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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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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.



Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.


I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.


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