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IT'S GOT ITS UPS AND DOWNS
William Oscar Johnson
March 30, 1981
Chris Landry climbs mountains just to ski down them, at times on 60-degree slopes, as here on Mendel Couloir in the Sierra Nevadas
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March 30, 1981

It's Got Its Ups And Downs

Chris Landry climbs mountains just to ski down them, at times on 60-degree slopes, as here on Mendel Couloir in the Sierra Nevadas

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No longer was there any doubt in Robinson's mind about Landry's sanity or skill in skiing extreme slopes. "I can see from these first turns that he is way inside his limits. He can do anything he wants. He is in perfect control."

Landry himself, reflecting on this historic first ski descent of Liberty Ridge, says, "It was mellow. Sure, it was serious; there were plenty of opportunities to blow it. But the fear factor was very low. There was no anxiety about unknowns, and it was what skiing should be—it was fun."

Three weeks after Rainier, Landry and Robinson were together again, this time in the Sierra Nevadas, climbing a desperately steep ribbon of terrain known as the Mendel Couloir. It is suffocatingly narrow, breathtakingly steep—up to 63 degrees—and 1,100 feet long.

Although Landry had viewed the descent as a training experience, it proved to be the steepest and the most frightening he had ever skied. One severe problem was the snow—sugary stuff that lay rather thinly over a surface that was partly black ice and partly bedrock. Was it even skiable? Landry recalls, "Yes, it was—but barely. If I could maintain a steady perception of what I was doing, hold an intense concentration, I felt I wouldn't get into trouble. I might not enjoy the run, but I was almost positive that I would survive."

The first serious trouble he encountered was putting on his skis. He had climbed the narrow neck toward the summit, but there wasn't enough snow to get to the very top—a fact that spoiled the "esthetic effect" of the descent before it began. Landry had to remove his climbing boots and crampons, but there was no way to perch on the snow and ice without crampons. He slammed the point of his ice ax deep into the ice, attached the sling on the handle to his belt, and gingerly removed his climbing boots and crampons and put on his ski boots and skis. Then he carefully tested his weight on the snow. It held. "I removed the ice ax," he says, "and it was literally anchors aweigh."

It was also close to a nightmare. The drop was so steep and the trough so narrow that for the first section he had to sidestep down. He attempted a turn, what he called "a little test flight, a short hop downhill," and landed on a rock that was protruding through the black ice. He tried another turn, hit another rock. "All I could do was down-climb the gully," he says. "That wasn't what I had in mind." Once he had moved down past the worst-looking snow, he began some very cautious turns.

Later, Landry wrote: "Terrain that steep imposes a much smaller latitude in body position and every aspect of the turn must be in control. It begins with a slow release of edge control...into a slow sideslip...all the weight on the downhill ski. The steeper the skiing the smaller the effective range in the angle of incidence of the ski edge to the snow. The correct position is between leaning too far into the hill where the edge washes out and loses contact, and leaning too far out, simply falling headfirst down the gully. For all its appearance of wild abandon—hopping up off the snow perhaps two feet into the air, swinging the skis into and across the fall line while still in the air and then blasting back down into the snow in a low, angulated position—such turns amount to a carefully controlled relinquishing and regaining of edge control. A serious mistake will probably result in an immediate, permanent loss of control...."

Thus Landry cold-sweated his way down the couloir and, about one hour later, reached the bottom—alive and skiing. Robinson, who had watched him the whole precarious way, says, "Chris was pushed hard. It just happens that Mendel is one of the classic tough ice climbs in the Sierras, and when experienced climbers hear that someone skied down Mendel, they're amazed. I saw him hesitate, I saw his concern. He didn't say much about it afterward, but I knew from his silence that it had been tough."

Nevertheless, Landry may be extreme skiing for years to come. "I don't expect I'll ever really peak," he says. "There will always be something I haven't done, something I'll want to try."

But why persist in taking such risks?

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