Trailblazer: Sylvain Saudan – Skieur de L’impossible

Why is Saudan so special? How has he earned the title ‘Skier of the Impossible?’ The main reason is that he is still alive. Peter Chrzanowski recalls a sporadic, 30-year friendship with the godfather of extreme skiing.

 

words :: Peter Chrzanowski

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Sylvain Saudan—the man, the name – has unexpectedly flowed in and out of my life for three decades. Most recently, in the spring of 2017, I hosted him for two weeks at my home in Pemberton. During his stay, I felt his passion for the details of his daily life routine and his gentle demeanour, along with his obsessive drive towards what he perceives as perfection.

In the mountains of his European home, and around the globe, this drive has earned Saudan, now 80 years old, a hefty-yet-well-earned label: “Skier of the Impossible.”

On his recent visit to the Coast Mountains, I even skied with Sylvain to the top of Blackcomb’s Couloir Extreme, a run that once bore his name. But to fully tell that story we must take a few steps back…

First, we must ask, what made this man? Born on Sept 27, 1937 in Lausanne, Switzerland, the young Sylvain received his first skis at the age of six. In 1961, at age 25, he earned his title as Swiss ski instructor then became a full mountain guide in Aspen, Colorado in 1963.

 

Godfather of Extreme. COURTESY SYLVAIN SAUDAN/VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Saudan’s steepskiing career started in 1967 as he pioneered first ski descents in the Alps of Europe with an unnamed couloir from Rothorn to Arosa (2,895 metres). He followed with another 45-degree-plus ski descent of the 3,451-metre “Piz Corvatsch” above Saint Moritz in Switzerland. These accomplishments turned some heads, however it was his first descent of the infamous Spencer Couloir in Chamonix, France in 1967 that truly gained the attention of the guide and mountaineering community. Up to that point, slopes in steepness of over 55 degrees were deemed impossible to ski.

To confirm his descent and silence the disbelievers, a lightweight aircraft flew over and photographed his tracks. With this descent, Saudan leaped his first hurdle over the impossible, and was dubbed “skieur de l’impossible.”

 

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While also helping to pioneer the world’s first heli ski runs with Hans Gmoser in the Bugaboos of British Columbia in the 1970s, Sylvain Saudan continued ticking off challenging first descents; he skied 23 between 1967 and 1982. Besides their extraordinary steepness, these descents were complex ski mountaineer routes that pushed the limits of steep skiing and mountaineering simultaneously. Sylvain climbed many of the routes, but used helicopters to access others, a method that drove many in the high mountain guide community to ostracize him for “cheating.”

The latter ended his spectacular steep-skiing career and earned him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest, steep descent ever.

As time went on, Saudan expanded his quest for big descents beyond the walls of the Alps. His next round of feats included the never repeated 4,400 vertical metre ski descent of Mount McKinley’s southwest face (6,178 metres and North America’s highest peak) and the 1982 descent from Pakistan’s Hidden Peak (6,068 metres) in the Karakorum. The latter ended his spectacular steep-skiing career and earned him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest, steep descent ever. Saudan was also the first person to ski at over 8,000 metres and many of his descents have never been repeated. With a career such as this, it becomes clear why Saudan truly is the grandfather of the sport of steep skiing.

To understand the seriousness, yet simplicity of the commitment of these lines, while also diving into the reasons for his commitment, we need to look no further than his own pragmatic view of these accomplishments: “You cannot let your skis run out on all those runs—or you will die.”

 

Hopping in. COURTESY SAUDAN SYLVAIN/VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

My first meeting occurred in 1989, at the height of my own steep-skiing career. I invited Sylvain to visit and ski Mount Waddington, the highest mountain in BC, and also Blackcomb. Up to that point, my ski career had not been free of controversy and inviting Sylvain to Whistler continued the trend. Unbeknownst to Saudan, there was an infamous couloir named after him on Blackcomb—the Saudan Couloir—a classic backcountry run for locals and ski patrollers that existed long before ski lifts ever appeared on Blackcomb.

Once the “new” resort did open, “The Saudan” became a signature run. Of course, this was all news to the man himself. Upon learning of this infringement, Sylvain’s canny Swiss business advisers gave Blackcomb the gears for using his name for advertising purposes without ever consulting him. When Mr. Saudan arrived in Whistler, a legal disagreement arose between him and Intrawest, who owned Blackcomb at the time. They settled with Mr. Saudan, but the name of the Saudan Couloir had to be changed, and it became Couloir Extreme to the chagrin of many locals.

Regardless of any controversy, we were both dedicated steep skiers and our trip to Mount Waddington went on. Thanks to Manley Fredlund (a philanthropist and former Okanagan Helicopter pilot), we flew directly to Mount Waddington from Vancouver with two helicopters, with the goal of making a film called REEL RADICAL with a crew that included Whistler locals Eric Pehota, Beat Steiner, Dave Frazee and Scott Fulmer.

Photographer Greg Mauer was there too, and the story ended up on the cover of ‘Supernatural British Columbia’ magazine. It was a quick but noteworthy film, and when Eric Pehota skied the summit “button” off Waddington’s northwest peak, the heli footage was deemed the “best ski footage ever taken” at the time.

Twenty-seven years later, I picked up the phone at home in Pemberton only to hear that recognizable, thick Swiss-French accent. Sylvain was on his way back to Whistler and he convinced me to put on a premiere of his new movie: The Skier of the Impossible.

 

Old Man and the Steeps. Atop the Saudan Couloir. SIMON BEDFORD

Eighty years old and still skiing 85 days a year, Sylvain had been living in Chamonix and running a heli ski operation in Kashmir which operates for three months every year. However, business recently had to be cancelled due to ongoing political turmoil in the area, so Sylvain was touring his film instead.

Since he was coming anyhow, I suggested we should try and get Couloir Extreme changed back to its legendary, original name. He chuckled—we had plenty of challenges and hurdles to overcome just putting on the film: no budget and Whistler’s busy WSSF meant competing events on every night. Plus, Sylvain, the perfectionist, commandeered every element and fine detail of the endeavour: “Zee posters, they are too small” or “No editing, they have to see the whole film!” I listened and in the end, he was right. We filled two showings with standing ovations at the Maury Young Arts Centre in Whistler and exposed a new generation of skiers to a piece of their own history.

Sylvain Saudan had a lasting effect on his sport, the skiing culture around the world, and even on the community of Whistler.

Sylvain Saudan had a lasting effect on his sport, the skiing culture around the world, and even on the community of Whistler. Everywhere we went, people recognized him. There was the French bartender at Merlin’s who had grown up with Sylvain’s poster on his wall, or the lady from Hemlock Valley who claimed he chatted her up back in ’89 (“He was charming,” she said). He even enjoyed a helicopter tour around Mount Currie with Eric Pehota, who was on that legendary 1989 Waddington trip.

And yes, we skied and had a look down “his” couloir on Blackcomb. Sylvain decided to ski around it, as he did not like the fat, shaped skis he was on. At the end of it all, he left me in style—with a parting gift of a beautiful bouquet of flowers for my mother. Later, I heard he did reach an agreement with Whistler Blackcomb to put his name back on the Couloir. Perhaps because now, finally, it had looked a challenge worthy of his abilities (and age, and skinnier skis!)

In any case, Sylvain Saudan is first and foremost a skier. I will never lose the vivid image of him pulling his change of clothes behind him in a suitcase through Whistler’s Day Lot 4, before excelling in that perfect groomed presentation at Millennium Place. I just anticipate the next time my phone rings and I hear, “Hello, Peter….” Another call to another adventure with The Skier of the Impossible.

Breaking News: It’s confirmed that Sylvain Sudan has agreed to let Whistler Blackcomb reinstate his name on the infamous Saudan Couloir. He will return to Whistler in November for an official ceremony. Watch the @WhistlerBlckcmb Twitter feed for details.

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