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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Adventure Travel

Jan 16, 2017

Escaping No Man’s Land: A Season of Steep Ski in the Alps

Swiss steep skier, Sébastien de Sainte Marie's hunt for extreme first descents - through avalanches, dehydration and a lot of French cursing.

FIRST DESCENT, HUBSCHHORN NORTH FACE

January 13th, 2015. The winter should have already settled in on the Alps. Yet the pastures are green with an oppressive gentleness, it rains till 3000m (9,842ft) and the little snow that falls is blown away by strong wind. From my village of Glion, I travel in search of snow to the south of Switzerland. Just a few weeks ago, December 24th, after three attempts (one stopped by more than 80kph wind, the other by a huge windblown avalanche that blocked access to the north face), I succeeded finally at the first descent of the north face of the Hubschhorn (3170m). The Hubschhorn is the mountain that dominates above the col of Simplon, in the extreme east of Valais, near the Italian border. Observing my perseverance, the community of the Hospice at Simplon has developed a compassion for my mad thirst for the conquest of the useless.

The descent of the north face of the Hubschhorn is no longer than 600m (1,968ft), with two steep narrows. But exposure to all the winds renders the operation delicate, if we don’t want an avalanche falling down on our heads. I listen to each sound from each fall of snow, my concentration is intense and I’m always looking for the proximity of rocks and lines of escape, if the worst is to happen. The end of the line is splendid, perched on a turn with a small jump to finish the matter. With my return to the Hospice some 500m (1,640ft) below I will be Jesus Superstar, and yes this evening it’s Christmas.

But the ski season of 2013-2014 shook my heart.

I started the season in the Himalaya, with the project of a ski descent of Pumori, 7100m (23,293ft), in Nepal. The expedition became an adventure, a project which started as a team and turned into a solo integral. Of this voyage I retained memories of strong encounters, breathtaking landscapes, and an ideal finally fulfilled of a solo at high altitude.

With my return to the old continent I found myself caught by the success of the European Outdoor Film Tour. In April, a crew came to film me during the first descent of the north face of the Gspaltenhorn (3400m in the Swiss canton of Bern). Sound of the Void was screened all over Europe thereafter. I’m intimidated by the cameras and the show of EOFT, but it’s good to know that my friends recognize my passion. As the months pass, little by little snow whitens the landscape, until the month of December sounds the beginning of all projects, of great excitement and of all the madness.

Gilles Bornet on the first descent of the West Face of the Grand Muveran, Switzerland. After Gilles' death, I took more to skiing alone. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie.
Gilles Bornet on the first descent of the West Face of the Grand Muveran, Switzerland. After Gilles’ death, I took more to skiing alone. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie.

My friend and descent partner, Gilles Bornet, also returned from Nepal. Gilles is the archetype of the montagnard with a great heart. Since his most tender childhood he explored the Swiss mountains on ski, by paraglider and by climbing with his papa. For two winters we’ve been sharing adventures, always with a smile and the desire to discover new places. We’d achieved the most mad projects, and nothing seemed impossible to us. At the end of 2013 we repeated two very aesthetic lines in Arolla on the North Face of the Serre de Vuibe (3100m / Valais).

In Nepal, Manaslu allowed him to ascend her flanks till 7400m (24,278ft) but no more. Then Ama Dablam also refused him her summit. Yet he retained great memories of the trip. Our respective misses in the Himalaya had sharpened our appetites, the season to come should be beautiful and well-filled.

But then the hammer blow. Sunday, December 30th. In the evening I learned of the death of Gilles… taken away by an avalanche a few metres from a couloir that we had skied together the day before. Well conscious of the risks of playing in the mountains, I had not thought of the tragedies…

So I abandoned my plans and left with my companion, Natalie, on the discovery of South India. Far from the snow which took away my friend, in tears and sadness, I decided to flee the winter which is otherwise my season. To visit South India in three weeks forces a change in your mind. The passage from Bombay to the granite monuments of Hampi by the sacred shores of Varkala or the heights of Kodaikanal were filled with colours, smells and sounds that did me well. This joyous chaos and the smile of Natalie’s smile brought me back to life.

Wim Pasquier skiing just above my home at Dent de Jaman, 2015. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie.
Wim Pasquier skiing just above my home at Dent de Jaman, 2015. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie.

FIRST DESCENT, TROU A CHAMOREL 

On my return I decided to attempt an old project in a place that I knew well, the Vallon de Nant. I’d discovered it four years previously. Since then I’d opened with friends and alone, beautiful lines in the cirque. Several kilometres long and more than a thousand metres high, it formed a natural frontier between the cantons of Vaud and Valais. On March 2 I left alone to ski a direct line on the Trou a Chamorel. The climb up was rendered a little punishable by the absence of visibility, and the transformation to the silence of the snowy mantle is short. I deliberately chose not to climb the couloir, to go faster, and lacking optimism I carry my kevlar cord of 80m and pitons (one never knows). Arriving at the start of my line, the fog rose thanks to an encouraging wind, and I discovered the project’s content. “Wow, that’s really steep!” It was an itinerary dominated by rock that had, for a key passage, a 55 degree slab just about covered in snow that I’d prepared myself to ski. not bad for a first trip after 3 weeks of tourism in India.

The beginning is sustained, the wind straight on to the snow on the slab, the ambience is grandiose. I avoid letting my mind shut down by remembering the strange solitude of the moment.

Two rocky passages need my cord, under the freshness of the spindrift falling down this gullet. The following part of the descent is less exposed and technical, I take the time to appreciate the snow conditions and the ochre-coloured rock which borders the couloir. This line in my opinion is the most technical and steep that I’ve opened in the area.

Beginning the rst descent of Singu Chuli, 6501m, Nepal, in 2010. Photo: Pasang Phudur Sherpa
Beginning the first descent of Singu Chuli, 6501m, Nepal, in 2010. Photo: Pasang Phudur Sherpa.

“PUTAIN, I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS SHIT!”

A few days after this beautiful realisation in steep skiing, I launched myself body and lost soul into my first ski alpinism race with Wim Pasquier. Wim is one of the most appealing personalities I’ve ever met. He’s in incredible shape at 63, with eyes sparkling on each trip to the mountains. He was one of the forerunners of extreme skiing in the Himalaya, with his descent of the Gasherbrum II in 1984 (when I was all of 2 years old). After my return from India, Wim asked me to participate in a ski alpinism race in teams of two. I accepted more in the name of friendship than because of a real desire to ski in a tight suit and extra narrow, unskiable “matchstick” skis. So Friday evening, March 8th, I was at the start of a vertical race from Diableret 3, with Wim all ready and suited up in the kind of clothes for the type of ordeal. The first race started at night with a dry and steep climb and piste; I was happy enough because I managed much better than I’d imagined. But the next day was terrible. Saturday 6 am I was at the start of a long 30km course. Right from the start my Camelbak froze, and I was rapidly dehydrated. A long agony followed. Evidently Wim was in his element and I, meter after meter, dreamt of a sea of Coca Cola. With the light and thin clothing and gear appropriate for everything except ski, I put myself to appreciate the frozen descent where I could catch a certain speed, and to not slap my ultra-thin 67mm wide skis on ice. I finally arrived at the exclamation: “Putain, I’ve had enough of this shit!” At the end of these three days we finished 24th, much better than I’d expected for a newbie like myself.

On the rst descent of Le Couloir à Gilles, which I opened with him, in January 2013. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie.
On the first descent of Le Couloir à Gilles, which I opened with him, in January 2013. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie.

FIRST DESCENT, SANTIS NORTH FACE

Saturday 8th April I left on the grand adventure in the far east of Switzerland, in the direction of Santis, in the canton of St. Gallen, 200 kms from my home yet a part of my heart since 5 months. For two years I’d been interested in this mythic mountain in the east of Switzerland. In December I went with my girlfriend to explore the North Face from much closer, by going up in the telepherique. In the meantime Julia Bauer and Andreas Trunz help me research the best snow conditions possible and the history of ski descents of the face. The verdict: the line I’d thought of skiing is virgin of all descents. Not having a lot of time in my hands I remount the slope by cable car, taking advantage of this to well visualize the descent and understand the quality of the snow. Arriving on the top, the employees of the cable car seemed a little surprised. As I was made to understand, skiing the north face wasn’t really the “protocol” (*Ed’s note: Obviously, considering no-one else had ever done it before). After some negotiations I was authorised to use the summer tunnel to reach the north face. After the grand summit curve covered with movie-like snow, the serious business began with the telepherique that passed me just above my head, disgorging happy tourists. The high part is just well-enough snowed but forces me to make two little jumps on traverse, then after the traverse at mid-height I swung to the lower part where the snow was much harder because it took the sun. Arriving after two rappels it took me a little bit of time to succeed at finding a placement near enough correct to place a piton not too wobbly, the whole thing sprinkled with spindrift. The lower part was magnificent, the view wasn’t like anything else in the Alps, clear onto Lake Constance. A succession of ramps with more or less underlying grass took me to the bottom of the face, then without transition I found myself at Schwagalp, that paradise of tourists and motorists, who asked themselves what had taken me by the head to launch myself into so unreasonable a project. It was like this, all in skier’s guise, with a gentle odour of smelly feet that I found my Natalie on the streets of St. Gallen, and how I met her parents for the first time. In such moments I pray for the outdoor clothing industry to find a solution for sweaty feet in ski boots.

Gilles Bornet in the NE couloir of Pointe des Vignettes, Switzerland, one day before his death. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie
Gilles Bornet in the NE couloir of Pointe des Vignettes, Switzerland, one day before his death. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie

ADVENTURE WITH A CAPITAL ‘A’ IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL

Snow conditions are degrading so much it pushes me more and more to running than skiing. I move to the heights of Montreux, a corner of paradise with a grand view. It’s not yet end May that I put on my skis again to accompany an atypical couple of friends for their first time on the north face of the Col du Plan. Then after a few thunderstorms of the beginning of June, I began to dream of the possibilities of skiing engaged lines at altitude. Thanks to Jesus and his acts of bravery I managed to get three days of holiday, what a celebration! Saturday I decided with light feet to take part in a 38km trail run with 2400m of ascent and the same on descent. After a big fall, a few cramps but great feelings, I finished at a good 6th place in 4h20min, with 20 minutes of the first place winner. The next day, in the direction of Chamonix and its hordes of tourists coming from the world over to ascend the l’Aiguille du Midi and to push us a bit towards ours. It’s therefore at 11h that I can start to descend from the platform with Adelin, my companion from Plum, my ski binding sponsor. We have a choice, either peacefully descend the Frendo Spur or attempt a hypothetical repeat of the descent of Boivin on the Tournier Spur. At the moment of choice I persuade Adelin in the adventure of the unknown – Tournier Spur, arguing that adventure with a capital ‘A’ is good for the soul! (Thinking later about it, it was a bad idea).

The line of our first descent of Frete de Saille, across the huge West Face of Grand Muveran, in 2013. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie.
The line of our first descent of Frete de Saille, across the huge West Face of Grand Muveran, in 2013. Photo: Sebastien de Saint Marie.

The beginning of the descent is magnificent, thin, the snow already heavy, then the start of the difficulties arrives with the rocky sections. We put on crampons to pass a series of rocky spurs, at which point we’re in the midst of an epic adventure. We start a series of rappels to go around the seracs of the north face of the Col du Plan, exposed to the the many snow slides, which repeat at ever shorter intervals on the entirety of the north face of the Aiguilles of Chamonix. We try as hard as possible to not be in the eye of the serac and the large summit cornices, except when one can’t avoid it. Arriving at a key rappel I descend little by little, making myself as light as possible because my anchor above isn’t at all solid. Reaching the end of the rope I scrutinise the rock rapidly in search of a crack to save us, but just then a white mass knocks me down. By chance I’ve made a knot at the end of my rope which saves me from the big fall… and then I sense my static rope stretch… The avalanche passes, I don’t give myself time to pass out, finding myself still alive, I move as quickly as possible and cobble together a few pins. I’m frozen. Adelin rejoins me and surprises me of the solidity of the previous anchor. We’re happy to be still in this world. The last rappel is an exercise in style, we rappel between slides as fast as possible, and run to safety, put on our skis and leave this no man’s land.

Like all adventures that deserve to be called so, we miss the last cable car down to Chamonix. We’ll have to descend 1300m till Chamonix by foot for me and in ski boots for Adelin. Nothing like feeling in communion with nature and the seasons, than walking a path of celebration with ski boots on.

Translated from French by Apoorva Prasad/The Outdoor Journal.

Feature Image: In October 2011, Sebastien de Sainte Marie went to ski down the south face of Shishapangma, 8027m, one of the world’s 14 mountains above 8000m, in China. Here, Seb skis down the English Route, from the highest point ever reached for a ski descent on this mountain. Photo © Photopress/Mammut/Florian Wagner

This story was part of the Features section of The Outdoor Journal Spring 2015 edition of the print magazine.

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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2018

Become the Bear! Tackling Middle Aged Life the Bear Grylls Way.

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal.

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WRITTEN BY

Jamie East

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Bear Grylls is probably one of the most famous adventure celebrities in the world. Aside from all his adventures, Bear also shares his survival skills with anyone ready to pay for it. One such chap was our middle-aged writer Jamie East, who usually preferred watching other people take risks from the safe distance of his television. Until he decided to go out there himself and get dirty.

Well, there’s something liberating about jumping into a freezing, fast-flowing river with all your clothes on. It’s the kind of thing that, as a child, you told yourself you’d do all the time once you were big enough and your parents couldn’t tell you off. Yet staying on the precipice at age 39, all I can think of is, “Is this jumper dry-clean only?”

This is what life does to you. It sucks the adventure from you quicker than a Dyson in a bag of sawdust. Before you know it, you’d rather sleep than live, drive than hike, sink into the sofa than swim.

I suppose this could be classified as bare survival. You exist but don’t live, and I’ve decided enough is enough. What would the 12-year-old Jamie, who got sent home from school for falling down a ravine he thought he could clear in one leap, say to me if he could see the 39-year-old me? “Man up!” probably. “Your clothes are stupid?” most definitely.

Bear Grylls is the man we all aspire to be. Hard as nails on a mountain ledge, soft as grease at home with his kids. The fire in his heart burns brighter than Krypton being destroyed, and he’s harder than a 60-foot working model of optimus Prime made from diamonds. He also embraces the outlook on life we all wish we had time for had those damned IsAs, smart phones and creamy pasta sauces not gotten in the way. Thankfully for those of us with a terminal case of lazy-itis, we can see how the other half live over at the Bear Grylls survival Academy from the bleak Scottish Highlands or the luscious surrey forests in England. Run by Grylls and his team of ex-paratroopers, the survival Academy is an ideal introduction into a world of skills and endurance we think we’ll never need. Be honest; how many of us truly believe that there will come a time when we will be skewering a rat for dinner or navigating a 23,000-acre highland with only the stars to help? But these are skills that used to be second nature to us humans. If there weren’t people like Grylls to show us the way, there are a lot of people around the world who wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale of the time their car broke down in the Australian outback, or when they had to make a snow cave that provided those few vital hours of warmth on a mountaintop. Whether we like it or not, the knowledge could prove life-saving.

A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.
A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.

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The Academy offers several options tailored to your needs. You can opt for a 24-hour experience in Surrey either alone or with a family member older than 10. Although only 10 minutes from the motorway, such is the Surrey countryside that you could be in Montana for all you’d know. The dense forest makes for a real wilderness experience. The deep rivers you’ll be crossing, the rabbits you’ll be gutting, the trees you’ll be stripping to make shelter, and the ravines you’ll be shimmying across really do give you a feeling of being alive. A 20-minute run is considered a “big thing” in my house, so spending days in the real outdoors felt invigorating. I felt alive!

I’m not an all-rounder though. I found some of the requisite skills completely beyond me, navigating by starlight was one. My brain is just not wired to untangle that kind of data.

I used to think I could point out the north star in a heartbeat. Nope. The north star isn’t the brightest one. Nuts.

“The North Star is, in fact, the one perpendicular to blah de blah de blah babble babble wibble waffle.” That’s how that sentence sounded coming from the instructor’s mouth: just a stream of nonsense about ploughs and bears. It doesn’t look like a plough. If it looked like a plough, I’m pretty sure even I could find it. But it doesn’t. It looks like a slightly wavy line of stars that is buried among 200 billion other stars. It makes finding a needle in a haystack look like finding an elephant in an eggcup, so if I’m stuck anywhere in the world (and I mean anywhere: La Rinconanda, the Kerguelen Islands or just past the BP garage near my house) without Google maps or a TomTom, you may as well kiss this writer’s sorry ass goodbye, because I’ll wither away in a puddle of my own dehydrated tears.

Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.
Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.

But there are things that must have been festering in my subconscious all these years, like a coiled snake ready to unleash, on an unsuspecting world. For instance, I could light a fire that is neither at the end of a cigarette nor underneath a pile of half-frozen burgers. I mean a real fire created by nothing but flint and dried bark. It’s a panic-inducing task, and I’m not ashamed to say it took me nearly 40 minutes. As my instructor, Scott, told me, it’s all in the timing. Put on too much too soon and you’re buggered. Too little too late and, yup, you’re buggered.

Instructions for making a fire without matches or anything a sane human would have within arm’s reach
You need the slightest feathers of bark piled up like Candyfoss. You need your spark. Mine was from the flint on my Rambo knife. The very second that spark takes hold of one of your bark feathers, blow very gently. If all goes well, that will turn into a largish smoldering lump of smoke. If it doesn’t, go back to the beginning. You now need to start throwing on more feathers of bark, a fraction larger than the one before, before moving onto dried-out twigs no thicker than a hair on a baby’s ear. Eight hours later, you have a fire that could singe your eyebrows from 183 m. Well done!
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse - a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse – a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.

So, if ever I do go missing near the BP garage by my house, just look for the massive fire right next to the petrol station. Well, I may need to think that through a bit more.

The Scottish Highlands course that is offered is similar to this, apart from a few key points. It goes on for five days and takes place in one of the most remote places in Britain. It’ll probably pour down with ice-cold rain for the entire trip, and you’ll have to eat rat and cross a river in your underpants. Apart from that, exactly the same.

Spending time with this team baked common sense into my brain. The lessons easily transform into mundane, everyday life. The buzz phrase of the trip is “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.” out in the highlands, this means, “If you don’t prepare well, you will likely starve and die.” At home, this translates to, “Use a tape measure, or your shelf won’t be even.” The sentiment is still the same. Don’t judge me.

You should know what you’re getting into, of course. This is a Bear Grylls branded experience, after all (and all the equipment says as much). You won’t be expected to drink your own body fluids, squeeze drops of moisture out of elephant dung, or decapitate a rattlesnake with the sole of your boot, but you will feel as though you could if you were the last man on Earth. I did eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river, set traps and eat rabbit I skinned with my own bare hands. And do you know what?

I’ve never felt more alive or more connected with the world I selfishly pillage on a daily basis. I’m not alone, either.

People the world over have sought out the Grylls way of life. Upon his return to the US, my fellow survivor Caleb said “my hands are shredded, my nose is stuffed, my throat is raspy and my body is tanked, but I am alive now more than ever. It was everything I hoped for: an empowering learning experience.

Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.
Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. After the aching had subsided, and the clothes were washed, the niggling feeling that I was approximately 3 percent more of a man than I was before I began, just wouldn’t leave me. It still hasn’t.

I didn’t imagine that sleeping rough, eating worms and swimming in rivers could possibly have this much of an effect on my psyche, but it really has. I’m not saying I could rescue someone hanging off a cliff, or survive in the jungle for more than a couple of hours. But if you get the chance, breathe in the air, sharpen that stick and venture out into the big, wide world. Just remember to take a compass with you. I swear those stars are out to get you.

Photos by Discovery Channel, Jamie East & The Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

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