Steep Ski Pioneers

This article was featured in Kiss The Snow magazine (spanish)

4 pairs of skis, leather boots and fifty degrees.

Not the height but the precipice is terrible,” said Frederich Nietzsche. Some people undoubtedly find pleasure in the terrible, and even make it a necessity to live. You can practice more or less absurd activities to look for this adrenaline that gives off the terrible, and one of them is extreme skiing, or as the French say, ski de pente raide.
We can distinguish steep or extreme skiing from the other modalities of sliding on the snow with a pair of boards (or more recently with a single board) when it is done in the so-called no fall zone, where one cannot afford a fall if one wants to continue alive.

I’m writing these lines on my phone from a lodge in Gokio, in the Khumbu region of Nepal, and from the window I can see how the strong wind blows the snow off the highest slopes of Everest and Lhotse. A month ago, American skiers Jim Morrisson and Hillaree Nelson first skied from the top of the latter. A few months earlier, the Polish Andrzej Bargiel left us all astonished with his complete descent of the K2 on skis. In late spring Vivian Bruchez and Paul Bonhomme opened a variant on the famous Nant Blanc, the grail of extreme skiing in Chamonix. And it is no longer only in the spring, the most favourable season for sliding above 50 degrees, that skiers from all over the world dare to do so, but throughout the year we see new first descents and prestigious repetitions.

A couple of years ago, in a season of exceptional conditions, it was not unusual to find a dozen people putting on their skis at the top of the Aiguille Verte to try to descend the Couloir Couturier. This extreme descent had become a classic, and was far from the epic and surprise that Serge Cachat aroused when he made the first descent of this long corridor in the heart of Chamonix on August 1st, 1972.

The first years I was living in this valley of the Alps I was staying in a small apartment near the Bellevue cable car in the village of les Houches. Next to the apartment there was a sports shop “Sports Cachat” and when I came back from training, I often stopped to talk for a moment with the owner, an old, thick man with a red face, about the sun and the wine, who was waiting bored for customers to come into the shop. One day, as I passed the shop with my father, he stood in front of an old photograph that was displayed on the counter: a young skier wearing leather boots and two-meter-long skis, making a turn on a steep slope. On top of the photograph was written Premiere descente de l’Aiguille Verte. Serge came out as usual to greet me, and I could see in my father’s eyes the admiration for this man. When I arrived at the apartment he explained to me how the descents of Cachat and skiers of his generation like Baud or Vallancant inspired him and his friends to make descents in the Pyrenees, especially around Sant Maurici, where he was a refuge guard.

Curiosity was aroused in me, who was beginning to discover the pleasure of sliding on this terrain, and I went to the bookstore to buy a copy of Les skieurs du ciel, a large book, one of those that decorate the shelves, with square red covers and hundreds of pages with texts and photographs of the pioneers of this sport. From the first descents, not yet extreme but visionary by the time of Marcel Kurz, Louis Falisse and Robach or Sondre Norheim. “Snowshoe Thompson. Or the first descents in terrain until then reserved for climbers with ice axes and crampons, such as that of 18 July 1917, when the Englishman Arnold Lunn, with the guide Joseph Knubel, “petit J” skied from the summit of Dom des Mischabel (4545 m) in the Swiss Valais. Just below the summit a 45 degree slope, in his particular technique of descent, a wide open wedge, the butt touching the ground and slowing down by nailing the poles, or that of Arthur Comey, a hooligan who spent his days skiing and climbing in Maine and who in 1926 skied the Baxter Peak or the one two years later when three Swiss men descended the north face of the Fuscherkarkopf, with a 50 degree slope, with their crampons tied to their backpacks with their tips out to – more out of faith than logic – stop them in case of a fall.

Emile Allais, world champion in skiing, would descend the Glacier du Milieu in l’Aguille d’Argentière a decade later and Louis Lachenal, the Chamoniard guide who would conquer the first 8000m when climbing the Annapurna in 1950 with Maurice Herzog, would be the first to descend les Droites. More skiers would dare to slide their boards on the tops of the Alps and the American mountains, but it would be a little Swiss who would make extreme skiing his daily routine and take it to a new dimension.
You want to go down the couloir Gervasutti with your skis – asks the guard of the refuge of les Cosmiques, astonished. Before the smile of Sylvain Saudan the guard continues – The Gervasutti has not made any dead this year, you will be the first”


A year before, in 1967, Saudan had skied for the first time the couloir Spencer, in the needles of Chamonix. This Swiss Valais ski instructor began at the age of thirty-one a frenetic career that led him to be considered the first great pioneer of the sport. Accompanied by two companions they climb the corridor. Once at the top Sylvain puts on his skis and ties himself to a rope. His companions secure him from the hill. After five turns to test the snow, he looks at his companions and unties the knot that joins them, from here he is completely exposed, on the ground where no mistake is allowed. “It was the most difficult moment, when I untied the knot and saw the rope go up to the top. From then on I could not count on myself, who was “committed” to the maximum. I asked myself why I was trying this descent, what would it get me? The answer was nothing, it was a completely free risk. But these ideas did not disturb me the thought that for a few seconds, I hunted them down and started skiing” said Saudan remembering this descent.

From then on, each time he set the bar for his descents. In his book “The Skier of the Impossible” he explains his descents, first in the Alps, with the Rothorn, the north face of the Piz Korvatsch in the same year. The following year he skied for the first time, among others, the Gervasutti on the Mont Blanc du Tacul and the Wymper on the Aiguille Verte and the very long Marinelli corridor on the south face of the Monte Rosa. These descents are still considered great classics of extreme skiing, and only very experienced skiers dare to put their skis there. When I ski, my hands get sweaty imagining Saudan making turns with his varnished wooden skis and soft leather boots.

When he had already skied the great lines of the Western Alps, such as the north face of Bionnasay, the west face of the Eiger or the south face of the Great Jorasses, his notoriety begins to be worldwide and other skiers, observing the photographs of these descents in the magazines or watching some of his films, want to imitate him and begin to see new possibilities in the mountains that were not considered before.

In the spring of 1972 the Swiss skier travels to Alaska to crown the highest peak in North America, the 6187-meter Denali. He climbs the normal route, the West Butress, but wants to leave his signature on a mountain that had already been skied two years earlier by the Japanese Tsuyoshi Ueki. Saudan does not cross the great somital plateau to go looking for the most accessible slope of the normal route but he puts his spatulas towards the west face and skis a corridor that had never been ascended – and of course descended until then – 4 years later, the great transalpine mountaineer Reinhold Messner ascends this corridor with sections at 50º for the first time and he is known since then by his name.

Saudan, continues to look for new destinations. While in the Alps skiers inspired by his descents such as Anselme Baud or Patrick Vallençant begin to make even more exposed descents, the so-called skieur de l’impossible sets his eyes on the giants of the Himalayas and in 1977 descends from the summit of Nun, over 7000 meters, becoming the first to ski from this height. “I chain the first turns avoiding sudden movements, without artificial oxygen, breathing is complicated”. But he wants more, “This first 8000 in skis, I needed it, it seemed logical to me after having been the first to ski impossible routes in the Alps”. After a tragic attempt in the Dhaulagiri in 1979 he finally crowned himself as the first man to descend a full 8000 on skis when in the spring of 1982 he skied from the summit of Hidden Peak, also known as Gasherbrum I, at 8062 m.


The adventure novel would not be the same if Ernest Hemingway had not had a Jack London, and Saudan had a small man lifting the achievements from the eastern Alps. Heini Holzer, who is 1.53 meters tall, I would say from the Frenchman, I admire and fear him. Born in 1945 in the Italian Tyrol in the middle of the Allied bombing in a family disrupted by the war, he started climbing very early, at the age of 14, and immediately stood out for his qualities as a rock climber, where he made numerous first ascents, almost always alone. During his military service he meets Reinhold Messner and together they open some very difficult climbing routes at that time
At the end of the 60’s he feels like talking about the achievements of French and becomes enlightened by this practice, simple rules and assured emotions. With a very strict ethic, always climbing on foot the mountains he was skiing down (at that time it was usual to use helicopters to climb to the top before the descents) he overcame many impossible descents, especially in the dolomites, such as the descent of the north face of the Marmolada, in June 1970, with 55 degrees slope on that 600 meters high wall. Shortly after, during the descent of the impressive Tosa Peak north corridor, from 900 meters to 50 degrees, he finds sections of blue ice that put his skis to the limit, taking him more than once to the edge of a fall with deadly consequences, leaving his companions breathless. But this does not demoralise him, quite the contrary, and the following year he devotes himself to his new passion. He takes advantage of all his holidays and weekends off to look for new itineraries. His list of new achievements is tireless. Holzer prepared himself as an elite athlete for skiing and mountaineering, running up to 60 kilometers or up and down 1500 meters of altitude difference in less than 2 hours, and even doing intensity series to improve strength. He was also very aware of the risks he was taking in the mountains but his worries are of another order when he is reproached for the dangers > I wonder how many men don’t see their family for weeks, just to earn money, others immerse themselves in alcohol, if you imagine all that is at stake ! or it doesn’t seem very dangerous, but the risks are less calculable than those of my so-called madness ?

Toni Hiebeler, the famous Austrian mountaineer said of Holzner that he was undoubtedly the most remarkable extreme skier in history when he first descended the north face of the Piz Palu in 1972, in the Bernina massif. That complex face of snow, seracs and rock is such a chaos that during his first ascent in the 19th century the guides only accepted to climb when the clients signed their wills in his favor.

It is on July 11, 1977, after more than 88 first descents, he reaches the top of the Piz Rozerg, in his beloved Bernina. As always in a quick ascent on its northeast face, in just 4 hours. At the top there are some fellow guides / see you at the refuge / he tells them before throwing himself on the northeast face with the skis. The conditions are perfect, the hard snow shines with the sunlight, there is no wind and the sky is bright. After a few turns a stick is stuck in the snow and falls on its back. He has trained many times this situation and despite the precariousness of the place he manages to stop and start skiing again. The guard at the Tschierva hut watches him with his binoculars. When he has skied the upper third he loses his balance again. Underneath, a rock wall. This time he can’t break the fall. What gave him more life ? Where death becomes life, fear is happiness, the most beautiful moment of extreme skiing ? also left us orphans of this skier who in a short period made milestones for many lives.


On the other side of the Atlantic, Bill Briggs is considered the father of American extreme skiing since 1971 when he went down with his skis from the top of the Grand Teton, a dizzying descent, looking for the few areas of snow on a rock wall and where he had to do a 50-meter rappel hanging with his skis on his feet. In Jackson Hole, people don’t believe their eyes when they wake up on the morning of June 16 and when they look at the mountain, which requires climbing on any of its routes to go up, they see some ski trails zigzagging from the top to the valley.
The Grand Teton, at 4,197 meters, is the tallest pyramid in the wild Teton Massif in northern Wyoming, made up of three triangular towers jutting out from dozens of rocky peaks, a climbing paradise among immense lakes and endless forests, where bears and buffalo are more at home than humans. During the following years Bill descended the other main peaks of the same massif, each one more difficult.

Bill was born with a great handicap, as he lacked the joint on one side of his hip and underwent a complicated operation when he was only 2 years old, this injury took him away from skis during periods when he was engaged in his second great passion, For apart from being a great climber and skier, Biggs was a passionate musician, and during the 1960s it was common to find him playing the banjo and harmonica and singing in the bars of Jackson Hole, bringing to life the Teton Tea Party, the Woodstock of climbers. He even played with Bob Dylan in New York!

But when his hip allowed him, he left nothing to ski, like the descent of Mount Moran (from 5.4 in 1968!) or the long journey of the Bugaboo, crossing that massif without mapping for 10 days.

Biggs was the icon of a generation of Americans like Low Dawson, who first skied the Hayden Peak in Colorado, or Fritz Stammberger, born in Germany and settled in Aspen, who skied the difficult Maroon north and Cho Oyu from 7400 in 1964, a few years before dying on the Tirish Mir (7708m) in an attempt to descend. And Chris Landry, who in 1978 skied the east face of the Pyramid Peak, a line that the best of the moment considered to be of a difficulty of two future decades.

After a scare in one of his descents Biggs retired from extreme skiing, a name he never liked for the practice because he considered “I don’t consider the skiing I did as extreme, it was alpinism. It was knowing how to be careful, it wasn’t jumping over rocky bars”


In the same way the great pioneer of extreme snowboarding, Chamoniard Marco Siffredi, thought, “downhill skiing is when you can’t fall, the rest is freeride”. The terrible infant of the 90s surfed all the very difficult descents of the Mont Blanc massif before going to the Himalayas in 2001 to surf the Norton corridor on Everest and try the Hornbein descent the following year, where he lost his life. In the villages of Tibet, they still remember that colourful-haired boy with the nickname of the storm. Siffredi called himself JMB represent, after his great inspiration, Jean-Marc Boivin.

Saudan marked a generation of skiers who during the 70’s and 80’s would make it their main practice, and in a few years they managed to descend from almost all the peaks of the most emblematic massifs of the Alps, on all faces and all corridors. The golden decade of downhill skiing would see Marie Jo and Partick Vallencant skiing the north face of les courtes and the Y runner at Argentiere, the latter would become known in South America as the gringo skier for his descents in the Andes, among which the southeast face of the Artesonraju stands out. Together with Anselme Baud they formed the skiers’ ropeteam with great first ones like the Peuterey Ridge and the north face of the Blanche de Peuterey, and the north face of l’aguille de midi with other 2 great openers of that generation like Yves Derty and Daniel Chauchefoin. Tony Valeruz skis the north face of the Lyskamm (in 13 minutes!) and the east face of the Cervino. Nino Viale and Diego Fiorito ski as much as possible in the Southern Alps and Mont Viso. Stefano de Benedetti skis on the south face of Mont Blanc la Innominata and the east face of Blanche de Peuterey among others. Laurent Giacommini, Jacky Bessat or Velodia Shahshahani among others ski every winter steeper walls, more difficult routes and a young Pierre Tardivel starts his centennial list of first descents. But among all of them none leaves a trace as marked as Boivin’s.

Polyvalence is the word that defines him, without being the most gifted for a particular activity, Out in extreme skiing, in solo climbing, in link-ups, in ice climbing or air sports (parachute, base, hang gliding …) the list of first or great seized activities of this French born in 1951 in Dijon are endless.
Laurent Giacomini, one of the best skiers of the 80’s and Boivin’s partner in some of his firsts, as esperon Frendo said about “skiing was a luge! With the hang-glider, he didn’t know how to fly…” but in spite of this he was a pioneer in the great chains, like the north face of the Fou and the American direct to the Dru, using the hang-glider to go from one summit to the foot of the other

In ice climbing he made the first ascent of the Tacul Supercouloir with Patrick Gavarrou and did some of the most difficult routes of the moment in solo at high speed.

In hang-gliding he jumped from the Gasherbrum II (8035m) and in paragliding from the Everest and then he was one of the pioneers of the BASE jump, being the first one to jump the waterfall of the Salto del Angel, of 950m in Venezuela in 1990, where he would die repeating this jump days later.

And in steep skiing he signed his masterpiece in 1989 with the first descent of the Nant Blanc, on the north face of the Aiguille Verte, constituting the most difficult descent of the Mont Blanc massif. This wall of ice, snow and rock of more than 1200 meters has sections of great slope, of more than 55 degrees, sections of ice, exposure to the seracs and a complicated itinerary. Up to 10 years passed until the first repetition, by the hand of Siffredi with his board and 10 more until the third, and first without rappels of Pierre Tardivel and Stéphane Bross

But what made Jean-Marc unique, apart from this versatility, was the union of these disciplines to carry out activities that even today seem futuristic. By way of example:
In 1980 he climbed the Matterhorn, made the first descent of its east face, left his skis and climbed the north face alone in just over 4 hours, this time he descended from the summit in a hang glider. In 1985 he climbed the Albinoni-Gabarrou route to Mont Blanc du Tacul, and then made the first descent from the south face of this mountain. This time he climbed again the Mont Maudit by the Kuffner ridge and then slid with his skis this way through the Androsace corridor. The future was invented yesterday.