This article was featured in Kiss The Snow magazine (spanish)
In the past articles, I have analyzed skiing from its steepest angle. For those of us who like ski-mountaineering and who look at it with eyes that have seen more ski-ropes than ski-doors, when we think of skiing we think of this sliding on steep faces. But if we ask different people what is skiing for them, the answer will be very varied depending on where we are. In a big city like New York they will surely answer that it consists of going up in a chairlift and going down on prepared tracks between forests, in Austria they will tell us about the slalom or the descent, and in Oslo about the sliding on the eternal cross-country skiing tracks or the fjellski to go to the cabins or to venture into the forests in spring. In Kranjska Gora you will surely hear about men who fly with boards at their feet to glide in the air, in northern Scandinavia they will tell us about the free heel and wide turns and in the American backcountry west with big backpacks on the wild hills with inhuman amounts of powder snow. In Chamonix they will surely look up to the valley heights to tell us about the extreme descents of their spires or the speed of the freeriders.
Skiing is all of this. But what we mostly understand as skiing today is only one part of skiing, the sport part, ski 2.0. Whether it is mountain, cross-country or alpine skiing, freeride or extreme, these modalities started to be practiced many years after skis were invented for a much less fun purpose.
Skiing version 1: Skiing as a way to travel
Long before Christ was born, the gods wore skis. And no, I am not talking about the ancestors of Tardivel or Vonn, but of Ull and Skade, the Nordic gods who moved around on their skis. For Thor’s followers, about 1300 years before the birth of Christianity, the use of skis was common to move between villages and mountains, and also the most practical between divinities. For these Vikings, the boards they wore under their feet were not intended for any sport, to win medals or to play, nor did they even stop to think about feeling that pleasant sensation of snow sliding under their feet. For them it was a simple means of transport, like a wheel or a donkey. And so they used it for thousands of years, not knowing that they had a toy more addictive than any video game console, to hunt or go to market, to escape through the mountains in time of war, as when the Norwegian army crossed them quickly carrying the son of King Haakon Haakonson at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Later to carry letters or telegrams where the mountains prevented the passage of carriages, or to discover new lands to invade.
Skiing version 2: skiing to have fun!
In fact, it would be many years before skiing stopped being a tool to move around and became a way to have fun. And it wasn’t until the Norwegian Sondre Norheim, back in the middle of the 19th century, invented the Telemark turn and started the first competitions. With the advances of the means of locomotion, ski stopped being an indispensable tool for the displacement in the snow to become mainly an object of pleasure.
There are still some individuals who only see the wheel or the donkey on these boards, such as polar explorers who take advantage of these boards to slide between skulls with the force of the eon, or ice climbers or some mountaineers in remote massifs, who use them as elegant snowshoes to reach the foot of their objectives. But most other humans also want to enjoy skiing, and travel is only a consequence of this production of pleasure.
Last winter, three different activities with two common denominators coincided in the same place and almost at the same time: skiing and skiing. Skiing as a means of transport and skiing as a weapon of pleasure, looking for the most interesting slopes to awaken endorphins. None of the 3 activities were a first descent, but all of them were, in their own way, first’s. Three different ways of seeing the same activity, teaching us that innovation does not only come from looking for a steeper descent or routes never skied before, but that innovation can be made of other ingredients. Three ways of seeing downhill skiing, three activities of skiing squared, of total skiing: a lot of movement and a lot of adrenaline.
Champex – Les Contamines in Non stop.
Physical: 8 Technical: 4 Imagination: 3
On April 21st, Ben Tibbetts, an English mountain guide and photographer who has lived for years in the Chamonix valley, made a crossing of the Mont Blanc massif on skis with Canadian Colin Haley, one of the most prolific alpinists of the last decade, with first ascents and solo climbs in Patagonia and Alaska and some of the most amazing journeys, such as the Cerro Torre with Alex Honnold or the trilogy of edges in Alaska alone and all chestnut, with the Cassin to the Denali, the North Buttress to the Beguyya or Mont Hunter and the Infinite Spur to Mt. Foraker. During 32 hours they travelled the 89 kilometres that separate the villages of Champex, in Switzerland, and Les Contamines, in France, ascending a height difference of 6800m and passing by the summits of Mont Blanc, Bionnasay and les Domes de Miage. Although it is a more physical than technical crossing, you have to overcome some slopes to cross the different hulls. The great difficulty of a crossing of this amplitude is to find stable conditions in all orientations, hard snow not to open up a trail and a sufficiently long window of good weather. Ben has been patient for a few years since he tried it in 2013 with Misha Gopaul and Ally Swinton. They set off from the south, from Les Contamines, and a few hours later, on the Bionnassay ridge, a large slab was cut off under Ally’s feet, who slid down about 600 meters, and although she came out of the avalanche without many scratches, they decided it was a good warning to postpone the attempt.
The year before this, the writer also tried this crossing with Stéphane Brosse, the mountain ski runner who marked the beginning of the 2000’s. Starting also from the south and with the idea of chaining some of the main peaks like the Dôme de Miage, Bionnasay, Mont Blanc, Les Droites and the Aguilde d’Argentière, we went at a good pace until, at the beginning of the last descent to Champex, Stéphane fell to the void when a cornice broke.
After 5 years, Tibbets still had the idea in his head and called Haley to see if he wanted to join the project. The Canadian, who was in Patagonia at the time, didn’t hesitate for a moment and after discussing the itinerary decided on a north-south crossing, looking for the fastest hills to cross from valley to valley. When Colin returned from his “Patagonian addiction” at the end of March he didn’t have much time to get used to skis again, because at midnight on April 21st they left Champex towards the pass of Chardonnet, where Séb Montaz was waiting for them to climb the Col des Cristaux, a long 50º slope. Fatigue began to be felt in the morning as they climbed the endless Vallée Blanche with their skins up to the Col du Midi, where Vivian Bruchez was waiting for them with some Pizzas! which they devoured hungry before continuing to the top of Mont Blanc. “Colin’s feet were hurting and he wanted to stop, but it wasn’t very difficult to motivate him to continue and to cheat the pain. For me, when we reached the top of Mont Blanc just before sunset, the energy was at its peak,” said Ben.
Colin was of a different opinion, although he was used to spending long days on the mountain, either in his non-stop strings in Patagonia or Alaska or in the Canadian Rockies, the descent from Mont Blanc and the long ridge at Bionnassay didn’t go down too well. “It was difficult to maintain concentration and in front of it there was the sharp edge of Bionnassay. When I saw the Dômes de Miage in front of me, they seemed so far away…” The cups of tea they were invited to drink at the Durier refuge gave them strength for the last stretch to Miage and the long descent to the village of Les Contamines, on the other side of the massif, and finally after 32 hours of effort they were able to take off their boots. “I finally did what I started. It was also a way of paying tribute to Stéphane Brosse, who inspired us. I certainly recommend everyone to make this crossing, maybe in 4 or 6 days, taking the time to sleep, it is a nice goal for any mountain skier.
The 4 faces of the Verte.
Physical: 6 Technical: 9 Imagination: 3
Paul Bonhomme is one of the most talked about downhill skiers last year. His first descents in the Aravis, in short routes but of an extreme technicality made many people wonder where he came from. But his love of downhill skiing came from much earlier. Paul was introduced to downhill skiing and mountaineering by his brother Nicolas and his regular expedition partner Jean-Noel Urban. Paul followed closely when they made the descent of the north face of the McKinley, through the Wickersham Wall, and accompanied them in several expeditions to the Himalayas. In 1998 Paul’s brother disappeared in an attempt to descend the difficult Gashebrum VI in Pakistan on skis. Paul took the hand of his brother’s companion, Jean-Noel, to go deeper into the world of high-altitude skiing, with an attempt to the southern face of Shisha Pangma in 2005. Jean Noel died in 2008 in an attempt to the Gashebrum I. On 17 May last year, Paul wanted to pay tribute to his brother 20 years after his disappearance. The project, one that surely has danced in the imagination of more extreme skiers, the 4 faces of l’Aiguille Verte.
The Aiguille Verte is one of the 4000 most difficult in the Alps, because it has no relatively easy way to climb to the top. This spire of 4121 that reigns over Chamonix and Argentière separates the valleys of the Mer de Glace and the Argentière glacier and since its first descent in 1968 by Sylvain Saudan through the Couloir Wymper has been a sought-after general for those who want to consider themselves pente raid skiers. Its 4 faces have couloirs that are part of the history of this sport. To the North, the Couturier, with its almost 1000m with 55º and the Cordier, to the East the couloir Whymper, of 600m and 50º. To the south the Y couloir, 800m with 55º slopes and to the west the Nant Blanc, with its complicated 1000m face. To make one of these descents is the project of many skiers with good level, to link a pair in a day is within reach of very few. Bonhomme’s colossal project was to cover all 4 faces in one day.
Paul left after dinner from the village of Argentière and in only 6 hours he was at the top of the Verte after climbing the Coutourier. As it is still dark he decides to wait an hour until the sun appears on the horizon to avoid a descent of embargo in the dark.
“I’m cold” he says “I don’t feel like diving into the blackness, I want the light” but there is not much time if he wants to realize his project, as he still has more than 2000 meters of climbing and about 4000 meters of descent left. So he prepares “a ritual: helmet, ice axe on the shoulder, check the boots, once, a second time, three times. The skis: the one with the red mark on the right foot. Close the bindings, verify that they are well closed, again… Make the skis slide. I’ve sharpened them like never before, they don’t slide, they bite. Okay, that’s what I need: the Wymper is in the dark, the central goulotte is glazed, I’ll need them to bite” starts to go down “softly like the sun that wakes up, letting me slide down the edge, between the darkness and the light, and choose the darkness.
At the foot of the Whymper (5.3 E3) he meets Vivian Bruchez, and together they ascend to the Cardinal to lower a couloir and reach the versant Charpoua. Without rest they change the skis for the crampons and go up the long Y couloir. At half past one in the afternoon Paul is again on top. A short break and they start to descend towards the versant of Nant Blanc (5.5 E4). But the conditions are not good. The bad weather of the last few days has not left the snow they were expecting and ice is lurking. To facilitate the decision, the bad weather is approaching, too much to descend an itinerary with a not very evident route. So they decide to climb back to the top and descend the Couturier on the north face (5.4 E4).
20 hours after leaving Argentière, Paul is back at the starting point, with more than 4000 meters of technical terrain difference in his legs, and if there is a little disappointment for not having skied the 4th face, the joy is greater, a journey of physical effort and technical intensity, of history and friendship.
“Before the Verte one is a mountaineer, in the Verte one becomes a montagnard” said the Guide Gaston Rebuffat. “For my part, the Verte has simply allowed me to realize that I was only a man” said Paul at the end of this adventure in his blog.
A month later, Bonhomme will string up again with Bruchez to “finish” the initial idea, making the descent of the Nant Blanc, and at the same time opening a new variant, another adventure route, a journey crossing that immense slope from side to side.
Crossing the Mont Blanc Massif
Physical: 5 Technical: 7 Imagination: 9
But before this, on May 24th, Vivian Bruchez with another partner would make another interesting journey in the same massif. Who would say that two of the most gifted mountain skiers in their respective disciplines would get together to discover the most unknown spots of the most crowded massif in the world, and, far from looking for the “names” draw, as Vivian would say, a beautiful line.
For Vivian, the Mont Blanc Massif is not unknown. This mountain guide from Argentière has skied almost every possible route in the area, including several first descents. But Vivian is not a scratcher, in an age when downhill skiers are more attentive to the Camptocamp forums and the facebook timeline to jump on the first cable car when the alarm goes off that a descent is in good condition – and with an open layout – so that they can get their prize with almost certainty, Vivián is looking for adventure, in a massif that he has been travelling for more than 30 years, he searches without stopping, but without hurrying and with the patience of someone who is able to wait for years to find the conditions and the ideal companion.
On this occasion, the expert of the slopes of more than 50º found in Mathéo Jaquemoud, one of the most laureate competition mountain skiers, with victories in the Pierra Menta and world championships, his companion. An explosive tandem, and strongly intertwined, as Mathéo volunteered to open the trail day after day while Vivian contributed her knowledge to progress on the descents and edges in total safety.
To hear Vivian talk about her projects is to let oneself be accompanied in a different world, a world of fantasy where aesthetics and imagination prevail over everything else. “We set off from the edge of the massif, from Switzerland, to reach the other edge, with the will to find a logical line. We didn’t want to follow exactly the crest line or the precision of a straight line. We wanted to draw an elegant itinerary.” For the Bruchez brand was strongly marked on this crossing, a surprising itinerary, which will lead the locals to search the maps to find it. An itinerary that Mathéo would like to see repeated, for its beauty rather than its difficulty “We are not looking for fear. My kiff is to master my movements and to progress.
So on May 24th they climbed the Mont Dolent on its Gallet ridge and skied its west face. The next day they climbed the north face of the Triolet and opened a descent on the west face, to continue to the petit Triollet on its south face, the pointe Isabelle and sleep in the bucolic bivouac of the Périades. In the following days they skied the east face of the Aguille de Rochefort and the crossing of its edges, the Kuffner edge to the Mont Blanc, the Dôme de Gouter and a new opening in the Piton des Italiens, to go back up to Bionnassay and go down its north face.
“We carry only a thermal blanket and a feather bag to sleep in a hole in the snow, if at all. A backpack of about 8 kilos, to be comfortable on the steep slopes” says Mathéo, to which Vivian adds ” to the list we have to add a Mathéo! In any case, you don’t have to do much on the way up! With these backpacks and the desire to get away from the usual paths, they spent 5 days in silence “discovering the wild and unexplored side of an over-frequented mountain range, and you know what? In five days we haven’t seen anyone!” Yes, it is still possible to find the adventure at the door of the house, to let the imagination work to get out of the flashy and create; drawing new lines to the sky and also virgin traces in hidden faces.