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The definition of extreme skiing is pretty simple—if you fall, you die.
The first time Chris Landry faced such an absurd and ultimate extremity was early on the morning of Mother's Day 1978. He stood alone on the 14,018-foot summit of Colorado's Pyramid Peak, which rises roughly six rugged backcountry miles from Aspen. A spring sunrise had laid a clean coppery light over the peaks visible at every compass point around Pyramid. It was a perfect day for the Moms of America. It was a little less than perfect for an extreme skier.
"The sun was the problem," recalls Landry. "It was only 8:30, but it was getting warm already. It was going to be a race to get down before the snow warmed up into avalanche conditions."
A descent on skis down the East Face of Pyramid Peak was something no man had ever attempted. The pitches were horrendous, more than 50 degrees in some places, at least 45 degrees over the upper half of the 4,300 feet to the base of the face. To put these angles of incline into perspective, only a few of the steepest expert runs at U.S. ski areas exceed an average of 30 degrees. The steepest average grade available to non-extreme skiers is the 35.9-degree pitch down the 4,875-foot Christmas Bowl in Sun Valley. Occasional sections of a few ski-area runs are steeper, but none exceeds 40 degrees. Veteran mountain climbers say that going up a rock face pitched at 60 degrees gives them the sensation that they are going straight up, while a true 90-degree ascent gives a climber the impression he is in a backward tilt on an overhang.
The first 300 feet of Landry's long trip down Pyramid seemed the most treacherous. The moment he tipped his skis off the summit, he would plunge along a narrow neck of snow, scarcely 20 feet wide, that dropped away at an angle close to 55 degrees and ended at the brink of a 400-foot-high cliff. Landry hoped to cut a series of very cautious turns, perhaps a half dozen of them, down that chute until he reached a safe point above the cliff, then to glide in a traverse along the edge of the drop-off until he reached a broader pitch on which he would make the rest of the descent.
"Since it was my first time, there were things I didn't know for sure," he says. "I didn't know, for example, precisely what would happen on snow that steep when I hit it with my ski edges. I wasn't really fearful. I was really paying attention to everything, but I didn't have any butterflies that morning. My butterflies had come in the dark on the way up."
Yes, don't forget the way up. One thing axiomatic about this dangerous game is that for a man to be an extreme mountain skier, he must also be a fairly extreme mountain climber. Thus, for Landry to perch in a position to descend the East Face of Pyramid, he first had to ascend same. That was accomplished over five dark and eerie hours before this Mother's Day dawn. With Landry was his longtime climbing and ski-mountaineering companion, Michael Kennedy.
There had been a certain sense of hurry to their expedition from the start because Landry's decision to try to ski the mountain had been made only the afternoon of the day before. "It wasn't as if I had just stumbled on the idea of doing it then," he says. "In the back of my mind I had been preparing myself all spring. I had this checklist going to cover all the essential elements I would need to make a try. I was in good physical condition; I was skiing really well; I had recently done a lot of ski mountaineering. The one element that I wasn't sure of was the mountain itself. Would the snow be good enough? As the spring went by, there was more and more snow and conditions had to be better and better. Pretty soon, the idea of skiing the East Face was right up there in the front of my mind."
The morning before he stood on Pyramid Peak. Landry and some ski-mountaineering friends, including Kennedy, had made a predawn climb up Mt. Daly, which lies 15 miles west of Pyramid Peak. In the sunrise on the top of Daly, they enjoyed a vista that included a shoulder of Pyramid's summit. "There had been storms for several days before," says Landry. "From what I could see, the snow over there looked good." They skied all morning on Daly in spectacular corn snow, then went down at noon, drove back to Aspen and. by four o'clock, Landry and Kennedy were hiking out the Maroon Lake road on the way to the base of Pyramid Peak. By 8 p.m. they had made camp and had a pot of rice going on the fire but were so tired they fell asleep while it was cooking and woke two hours later to choke down some very dry. hard rice.
At 2 a.m. the alarm clock woke them. They packed and drank tea, and within the hour began to climb through the chill, silent night. Landry toted his skis on his back. Kennedy carried none, as he was going to descend on foot. Steadily, patiently, they worked their way upward, lighting the way with the bobbing beams of head lamps. The snow was hard from the low night temperatures, so they carried ice axes and wore crampons to bite into the steep, slippery surface.