The French climber David Belden wrote in Climbing magazine not long ago: "The early forties seem to...mark a divorce between skiing and alpinism which lasted until the appearance of what can be termed 'extreme skiing' around 1967, which is certainly the most developed form of ski alpinism." Belden pointed out that this new and vastly improved form was the result of "the reappropriation of the ski by the most advanced alpinists," along with revolutionary technical developments—in both equipment and techniques—in world-class competitive skiing.
"It is impossible," wrote Belden, "to ski down a 55-degree ice slope without the footgrip and precision of foot movement provided by modern ski boots and without skis whose response has been studied and tested in research departments of ski factories. At the same time, it is impossible to ski down the Couturier Couloir [a celebrated 2,800-foot, 55-degree pitch in the Alps above Chamonix] without a thorough knowledge of snow conditions at high elevations and a minimum of snow and ice technique and mountain experience."
Most of the sport's historians agree that the first certifiable extreme-ski descent occurred in September 1967, when one Sylvain Saudan stunned those knowledgeable in the field by skiing down the Spencer Couloir on Aiguille de Blaitière in the French Alps. It was a 1,300-foot run down pitches that averaged 51 degrees and fell away at 55 degrees in places. A short, thickly muscled mountain guide and ski instructor, Saudan would rather have been a ski racer, but he was of a poor peasant family in the Swiss canton of Valais, and his parents couldn't afford to send him to races. So he became a master ski mountaineer. Saudan had climbed the Spencer Couloir before he skied it and knew the slope and snow conditions well when he began his descent. Still, he found it so intimidating psychologically that he simply couldn't make himself glide into the first dreaded turns. At last, he tied himself to a rock with a long rope in order to free himself to drop into those initial frightening yards. Once started, he untied himself and finished the run in style. Since that first descent, Saudan has plunged down dozens of extreme runs, including a partial descent of Alaska's Mt. McKinley in 1972 as well as a descent on the 23,410-foot Nunkun peak in the Himalayas.
In the course of so much extreme skiing. Saudan has developed a unique and rather acrobatic turning technique called "the windshield wiper." He plants one of his extra-long poles down the hill, then quickly elevates both skis off the snow in what looks to be a routine jump turn. However, the ski tails remain in the snow while Saudan rotates the ski tips from side to side in a rhythmic pattern, 180 degrees one way, 180 degrees the other, windshield-wiper fashion. Now 44 years old. Saudan has managed to cash in nicely on his courage. He bills himself as "Le Skier de I'Impossible" and makes dozens of public appearances each year, lecturing and showing films of himself in action. In Alpine environs, he is a celebrity of approximately the same luster as a Super Bowl quarterback in the U.S.
Not far behind Saudan in public adulation—perhaps ahead in the daring of his feats—is a lean, tough Frenchman named Patrick Vallençant, 35. A mountain guide from Chamonix, Vallençant has made more than 50 descents on slopes of 45 degrees or steeper, beginning in 1971 on the Mont Blanc massif. His most extreme descent occurred in 1979 on the wind-blasted slopes of 21,758-foot Mt. Yerupaja in Peru, on which he broke the 60-degree barrier for his first time, at one point making his way down what he judged to be a 65-degree pitch.
Vallençant has published a book in France titled Ski Extrême: ma plénitude, and Ski magazine has run excerpts dealing with Vallençant's historic run down Yerupaja. There is a certain purplish melodrama to his report, yet the extremity of the risk he took can scarcely be overstated, particularly when one considers that he did both climb and descent alone.
Vallençant on that daring day: "I am happy. I feel strong, alone on this slope. I become all the heroes of my childhood.... The wind makes me crazy, and that also pleases me.... The first turn, the ski tips are in space, below me the slope falls off and at the very bottom are the lakes. They are my goal—At this section, the slope is extremely steep—60 degrees. I find myself before three parallel ice ridges, 10 to 15 centimeters high, separated from each other by two meters. I know that the skis are going to skid, but it is not possible to go around this difficulty and there is no question of turning back. I am trapped.... My eyes are riveted on the ice.... I hit the last ridge of ice with my weight completely on the uphill ski, the downhill leg hanging uselessly in air, scarcely balancing me. Only a small portion of the edge holds me, just enough to enable me to get back on the snow and regain my balance...."
And so it went—down, down, down, down. Perhaps the most telling detail in all the melodramatic description was this: "On the steepest part of the mountain, about 65 degrees, my elbows graze the snow [on the uphill side]."
Another Frenchman, Daniel Chauchefoin, reported that when he encountered 65-degree slopes on an ice-covered pitch in the Alps, the worst moment was when the buckles of his ski boots opened in mid-descent, because of dragging against the uphill slope.
So far only a small number of men have made extreme descents, and thus there have been only a few deaths. Heini Holzer, a native of Austria's South Tyrol, had skied down many a couloir in Austria, Italy, France and Switzerland, but he was killed in July 1977 when he fell while trying to descend the north face of Piz Roseg in the Ober-Engadin in Switzerland. Another celebrated extremist, Fritz Stammberger of Aspen, who became a Colorado legend back in the '60s, when he skied down the north face of North Maroon Bell, a 2,500-foot drop over some 50-degree pitches, was killed in 1975 while climbing in Pakistan to attempt a solo descent. And Jean Moran, a French skier, died in Nepal while climbing preparatory to a descent.