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Climbing Magazine, 1970-79

Climbing Magazine, Nov/Dec 1977, p. 30 - Belden, David, "Ski Extreme"

Between the 1890s and 1930s, mountaineers in the Alps used skis for winter ascents and great range traverses (raids). The early 1940s brought the end of this pioneering era and a split between skiing and alpinism which lasted until the appearance of modern "extreme skiing" around 1967. Extreme skiing owes its development to equipment and techniques refined through alpine ski competition during the 1940s through 1960s.

The author discusses early raids and ski ascents from the 1897 crossing of the Bernese Oberland by Paulcke and friends to the end of World War I. By 1920, most of the main summits of the Alps had been skied. A number of lower peaks where conquered in the 1920s and longer traverses were completed, including a two-week traverse from Nice to Chamonix in 1928. In 1933, Leon Zwingelstein spent three months traversing from Nice to Innsbruck, 1200 miles crossing fifty passes and glaciers [sic]. A few steeper descents were made in late 1930s and 1940s. In 1953 Lionel Terray and Bil Dunaway skied the north flank of Mont Blanc for a film. The author describes a number of classic raids, from the popular Chamonix-to-Zermatt Haute Route to the remote and seldom done Corsica Haute Route. He writes: "A multi-day ski-tour is a mountain experience that allows one to have the greatest relation to the environment, something like the big wall climbing experience in terms of length, but wider in its scope."

The modern period of extreme skiing began in 1967 when Sylvain Saudan skied the Spencer Couloir on the Aiguille de Blaitiere. "Extreme skiing can be viewed as the reappropriation of the ski by the most advanced alpinists, with the technical developments acquired in competition (equipment and body technique)." For several years, Saudan had no competitors. In the early 1970s, a new group of extreme skiers emerged, most of them guides who lived year-round near the mountains, enabling them to stay in peak physical and psychological condition and maintain intimate knowledge of mountain conditions. They included Patrick Vallencant and Anselme Baud, who skied the Couturier Couloir on the Aiguille Verte in 1973, shortly after a young skier name Cachat-Rosset made its first descent with the help of a helicopter. Heini Holzer, a climbing companion of Reinhold Messner, accumulated a record of more than seventy descents before falling to his death attempting to ski the north face of Piz Rosegg in July 1977. "This was the first fatal accident in an activity which has been remarkably safe for ten years, despite the risks involved."

The 1977 season saw a dozen outstanding first descents in the Mont Blanc massif thanks to unusually good snow conditions and intense competition between extreme skiers in Chamonix. The last descent of the season was the most outstanding and probably the most difficult to date, the Austrian route on the north face of Les Courtes, "a complex route with gullies, mixed ground, high angle slopes," skied alone by Daniel Chauchefoin in July 1977. Discussing techniques and ethics, the author writes: "Extreme skiing seems to have attained in the Alps the point of diminishing returns." Pure skiing style (called "skis on snow" by the French) is threatened by reliance on rappelling to overcome sections considered too rocky or difficult (a style described as "skis on foot"). Anselme Baud has said, "If one respects the skiing on snow ethic, extreme skiing is nearing its limits in the Alps and its future is in the Andes or Himalaya."

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