare was forward and unwavering in its focus. A crowd began to gather as they realised, we were in the presence of possibly the biggest hell man on earth.
I asked again if he was sure.
He again said nothing (and neither did we) for another thirty seconds then very quietly he said,
‘Something inside my head is telling me to go…’
Still looking straight ahead, he just dived forward into the nothingness. I watched him go, and I watched him fall. Squirrel Man didn’t fly, he fell straight down.
Surely after the first 500 metres he was questioning his decision?
To his full credit and more a testament to his mental stability, he held his flying squirrel position with arms and legs spread wide. He used 900m of the allocated 1000m before his Squirrel outfit kicked in.
I lost sight of him and then suddenly I watched as he swooped down the valley. OMG.
The courage of Squirrel Man was indescribable. This is a different type of thrill surely? What would possess you to dive off that platform, in that weather and hope to Christ you, at some stage, will begin to fly?
I’m sorry but that is MAD.
Catching big waves, driving fast cars, running ultra-marathons - there are a million ways to do yourself some damage if you really want to, but I think about Squirrel Man often and I feel genuinely sorry for him.
If you need to do that in order to obtain some type of life fulfilment, then you need a bloody reset.
We got back to the hotel later that day and the girl behind the reception asked me how the day went. I told her we went up to the Aiguille du Midi and that I watched a guy jump off.
‘Yes’, she said. ‘Two died last week doing that.’
So - two died last week and Squirrel Man still thought it was a great idea.
That will do me forever.