Dominique Perret, elected Best Freeride Skier of the Century by a jury of journalists and readers of the ski press, is currently on tour in Europe promoting his book: Lignes de Pente (Fall-lines). We caught up with him in Paris at the Andaska mountain shop where we wanted to find out what it takes to be a freeride professional.
A quick look Perret’s CV is impressive:
1990: World record cliff jump on skis: 36.40 meters
1991: 211.825 km/h at Portillo in Chili
1996: Descent of the north face of Everest from 8,500 meters on skis
1998: World altitude record: 120,000 meters skied non-stop in 14 hours 30 minutes.
plus 20 films produced from around the world.
The 41 year old Swiss skier was keen to trace his style to the roots of backcountry skiing in the 1930s. In those days there were no ski lifts and no pistes. His film, Timeless, mixes shots from the present with archive footage. His team works principally without helicopters, this has its own discipline and the results are many pleasingly long sequences where one has the chance to study the movement of the skier. It’s all a long way removed from the frenetic techno-fueled ski films of the past few years.
PH: You are skiing well away from civilisation, the snow doesn’t always look that great, there are lots of jumps and we see plenty of snow sloughs, what are the safety aspects behind your films?
DP: The Crew is really divided into three, a professional guide who evaluates risk. He is there to provide a neutral appraisal of the conditions. He’ll talk to locals, dig snow pits and use his experience to say whether it is safe. We don’t want to put either the skiers or the crew at risk. I’m there to ski; it is the job of the film crew to record what they see, not for me to ski for them. The advantage of not using helicopters is that we often climb the routes we ski, that way we can evaluate the snow and conditions and get a chance to plan what we will film; the skiing is really the climb in reverse. Everything is filmed on 16mm.
On both films we had some bad luck with the snow. Timeless was filmed in Norway and Swizterland during 2001, the hottest year on record. Namaste was filmed in March this year in Himachal. When we got there the valleys were already green, the locals were pleased, their crops were doing well. But I really got the feeling that all this heat was building up and it’s what hit us in Europe over the summer.
PH: We see you skiing very long and steep lines, at some points you are almost sitting back in the snow, then there are plenty of jumps. What preparation do you need to ski these slopes?
DP: Preparation breaks down into two parts, physical and mental. Although the skiing is physically demanding we don’t do special training. If you were to train hard, say in a gym, then ski a mountain sooner or later your body will say “stop” and you will break something. Instead we cross-train, doing stuff we enjoy like mountain biking or surfing.
Mental preparation is important; you need excellent balance and instincts. In the modern world, where everything is flat and smooth, we loose the habit of walking on uneven terrain. Sometimes we walk without lights to improve our balance. You can’t ski looking at the tips of your skis. You have to look ahead, evaluate the snow and risks.
PH: You ski much faster than the pioneers of extreme skiing, is that due to better material or do you take more risks?
DP: I don’t really see myself as an extreme skier. Baud and Vallençant were pushing the envelope, skiing climbing routes, but we see now that was a dead-end. Were they really skiing or was it alpinism, slide slipping and often secured by climbing ropes? On the mountain I see ski routes and climbing routes as two separate domains. For me the voyage is important, to ski and experience where there is snow. Obviously the equipment plays a role, skis today are shorter and fatter, this means a skier can glide on top of the snow, where a skier from the past made 50 turns we make 10.
PH: In the second film you’ve shown us, Namaste, it seems we are a hidden observer; the camera is at some distance behind trees. There is also a shot where you are carried on a rope by a helicopter, it is very reminiscent of a scene with Regis Rolland in Apocalypse Snow, with the long sequences were you trying for a ‘rootsie’ feel. (note: Didier Lafond was the cameraman on both films)
DP: In fact the sequence with the helicopter was forced upon us. It was very warm, at 5000-6000 meters there isn’t much lift. The pilot said the only way he could take me was if I clipped onto the winch cable. The snow at medium altitudes wasn’t very good, strangely, lower down where the land was sheltered by trees we found powder. We interposed shots of the Indian dancer with the skier because we were interested in the purity, grace and simplicity of the movements.
PH: After Everest where do you go now?
DP: I’d like to go back to Everest, to the summit this time, and ski the north couloir, it is 3000 meters of vertical at a slope of 45 degrees. It is one of the world’s great routes.
PH: Thank you very much.
Lignes de pente is published by Favre.