The definition of extreme skiing is pretty simple—if you fall, you die.
—CHRISTOPHER CAMERON LANDRY
The first time Chris Landry faced such an absurd and ultimate extremity was early on the morning of Mother's Day 1978. He stood alone on the 14,018-foot summit of Colorado's Pyramid Peak, which rises roughly six rugged backcountry miles from Aspen. A spring sunrise had laid a clean coppery light over the peaks visible at every compass point around Pyramid. It was a perfect day for the Moms of America. It was a little less than perfect for an extreme skier.
"The sun was the problem," recalls Landry. "It was only 8:30, but it was getting warm already. It was going to be a race to get down before the snow warmed up into avalanche conditions."
A descent on skis down the East Face of Pyramid Peak was something no man had ever attempted. The pitches were horrendous, more than 50 degrees in some places, at least 45 degrees over the upper half of the 4,300 feet to the base of the face. To put these angles of incline into perspective, only a few of the steepest expert runs at U.S. ski areas exceed an average of 30 degrees. The steepest average grade available to non-extreme skiers is the 35.9-degree pitch down the 4,875-foot Christmas Bowl in Sun Valley. Occasional sections of a few ski-area runs are steeper, but none exceeds 40 degrees. Veteran mountain climbers say that going up a rock face pitched at 60 degrees gives them the sensation that they are going straight up, while a true 90-degree ascent gives a climber the impression he is in a backward tilt on an overhang.
March 30, 1981
The first 300 feet of Landry's long trip down Pyramid seemed the most treacherous. The moment he tipped his skis off the summit, he would plunge along a narrow neck of snow, scarcely 20 feet wide, that dropped away at an angle close to 55 degrees and ended at the brink of a 400-foot-high cliff. Landry hoped to cut a series of very cautious turns, perhaps a half dozen of them, down that chute until he reached a safe point above the cliff, then to glide in a traverse along the edge of the drop-off until he reached a broader pitch on which he would make the rest of the descent.
"Since it was my first time, there were things I didn't know for sure," he says. "I didn't know, for example, precisely what would happen on snow that steep when I hit it with my ski edges. I wasn't really fearful. I was really paying attention to everything, but I didn't have any butterflies that morning. My butterflies had come in the dark on the way up."
Yes, don't forget the way up. One thing axiomatic about this dangerous game is that for a man to be an extreme mountain skier, he must also be a fairly extreme mountain climber. Thus, for Landry to perch in a position to descend the East Face of Pyramid, he first had to ascend same. That was accomplished over five dark and eerie hours before this Mother's Day dawn. With Landry was his longtime climbing and ski-mountaineering companion, Michael Kennedy.
There had been a certain sense of hurry to their expedition from the start because Landry's decision to try to ski the mountain had been made only the afternoon of the day before. "It wasn't as if I had just stumbled on the idea of doing it then," he says. "In the back of my mind I had been preparing myself all spring. I had this checklist going to cover all the essential elements I would need to make a try. I was in good physical condition; I was skiing really well; I had recently done a lot of ski mountaineering. The one element that I wasn't sure of was the mountain itself. Would the snow be good enough? As the spring went by, there was more and more snow and conditions had to be better and better. Pretty soon, the idea of skiing the East Face was right up there in the front of my mind."
The morning before he stood on Pyramid Peak. Landry and some ski-mountaineering friends, including Kennedy, had made a predawn climb up Mt. Daly, which lies 15 miles west of Pyramid Peak. In the sunrise on the top of Daly, they enjoyed a vista that included a shoulder of Pyramid's summit. "There had been storms for several days before," says Landry. "From what I could see, the snow over there looked good." They skied all morning on Daly in spectacular corn snow, then went down at noon, drove back to Aspen and. by four o'clock, Landry and Kennedy were hiking out the Maroon Lake road on the way to the base of Pyramid Peak. By 8 p.m. they had made camp and had a pot of rice going on the fire but were so tired they fell asleep while it was cooking and woke two hours later to choke down some very dry. hard rice.
At 2 a.m. the alarm clock woke them. They packed and drank tea, and within the hour began to climb through the chill, silent night. Landry toted his skis on his back. Kennedy carried none, as he was going to descend on foot. Steadily, patiently, they worked their way upward, lighting the way with the bobbing beams of head lamps. The snow was hard from the low night temperatures, so they carried ice axes and wore crampons to bite into the steep, slippery surface.
The first third of the climb was up a pitch strewn with avalanche debris—tumbled blocks of ice and snow and rock that had been flung like pebbles down the same precipitous inclines that Landry proposed to ski. In the beams of their head lamps, the acres of debris became a weird and unearthly landscape full of moving shadows and strange shapes.
Here is where Landry's night butterflies began to flutter. "It got to me," he says. "There is an infinite variety of scenarios you can create to scare yourself. 'Avalanche dreams,' I call them. And there was lots of time to build up all kinds of fear and loathing during the climb up. There is a big difference between nervous anxiety and good healthy fear. The fear is good for you; it sharpens you. Anxiety can weaken you. I guess I was being sharpened all the way up."
As they climbed, they scrutinized the snow conditions and inspected the slopes that Landry would be skiing down. "The more I saw of the route, the more I was sure it would be skiable," Landry says.
But not all of it. After more than three hours of climbing, they came to a gully that had been concealed from view. Landry had hoped that the gully would contain snow and would be wide enough to ski. But he and Kennedy were stunned to see that it contained a runnel of solid ice just eight feet wide and 150 feet long. It was a very technical (meaning difficult) ice climb that would require absolute precision and perfect technique. This wouldn't be an insuperable problem, even in the predawn dim light, for such accomplished climbers as Landry and Kennedy. However, it meant that during his descent Landry would certainly not be able to ski this ribbon of ice. He would have to remove skis and ski boots, put on his climbing boots, with front-pointing crampons, take out his ice ax and then, with his skis on his back, make his way down the ice. It was, Landry recalls, "a grim prospect."
They ascended the ice runnel and continued their climb to the top under a brightening sky. It had become a race to get there before the sun could soften and thicken the snow to a texture that might break off in slabs and set off avalanches. "There was a definite sense of urgency." says Landry.
On the summit they rested briefly. Then Landry put on his ski boots and skis. Surprisingly, he uses fairly ordinary equipment—on this trip, a pair of 207-cm. Rossignol ST skis, 52-inch Kerma poles, a pair of 4-year-old Dynafit boots and M4-15 Marker bindings with an FD heel. Landry points out that the stress he puts on his equipment during a couple of hours on an extreme descent is actually less than what a truly hot skier would put on his equipment during an afternoon on Aspen's Ajax Mountain. "Obviously, I ski much less wildly on an extreme slope." he says. "My life is at stake. That isn't the case when I'm skiing for fun."
Kennedy left the summit minutes after their arrival, carrying Landry's climbing gear in his pack. Ahead of him was the tedious climb down—three hours of it—over the same terrain they had just ascended. Says Kennedy, "I was just too gripped to stand there and watch Chris go off the summit."
Landry stood alone in the morning silence, studying the first critical portion of his descent. It was a section that they hadn't climbed, so it was an unknown quantity. "The snow cover looked as if it were probably good," says Landry. "I didn't know if it was rotten on the edges of the trough, but I had a fairly good idea that it would be all right."
He paused for a minute or two and, feeling a bit sleepy, washed his face with snow to bring himself to full attention. Then he went off the top. He let his skis sideslip for a few feet. The uncertain condition of the snow meant that if he set his edges hard, as one might ordinarily do in turning on a pitch so steep. he might break through the crust. That could upset him and send him outward and down the incline into a helpless slide over the cliff ledge.
Instead of cranking through a series of linked turns down the narrow chute, he slowly let his skis slide into a turn near one side of the neck, let them glide to a stop at the opposite gully wall, then slid backward across to the other side, and then downward into the fall line for another slow and careful turn. "I had to backslide after each turn because it was just too steep to do a kick turn," he says.
He gingerly made six of these turns, the last a bare 10 feet above the cliffs brink. Then he skied to the left along the ledge in a tense traverse that ultimately put him in the middle of a broader couloir that sank away at a mere 45-degree angle. Now euphoria engulfed him. "It had all been pretty scary up till then," he says, "but when I finally stopped. I really felt a rush. Mike was standing nearby watching and we said a couple of words. I felt great at that point, but I didn't want to lose my concentration. It wasn't time to celebrate."
The night crust on the snow was deteriorating steadily. Landry, beginning a cautious series of turns down the face, found that he could do only four or five turns in a sequence of slow links before the sloughing snow he cut loose with his edges had built up so much that it threatened to knock him down. At times the snow whirled up over his skis so turbulently that he had a feeling of vertigo.
"It wasn't really frightening," says Landry, "more a sensation of pleasant disorientation, like being a little high. But at times there were slabs breaking loose that were big enough to knock me off the mountain. One slough did almost knock me down, but I managed to push myself back up with one hand."
He had to ski back and forth across the troughs scoured out by the sluicing snow, waiting on one side as the slough slid past, then executing a few more turns until sliding snow built up again and he had to wait for it to pass. At the end of this couloir was another sheer cliff drop of 200 feet. Had Landry been swept off his feet by snowslides or knocked down after striking an unseen rock, he would have begun to slip across the snow-surface at an increasingly swift rate. Then he would have begun tumbling, first in short jolting bumps and bounds, then in an increasingly long and brutal series of arcs and impacts—down, down the incline until he sailed out over the cliff face and wound up perhaps 1,000 feet below.
Landry didn't fall. He continued his steady way down the East Face, turning back and forth across the couloir with its treacherous thawing snow. Kennedy continued to back his way down the steep pitch, front-pointing with his crampons and punching for purchase with his own ice ax and Landry's. A fall for him would be scarcely less catastrophic than for Landry. Kennedy dropped Landry's gear off at the top of the ice runnel before he climbed down. Landry arrived a short time later. He had been skiing about half an hour. He quickly changed into his crampon-equipped climbing boots, then stowed his ski boots in his pack and strapped his skis across his back. He then moved down the runnel on a series of delicately planted ice-ax blows and crampon kicks—a piece of classic alpinism. At the bottom of the gully, he went to the side of the ice ribbon to change to ski gear again. He had just taken off one climbing boot when he heard an ominous hissing sound above him. A "medium-sized" snowslide scoured the runnel where Landry had been only moments before. He sat there, one boot on, one boot off, and watched as a couple of tons of snow shot past him. Had he been on the ice, he would have been swept away.
The rest of the way down was what could be called routinely dangerous for Landry. It included working his way over and around and down through the steep and formerly spooky terrain of avalanche debris on the lower third of the face. But all major thrills and frights were past, and by 10 a.m., Landry and Kennedy were back at the camp they had left seven hours before.
Chris Landry still retains a sense of wonder and elation over making the first ski descent of Pyramid Peak. "I'm still shocked by it," he says. "It was particularly gripping because it was the first time I'd ever really skied something where, if I fell, I died. I wonder sometimes—like anyone—exactly what I was doing there. I suppose that the idea of a death wish has validity for some people, but not with me. I know this isn't a game you can play indefinitely. There's an odds factor. Some people see it as some kind of a sudden heroic, daredevil act. Nothing was sudden, nothing was heroic. It was all part of a very gradual, very logical progression in myself.
"A few years ago I thought of dabbling in extreme skiing, but I really didn't like the idea much. I thought. 'Why turn skiing into a death-defying deal when it's so much fun?' Even downhill racing—you might get banged up bad. but you almost never worried about getting killed. But as time went on and I got into more ski mountaineering, I kind of unconsciously upped the ante. Gradually I got into steeper and steeper stuff. By the time I got up on Pyramid, it was all just part of the logic."
If extreme skiing has a logic, it has so far appealed to very few. Indeed, only a handful of men are even remotely capable of doing it. Yet the sport has a stirring history, albeit a brief one, with a tiny pantheon of living heroes as well as an inevitable collection of obituaries.
The beginnings of extreme skiing can be traced back 80 or 90 years, when mountaineers got involved in what the French call "ski de raid" which referred to ski traverses of the great ranges of the Alps. By the end of World War I. nearly all of the main summits in the Alps had been reached on skis. These feats probably involved descents somewhat less harrowing than those accomplished by extreme skiers today, but they still required mighty reserves of skill and courage, especially on the relatively primitive ski equipment then available. In the 1920s and 1930s, the French led in the development of ski alpinism. A legendary French mountain man named Andrè Tournier skied, for the first time, the glacier of the Aiguille d'Argentière near Chamonix, France in 1939, and a year later two other French hearties. Emile Allais and Etienne Livacic, made it down the north face of the D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me du Go‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚Ñ¢ter on Mont Blanc. These runs are done by thousands of skiers today, but in the '30s, the days of huge wooden skis, soft leather boots and bear-trap bindings, they were enormously impressive. During World War II, there was a hiatus, and when the sport reappeared it had a vastly different look.
The French climber David Belden wrote in Climbing magazine not long ago: "The early forties seem to...mark a divorce between skiing and alpinism which lasted until the appearance of what can be termed 'extreme skiing' around 1967, which is certainly the most developed form of ski alpinism." Belden pointed out that this new and vastly improved form was the result of "the reappropriation of the ski by the most advanced alpinists," along with revolutionary technical developments—in both equipment and techniques—in world-class competitive skiing.
"It is impossible," wrote Belden, "to ski down a 55-degree ice slope without the footgrip and precision of foot movement provided by modern ski boots and without skis whose response has been studied and tested in research departments of ski factories. At the same time, it is impossible to ski down the Couturier Couloir [a celebrated 2,800-foot, 55-degree pitch in the Alps above Chamonix] without a thorough knowledge of snow conditions at high elevations and a minimum of snow and ice technique and mountain experience."
Most of the sport's historians agree that the first certifiable extreme-ski descent occurred in September 1967, when one Sylvain Saudan stunned those knowledgeable in the field by skiing down the Spencer Couloir on Aiguille de Blaitière in the French Alps. It was a 1,300-foot run down pitches that averaged 51 degrees and fell away at 55 degrees in places. A short, thickly muscled mountain guide and ski instructor, Saudan would rather have been a ski racer, but he was of a poor peasant family in the Swiss canton of Valais, and his parents couldn't afford to send him to races. So he became a master ski mountaineer. Saudan had climbed the Spencer Couloir before he skied it and knew the slope and snow conditions well when he began his descent. Still, he found it so intimidating psychologically that he simply couldn't make himself glide into the first dreaded turns. At last, he tied himself to a rock with a long rope in order to free himself to drop into those initial frightening yards. Once started, he untied himself and finished the run in style. Since that first descent, Saudan has plunged down dozens of extreme runs, including a partial descent of Alaska's Mt. McKinley in 1972 as well as a descent on the 23,410-foot Nunkun peak in the Himalayas.
In the course of so much extreme skiing. Saudan has developed a unique and rather acrobatic turning technique called "the windshield wiper." He plants one of his extra-long poles down the hill, then quickly elevates both skis off the snow in what looks to be a routine jump turn. However, the ski tails remain in the snow while Saudan rotates the ski tips from side to side in a rhythmic pattern, 180 degrees one way, 180 degrees the other, windshield-wiper fashion. Now 44 years old. Saudan has managed to cash in nicely on his courage. He bills himself as "Le Skier de I'Impossible" and makes dozens of public appearances each year, lecturing and showing films of himself in action. In Alpine environs, he is a celebrity of approximately the same luster as a Super Bowl quarterback in the U.S.
Not far behind Saudan in public adulation—perhaps ahead in the daring of his feats—is a lean, tough Frenchman named Patrick Vallen‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºant, 35. A mountain guide from Chamonix, Vallen‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºant has made more than 50 descents on slopes of 45 degrees or steeper, beginning in 1971 on the Mont Blanc massif. His most extreme descent occurred in 1979 on the wind-blasted slopes of 21,758-foot Mt. Yerupaja in Peru, on which he broke the 60-degree barrier for his first time, at one point making his way down what he judged to be a 65-degree pitch.
Vallen‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºant has published a book in France titled Ski Extr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢me: ma plènitude, and Ski magazine has run excerpts dealing with Vallen‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºant's historic run down Yerupaja. There is a certain purplish melodrama to his report, yet the extremity of the risk he took can scarcely be overstated, particularly when one considers that he did both climb and descent alone.
Vallen‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºant on that daring day: "I am happy. I feel strong, alone on this slope. I become all the heroes of my childhood.... The wind makes me crazy, and that also pleases me.... The first turn, the ski tips are in space, below me the slope falls off and at the very bottom are the lakes. They are my goal—At this section, the slope is extremely steep—60 degrees. I find myself before three parallel ice ridges, 10 to 15 centimeters high, separated from each other by two meters. I know that the skis are going to skid, but it is not possible to go around this difficulty and there is no question of turning back. I am trapped.... My eyes are riveted on the ice.... I hit the last ridge of ice with my weight completely on the uphill ski, the downhill leg hanging uselessly in air, scarcely balancing me. Only a small portion of the edge holds me, just enough to enable me to get back on the snow and regain my balance...."
And so it went—down, down, down, down. Perhaps the most telling detail in all the melodramatic description was this: "On the steepest part of the mountain, about 65 degrees, my elbows graze the snow [on the uphill side]."
Another Frenchman, Daniel Chauchefoin, reported that when he encountered 65-degree slopes on an ice-covered pitch in the Alps, the worst moment was when the buckles of his ski boots opened in mid-descent, because of dragging against the uphill slope.
So far only a small number of men have made extreme descents, and thus there have been only a few deaths. Heini Holzer, a native of Austria's South Tyrol, had skied down many a couloir in Austria, Italy, France and Switzerland, but he was killed in July 1977 when he fell while trying to descend the north face of Piz Roseg in the Ober-Engadin in Switzerland. Another celebrated extremist, Fritz Stammberger of Aspen, who became a Colorado legend back in the '60s, when he skied down the north face of North Maroon Bell, a 2,500-foot drop over some 50-degree pitches, was killed in 1975 while climbing in Pakistan to attempt a solo descent. And Jean Moran, a French skier, died in Nepal while climbing preparatory to a descent.
So far, not many Americans have been involved in the sport. Of course, there have long been hell-for-leather individualists in the U.S. capable of throwing themselves down the steeps for fun. Since the mid-1930s, brash collegians have climbed the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine on New Hampshire's Mt. Washington in late spring to ski the half-mile, 45-degree slope in corn snow. Perhaps the first serious extreme skiing in the U.S. was a descent 10 years ago of the side of Grand Teton Mountain in Wyoming by Bill Briggs, a climber and ski instructor. He made it down in style despite the fact that he had a fused hip joint. A mountaineer named Steve Shea, who was presumably in perfect shape, tried the same feat in 1978 while ABC Sports cameras recorded his trip. He fell and rolled about 700 feet, but survived to tell the story—though not on television. Briggs did complete the run successfully a year later.
According to Kennedy, 28, who is not only a superb alpinist but also the editor of Climbing, Landry is the foremost U.S. disciple of this sparsely practiced sport. "Not that many really good climbers also happen to be really good skiers," says Kennedy. "When you assess it realistically, extreme skiing is harder to do than climbing. If you make a mistake, there's almost nothing you can do to recover. In climbing, you can build up to a tough solo rock climb by practicing a lot in places you can't get hurt. There are degrees of difficulty in climbing, degrees of risk that you can predict and, to some extent, control. With extreme skiing, you take a quantum leap. It's all or nothing. There's no safe middle ground when you're skiing on a 1,000-foot slope over 45 degrees. So there just aren't many people able—or willing—to get into it."
But there is Landry, and he is deep into it. Now 31, he spends his non-skiing time as an itinerant carpenter in Colorado. He has been skiing since he was four. He was a good ski racer, competing in both slalom and downhill for the national junior team as well as for the University of Colorado in the late 1960s. He suffered, among other things, a broken ankle and had to give up serious racing—perhaps before he peaked. Then he turned to what may have been his first love anyway: mountaineering. His first ascents of Fremont Peak and Mt. Sacagawea in Wyoming's Wind River Range in 1976 were duly noted in the American Alpine Journal. In 1977 he made some impressive ice climbs, including an ascent of Bridalveil Falls near Telluride, Colo., and he was on the first winter climb of the 2,000-foot Northwest Buttress on Capital Peak near Aspen that year. The combination of Landry's ski-racing talent and his ever-improving mountaineering skills has given him the unique mix required to produce a first-class extreme skier.
Landry is an affable, articulate fellow who is naturally self-effacing. "I'm not among the really hot climbers and I was never a really hot racer," he says, "but the combination of the two is enough to give me confidence to do some fairly tough descents."
After his historic trip down Pyramid Peak in the spring of '78, Landry was confident enough to tackle North America's tallest mountain, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. In May 1979, he climbed up to 19,500 feet, hoping that conditions would allow him to ski down. There was no chance; the surface was boiler-plate ice. He tried a short run, found it too risky, removed his skis and ski boots and climbed down with his Alpine gear. Landry plans to try again this spring. He has charted a descent from the summit down the mountain's West Rib, an elegantly contoured ridge that plunges 9,000 feet to the 11,000-foot level. If he is successful, it will be the first time the Rib will have been skied. Saudan's run on McKinley in 1972 was down the Messner Couloir, a suitably hair-raising route with some 50-degree slopes, but it covers only about half the distance that Landry expects to ski.
Landry's most satisfying extreme descent occurred last May on Mt. Rainier in Washington. He describes it as "a classic." His companion was Doug Robinson, 35, of Bishop, Calif., a superb climber and excellent skier—though he specializes in cross-country skiing and ski mountaineering rather than Alpine skiing. Robinson makes his living as a mountain guide and as a photographer and writer. He and Landry met only a short time before they left for Rainier, and as Robinson recalls, "We were on the mountain a good 10 days before Chris could ply his art, and, frankly, I was nervous the whole time. At first I watched him closely—and with a definitely morbid fascination. I was very curious and very worried. I really didn't know him, and I kept wondering, 'Is he suicidal? Does he have a death wish? What's on his mind? Is he crazy?' I really didn't want to stand by and watch this man die. As the days went by, Chris was becoming a good friend, and then I really didn't want to watch him die. The nervousness kept building."
Robinson was also going to ski on Rainier—a 5,000-foot section of the Emmons Glacier, most of it pitched at an angle of about 35 degrees. Easy going, right? Wrong. Robinson was going to do it on Nordic skis with three-pin bindings, his bootheels free. His skis were skinny, but they weren't the limber, edge-less slats that Sunday trekkers take out into the woods. They were stiff fiber-glass Rossignol Randonnèes, equipped with stout steel edges. He needed them, for the snow surface on Rainier is under constant attack by high winds. Some of it is hammered into a base that Robinson calls windboard, a surface so hard and slick and steep that a man can't stand without crampons to hold him in place. In other places the surface becomes "sastrugi," which Robinson describes as "random stacks of sharp-edged platters strewn across the snow. Skiing it is roughly like trying to hold an edge while traversing a steep slate roof—only here some of the slates are six or eight inches thick."
Emmons is a huge glacier, a mile wide in places and reaching from Rainier's 14,410-foot summit all the way to the Washington rain forest, 10,000 feet below. At the top, Robinson found himself skiing on a surface of rippled ice with "the texture of a frozen Gila monster hide." Even though his run wasn't truly extreme skiing, because of the lesser angle, Robinson had a terrifying close call. After skiing off the top, he caught an edge on sastrugi snow, fell and began to slide. Landry, on skis and carrying a camera, helplessly watched him slip by, so stunned by the mishap that he forgot to take a picture. First sliding ever faster, then beginning to bounce, Robinson fought for 300 feet to arrest his fall, working desperately to bring his ski edges under him again and dragging his ski-pole tips on the rough surface. At last, his poles slowed him and he came to a stop. Landry had followed him down. Then while Robinson sat trembling on the slope, Landry examined Robinson's ski edges. They had been honed too sharp. Landry took a piece of emery cloth from his pocket and rubbed Robinson's edges to dull them. They skied the rest of the glacier without a problem.
Two days later, following heavy snowstorms, Landry and Robinson began at 1:30 a.m. to climb the mile-long section of Rainier known as Liberty Ridge, the site of Chris' next descent. As a climb. Liberty Ridge is considered one of the 50 classic ascents in North America. Normally, it is a two-day climb; Robinson and Landry were going to climb and descend in a day. The ascent—much of it by head lamp—took seven hours and the conditions were beautiful. At the top, the snow surface was steel-hard but very smooth windboard. The wind was, as always, blowing hard, but the morning was clear.
Later Robinson wrote: "I am backing down...Mt. Rainier on the toe points of my crampons, alone and unroped. This is the steepest section, 600 feet below the summit, where the angle is 50-degrees-plus. As I sink my ice ax into the wind-packed crust, I can see 5,000 feet between my legs to the Carbon Glacier below. A faint hiss brings my attention up to powder snow sliding over the horizon of ice above. Backlit golden, the snow rolls over the toes of my climbing boots...leaving a taste of vertigo in my mouth. Now the powder is coming in rhythmic waves.... Soon I can see a figure behind them, pumping turns as he comes into view, skis flashing in the air between the edge sets...."
No longer was there any doubt in Robinson's mind about Landry's sanity or skill in skiing extreme slopes. "I can see from these first turns that he is way inside his limits. He can do anything he wants. He is in perfect control."
Landry himself, reflecting on this historic first ski descent of Liberty Ridge, says, "It was mellow. Sure, it was serious; there were plenty of opportunities to blow it. But the fear factor was very low. There was no anxiety about unknowns, and it was what skiing should be—it was fun."
Three weeks after Rainier, Landry and Robinson were together again, this time in the Sierra Nevadas, climbing a desperately steep ribbon of terrain known as the Mendel Couloir. It is suffocatingly narrow, breathtakingly steep—up to 63 degrees—and 1,100 feet long.
Although Landry had viewed the descent as a training experience, it proved to be the steepest and the most frightening he had ever skied. One severe problem was the snow—sugary stuff that lay rather thinly over a surface that was partly black ice and partly bedrock. Was it even skiable? Landry recalls, "Yes, it was—but barely. If I could maintain a steady perception of what I was doing, hold an intense concentration, I felt I wouldn't get into trouble. I might not enjoy the run, but I was almost positive that I would survive."
The first serious trouble he encountered was putting on his skis. He had climbed the narrow neck toward the summit, but there wasn't enough snow to get to the very top—a fact that spoiled the "esthetic effect" of the descent before it began. Landry had to remove his climbing boots and crampons, but there was no way to perch on the snow and ice without crampons. He slammed the point of his ice ax deep into the ice, attached the sling on the handle to his belt, and gingerly removed his climbing boots and crampons and put on his ski boots and skis. Then he carefully tested his weight on the snow. It held. "I removed the ice ax," he says, "and it was literally anchors aweigh."
It was also close to a nightmare. The drop was so steep and the trough so narrow that for the first section he had to sidestep down. He attempted a turn, what he called "a little test flight, a short hop downhill," and landed on a rock that was protruding through the black ice. He tried another turn, hit another rock. "All I could do was down-climb the gully," he says. "That wasn't what I had in mind." Once he had moved down past the worst-looking snow, he began some very cautious turns.
Later, Landry wrote: "Terrain that steep imposes a much smaller latitude in body position and every aspect of the turn must be in control. It begins with a slow release of edge control...into a slow sideslip...all the weight on the downhill ski. The steeper the skiing the smaller the effective range in the angle of incidence of the ski edge to the snow. The correct position is between leaning too far into the hill where the edge washes out and loses contact, and leaning too far out, simply falling headfirst down the gully. For all its appearance of wild abandon—hopping up off the snow perhaps two feet into the air, swinging the skis into and across the fall line while still in the air and then blasting back down into the snow in a low, angulated position—such turns amount to a carefully controlled relinquishing and regaining of edge control. A serious mistake will probably result in an immediate, permanent loss of control...."
Thus Landry cold-sweated his way down the couloir and, about one hour later, reached the bottom—alive and skiing. Robinson, who had watched him the whole precarious way, says, "Chris was pushed hard. It just happens that Mendel is one of the classic tough ice climbs in the Sierras, and when experienced climbers hear that someone skied down Mendel, they're amazed. I saw him hesitate, I saw his concern. He didn't say much about it afterward, but I knew from his silence that it had been tough."
Nevertheless, Landry may be extreme skiing for years to come. "I don't expect I'll ever really peak," he says. "There will always be something I haven't done, something I'll want to try."
But why persist in taking such risks?
Landry has an answer of sorts: "It's very selfish. I do these things for the sake of the doing. People tend to fall into a lot of Zen lingo over that kind of remark. I don't know doodly about Buddhism. These experiences have an integrity of their own. In the long run, I guess I don't want to know too much about the drive that makes me do what I do in the mountains. All I can say is that this desire to do extreme skiing seems to be something natural for me, something evolutionary in myself.
"Too often people—especially the press—deal with extreme sport, so-called, as if it has some intrinsic significance beyond the act itself. They try to find value to mankind in the fact that a guy sticks his neck on the line. I'd be the last to say that what I'm doing has any importance to anyone but myself. People talk about 'conquering' a mountain or 'beating' a steep slope. That's exactly wrong. It's not conflict, it's not aggression or warfare. To do these things, you have to force yourself into a kind of passive state where you blend in as part of the mountain, part of the snow, part of the skis, part of the environment. It is totally symbiotic."