We heard today of the passing of mountain guide and extreme skier André Giraud aged 79 of natural causes. Some have called the parternship of Giraud and his friend Paul Clément from Grenoble the original “skiers of the impossible”. In the 1960s they were among the first to explore slopes in the “no fall zone".
“Dédé”, from the village of le Sarret above Vallouise learned to ski on the slopes above his home. The kids would be hoisted up the mountain on a sledge attached to a rope. A crude but simple ski lift popular before the war. Son of a guide he followed the same path, opening a route on the Bans (the voie Giraud) in the summer of 1964. He completely a number of climbing firsts but his passion remained skiing.
On the 7th of July 1964 “Dédé” almost met his end. He was far from his beloved valleys of the Hautes-Alpes standing on the summit of the Aguille Verte in Mont Blanc. Part of the ENSA Guides training programme. The trainers decided to split the group in two. Giraud was in the lead group descending the Whymper couloir on foot when he heard the second group had been taken by a slab avalanche on the other side of the slope. The biggest avalanche accident in France at that date.
The tragedy haunted him but promised to return to the Whymper on skis with Paul Clément but first the Davin, a 1700 meter couloir in the Ecrins above Serre Chevalier with an entrance around 50°. Standing at the top you have the impression of looking into an icy abyss. Unlike a narrow couloir the openess and length of the slope what impresses you most.
Giraud and Clément would climb a slope first, without crampons. The gear was rudimentary, long skis, leather boots and simple bindings. The technique was to jump and turn, landing on both skis. A technique closer to that used today rather than the “pedal hop” popularized later by Vallencant and Baud. Even today the Davin is no simple undertaking and has taken a number of lives over the years.
In May 1965 the era of modern steep skiing was opened.
In 1966 they opened the couloir de Barre Noire on the Breche des Ecrins. Today rated 5.2 with a slope of 47° over 350 vertical meters. On the 25th May 1967 it was the turn of the Calotte des Agneaux near la Grave. Rated 5.1 with a slope average of 48° over 280m with passages over 50° you feel like you are in free fall on each turn. It merited an article in Le Monde the next day where it was claimed at the hardest slope skied since the Pic de Neige Cordier in may 1944.
In May 1968 it was time to attack to return the Whymper but Clément was stuck doing his military service and had trouble getting leave due to the riots that were sweeping France. A journalist in the Dauphiné Liberé writes a piece about their project. The Swiss, Sylvain Saudan reads it and descends the couloir on the 8th June 1968. They consoled themselves with the Arête Métrier on the 22nd but a few days later Clément would die climbing the Grande Ruine. The partnership is dissolved and Giraud would return to guiding clients and skiing to the end.