Ski Extreme

Wow!! Ski extreme by two virtuosos: Anselme Baud and Patrick Vallençant. I hope you take a few minutes to enjoy Baud and Vallençant gettin’ after it on May 31, 1977. On that sunny morning the pair skied the Arete de Peuterey from the summit of the Italian side of Mont Blanc. A descent that has now been done fewer than a half-dozen times. Interestingly, back in the day, Baud was concerned with how the sport of extreme skiing was developing with the use of helicopters and ropes, so he wanted to set an example and define some rules. He wanted to undertake routes with human power — climb up and ski down — and with no rappels. He set his sights on the Arete de Peuterey, and asked his friend Vallençant to join him. They talked about the project for years before their attempt. Here’s the story of their extraordinary ski descent.

The goal was the steep, hanging snowfields and glaciers along the arete that lead directly to the summit of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur (4748m, the main summit is another 800m further to the northwest and 60m higher), a route first climbed 100 years earlier. The arete is 1400m tall with slope angles below the summit reaching up to 55 degrees in steepness. When standing at the top and looking down the route what appears to be a continuous snow slope is an illusion. The Pilier d’Angle slashes across with a 1000m tall cliff.

The pair were ready for the arete. Two days earlier they skied the North Face of the Aigulle Blanche. They ready both mentally and physically, but on the evening before their attempt, clouds rolled over the summits and very light snow started to fall. They went to sleep unsure, but a peak to sky at midnight showed stars and enough moon to light their way. At 0100 they left the Ghiglione Hut and descended the upper Brenva Glacier to reach the Col Moore. Without using headlamps they continued skiing down to the Pilier d’Angle. There the work started as they spent the next two hours boot packing, sometimes up to their knees, as they climbed upwards. It was still dark as they crossed the lower bergschrund of the Eccles Couloir (named for James Eccles, one of three members of the route’s first ascent party)

At the top of the Pilier d’Angle (4243m) Baud and Vallençant met the morning sun and it’s “magnificent spectacle” as it lit up the surrounding icy summits. It was 0700 as they headed up the arete proper. Far below, the Brenva Glacier was to their right and the Freney to their left. The final slopes to the summit of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur reared up at 55 degrees. Only the points of their crampons penetrated the hard, icy snow. Strong, perpetual winds at the mountain-top level had stripped away any soft snow. The crust seemed to get harder the higher they climbed.

Far below on the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey were Vincent Mercier and Frederic Bourbousson, were ready to film the descent. Baud remarked the aiguille “looked strangely horizontal” from his high perch. The aiguille and his friends were a thousand meters below. The pair also carried a 16mm camera and filmed some of their climb and the ski descend.

At a bit after 8am Baud and Vallençant reached ridge just below the summit cornice. Since they had already summitted several times before, they passed on the scramble to the summit. The snow was very hard and icy. As they stepped into their alpine skis and bindings Baud wrote the change over from sticking and secure crampons to slippery and sliding skis “tested their morale.” A fall would not be survivable.

Baud wears a white hat while climbing and skiing and Vallençant wears head scarf. The movie shows Vallençant stepping in to his Dynastar Omeglass Equipe skis with his super lightweight (and warm) Scott boots. After coordinating by radio with their camera crew Baud and Vallençant started down.

The summit slopes were so hard that Baud could not sink the shaft of his ice ax into the snow so that he could stop and film his friend. So the first 300 meters or so passed quickly as their skis chattered and clattered over the icy snow. Finally they found some softer snow, but it was slabby. The angle eased to 45 degrees but after triggering shallow slabs they were left with more icy snow and sometimes their poles glanced off the snow making it difficult to set up for the next turn. A solid pole plant was key to initiating the pedal-hop turn. Twice Baud slipped and his uphill knee hit the snow, but his recoveries were “quick and decisive;” they had to be. After only a third of the route their legs were on the verge of cramps.

They continued down making pedal-hop turns. Occasionally they stopped to film and take pictures of each other. Before pulling off their packs, they would anchor to their ice axe. For about a thousand feet they encountered snow with little rocks and often ice. The surface conditions forced Baud and Vallençant to make short and often abrupt turns to doge the obstacles. Baud wrote he did not find much pleasure in skiing those 300 meters, as he described the experience to being caught in a mouse trap, “…we were fighting alone, both of us looking for the best route between the rocks. Once they hit the slopes above the Col de Peuterey could they relax, at least temporarily. There they found “excellent powder” as they skied to the col.

Though they could not drop their guard, the skiing got easier, much easier. Or at least it seemed that way. When their route intersected the steep slopes below the Col de Peuterey they found consolidated snow that offered excellent skiing. Excitement and satisfaction fueled them on despite their growing fatigue. The snow was turning wet as they cut beneath the dangerous, towering and teetering seracs of the Envers du Monte Blanc. Only when they reached a protected spot under Point Moore could they relax. They shook hands, but the handshake at the moment “expressed our mutual feelings better than any words.” What had taken them 7.5 hours to climb had taken only 1.5 hours to ski.

It took Mercier and Bourbousson some time to down climb and walk back to meet up with Baud and Vallençant. Once together the group enjoyed a long hike back up to the Col Moore and then continuing up to the Ghiglione Hut. It was late afternoon when they arrived but they continued on over the Col de Geant and made their way back to Chamonix. Though their fatigue was intense, their pleasure and confidence was even greater. The next night they slept at the Aiguille de Midi to ski the Gervasutti Couloir.

Their descent of the Gervasutti Couloir was not the first, ski extreme pioneer Sylvan Sudan had skied it in 1968, but Baud and Vallençant didn’t care. They were skiers; they were alpinists and they were living and playing in one of the best playgrounds in the world. Sadly, however, 36 years later there would be another Baud connection with the Gervasutti Couloir. The couloir sits below the Mont Blanc du Tacul and sometimes has a nasty ribbon of ice lacing its center. It has claimed more than a few climbers and extreme skiers, including American skier Hans Saari who fell to his death in 2001. Three years later, the Gervasutti claimed another extreme skier named Baud: Edouard Baud, Anselme’s 24-year old son.

Back in 1983 Baud wrote a tremendous book called Les Alpes du Nord a Skis, describing 100 backcountry ski descents, but it is his chapter on Ski Extreme that is captivating. If you can find a copy, enjoy! In 2004 Baud’s comprehensive ski guide Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles Rouges was published in English, and is worth a read if you ski or want to ski in France. Today Anselme Baud continues to ski and guide in Chamonix. In the late 1970s Patrick Vallençant founded a ski extreme school called Stages Vallençant. In 1983 he co-founded the ski clothing company Degré 7, an early adopter of RECCO reflectors. Sadly, Vallençant died in a rock climbing accident while rappelling in 1989. His ski school continued for some time but has since changed names.

A wonderful translation of Anselme Baud’s chapter on Ski Extreme can be found in Peter Cliff’s 1987 book Ski Mountaineering.

Powder Magazine ran a short article about Glen Plake’s and Nate Wallace’s June 2009 descent. The pair, joined by a couple of friends, skied the arete but ran into a little trouble at the bottom. One of the skiers, Yo Hachemi, lost a ski while picking his way around rocks near the bottom of the Eccles Couloir. He kept skiing on one ski and jumped the bergschrund. He likely screamed like an eagle but fell like a rock, and landed hard, injuring his shoulder. They called for a rescue helicopter, and wisely they all flew out, but they had skied the hardest part and the main arete. Their descent was only the route’s fourth.

Happy trails,
Dale Atkins

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One Response to Ski Extreme

  1. Pingback: Friday Night Video: Patrick Vallençant « Ski Mad World

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