Thanksgiving alone in La Grave and Recollections of a First Descent to remember.

finished meije

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Today I am thinking of some very special old friends and partners and how thankful I am that I had a chance to spend time with them in the game of life and in the mountains.

Here is something I am thankful for today and I was reminded of it the second I opened my eyes this morning. It’s a blast from the past. Let me shed some light on the best unknown skier that ever lived from the midwest, Minnesota.

I sleep on a couch in front of a window right now and the first picture in this post is how much I can see out the window, from where my head lays on the couch when I wake up. I took both photos this morning except for the inset. Not a bad thing to see when you first open your eyes in the morning. You can actually get vertigo looking out my window.

The first thing I saw was the patch of snow that guards the entrance to one of the most significant descents of my life. That’s the patch of snow that the arrow in the inset photos point too. I was honored to be on this First Descent with Chad Vanderham while we were preparing and training ourselves to someday be good enough skiers to earn our Badges and join the ranks of the UIAGM. That wasn’t a very smart career move if you wanted to make a living skiing in the ski industry. Both Chad and I knew that, but we were both interested in the same thing, and something more important. That thing was improving ourselves and becoming better skiers by becoming smarter in the mountains. The couloir is hidden from the angle in the photo and is one of the most beautiful and exposed places I have ever skied.

The ski world never new Chad because he wasn’t glamorous or sponsored. But for me he was one of the best ski partners I have ever had and might ever have. So far there are only a hand full of people that even come close and most of which are not high profile skiers either. Most of the best partners I speak of are not in the main stream media and you will not see them in a ski mag or movie.

Chad was arguably one of the best and most experienced ski mountaineers alive for his age in NA at the time. Currently in American standards, it’s still rare to see a skier coming out of the states with that much training, experience and maturity at that age.

The only thing that ever was of interest to the ski media unfortunately was his untimely death and who he happened to be with.

Why am I writing this today?

I don’t know, I saw him out my window staring at that line this morning along with another friend and amazing mountain partner Zack Martin who I lost in a car accident in 2002 on this same Thanksgiving day. I can drive down valley just a little ways to one of the most bitching summits in this valley and see where I left Zack’s ashes in the entrance to one of the most beautiful Couloirs in all the Alps. It’s a great summit because Zack can see La Meije and Mount Blanc from there. Zack is a whole other story that’s not to different from this one about Chad and I and has many parallels.

It’s Thanksgiving in La Grave right now and It is the first Thanksgiving I have ever spent in France. I’m pretty much spending it alone so tons of time to think about what I miss, what I gave up and what I am thankful for. First Thanksgiving without a Turkey too.

They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here and I am living in a Village with about 50 people ATM. When you love skiing as much as I do and are dedicated to just getting better at it and not just doing it, you make some serious sacrifices. You give up many things to be closer to the mountains. But these aren’t just mountains here. I am on a quest to improve my skiing. It’s something I hope to get better at and to fully realize my potential someday. This spot suits my personal goals in skiing and forces me to deal with other challenges besides the mountain. Things like people I miss, a solid job, and the things I have given up in my social life in search of my personal ski goals. Ironically I gave up a ski career to move to a place like this and become a better skier. I gave up being close to my friends, and my family that I love so much to push my personal skiing. I don’t see everyone as much as I wish I could anymore. Sometimes I ask myself what have I done? I have only ever wanted to become a better skier and be as close to it as possible.

Chad and I shared that quality. We both just wanted to be better skiers. Anyone can climb 5.12. 5.12 is obtainable with work, but if you want to climb 5.14 you need to really work and might I add train at it. You need to actually have some talent, natural and acquired through hard work. Skiing is like this, but it’s not about skiing, surviving, or getting down a 5.15 or 14 that is as important as how you skied it. When you watch a 5.14 climber send, they make it look like 5.9. That is something Chad and I were always striving for and evaluating in our skiing. We wanted to ski 5.15’s and make them look like 5.9’s and that takes time, dedication and a serious amount of applied skill and technique. Beautiful climbing is climbing that looks like there is no energy being used. Chad and I looked at skiing the same way. To not use energy while skiing at your limit takes a lifetime in the mountains to develop. Chad was a perfectionist and he strived for this as much as I do.

We were always in competition with ourselves. Evaluating every move, every turn, every subtle change, a bad pole plant, why did my ski initiate that way, where was my weight when I did that, why did that happen and what to do to make it better. We watched each other ski and openly critiqued what we saw in ourselves and others that we watched. We analyzed movement and skiing in a way I never have with anybody else. Actually I take that back, Glen Plake is really good at breaking down and analyzing the mechanics of ski movement as is Peter Smart I might add. If you ever get the privilege to ski with either of them take advantage of their knowledge. Here is a hint to maximize the lesson, If you can check your ego you might learn something about your skiing.

Chad and I, we were ski nerds. Not just snow nerds, most snow nerds I know are actually mediocre skiers. When I say ski nerds I mean ski nerds. Poindexters. Skiing now a days has everything high school does. Unfortunately in the magazines and in the movies, they will only let you see the fraternity life.

You have everything you had in high school in the ski industry. There are Jocks, Preps, Fraternity boys, Stoners, Sororities, Poster child’s, band geeks, ultra scholars, gang bangers,teachers pets, posers and Nerds just to name a few. Chad and I, around the time that these photos were taken, we were not cool, we were the nerds in skiing because we chose education/professional development and in many ways I am still proud of it.

Every time we skied something together we always analyzed the run together. We asked and answered questions at the end of everyday, every tour, every kick turn, skin track, boot pack or run together. We treated Anchors the same way and I bet we built hundreds of them together. We always debriefed and asked how can we go back and ski it better or smoother with less effort. What was good, what was bad, what would you change if you did it a gain? Should we have booted that instead of skinned that. Crampons or not? Do we need the rope, why or why not? He was a good philosopher in the mountains. These were questions you needed to be able to answer really quickly and execute solutions even faster to prepare yourself for UIAGM exams, but they were also questions that Chad and I knew would more importantly lead us to being better skiers.

We also would regularly challenge ourselves to go ski the worst snow we could find, Firm, bumped, crusted or icy. Sure we always tried to nail powder, but we didn’t chase it. If we had it we skied it, if we didn’t we skied it anyway just for the mileage and exercise. The worse the snow the better we tried to ski it. We both knew that if you only skied Powder you would never learn how to ski. Powder is easy and everyone can ski it but it doesn’t help your skiing. It helps your enjoyment factor, but Chad and I were in these mountains to learn new techniques and refine our skiing. Skiing powder will not prepare you for skiing big lines in the Alps. We weren’t keeping scores, or trying to exploit our skiing by staging fake powder slashes to get sponsors or create some cheesy add for our website or Social Spray Page. We both just wanted to be better skiers and achieve that by passing our exams. Thats what we worked on when we went out into the mountains together.

We were doing homework day in and day out. Mountain homework from every angle we could. We were living the life of Aspirant guides and learning how to be better skiers. From daily early morning weather obs and recording standards, hours on the balcony with binoculars and drawing road maps and possiblities. Reckon mission after reckon mission. Avy obs, test profiles, avy rescue practice, rock rescue practice, crevasse rescue practice, improvised sled rescue practice, rock climbing in ski boots, dry tooling down at the local boulder, tour plans, and fitness punishment. He was everything you could ever want in a ski, mountain, climbing and exam partner.

Chad’s turn, pole plant, thought process, style, technique and smoothness was one of the best in the business. ┬áHis turn always left an impression on me. I don’t know anyone that emulated Coomb’s smoothness and steep skiing techniques as well as Chad.
He inspired me as much as anyone to not just go skiing, but to be a better skier. I’m still working on that.
When I saw that line this morning and realized where I was, I truly realized how thankful I am for having known people like Chad and having been able to share time in the mountains with someone like him.

As I opened my eyes this morning and saw this line I realized that one of the most thankful things I have in my life is that I had a chance to be close friends, and partners with one of the greatest unknown skiers that ever lived.

 

Back to my Thanksgiving day Photos and a top 5 descent of my life.

We opened this run with Mathieu. He’s pictured in the inset during the entrance of the first descent. That might be one of the most exposed ridges I have ever stood on with skis in terms of no options for falling off either side. He’s a local french shepherd that is still on a first generation pair of Volkl explosives with fritschi’s and skis crazier lines with heavier packs, and floppier boots then you ever will.

It’s been over 10 years now since we opened this in Feb of 2003. It had been a little over a year since my Thanksgiving loss of one of my best friends. He was one of my best kayaking, rock/ice/big wall/ and alpine climbing partners I ever had. Right after Zack’s loss in early winter more heartaches followed. I blew out my knee again and was sidelined for the winter. My sponsors dropped me and I went into a tough year. I guess something happened in my head though because that next year Chad and I opened up some bitching lines. My pro career just ended and my Professional one began. For me it was the first year that I actually focused full time on achieving my Badge and ironically it was the first year I started to really learn how to ski. Thanks for that Chad.

I have february 23rd 2003 as the date we opened this according to the photos.

screen big pick

FUN FACT

It’s only seen a 2nd descent to my understanding and it was by me that same year and Solo with some exit variations.

Pretty sure it hasn’t been skied since and we never took the liberty to name the couloir because we can’t be certain it’s never been skied.

As far as we know and local knowledge supports It’s been 11 years since I soloed It and it sounds like it’s waiting for a 3rd descent. I have skied a fair amount of couloirs in my day, This one doesn’t suck.

Thanks Chad and Zack.

Today I am thankful I had friends and partners like you in the mountains and I am thankful for the adventures, inspiration, and memories you have given me for the rest of my life.

Miss you both,

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!!

Chad and Zack if your reading this, I have a few more Gems on the radar that are going down this year and the lines I opened with you over a decade ago both up and down, were the warm ups. You are both truly an inspiration for what is now possible in my head. Thanks for all the training days, It’s only now after spending over half of my lifetime playing in terrain like this that it is about to truly pay off.