He gingerly made six of these turns, the last a bare 10 feet above the cliffs brink. Then he skied to the left along the ledge in a tense traverse that ultimately put him in the middle of a broader couloir that sank away at a mere 45-degree angle. Now euphoria engulfed him. "It had all been pretty scary up till then," he says, "but when I finally stopped. I really felt a rush. Mike was standing nearby watching and we said a couple of words. I felt great at that point, but I didn't want to lose my concentration. It wasn't time to celebrate."
The night crust on the snow was deteriorating steadily. Landry, beginning a cautious series of turns down the face, found that he could do only four or five turns in a sequence of slow links before the sloughing snow he cut loose with his edges had built up so much that it threatened to knock him down. At times the snow whirled up over his skis so turbulently that he had a feeling of vertigo.
"It wasn't really frightening," says Landry, "more a sensation of pleasant disorientation, like being a little high. But at times there were slabs breaking loose that were big enough to knock me off the mountain. One slough did almost knock me down, but I managed to push myself back up with one hand."
He had to ski back and forth across the troughs scoured out by the sluicing snow, waiting on one side as the slough slid past, then executing a few more turns until sliding snow built up again and he had to wait for it to pass. At the end of this couloir was another sheer cliff drop of 200 feet. Had Landry been swept off his feet by snowslides or knocked down after striking an unseen rock, he would have begun to slip across the snow-surface at an increasingly swift rate. Then he would have begun tumbling, first in short jolting bumps and bounds, then in an increasingly long and brutal series of arcs and impacts—down, down the incline until he sailed out over the cliff face and wound up perhaps 1,000 feet below.
Landry didn't fall. He continued his steady way down the East Face, turning back and forth across the couloir with its treacherous thawing snow. Kennedy continued to back his way down the steep pitch, front-pointing with his crampons and punching for purchase with his own ice ax and Landry's. A fall for him would be scarcely less catastrophic than for Landry. Kennedy dropped Landry's gear off at the top of the ice runnel before he climbed down. Landry arrived a short time later. He had been skiing about half an hour. He quickly changed into his crampon-equipped climbing boots, then stowed his ski boots in his pack and strapped his skis across his back. He then moved down the runnel on a series of delicately planted ice-ax blows and crampon kicks—a piece of classic alpinism. At the bottom of the gully, he went to the side of the ice ribbon to change to ski gear again. He had just taken off one climbing boot when he heard an ominous hissing sound above him. A "medium-sized" snowslide scoured the runnel where Landry had been only moments before. He sat there, one boot on, one boot off, and watched as a couple of tons of snow shot past him. Had he been on the ice, he would have been swept away.
The rest of the way down was what could be called routinely dangerous for Landry. It included working his way over and around and down through the steep and formerly spooky terrain of avalanche debris on the lower third of the face. But all major thrills and frights were past, and by 10 a.m., Landry and Kennedy were back at the camp they had left seven hours before.
Chris Landry still retains a sense of wonder and elation over making the first ski descent of Pyramid Peak. "I'm still shocked by it," he says. "It was particularly gripping because it was the first time I'd ever really skied something where, if I fell, I died. I wonder sometimes—like anyone—exactly what I was doing there. I suppose that the idea of a death wish has validity for some people, but not with me. I know this isn't a game you can play indefinitely. There's an odds factor. Some people see it as some kind of a sudden heroic, daredevil act. Nothing was sudden, nothing was heroic. It was all part of a very gradual, very logical progression in myself.
"A few years ago I thought of dabbling in extreme skiing, but I really didn't like the idea much. I thought. 'Why turn skiing into a death-defying deal when it's so much fun?' Even downhill racing—you might get banged up bad. but you almost never worried about getting killed. But as time went on and I got into more ski mountaineering, I kind of unconsciously upped the ante. Gradually I got into steeper and steeper stuff. By the time I got up on Pyramid, it was all just part of the logic."
If extreme skiing has a logic, it has so far appealed to very few. Indeed, only a handful of men are even remotely capable of doing it. Yet the sport has a stirring history, albeit a brief one, with a tiny pantheon of living heroes as well as an inevitable collection of obituaries.
The beginnings of extreme skiing can be traced back 80 or 90 years, when mountaineers got involved in what the French call "ski de raid" which referred to ski traverses of the great ranges of the Alps. By the end of World War I. nearly all of the main summits in the Alps had been reached on skis. These feats probably involved descents somewhat less harrowing than those accomplished by extreme skiers today, but they still required mighty reserves of skill and courage, especially on the relatively primitive ski equipment then available. In the 1920s and 1930s, the French led in the development of ski alpinism. A legendary French mountain man named André Tournier skied, for the first time, the glacier of the Aiguille d'Argentière near Chamonix, France in 1939, and a year later two other French hearties. Emile Allais and Etienne Livacic, made it down the north face of the Dôme du Goûter on Mont Blanc. These runs are done by thousands of skiers today, but in the '30s, the days of huge wooden skis, soft leather boots and bear-trap bindings, they were enormously impressive. During World War II, there was a hiatus, and when the sport reappeared it had a vastly different look.