At first the name didn't mean anything. "How was your summer?" started the e-mail message. "I just read your article in Pique and I could see it's not been the easiest or funnest you've been through." The sender of the message was a gal called Nathalie Gervais. And for the life of me I couldn't remember who the heck that was.
No surprise there. So much had happened to me since my return from Europe last April that memories of my five-week stint in the Alps had been pushed back into the far recesses of my brain. But as I continued to read her note, it all slowly flowed back.
Every now and then my work will put me in contact with young athletes who are pushing the far edge of the possible in their pursuit of vertical epiphanies. They rarely do it for money. And they don't really do it for fame. Rather most are driven by this quasi-spiritual zeal for "alpine satori"; a youthful urge to live a near-monastic life fully absorbed by mountain challenges. Such was the case with Nathalie Gervais. A former ski-racer from Ottawa, the 26-year-old alpinist was completing her first winter in La Grave, France when we crossed paths in the shadow of the legendary Meije last March.
Well, to be frank, it wasn't a random crossing of paths. My French magazine editor friend, Mathieu Ros, had arranged the meeting. "She's awesome," the usually understated Ros raved. "Easily one of the best big-mountain skiers I've ever had the pleasure to ride with. Believe me, she's top-notch. And there's no attitude. She's a real gem, this gal..."
I took his comments with a grain of salt. After all, I've known some mighty impressive female riders in my time. Still, nothing had prepared me for Nathalie. It's not just that she was a strong skier, or that her sunny, go-for-it attitude put a positive spin on any activity she engaged in. It's that Nathalie had actually gone out and done things that few others had dreamed of, let alone ever accomplished.
Know many other women who've spent three weeks camping in the Baffin Island backcountry exploring new ski routes? Or completed a harrowing multi-day ski traverse of Alaska's remote Kenai Peninsula in whiteout conditions and a raging blizzard? Or commercial fished for halibut in the North Pacific? Or mastered a 23-pitch climbing route in Mexico? Or spelunked into a network of caves a thousand metres deep? Nathalie has done all those things. And to hear her recount these stories, none of her exploits are ever a big a deal...
She's totally understated. All too happy to duck the spotlight in exchange for a good outing somewhere. And she honestly doesn't find what she does particularly dangerous. Which makes her a formidable companion when venturing out into the wilds.