Skier of the Impossible

In the 1960s skiers began to wonder if some of the classic climbing faces could be skied.  Sylvain Saudan, qualified as both instructor and as a high mountain guide and one of the original extreme skiers pioneered many of these routes.  We were recently poking around the Librairie des Alpes in Paris’ chic Latin quartier when we came across Paul Dreyfus’ 1970 book on Saudan.

Born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1936 Saudan grew up near the tiny village of Verbier where he skied to school during the winter.  His working life started as a truck driver but his true vocation was skiing and the mountains.  Coming from a poor family he didn’t have the money or contacts to compete on the professional ski circuit and became a ski instructor instead.  In the early sixties he took off for a prototypical gap year which saw him working at Aspen in the USA, Mount Cook in New Zealand and finally, as the resident professional at Scotland’s Glen Shee.

During his travels he was increasingly drawn towards the backcountry and descents of previously unskied slopes.  Nicknamed The Skier of the Impossible he put up a first descent of the direct 45 degree line of the Couloir Sans Nom on the face of the Rothorn in the spring of 1967.  A month later he skied the north face of the Corvatsch in St Moritz, around 1000 meters of vertical at over 45°.  The lift company were not impressed and pulled his lift pass when he reached the bottom.  He was ‘a bad example to other skiers’ according to the piste director.  Finally on the 23rd of September 1967 Saudan gave himself a fantastic birthday present with the first descent of the Couloir Spencer in Chamonix.

This was just the start.  The following year the Couloir Whymper on the Auguille Verte and the Couloir Gervasutti on the Mont-Blanc du Tacal fell.  To ski at angles of more than 50 degrees Sylvain realised that normal parallel jump turns were not practical.  In the period of free fall the skier picks up too much speed to control his descent and at altitude they are too tiring.  Instead Sylvain developed the windscreen wiper turn where the skier turns on the backs of the skis.  Armed with these skills Saudan skied the couloir Marienelli on the Monta Rosa and the North West face of the Aiguille de Bionnassay in 1969.

Saudan’s tentative first curves on the Bionnassay

In the early 1970s the south west face of the Eiger, the south face of the Grandes Jorasses and the couloir of the Tournette on the south west side of Mont-Blanc all fell to Saudan.  Then in the winter of 1971 he was invited to The Meadows ski area in North America.  The technical director thought he might be interested in a certain Mt Hood.  This 3419 meter volcano, flanked by 8 glaciers and situated just 175km from the Pacific coast and its weather systems, had only been climbed 20 years before.  Now Saudan was considering a descent by a challenging couloir on the Northeast side where nobody had yet set foot.

On the 3rd of March, after two weeks of delay the weather cleared and a helicopter was called.  Meadows had already received over 17 meters of snow and a climb was impossible.  The small, two seater Bell, finally arrived at three in the afternoon.  The pilot had been busy with a film production on the coast.  Sylvain climbed aboard. “We’ll try to go up, but there’s not much chance, too much wind”, the pilot screamed over the noise of the rotors.  The flight gave Saudan his first good look at the couloir.  Four times the pilot tried to land on the small, snow capped dome, finally succeeding on the fifth.  The pilot returned to fetch Saudan’s partner, the Avoriaz guide Anselme Baud and his gear.  The summit temperature was –35C, it was already late in the afternoon and the sky was growing dark.  A cup of hot tea then Sylvain said goodbye to Anselme and entered the 50-degree – 55 in places, slope.  “For the first time in my life I felt my legs freezing… for the first turns I couldn’t feel my skis… I was worried about windslab avalanches, meters of snow had been blown by the previous day’s blizzard”.

The first couloir was 300 meters long but the descent was blocked by cliffs, Sylvain had to traverse to a second couloir.  But he entered too high.  On the diamond hard ice there was no chance to turn or even make a conversion, he would have to back up.  Digging the edges of his over 2 meter long skis as hard as he could, his pole tips barely gripping, the operation took the best part of 30 minutes.  To reach the second couloir Sylvain once again had to cross this icy trap then below him the slope opened up, 1500 meters of vertiginous descent to Clark Canyon.  The start of the couloir was too narrow to turn, rock walls loomed on either side.  Could he stop himself if he got up speed at the start? “If the snow was hard I’d be in trouble…this was the key to the whole descent” He threw a rock, the snow was soft, a couple of turns and the couloir began to open.  In the solitude cold was forgotten and he began to relax.  He made short turns, trying to avoid triggering an avalanche.  A further surprise, there were numerous crevasses and a Bergschrund then Saudan was on the gentle slopes of the glacier.  At the base a hundred people were waiting, journalists, ski instructors, photographers and fans.  A big round of applause, interviews, photos.  The Skier’s Gazatte wrote a huge piece about the “Superman on Mount Hood”

In 1982 Saudan descended from the top of the 8068 meter Gasherbrum I in the Himalayas.  Today he runs Himalaya Heliski based in Srinagar offering heliskiing trips in Kashmir region.

Sylvain Saudan, Skieur de l’impossible, Paul Dreyfus, published by Arthaud in France, 1970

Posted by davidof on Friday, 14 November, 2003 at 11:34 PM

I accompanied sylvain close to the summit of Hidden Peak in 1982. I belive he wrote a book in french on this expedition. Wonder if I could get it.

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 31 March, 2004  at 06:19 PM

The book you are thinking of is probably the follow-up by Drefus called Victoire a ski sur l’Himalya and published by Favre.  It is not easy to find but the Librarie des Alpes in Paris or the bookshop of the same name in Grenoble (1 rue casimir périer) may have it.

Posted by davidof on  Friday, 02 April, 2004  at 05:55 PM
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