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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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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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Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.



Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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