Extreme skiing (as in the steep variety) gestated above the Chamonix valley. Some say the idea was born here. I’d go along with that, at least in a modern sense.
I’ve always been a fan of the Cham’ extreme skiing pioneers, Saudan, Holzer, Vallencant, Baud, Boivin, Gouvy and a number of others. But such fandom can feel a bit foolish since the sport is tragic as well as inspirational. It being incredibly dangerous since once you reach the top level you’re essentially skiing down routes that you’d otherwise consider breaking a rope out on if you were climbing, and where any sort of fall is certain death. Something about that morbid aspect creates a sort of metaphysical tension in fans as well a practitioners, a fascination that’s both acknowledging of human striving for excellence — but also that little tiny question that gnaws at your brain: why?
Perhaps it is sophomoric to say the Chamonix style of ski extreme is not a sport for everyone. But I’d offer a word and say if you choose it, know what you’re getting into and the commitment you’re making to what will perhaps be an inspirational life, but possibly a tragically short one.
Yes, another blog post, or perhaps a dozen for that philosophical minefield. For now, let’s just say that the “why?” is partially answered by looking upon the arenas where these works are accomplished, and feeling the nearly magnetic attraction of those steeps.
Thus, my visit to one of the coliseums of extreme glisse, the valley of Chamonix. The plan, do a tiny bit of sight seeing so I could gaze at a few famous routes. Torino ski alpinist Paolo Piumatti offered to take me on a few tours in the greater Cham’ area over the weekend, so here I am.
Such a crowded resort area is not my favorite sort of environment for mountain sports, but the history of the place supersedes my snobbish snivvlings.
Even so, Paolo and I did practice a bit of throng avoidance and instead of riding the cable to the famed Aiguille du Midi on Mt. Blanc, we drove a short distance from the Chamonix core to Argentière, where we instead took the cable cars of the Grands Montets (still crowded) then dropped to the Argentière Glacier where we took a short walk in one of the places where giants of extreme have left their mark. Above us, such legendary stones as the Aiguille Verte and Les Droites caused us to pause and think on the guys who skied down what are obviously incredibly steep and difficult routes.
Paolo knows his history, and spouts off who did the first of what. For example, the stupendous ice couloir on the face of the Aguille Verte is the Couturier Couloir, first skied in 1973 and now a “common” goal, though still dangerous and unless in perfect condition quite difficult. Uh huh. We break out a guidebook for a lesson, and can see dozens of amazing but incredibly scary lines that stun me in their boldness.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.