Courchevel's explorers: Sylvie Ferragu, from Alps to Nepal

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Treks and high mountain adventures

We met Sophie Ferragu, ski instructor in Courchevel Village and mountaineer, who told us about her Nepal expeditions and treks, her aspirations, her relationship with mountains and nature. A thrilling portrait which takes us on an adventure towards 8000 m high summits.

What is your story with Courchevel?

I'm not a local child, I was born in the small Jura mountains. I moved around a lot and when I was 21/22 years old, I arrived in Courchevel to work with children during snow camps. I really liked the place. I had done some cross-country skiing in Jura, but when I came here, I had a lot of time to improve my skiing! So I did everything I could to stay in this region. I moved to Courchevel and I passed my ski instructor certificate, a little late because my level was not quite good. I struggled a bit (laughs). To stay here during summer too, I passed the mountain leader diploma. I have been working at the Courchevel Village ski school since 1989, so it's been a while. I managed to stay in a fulfilling environment, between sports, nature, and sharing knowledge. I don't regret it at all because I am very happy where I am!

Which explorations did you go on?

There are many of them because I have traveled a lot, especially in the Alps, but the most important ones were the expeditions in altitude and the treks in Nepal. I started exploring the mountains a little late. I started climbing and mountaineering in the Alps and the Vanoise massif, Chamonix and the Écrins massif. Then, I made trips to Nepal. I went there more than 25 times. It is a country that brings me a lot and I hope to go back soon! I did a lot of treks to discover the regions, at the beginning, then small summits. Then, I went on an expedition on the Tibetan side of Everest. A unique experience for the body, the mind and the discovery of local culture.

I also left for the Makalu and the Ama Dablam. I loved this expedition because it is a little less high but a little more technical, and especially, we made a magnificent trek in altitude to acclimatize. We passed by the Mera peak, the site is inaccessible by car, we slept in sheepfolds, it was really great. I believe that it is this kind of travel that brings me the most: those where you can discover another culture, where you can pass in villages, etc… It is so different from a camp in high altitude with a base camp, which can be unpleasant and hard.

Then, in high altitude expedition, there was the Manaslu, which is 8 156 m high. It was one of the expeditions that stuck me the most for different reasons. I did it with my friend, in total autonomy, it is another type of commitment. It happened one year after a previous expedition, during which there was the big earthquake in Nepal. We almost didn't come back. We didn't want to stay on a negative note, so the year after, we motivated ourselves and said "let's go back!". And it went well, the conditions were good and it was a nice revenge! It was nice to meet again all the people we had met on the acclimatization trek.

Where does this thirst for adventure come from?

Nature and mountains call me, as well as travel. I started to travel at 16 years old in Africa, South America, etc. Once I had a real contact with mountains, altitude and mountaineering, I developed this curiosity and wanted to share it. However, today, the very high altitude does not attract me anymore. I am getting older and it takes a lot. But high altitude treks bring a lot. For example, we also did a magnificent tour in Mustang, a more or less independent kingdom in the west of Nepal. I had been dreaming of going there for a very long time. We crossed all the Mustang to make a glacier trek in total autonomy during eight days. There too, it is an adventure: there is commitment, there is no precise map, we pass at 6000 m, etc. We had also planned to climb summits which were recently opened to tourism, pristine and without a name. That too was very attractive because exploration today is a bit complicated. There are so few virgin places in the world. However, the amount of snow cut this project short.

I am lucky to share these moments with friends. There are commercial tours offered by agencies, but that doesn't attract me at all. I don't want to go mountaineering for the sake of going mountaineering. I want to share it with friends, roped together, etc.

How do you prepare for such expeditions?

I do sports all the time, all year round. I climb. In winter, I do a lot of ski touring, running, etc. Technically, I prepare myself by practicing in mountaineering and climbing. The mountain is very beautiful, but can also be hostile. The more you practice in the mountains, the more you are at ease with the environment. As a result, if you manage to get used to it, to get rid of your fears, you can really evolve in this environment with peace of mind.

Do you have any anecdotes to share?

When we did the glacial crossing of Damodar following the Mustang trip, we had planned to hike between six and eight days because we had no precise maps, which is a long time in total autonomy. As we went higher with heavy mountaineering gear (stove, gas, tent, food), we have to restrict ourselves. We told ourselves that it was going to pass. We crossed the pass at 6000 m, we were tired, had bags 25kg heavy. Even so, we didn't have enough food. The last few days, we didn't know how long it would take us to reach the first village. For two days, we hardly ate and I dreamed of eating big partridges of Nepal.

I made some traps to catch these partridges that cluck around the tents. I really wanted to catch one and grill it (laughs)! We were traveling with a Nepalese friend and, usually, Buddhist Nepalese do not kill animals. Nonetheless, he also agreed but we never managed to catch one (laughs). When we arrived in the village, I think we were the best customers of the season for the restaurants (laughs)! We ate every two hours for two days. We recovered and then we went back on the road for two weeks (with assistance this time).

Another time, on the slopes of Everest, we were at camp 2, at 7800 m approximately. I was with a friend, we were on our way to the summit. We had spent a bad night. My friend is 1.85 m tall and wears size 43. When it was time to put on our crampons, we couldn't do it at all, it took us a while to understand why the sizes changed… In fact, my friend had put on my size 38 shoe and I had put on his size 43. Neither he nor I noticed (laughs)!

Were there any setbacks?

During the last expedition to Manaslu, on the way to the summit, it was hard, we had already taken a month to acclimatize. It went well at the beginning, but towards the end, I was very tired. I had to draw on my resources. At camp 3, I had to leave my tent, then I found it buried because of a storm. I had to dig it up, rebuild the platform, which takes hours and is very exhausting. During the night, I thought I was going to die. I had a long sleep apnea, and as the body stops, it is very dangerous. When I regained consciousness, I couldn't breathe, and I had to concentrate on not sleeping to avoid apnea. The next day, at 6.00am, I wondered what I should do. We chose the option of staying one day at 6800 m, which was, nevertheless, exhausting. I was lucky because a big expedition attempted the summit that day, and they were equipped with oxygen. We bought them an oxygen tank on the mountain with the regulator and the mask. We went up to camp 4 with the oxygen set on minimum and it helped me a lot! I was even able to help my friend carry her gear. The night we were supposed to leave for the summit, it was very, very cold, and it was hard. I started choking again. I put down all my gear and realized that I had no more oxygen. I continued without it, but the cold was biting me and I wasn't making any progress… I had to turn back 100 m before the summit because I couldn't feel my feet anymore. My friend Alexia went to the top. This was a humbling experience for me because, although I was close to the top, I didn't want to lose my feet. And the next day, we had to return to the base camp. The weather was still very bad on the way back, which lasted 20 hours. In expeditions, you always have to think about the return trip.

How do you feel when you come back to Courchevel?

Whatever the trip, you have to give yourself time to digest. When you're at altitude, you're so concentrated that you can't take a step back. When you come back, you remember a lot of things. I love coming back! We find our universe and it feels good.

What are your future adventure projects?

What stimulates me to launch a winter season are the travel projects. But at the moment, it's a bit complicated. I have a lot of projects in mind: in the Alps or far away, but I can't manage to project myself. I like to prepare my trips but I also like spontaneity. In the meantime, I have projects in France: I'm going to climb in the Verdon, in Chamonix and in the rest of the Alps. I don't have any plans to travel far away for the moment. It's a shame, because that's what fuels me.

Your favorite adventure in Courchevel?

When you think of Courchevel, you immediately think of the ski area, but around it, there is a magnificent spot which is the Avals valley. It's a place accessible by foot or by ski touring which allows you to hike up the Petit Mont Blanc, the Aiguille du Rateau, the Merlet lakes, etc.. I like to go there in any season. You can do climbing, mini-raid, ski touring, family walks, there is something for everyone!

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