This article was featured in Kiss The Snow magazine (spanish)
The evolution in any sport has been since long ago a search for the most, the fastest, the most difficult, the highest, the farthest… and extreme skiing has not escaped from this either. Alpine skiing is the conjecture of 2 activities, skiing where from long ago speed has been sought, and alpinism that rewards difficulty.
Jérémie Heitz did something incredible, joining extreme slopes with extreme speeds. Two worlds on the edge that together are scary. Marco Siffredi, the Chamoniard snowboarder, said that extreme skiing is from the moment you have no right to error, and the great speed makes any small mistake project a multiplied consequence, where the fall is impossible to stop.
In his project La liste, Jérémie skied 15 of the mythical steep descents of the Alps, including the Gervasutti al Tacul or the north face of the Obergabelhorn, in the Valais. He started out in alpine skiing, passing gates at the same time he started walking but at 16 he decided that freedom was more his thing and decided to go freeriding, participating for 4 years in the Freeride World Tour. For 2 years he devoted himself to his project that led him to ski these slopes with his personal brand. Fluidity and great speed, putting his skis at more than 120km/h on slopes that need two ice axes to climb. “I would like to push my skiing to the limit, in a discipline that requires a lot of experience and know-how. That’s why I attacked these summits in an aggressive and fluid way. No one had ever tried before” said Jérémie at the presentation of the film La Liste, where with spectacular means we can see the Swiss skier, alone or with the other strut of this way of skiing great slopes, Sam Anthamatten, descents like l’Aiguille de l’Almone (3,584 m), first skied by Olivier Roduit in 1989, the Brunegghorn (3,883 m), first descended by Heini Holzer in 1976. The Zinalrothorn (4,221 m), with parts at 55º. The Stecknadelhorn (4,242 m), the Lenzspitze (4,294 m – (500m 50º), the Lyskamm ( 4,527 m – 650m 5.4 / E3), l’Aiguille de la Blaitière(3,522 m) and the Couloir Spencer (3,522 m 5.2 /E2) the couloir skied by Sylvain Saudan in 1967 starting his popular career, continued to ski one after the other.
To be able to descend these slopes at such a speed the preparation and conditions must be impeccable, with a sufficient amount of powder snow to be able to chain the turns and to be able to brake at the end of the slope. This led them to turn around many times while waiting for perfect conditions. Skiers of the stature of Luca Rolli could not help but admire the style and evolution that Jérémie was writing in the discipline, with impeccable technique, tracing giant turns where the previous skiers were making jumped turns.
But the great speed on these slopes has its risks, and on the Grand Combin de Valsorey (4,184 m- 670m 5.3 / E3), Heitz suffered it on his skin when in the upper third of his face he encountered a plate of ice and his skis lost contact with the snow making him fall a good hundred meters until he could stand on the fresh snow. But this didn’t stop him either, because he soon returned to Mont Blanc de Tacul to ski the Gervassutti (5.3 / E4), which he found with spring snow, some sleeping conditions for other pente raide skiers but which were not permissive for the Heitz style, which had to descend in a more traditional style, with short turns.
To finish Heitz made the north face of the Obergabelhorn (5.3 / E2), in perfect conditions, making an impeccable descent in a dozen turns at high speed on this steep slope of almost 1000 meters. The images of this descent will go down in the history of ski mountaineering.
While skiers like Jérémie Heitz and Sam Anthamatten are today redefining what can be done on slopes beyond 50 degrees, there were others who dared to put speed into the equation.
Pascal Budin did not have a perfect first date with downhill skiing. He was just out of his teens when he wanted to test whether these extreme slopes where Saudan and Baud moved could be a terrain for him. Alone, he went to the bottom of the Argentière glacier, climbed the northeast face of Les Courtes and put on his skis. One turn, one turn, and he slipped. The fall of more than 600 meters sliding down this slope of almost 50 degrees would be enough to break most skiers in pieces, but Budin, of strong constitution, like an iron bear, not only did not break a single bone but he did not get discouraged in this thing of skiing big mountains. A few years later, in 1996, and being one of the most complete skiers, Budin devised a huge project. The Amok project, as the name of the dog that always accompanies him, or as the word from Southeast Asia that describes an elephant attack determined to achieve its goal, whatever the obstacles in the way. Amok for Pascal Budin was the attempt to descend the northwest face of the Courtes in a straight line.
“I’m no Kamikaze” he said “because the Kamikaze faces what it has chosen whatever the situation, even if it is afraid. I, I am driven by fear. If I’m afraid, I try to define it, to solve it and I jump in only when I’ve found the solution.
The objectives of the Amok project were to exceed 250km/h, which was a speed record at the time, to achieve a speed record for the 1000 metres drop, as Pascal wanted to go down in 20 seconds, and to seek an acceleration higher than that of a Formula 1 car, from 0 to 200km/h in six seconds. For most of you who read this you will think that this Pascal Budin was a freak. But Pascal did not speak in vain, as he had already skied over 220km/h on several occasions since 1991 when he opened the mythical kilometre track launched from Vars, and since his fall on this slope that from 3,856m from the back of Les Courtes goes down 1,081m to the Argentière glacier with an average slope of 48º, Budin had made the descent on 8 occasions.
Although in his first descent to the NNE Pascal he did not suffer damages if he had them years later when he fell from a chairlift suffering a fall and hitting his head on a stone area that made him spend a month in a coma. Any other person, if he had survived, would have had enormous difficulties to do normal life, but as we know, Budin is made of another paste, and although he was 5 years to recover ” For me, everything returned, or almost, although I do not remember exactly what it was before. Without a doubt I recovered something else”
During these years the Alto-Alpine already slid down some slopes at full speed, either with skis, as in the Couloir de la Table (4.3/E2 250m 45º) or with its monoski in the impressive descent in 1985 to the north face of the Turia (5.1/E2 650m 45º) where, lying backwards and in the position of Christ on the cross to balance on his board, in just half a minute he descended 1000 metres of height difference, reaching more than 200 km/h on an unprepared mountain slope that had sections of frozen snow or wind.
Amok did not materialize, as the project was also titanic in terms of infrastructure and preparation work. It was necessary to step on the plain where to brake, and for it to take a machine pisanieve until the glacier of Argentière to pieces with a helicopter, which needed of a gigantic budget, and mainly to level the rimaya and cracks of the inferior part, because to a speed over the 300 km/h a jump of 10 meters of unevenness would be fatal. This rimaya between the end of the glacier and the runner was what prevented him from launching, although in his head, he still believes that with a little preparation to cover this crack, it would be possible.
By the way, if we talked before about the Budin descent in the Couloir de la Table in l’Aiguille du Tour, this one had already been descended straight in 1979, first by Bernard Garcia with his monoski and then by Dominique Potard with Jean-Paul Lassale on skis, reaching 150km/h in this short (250m of unevenness) but already steep runner.
If you have noticed, in the description of the descents there are a series of numbers and letters accompanying the elevation of the difficulties and the inclination. The French skier Volodia Shahshahani wrote a cotation system for alpine skiing descents, as well as climbing or mountaineering graduations. The Toponeige Cotation, as it’s known, is composed of a graduation of ski difficulty and an exposure graduation. Although in downhill skiing the conditions make the difficulty of a descent change enormously, and it may be that a descent to the Mallory in powder snow allows us to make mistakes and is much easier than a Glacier Rond in live ice, it does give us an idea of where we are getting into and the consequences of a fall. So we should graduate or read the graduation in similar and good conditions, say, hard-spring snow.
Ski grading ranges from 1 to 5, with subdivisions within the grade. If in level 1 the slopes are up to 30 degrees, in level 4 we enter what is considered slope skiing, with sustained 40 to 45º inclinations (over 200 meters). Note the difference in percentage of slope to degrees of inclination. Who hasn’t heard some skiers say that 50 degrees is nothing as they have lowered the Baqueira escornacabres or the Zapatilla in Candanchú which are 90! If we look closely, a percentage slope of 100% is not equivalent to vertical, much less, but to 45 degrees of inclination, which, in a long descent, are the beginning of downhill skiing.
At grade 5 we are already talking about serious descents, which have more than 45º in big slopes or more than 50º in shorter ones. From grade 5.4 we are already talking about routes considered “extreme” in normal conditions, such as the Pain de Sucre or the Mallory in l’Aiguille de Midi. Grades 5.5 and 5.6 are the highest proposed, as they require slopes of more than 50º or 55º, with technical difficulties such as narrowing, rocky outcrops or navigation, and major slopes such as Nant Blanc, the Austrians or the descent from Chantriaux in l’Artesonraju.
The exposition grade defines the consequence of a fall, ranging from 1, where there are no obstacles beyond the slope, to 4 where there are high walls to avoid or dodge and where a fall would be certain death.
Thus, the reading of a skiing cotation would be, for example, the Vermicelle in Cerdanya would be PD+ 4.3/E2 270m 45º (PD is the difficulty of climbing in alpinism, 4.3 would indicate at the top of grade 4, as a slope of up to 45º or short sections of 50º but with a minor unevenness, E2 indicates that in the case of a fall there would be some obstacles such as the walls of the corridor or small jumps and we could be seriously injured, but not necessarily, 45º is the average slope and 270m the unevenness of the difficulties.
The north face of the Taillón in Gavarnie would be an AD+ 5.3/E4 700m 50º. Already a serious descent with complicated sections and a significant drop above 45º, and a fall, in hard snow, would be fatal.
This explanation is necessary to explain the other evolution of extreme skiing, the difficulty.
Even if steep mountains have been skied since the beginning of the last century, the priority was to go up and down the mountain, not to look for a more difficult line. This did not happen until the late 1960s, with Saudan, Briggs, Valeruz and company who began not only to do alpinism with skis but to look for attractive lines to ski, lines that were increasingly steeper and more complicated. First the great classics were descended, those logical descents, that when you see a summit jump to the eyes from far away. But when almost all the most evident lines were skied, the new generations were looking for new challenges, either in exploring new massifs and in height as we saw in this article, or looking for more complicated lines, first more sloping lines, but soon realizing that when you pass 60º almost nothing is skiable, because the snow does not hook to the rock or ice. So we looked for lines either because of their exposure or because of the complications in ledges and walls of rock or ice to overcome during the descent. Thus came descents with great exposure, as there were bars to overcome that required the use of rappels or de-climbing. The search for these itineraries was in some cases extreme, such as the descent of the Drus niche, a hundred-metre long 45º snow-clap suspended in the middle of the northern Drus wall, made by Bruno Gouvy in the 1990s.
To reach it you needed a long rappel from the top and after making a dozen turns, or abseiling more than 500 meters, or paragliding like good old Gouvy did.
Skiers were no longer looking for descents that jumped at their eyes, like runners or big shovels, but looking for mountaineering itineraries that were white and continuous enough to be able to imagine themselves in there with their skis. Thus, alpine routes of moderate difficulty (AD+ to D+) began to attract the attention of skiers, reaching difficulties of 5.5, as Stefano de Benedetti in the Innominatta in Mont Blanc or on the east face of l’Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey in the late 70’s and early 80’s
or the brutality of the south-west face of the Artesonraju by Gérard Chanteriaux in 1980, would leave the Nant Blanc by Jean Marc Boivin or the Piler d’Ange by Pierre Tardivel.
Some of these descents became, over time, “common” descents, although not yet classical, they saw numerous repetitions. When the north faces of les Courtes or l’Aiguille de Midi were descended as training by these skiers, they went looking for difficulty in complicated lines on distant peaks like the descent of Andreas Fransson on the south face of the Denali, a long, steep descent with great exposure, requiring numerous rappels to overcome the lower rock bar.
But just as we can see in the evolution of climbing, from an artificial climb to a free climb, to a redpoint, in downhill skiing some skiers began to ski the descents they knew without taking off their skis, avoiding the use of rappels or artificial means to descend. The Nant Blanc is considered one of the most difficult descents in the Alps, with a graduation of 5.5/E4. It had only been repeated once, by Marco Siffredi in snowboarding, in 30 years, until Pierre Tardivel, who in his “Liste de mes prémieres en ski extreme” already had numerous openings of maximum difficulty, especially in the Aravis and Mont Blanc, was the first to imagine its descent without the use of rappels. After an unsuccessful attempt the year before, in June 2009, together with Stéphane Brosse, they were able to find a couple of very exposed crossings to outline the goulottes and rocky bars that until then had required the use of ropes. A few years later, when he turned 50, and with more than 100 openings in extreme skiing, Pierre looked for new challenges, without changing much of the terrain, but finding in a snowboard a new way to see the same mountains, and it did not take long to start expanding his list by snowboarding.
Jerome Ruby and Dédé Rhem found perfect conditions to descend the via Mallory to l’Aiguille de Midi without rappelling at the end of the nineties with their snowboards and in 2013 the English resident of Chamonix Ben Briggs did the same with skis.
When I met Vivian Bruchez I knew he was a downhill skier but little else. The first time I put on my skis with him was at the top of the Chardonnet, in the fall of 2012 with the intention of descending the Migot spur on its north face. In the middle of the descent there was a narrowing to overcome a rocky barrier, a wide chimney of a few meters. When I got there I saw Vivian approaching it until the spatulas and tails touched the stone, then she dropped her back until it was resting on one side of the chimney and she put the skis on the other side, and she started to descend, using her back, her hands and the skis as if she were de-climbing. “This is dry ski” he said to me as I tried to understand how she could get down there.
Vivian is one of the most creative skiers in the over-explored Alps, always looking for new lines, lines that no one else could imagine possible with the skis, linking the white weaknesses in the red granite walls. With his dry ski technique, which is basically de-climbing with the skis at the feet, he could find a way to link these corridors or snow plates suspended in the middle of a wall. Although it may seem to be curling the curl, it has its logic, first in elegance, because the descent is more fluid, without the manipulations of removing and putting on skis, this makes it often faster, because the search for places to put protections, install the rope, pick it up, can take more time than dexterity with the boards if one has the percy.
On the other hand also more committed, because the technical difficulty and precision required are very high, where before one was hanging with the security of a rope. But sometimes, the difficulty of these sections can lead to these “crux” requiring more time than installing a rappel.
During the spring of 2016 the conditions in the Alps were spectacular for downhill skiing, the large amounts of powder snow at high altitude made the Couturier a la Aiguille Verte to be skied as if it were a slope and the mythical descents of Argentière saw skiers every day. So together with Alex Lafarge we went to Les Courtes, we climbed the Via des Suisses but it did not have enough snow to descend without too many maneuvers, so we chose the parallel Via des Austrians, a 5.5 E4 850m descent, first skied in 1977 by Daniel Chauchefoin. Since then the repetitions were counted with one hand. At the top, we met another pair of climbers who were starting to descend the route. We caught up with them quickly and on the first rappel, which Alex and I passed on dry ski, we were going at the same pace, but when we got to where the last two rappels are made, a rather exposed crossing that required a small forward jump to look for a snowy edge from a rock turn and a hand on a rail, the difficulty and concentration required to pass with the skis was much slower than that of our colleagues rappelling. Without a doubt, in this case, efficiency was not the reason for the style, but perhaps, like so many other activities in the mountain, choosing a more committed style cannot be understood in any rational way and one must look at the emotional.
During these last years, Vivian Bruchez in the Mont Blanc, Paul Bonhomme with his openings in the Aravis, of great difficulty and commitment, Roberto and Luca Dallavalle in the Dolomites , Hervé Dégonon in the Ecrins , or the British Ben Briggs and Tom Grant in New Zealand among others have taken to the maximum the difficulty in the descents, where to imagine the line is half of the way, and the other half is a display of technique and acceptance of a high commitment.
If a few years ago when Saudan, Holzer and Valeruz made their descents no one could imagine that 50 years later someone would make the same descents chaining freeride turns at high speed, perhaps now it seems impossible for someone to descend the Nant Blanc or the Austrians in a few turns, jumping the rocky bars or doing a back flip where they made rappels and today we do dry ski, but surely sooner or later, someone will.