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Courmayeur

April 18th, 2006

(Milano Central) Wednesday, April 12 – COURMAYEUR, ITALY. I’m not sure exactly who contacted who but in 2000 there was a publication titled “Millennium” dedicated to “mountain culture.” It was produced by Grivel, a climbing gear manufacturer in Courmayeur, Italy. There were many themes and the editor, Betta Gobbi, ran an image of mine shot during the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999. The reason being it is a global market, a global society, and decisions made at a meeting like the WTO are likely to affect all facets of mountain culture.

A couple years later, after Millennium had ceased publication (it was a non-commercial centimeter-thick glossy made simply ‘because’), I found myself at the Grivel booth at one of the Outdoor Retailer trade shows in Salt Lake City. Betta and her husband Gioachino were both there. This started a series of nearly annual, albeit brief, meetings in which Betta would insist I come visit Courmayeur, a “beautiful place you just have to see for yourself.”

(train layover)This year I finally took her up on it. Courmayeur IS beautiful. Connected by a very long, very straight tunnel, it is directly across from Chamonix on the other side of Mt. Blanc. I haven’t fact-checked this, but apparently the number of permanent residents in Chamonix is around 9000, in Courmayeur it is about 3000, and during peak season those figures swell to 90,000 and 25,000, respectively. Courmayeur is a tighter valley, butting up against a much steeper, more rugged aspect of Mt. Blanc and the backside of Les Grandes Jorasses.

There were some transport issues getting from Milan back to Courmayeur, namely that the bus was full so I took the train which was late and as I disembarked at Aosta to transfer, there was Betta in her sunglasses looking very much like the past fashion editor and advertising executive she was before meeting Gioachino, falling in love, and making Courmayeur her home.

(Gioachino and Betta) The two are expressive, passionate, energetic, and generous. Not only was I treated to a traditional Italian meal at a family-run restaurant with a sweeping view of Mt. Blanc, but they put me up in one of their apartments and took a good chunk of their time the next day to speak with me. Betta spoke about Grivel’s history and the museum they have documenting the history of alpinism in the Alps, and Gioachino spoke more about the philosophy of the business, something largely an extension of his own beliefs.

Founded in 1818, the Grivel family worked a forge in Courmayeur, using the river to drive the bellows and hammers. Primarily working on farming tools, they also crafted ice axes similar to those found across the Alps. In 1909 the world’s first ten point crampon was designed by British railway engineer Oskar Eckenstein and made by Henri Grivel. At that time, polishing the metal took about 72 hours in a belt driven wooden barrel filled with rags. Now it takes a matter of seconds. In 1929 Laurent Grivel put two front points on the crampons, allowing climbers to change their style.

(Betta Gobbi)Later in the day I sat with Gioachino in his office, his desk spread with various papers and climbing hardware. On his computer screen was news photo of a protester whose sign read “Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity.”

In 1984 Gioachino bought the foundering company from a cousin. The reputation was still sound but the equipment, while good, was outdated. For Gioachino, who has lived his life in Courmayeur and whose father and grandfather were both mountain guides, he could not watch a company of such history simply disappear.

(MSR, Forest, and SMC axes as well as some Grivel tools including a mid-80’s carbonfiber tool looking like today’s leashless tools) Chouinard Equipment became his first U.S. distributor with Peter Metcalf the sales rep. Metcalf is now CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, the employee-owned maturation of Yvon Chouinard’s first company.

According to Gioachino, as companies like Black Diamond, Petzl, Charlet-Moser, and others expanded market share by buying smaller companies, Grivel focused more on novel design and the more ‘important’ things in life. To Gioachino those things are, in order of importance: women, women, mountains, and work.

(Gioachino Gobbi) One of the other things Gioachino is quick to emphasize, starting with the yin-yang symbol he drew on his desk, is how Grivel exists because of Mt. Blanc. For Betta and Gioachino, as it seems it is for the 20 person company, the goal is help people enjoy the mountains at whatever level they can, but to do so in a sustainable way.

“Even the biggest ocean is made by drops,” he says. “It’s very easy to read this as arrogant (but) the small drop Grivel brings to the ocean is very simple. It is the decision to decide. It’s just an attitude. It’s more expensive but the worst we can do is to destroy the mountain because then there is no money for anyone.”

(cafe machiato in hand) Gioachino, having been raised in the same valley as generations of his family, is mindful that the poverty and cold his ancestors suffered through allow him to live in what is now an expensive, beautiful, resort-like locale. He respects this and hopes the youth of today will also value the shoulders upon which they stand. But for the next generation, he says, “do your life, not my life” and in the equilibrium, he says, is the answer.

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