He is a passionate person and expresses it in a very artist way. Then a generous and outspoken man who deploys his multiactivity as an accomplished mountaineer. When we meet Yves Jacquemoud at first time, what remains engraved in us is his sensitivity and inner connection revealed in a sensory experience with the natural world. This wild nature of the Mont Blanc massif where he grew up, and where he has been running for 30 years tirelessly as a professional wildlife guide and an expert photographer, to bring alive for us its enduring beauty. Then wonder will inculcate an awareness of the importance of protecting the environment by simplifying our lives, to preserve these moments of grace. Let’s change our way of looking at the mountain!
A childhood in the middle of the elements
“I have this incredible luck: that of having been raised at Contamines Montjoie front the Mont-Blanc!“ Yves Jacquemoud is the youngest of a family of two children and he has spent his childhood with his sister, in the Alps at 2,000 meters altitude. “At that time, there were very few tourists who came to discover the region on foot. I used to seat on a rock and spent hours in the sun watching the natural environment.“ The space, this tranquility, the climatic elements, he will be impregnated sustainably. “This allowed me to feel the value of a natural environment, and I would know later that it is essential for my balance.“ His parents took them up there every summer for four months, to make a cheese typical of the region: the Beaufort, in the purest tradition. Isolated in the middle of the Alpine pasture lands, the young Yves could not taste to the material facilities of his time, but he had a happy childhood, turned towards the essential and made of simple joys. At school, he was interested in everything and learned quickly, but he felt himself different from his classmates. Especially at the beginning of the school year, with the return to an overflow of social interactions, images and noises. It was a traumatic experience for me!
At the age of 12, a stormy evening will mark his life forever. In an instant, a lightning in ball, with a power of 100 millions of volts, will pass through the wooden chalet. “I can still hear the explosion, then the movement of the cows jumping and skidding in the barn just below the bedroom.“ No help was possible having no phone and neighbors. The next morning, the disruptive electrostatic discharge had distorted everything. They were a total absence of smell, ionisation of all molecules such as household bleach and alcohol, plastic debris exploded everywhere and part of the house completely damaged. “For a long time, I wanted to know why ultimately the lightning did not set fire, and I was able to understand why recently thanks to a physicist.“ Yves Jacquemoud will never be the same, considering it a miracle that he survived and knowing the vulnerability of the human condition among the force of the elements. After this accident, his parents will stop the business to settle down in the valley and look for another profession.
The path to the high summits
From high school, Yves showed great interest to geography and life sciences, then geology and climatology. He was also attracted by the electrical field. “It fascinated me and I wanted to work in particular on hydraulic dams.“ But his ambition will be disrupted and he will rather pursue apprenticeships to become a pastry cook, a creative job he will exercise for several years, at the pace of summer and winter visitation seasons. “I loved the variety of my work and fostering a sense of beauty and aesthetics that gave so much pleasure to the guests.“ A busy work environment in a fast-paced society, with 15 hours a day locked in pastry laboratories… At the age of 25, Yves will feel deeply the call for a simpler life, closer to nature. “I left everything to start from scratch, because I wanted wholeheartedly to find back this sensation of harmony and balance of life that I knew in my childhood.“ His new choices of activities will now be guided by this inner quest.
At that time, around 1985, the Alps were mainly focused on Alpine skiing and mountaineering; two very technical activities. “I was surprised that there was not another activity such as trekking, that is so fun and rewarding for all these people who were getting bored at winter resorts.“ With two friends, one from Savoy, the other from his region, he will go to walk the trekking trails for himself at the beginning, then to share these footpaths experience with others. Very quickly, they will gather around a hard core of a dozen passionate professionals in the French mountains, and they will launch the hike across the countryside in all weathers. “I was one of the first to offer snowshoe hiking, which was very pioneering for the time.“ This attracted customers from all over the world, and it also appeared to be a lot of hype. “And today, we can make a living from this leisure activity!“
Creator of mountain experiences
“I want everyone to taste this authentic experience of being in the natural environment.” As a naturalist guide for 30 years now, Yves Jacquemoud has been taking small groups of hikers all over France and abroad, and especially in the country of Mont Blanc that he knows so well. There is so much to discover in its valleys, villages, forests, alpine pastures, glaciers, granite needles and mythical peaks. Then all the chains around: the Aravis, the National park of Vanoise, the Beaufortain, the Gran Paradiso, the Bernese Oberland, the Dolomites and all the Alpine arc. Specialist of nature, fauna and flora, his presence brings a huge value with his knowledge of the local geography, but far beyond with the immersion in nature that is done gradually, whether it be 1500 or 5000 meters of altitude. “On the summit of Mont Blanc, like all summits elsewhere, it is not the view that is the most important, nor the fact of having achieved this ascent. It’s being there! This unique moment, experienced with our 5 senses: a grazing light, a particular freshness, a special atmosphere or an animal that one sees.” An inner experience each time that becomes memorable. Indeed, it is so important to feel connected and alive, being and well aware of the place. Then, this untouched, undisturbed wilderness can become a source for a renewal of our identity, bringing more harmony and quality to our lives. Because only our desire for a simpler and more rational life, with nature and biodiversity at the center, can preserve the magic of the natural environment.
In summer, just as in winter, Yves works on his own or for the Guide Company of Saint Gervais-Les Contamines, which offers several types of outdoor activities: high mountain, climbing, hiking, trekking, snowboarding, travel, canyoning… The rest of the time, he enriches himself by practicing DIY. He also offers year-round accommodation in the mountains: “Not the little house in the meadow, but a realistic and comfortable place to welcome our guests in the area.“
Wildlife encounters photographer
For this true lover of nature and beauty, photography became essential from the first time, “because there are so many beautiful moments in the mountains, related to the light”. A sunrise from a refuge, a serenity and tranquility with nature awakening and these encounters with wildlife that is each time so intense. “I wanted to capture these moments, to keep the emotion that we feel facing a species that is there in its midst. It’s not so much the animal that fascinates me but the meeting itself, a magic moment to share with others!” Passionate, Yves Jacquemoud will go deeper, using the shooting from a hide as a technique of photo, with long months of watching animals in all weathers. He is one of the few to have closely observed all the emblematic species of the high mountains: chamois, deer, fox, owl, golden eagle … but also those become rarer such as ptarmigan and tetra lyre. “We do not have the right to disturb them, nor to exterminate them, because they have a role to play in the natural environment as much as ourselves.” His fight is now to open the minds and stop the hypocrisy, because their survival is terribly threatened by the degradation of the environment and hunting-leisure. “We will be in a position to reverse the environmental degradation only by joining our forces. What a presumption to think we should save the planet! With its 4.5 billion years, it will continue its evolution on a geological time scale. But sincerely, the question is : do we want this evolution to be with, or without us?”
Yves’s next challenge will be to follow the lynx, a very rare species; then find time to gather all his experience and pictures in a book. He has already released four DVDs that retrace some of these encounters. Each time the shots plunge us into a deep reading. We can see, beyond aesthetics, all the beauty of wilderness, with its fragility but also its cycles. These are quite distinct from those of the human beings, and we are moved by this fragile creature, with its ever-evolving presence that contains all the adaptation it has made and still makes to live. A miracle before our eyes!
Interview held by Carine Mouradian in Saint Gervais, September 8, 2018