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Cliffhanger

Adventure
posted: 02/05/2001

It would be one of the best runs of their lives. If they lived through it.

I love couloirs. No, I hate couloirs.

You train hard. You wait until the time's right. You climb up and drop in, and you just can't believe how steep it is. The walls pinch in menacingly. The choke point is so tight you have to inch down, one arm stretched above you, trying to keep yourself stable. But below you is the opening, the goal, like a gate to freedom. Just five more turns...four, three, until -- suddenly! -- you're out and off like a rocket, making big turns, laughing, knowing you just survived the ultimate test. At that moment, oh, Lordy, couloirs are pure love.

But in a couloir on Mont Blanc outside Chamonix, France, last May, I had the single most horrific experience of my life. And I've had some doozies: skiing the Grand Teton in ridiculously bad conditions; doing a cartwheel in a no-fall zone -- on three separate occasions; being swept away in five different avalanches. But this was different: an experience that not only made me hate couloirs, but wonder if I'd ever want to ski one -- or anything -- ever again.

I arrived in Chamonix at the end of April, having gotten an assignment from this magazine to bag a European couloir for a feature story. It was an ideal situation: Chamonix, with its outrageous lines and big, glaciated faces, is the heart of accessible, free-for-all danger skiing. And at SKIING's request, my partners were to be Stéphane "Fan Fan" Dan and Francine Moreillon, the ski stunt talent from the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough.Fan Fan, with a deeply tanned face, 15-plus years of guiding experience, and a love of sketchy lines, is perhaps the most radically charged guide in Chamonix. And Francine, a world-champion freeskier from Switzerland whose hair is usually dyed purple or blue, is determined to make a name for herself as a fearless, do-anything skier. Together we were gonna out-Bond Bond.

April is normally the beginning of Chamonix's couloir season: The snowpack is deeper, more stable, and more predictable, granting access to the area's scariest terrain. But it dumped a meter of fresh the day I arrived, and all the couloirs that litter Chamonix like flowing white veils in a sea of mad gray were too dangerous to ski. The second the sun hit all that fresh snow, big, baking avalanches were going to rip those mountains apart. So I sighed and settled in for a second-rate life of dinner parties and cheap red wine instead.

Two days later, I was awakened at 8 a.m. by an irate Francine, throwing gravel at my window: "Where 'ave you been? I taught you were staying at Gar-ee's. Today is the only day Fan Fan is available, and the sun's hout. Grab your gear and bring a 'arness, we are going to ski a cool-war."

Francine drove me, still yawning, empty bellied, but very excited, to the base of Mont Blanc's Aiguille Du Midi to meet Fan Fan, François Portmann (the photographer who would see us to the start of our descent), and an addition to our group: Nicolas Mermoud, a marketing exec for Dynastar who skis like a highly caffeinated downhill racer. We boarded the bottom tram, and less than 10 minutes later, at the base of the second tram, Fan Fan pointed to a line called the Face Nord du Col du Plan -- the far skier's right side of the legendary North Face of the Aiguille Du Midi.

Oh, sweet mother. I didn't know whether to scream or whimper. Our line, by my estimation, started with a 1,500-vertical-foot, 55-degree, oozing, glaciated, crevasse-peppered face above a 1,500-foot dead-vertical ice fall. (Translation: You fall, you die, absolutely no question.) Then came two 150-foot rappels over vertical rock and ice, then a 60-degree, ski-length-wide, 1,200-vertical-foot couloir to the glacier below. No doubt, if we pulled it off, this would be one of the most memorable descents of my life. I wanted to tap the shoulders of tourists nearby and say, "Hey, look, we're abouto ski that."

With quiet anticipation and the familiar hum of fear shaking my bones, we rode the next tram to the top, hiked down along a set of fixed ropes, then traversed 15 minutes to the rock slot that lead to our route. Fan Fan had skied this line twice before and seemed nonchalant, so I pretended to match his confidence. He was a hero in Chamonix, and I trusted him like he was James Bond himself.

The sheer slope below us was covered with that meter of fresh powder and dropped away like it was the edge of the earth. The entrance started with a sudden 50-plus-degree drop onto a bowl of powder that had no bottom. If it slid, we'd cartwheel down for hundreds of feet before flying off the icy edge. Fan Fan rappelled several times over the rim to check conditions. Each time, he climbed back up shaking his head with worry.

I know it seems more rational to turn away when conditions are unclear, and of course a part of me hoped we'd bail out and just ski down the mellow Vallée Blanche instead. But I was also wildly excited about skiing that face. My God, if we could pull this off -- just like the dozens of descents each of us had pulled off over the years, in even scarier conditions -- the satisfaction, the dripping euphoria, would be magical. A couple of hours of nail biting and I'd be able to step back on the plane without skiing another run and feel that the entire trip was worth it.

I know the others wanted that buzz, too. And we had the added pressure to get the story done. After two hours of wavering, wondering if we were about to make the best or the worst decision of our lives, we finally cranked our bindings three full clicks and put on our packs. Taking risks in the mountains, after all, is what our group does for a living.

Fan Fan dropped in, hopped and free-fell the first five turns, then hid below a rock. As Francine was about to go next, the boom of a nearby avalanche made her pause. In Chamonix, with its blue ice and sketchy, hair-trigger snowpack, we always hear these booms. But this one was particularly ominous: We could see the avalanche clearly, a house-sized block of snow waterfalling magnificently over several cliffs, off to our far right. "Ohmygud," Francine said, looking at me with alarm.

The slide had been triggered by the sun moving onto a distant face. By contrast, the exposed face below us was in deep shade, but that didn't dispel the constant, heavy fear that its thick layer of fresh snow would slide. We picked our way down with wide eyes, getting face shots and skiing among the most spectacular sprawl of brilliant blue ice and deep crevasses I've ever seen.

We worked our way down and to skier's right across the face, and then entered the couloir proper, by rope. The two rappels -- each a full rope length (150 feet), very exposed, at times overhanging -- went slowly. I was surprised to learn that Nicolas and Francine had never done a rappel like this before and needed help threading in. As much as I was humming with adrenaline, they were probably humming twice as loud. The anchors took a half hour each to create as Fan Fan chipped away the ice and carefully jammed metal nuts into the rock cracks underneath. In between the two pitches, we had only a two-inch-wide ledge of ice to stand on.

The rappels dropped us into the chute from the skier's-left side, and we couldn't actually see what our route looked like until we were on the last 10 feet of rope. Our chosen ski line was a deep, tight slot, 60 degrees steep, about a ski-and-a-half-length wide, petering down to a meter across, with an icy camel hump running down the center. Skiing it would require frequent sideslipping, with our tips and tails scraping rock. The glacier -- the end of the line -- was a good 1,200 feet below.

Above us were vast, unseen faces so steep they naturally slough their snowpack without any trigger; avalanches had been regularly funneling down this couloir for centuries. As the day wore on, the sun would wrap slowly across those faces, warming the new snow. Each newly heated spot would then slough naturally and, like a rolling snowball, gather more and more snow volume and momentum as it fell. By the time the avalanches reached our elevation, they would be enormous. As I slid down the second rappel, I could hear the booms of slides, still off to our right but getting closer. We needed to hurry.

I was the last to drop in, and I had just touched down when the first avalanche came streaming down our slot. It wasn't particularly large -- maybe five feet deep -- but it was moving fast as a bullet, just a meter to our right. The noise left my ears ringing.

We were out of time. We all knew that more avalanches were coming, so there was nothing to do but stay put, still attached to the rope on the couloir's icy, 70-degree sidewall. We were all in a line: Nicolas clung directly below me, face-level with my skis, then Francine and Fan Fan.

We couldn't go anywhere. The avalanches flew by every five minutes. At first we found them merely exciting to watch: They were close, but not too close. Then they grew bigger, throwing up hurricane wind blasts that coated us with fine snow crystals. We started to get scared. Then the avalanches grew even bigger still. Clumps began to smack our faces. Within an hour, the slides were 50-foot-high, 200-mile-an-hour freight trains pouring over our heads, their white undersides dropping right on our necks and sliding off our backs.

Why didn't we immediately get torn off that mountain and ripped apart down the slot? Above our huddle was a 10-foot-high rock buttress. Because the sidewall we were clinging to and the cliffs above it were so steep, the buttress didn't offer much protection, but it did redirect the avalanches out from the rock just enough that they didn't hit us face first, but instead deflected off our backs and continued their trajectory down the mountain. Our task, every few minutes, was to take a deep breath, lay face down flat on the slope, and hope for the best. We remained tied loosely to the rope, but if any of us had looked up or had had stray parts exposed when the snow hit, we would have been snapped backward, the rope would have broken like a hair, and all four of us, tied together, would have been hurled down the couloir. I kept squeezing my eyes shut, bracing for that to happen.

We clung to the ice for three hours. I don't know how to explain our emotions during that time. It wasn't as simple as the fear of dying; we couldn't even comprehend the reality of what was hitting us. To watch five-story walls of snow roaring toward you at 200 miles per hour and have nowhere to run -- to have them pound on your back-- how do you describe that?

Ever see the Discovery Channel avalanche film footage, where a camera is left on a slope as a slide comes down and takes it out? That's how it looked. How did it feel?Kind of like being the guy in A Clockwork Orange:tied to a chair with your eyes held open with wires, but with a man coming toward you with a pair of pliers to rip your eyeballs out and squish them like grapes. You can't exhale.

But the slides were also beautiful -- like dancing angels with violent puffs of white exploding off rocks left and right, vacuuming down at us with tremendous anger. It was too much stimulation. I shut down completely. I couldn't say a word for hours. I fell into a fascinated trance.

The others talked excitedly in French. Francine and Nicolas had frantic, panicked tones to their speech. Fan Fan, whenever he had the chance, would light a cigarette and suck on it for a minute before it was extinguished by the snow. At one point, Fan Fan exclaimed that we should take our skis off and try to hike higher. Francine screamed, "Move! Move!" We got out of our skis, but the slope was too steep and icy to take a step in any direction. As it was, I could barely stand with my skis on, and once I took them off, I had only inch-deep d wrap slowly across those faces, warming the new snow. Each newly heated spot would then slough naturally and, like a rolling snowball, gather more and more snow volume and momentum as it fell. By the time the avalanches reached our elevation, they would be enormous. As I slid down the second rappel, I could hear the booms of slides, still off to our right but getting closer. We needed to hurry.

I was the last to drop in, and I had just touched down when the first avalanche came streaming down our slot. It wasn't particularly large -- maybe five feet deep -- but it was moving fast as a bullet, just a meter to our right. The noise left my ears ringing.

We were out of time. We all knew that more avalanches were coming, so there was nothing to do but stay put, still attached to the rope on the couloir's icy, 70-degree sidewall. We were all in a line: Nicolas clung directly below me, face-level with my skis, then Francine and Fan Fan.

We couldn't go anywhere. The avalanches flew by every five minutes. At first we found them merely exciting to watch: They were close, but not too close. Then they grew bigger, throwing up hurricane wind blasts that coated us with fine snow crystals. We started to get scared. Then the avalanches grew even bigger still. Clumps began to smack our faces. Within an hour, the slides were 50-foot-high, 200-mile-an-hour freight trains pouring over our heads, their white undersides dropping right on our necks and sliding off our backs.

Why didn't we immediately get torn off that mountain and ripped apart down the slot? Above our huddle was a 10-foot-high rock buttress. Because the sidewall we were clinging to and the cliffs above it were so steep, the buttress didn't offer much protection, but it did redirect the avalanches out from the rock just enough that they didn't hit us face first, but instead deflected off our backs and continued their trajectory down the mountain. Our task, every few minutes, was to take a deep breath, lay face down flat on the slope, and hope for the best. We remained tied loosely to the rope, but if any of us had looked up or had had stray parts exposed when the snow hit, we would have been snapped backward, the rope would have broken like a hair, and all four of us, tied together, would have been hurled down the couloir. I kept squeezing my eyes shut, bracing for that to happen.

We clung to the ice for three hours. I don't know how to explain our emotions during that time. It wasn't as simple as the fear of dying; we couldn't even comprehend the reality of what was hitting us. To watch five-story walls of snow roaring toward you at 200 miles per hour and have nowhere to run -- to have them pound on your back-- how do you describe that?

Ever see the Discovery Channel avalanche film footage, where a camera is left on a slope as a slide comes down and takes it out? That's how it looked. How did it feel?Kind of like being the guy in A Clockwork Orange:tied to a chair with your eyes held open with wires, but with a man coming toward you with a pair of pliers to rip your eyeballs out and squish them like grapes. You can't exhale.

But the slides were also beautiful -- like dancing angels with violent puffs of white exploding off rocks left and right, vacuuming down at us with tremendous anger. It was too much stimulation. I shut down completely. I couldn't say a word for hours. I fell into a fascinated trance.

The others talked excitedly in French. Francine and Nicolas had frantic, panicked tones to their speech. Fan Fan, whenever he had the chance, would light a cigarette and suck on it for a minute before it was extinguished by the snow. At one point, Fan Fan exclaimed that we should take our skis off and try to hike higher. Francine screamed, "Move! Move!" We got out of our skis, but the slope was too steep and icy to take a step in any direction. As it was, I could barely stand with my skis on, and once I took them off, I had only inch-deep chips in the white ice to stand on. But it was safer holding our skis at our chests, rather than waiting for an avalanche to hit them and pull us off our perch. The longer I clung there with my toes dug into the ice, the more my calves ached.

The slides kept getting bigger, but strangely, my confidence was growing. I began to feel that we would survive, just as we had already survived each increasingly intense round of avalanches. But I knew that what we had experienced so far was only a fraction of what that face above us was capable of.

And then the big one came.

Francine screamed quickly in French -- "This is the ONE!" -- as it hit with an unexpected fire-ball burst. In all my life, I have never imagined anything so loud, violent, fast, or crushing. I sucked a quick breath and lay flat for 20 seconds, waiting for the beating to end, then slowly stood back up and shook away the snow caked around me, shaking my head back and forth: No. I couldn't breathe out -- my throat had closed. All I could do was take quick, scared breaths in, like a drowning fish. I didn't look down; I didn't want to see my partners' eyes. How on earth could we have survived that? It was seven stories high.

A helicopter came. The midstation tram operator had called it in, apparently to retrieve the bodies. Amazed to find us alive, they flew away to gather supplies. Returning 10 minutes later, they lowered a skinny man in long underwear 150 feet into the couloir on a metal cable the girth of a shoelace. One by one we were clipped in and plucked out on a straight line like bad kitties and reeled slowly upward, the helicopter pilot twitching as he hovered, ready to leave if another slide came. They put us down on the glacier below, then eventually flew us back to Chamonix, where the grass was green and cigarette smoke mixed with the damp smells of spring and a wave of spilled helicopter fuel.

Later, recovering from the ordeal in a Chamonix bar, we gushed briefly to François. I asked him whether, had he known the outcome in advance, he would've liked to have been with us through the experience. "Yes," he replied, without hesitation. Somehow, I understand.eep chips in the white ice to stand on. But it was safer holding our skis at our chests, rather than waiting for an avalanche to hit them and pull us off our perch. The longer I clung there with my toes dug into the ice, the more my calves ached.

The slides kept getting bigger, but strangely, my confidence was growing. I began to feel that we would survive, just as we had already survived each increasingly intense round of avalanches. But I knew that what we had experienced so far was only a fraction of what that face above us was capable of.

And then the big one came.

Francine screamed quickly in French -- "This is the ONE!" -- as it hit with an unexpected fire-ball burst. In all my life, I have never imagined anything so loud, violent, fast, or crushing. I sucked a quick breath and lay flat for 20 seconds, waiting for the beating to end, then slowly stood back up and shook away the snow caked around me, shaking my head back and forth: No. I couldn't breathe out -- my throat had closed. All I could do was take quick, scared breaths in, like a drowning fish. I didn't look down; I didn't want to see my partners' eyes. How on earth could we have survived that? It was seven stories high.

A helicopter came. The midstation tram operator had called it in, apparently to retrieve the bodies. Amazed to find us alive, they flew away to gather supplies. Returning 10 minutes later, they lowered a skinny man in long underwear 150 feet into the couloir on a metal cable the girth of a shoelace. One by one we were clipped in and plucked out on a straight line like bad kitties and reeled slowly upward, the helicopter pilot twitching as he hovered, ready to leave if another slide came. They put us down on the glacier below, then eventually flew us back to Chamonix, where the grass was green and cigarette smoke mixed witth the damp smells of spring and a wave of spilled helicopter fuel.

Later, recovering from the ordeal in a Chamonix bar, we gushed briefly to François. I asked him whether, had he known the outcome in advance, he would've liked to have been with us through the experience. "Yes," he replied, without hesitation. Somehow, I understand.

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