He conquers high mountains—from the top down - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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He conquers high mountains—from the top down

Everybody agrees that Sylvain Saudan is a nice guy. He is 5'7", 158 pounds, quiet-spoken and definitely Continentally charming. In European ski areas, where he is well known, they say Saudan is crazy. This doesn't bother him much, although he prefers to call himself an adventurer. In either case, he is 34 years old, which is a wonder.

That is Saudan circled in the picture at lower left, pausing a moment to catch his breath high up on Oregon's Mount Hood. Although scenic enough, it is, assuredly, a strange place for a tourist to be. He is skiing down the eastern face, roughly a 52° pitch, and this is Saudan's own thing: he skis down the sides of mountains where nobody has ever dared ski before.

Above Saudan is an icy saddle, 11,235 feet high, a chill, windblown mountain notch. Below him, just behind that ridge (which he calls a "nose"), is a chute that leads to the Newton Clark Glacier, so steep that it is bypassed by most mountain climbers. Then he faces two crevasses lightly spanned by snow bridges.

Hood is Saudan's seventh mountain. In the last four years he has skied the Couloir Spencer, the Couloir Whymper and the Couloir Gervasutti, all off the forbidding shoulders of Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest peak. He has skied the Rothorn at Zermatt and the Piz Corvatsch at St. Moritz. He has skied the long and narrow Couloir Marinelli off Monte Rosa—which took 2½ hours—and the Aiguille de Bionnassay at Chamonix. Then, to show that he meant business, he came down the northwest face of the Eiger, Switzerland's 13,000-foot "Ogre of the Alps." Before Saudan set out to ski the Gervasutti, which has a 60° pitch at the top, a cabin-keeper told him, "Every year there have been mountaineers killed climbing up the Gervasutti, but this year the dead man will be the one who tries it on skis. It is impossible." Saudan skied it, then gave the cabinkeeper his favorite saying: "Everything is possible. Until proven impossible."

Saudan is paid for all this—although one can see his sponsors hiding their eyes every time he uses his 210 cm Hart Camaro skis, Lange competition boots, Salomon bindings and Scott poles. Otherwise, he is a ski instructor at Arosa, Switzerland in the winter and a mountain guide at Chamonix in the summer. "I am not a daredevil," he says. "I do not wish to risk my life, I wish to control the risk. I want to go beyond the known limits. It is a sport to me."

It is a sport few can play. Saudan has developed a special technique for turning on the steepest walls. Rocking back on his ski tails, he swings up his tips, then churns them around in half circles. He calls it his "windshield-wiper turn" and admits that it requires a pair of superlegs. Usually he warms up his leg muscles climbing to the summit.

Not at Mount Hood. A two-week blizzard made it impossible to climb up. So, on the first sunny day last week, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, a helicopter dropped Saudan on top, and he started his descent. It was the first time he was to ski a mountain without having tested the snow and the route on the way up. The wind had blown most of the new snow off the upper face, and Saudan found that he had to slam his skis through a crust to get a safe hold. In most places, the mountain was icy. Then he jump-turned, traversed and rocked his way down the chute to the glacier, windshield-wipering to the top of the Mount Hood Meadows ski lift. In all, he covered a vertical drop of 4,700 feet in one hour.

"The run was much shorter than the ones I did in Europe," he said, "but it was just as dangerous. If I had fallen on Mount Hood it would have been the same as if I had fallen on the Eiger. I would not have lived to tell about it."

Saudan's next adventure may be the Grandes Jorasses near Chamonix or Mount McKinley in Alaska. Then he has this dream of climbing in the Himalayas. "I would like to find out what snow conditions are like at 28,000 feet," he says. "Of course, I would take my skis."


MOUNTAINEERING skills as well as skis aided Saudan in icy descent of Mount Hood.