So far, not many Americans have been involved in the sport. Of course, there have long been hell-for-leather individualists in the U.S. capable of throwing themselves down the steeps for fun. Since the mid-1930s, brash collegians have climbed the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine on New Hampshire's Mt. Washington in late spring to ski the half-mile, 45-degree slope in corn snow. Perhaps the first serious extreme skiing in the U.S. was a descent 10 years ago of the side of Grand Teton Mountain in Wyoming by Bill Briggs, a climber and ski instructor. He made it down in style despite the fact that he had a fused hip joint. A mountaineer named Steve Shea, who was presumably in perfect shape, tried the same feat in 1978 while ABC Sports cameras recorded his trip. He fell and rolled about 700 feet, but survived to tell the story—though not on television. Briggs did complete the run successfully a year later.
According to Kennedy, 28, who is not only a superb alpinist but also the editor of Climbing, Landry is the foremost U.S. disciple of this sparsely practiced sport. "Not that many really good climbers also happen to be really good skiers," says Kennedy. "When you assess it realistically, extreme skiing is harder to do than climbing. If you make a mistake, there's almost nothing you can do to recover. In climbing, you can build up to a tough solo rock climb by practicing a lot in places you can't get hurt. There are degrees of difficulty in climbing, degrees of risk that you can predict and, to some extent, control. With extreme skiing, you take a quantum leap. It's all or nothing. There's no safe middle ground when you're skiing on a 1,000-foot slope over 45 degrees. So there just aren't many people able—or willing—to get into it."
But there is Landry, and he is deep into it. Now 31, he spends his non-skiing time as an itinerant carpenter in Colorado. He has been skiing since he was four. He was a good ski racer, competing in both slalom and downhill for the national junior team as well as for the University of Colorado in the late 1960s. He suffered, among other things, a broken ankle and had to give up serious racing—perhaps before he peaked. Then he turned to what may have been his first love anyway: mountaineering. His first ascents of Fremont Peak and Mt. Sacagawea in Wyoming's Wind River Range in 1976 were duly noted in the American Alpine Journal. In 1977 he made some impressive ice climbs, including an ascent of Bridalveil Falls near Telluride, Colo., and he was on the first winter climb of the 2,000-foot Northwest Buttress on Capital Peak near Aspen that year. The combination of Landry's ski-racing talent and his ever-improving mountaineering skills has given him the unique mix required to produce a first-class extreme skier.
Landry is an affable, articulate fellow who is naturally self-effacing. "I'm not among the really hot climbers and I was never a really hot racer," he says, "but the combination of the two is enough to give me confidence to do some fairly tough descents."
After his historic trip down Pyramid Peak in the spring of '78, Landry was confident enough to tackle North America's tallest mountain, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. In May 1979, he climbed up to 19,500 feet, hoping that conditions would allow him to ski down. There was no chance; the surface was boiler-plate ice. He tried a short run, found it too risky, removed his skis and ski boots and climbed down with his Alpine gear. Landry plans to try again this spring. He has charted a descent from the summit down the mountain's West Rib, an elegantly contoured ridge that plunges 9,000 feet to the 11,000-foot level. If he is successful, it will be the first time the Rib will have been skied. Saudan's run on McKinley in 1972 was down the Messner Couloir, a suitably hair-raising route with some 50-degree slopes, but it covers only about half the distance that Landry expects to ski.
Landry's most satisfying extreme descent occurred last May on Mt. Rainier in Washington. He describes it as "a classic." His companion was Doug Robinson, 35, of Bishop, Calif., a superb climber and excellent skier—though he specializes in cross-country skiing and ski mountaineering rather than Alpine skiing. Robinson makes his living as a mountain guide and as a photographer and writer. He and Landry met only a short time before they left for Rainier, and as Robinson recalls, "We were on the mountain a good 10 days before Chris could ply his art, and, frankly, I was nervous the whole time. At first I watched him closely—and with a definitely morbid fascination. I was very curious and very worried. I really didn't know him, and I kept wondering, 'Is he suicidal? Does he have a death wish? What's on his mind? Is he crazy?' I really didn't want to stand by and watch this man die. As the days went by, Chris was becoming a good friend, and then I really didn't want to watch him die. The nervousness kept building."
Robinson was also going to ski on Rainier—a 5,000-foot section of the Emmons Glacier, most of it pitched at an angle of about 35 degrees. Easy going, right? Wrong. Robinson was going to do it on Nordic skis with three-pin bindings, his bootheels free. His skis were skinny, but they weren't the limber, edge-less slats that Sunday trekkers take out into the woods. They were stiff fiber-glass Rossignol Randonnées, equipped with stout steel edges. He needed them, for the snow surface on Rainier is under constant attack by high winds. Some of it is hammered into a base that Robinson calls windboard, a surface so hard and slick and steep that a man can't stand without crampons to hold him in place. In other places the surface becomes "sastrugi," which Robinson describes as "random stacks of sharp-edged platters strewn across the snow. Skiing it is roughly like trying to hold an edge while traversing a steep slate roof—only here some of the slates are six or eight inches thick."
Emmons is a huge glacier, a mile wide in places and reaching from Rainier's 14,410-foot summit all the way to the Washington rain forest, 10,000 feet below. At the top, Robinson found himself skiing on a surface of rippled ice with "the texture of a frozen Gila monster hide." Even though his run wasn't truly extreme skiing, because of the lesser angle, Robinson had a terrifying close call. After skiing off the top, he caught an edge on sastrugi snow, fell and began to slide. Landry, on skis and carrying a camera, helplessly watched him slip by, so stunned by the mishap that he forgot to take a picture. First sliding ever faster, then beginning to bounce, Robinson fought for 300 feet to arrest his fall, working desperately to bring his ski edges under him again and dragging his ski-pole tips on the rough surface. At last, his poles slowed him and he came to a stop. Landry had followed him down. Then while Robinson sat trembling on the slope, Landry examined Robinson's ski edges. They had been honed too sharp. Landry took a piece of emery cloth from his pocket and rubbed Robinson's edges to dull them. They skied the rest of the glacier without a problem.
Two days later, following heavy snowstorms, Landry and Robinson began at 1:30 a.m. to climb the mile-long section of Rainier known as Liberty Ridge, the site of Chris' next descent. As a climb. Liberty Ridge is considered one of the 50 classic ascents in North America. Normally, it is a two-day climb; Robinson and Landry were going to climb and descend in a day. The ascent—much of it by head lamp—took seven hours and the conditions were beautiful. At the top, the snow surface was steel-hard but very smooth windboard. The wind was, as always, blowing hard, but the morning was clear.
Later Robinson wrote: "I am backing down...Mt. Rainier on the toe points of my crampons, alone and unroped. This is the steepest section, 600 feet below the summit, where the angle is 50-degrees-plus. As I sink my ice ax into the wind-packed crust, I can see 5,000 feet between my legs to the Carbon Glacier below. A faint hiss brings my attention up to powder snow sliding over the horizon of ice above. Backlit golden, the snow rolls over the toes of my climbing boots...leaving a taste of vertigo in my mouth. Now the powder is coming in rhythmic waves.... Soon I can see a figure behind them, pumping turns as he comes into view, skis flashing in the air between the edge sets...."