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Steep Ascents and First Descents
02 MAR 2001

EDITOR'S NOTE: Trey Cook has been living and breathing snowboarding for the past 13 years. Among other dubious achievements he's been an industry veteran since 1988 and a former editor of Onboard, Europe's largest snowboarding magazine. Four years ago, he left Colorado in search of steeper terrain and fewer ski patrols and he found it in Chamonix, France. here is the first of Trey's tales of life from the land of sexy accents and stinky cheese and he starts off by giving us a taste of just what it's like to live and ride in the extreme capital of the Western world.

I guess you could call Chamonix a ski resort but it's unlike any other ski resort I've been to and, believe me, I've been to my fair share. Having witnessed the triumphs and tumbles of riders in places like Alaska and Jackson Hole, I arrived in France thinking I knew what steep meant. But while there are certainly heavy mountains in other parts of the world, the difference here is the level of commitment and respect the terrain demands. While a fall on another mountain can serve nicely to pad out the bail section in next year's video, a rider going down in Chamonix can easily raise issues of what to do with the footage of the death.

“Life in Chamonix can be very beautiful. It can also be very, very difficult....”
— Philippe Fragnol
Philippe Fragnol

Back in the epic spring of 1999, the mountains here were in no mood for forgiveness. First there was the rogue avalanche that buried the nearby village of Le Tour killing 12 men, women and children. Then came the fire that killed 39 people in the Mont Blanc Tunnel. That was followed by the burning of one of the town's historic old buildings, which was an integral part of the "centre ville." Amidst all this, friends and family were routinely being chewed up and spat out by a mountain range notoriously unkind to fundamental error. By early May, the ghosts of the season's deceased roamed the streets and haunted our dreams.

In spite of this — or perhaps in defiance of it — lines were being sent that hadn't seen action in years. In one memorable barroom conversation, Chamonix's illustrious photographer, Philippe Fragnol hinted to me that two local high mountain guides, Jérôme Ruby and Dede Rhem, were planning something major. It would be a project at least as big as their astonishing first descent (skis or snowboard) in June 1995 of the North Face of Le Triolet, a 60-degree sheet of hard blue ice interspersed with dustings of variable snow that, at an altitude of 3870 meters, drops 900 meters before petering out at the head of the Glacier d'Argentiére.

Those who understood anything about steep descents at the time knew that Jérôme and Dede, though worlds away from the bright lights and corporate sponsorship of "extreme" contests and the X Games, were unquestionably the king mack daddies of extreme snowboarding. It was a status intensely coveted by a handful of Chamonix hardcores — riders far beyond the realm of what most of us would consider sane — who, in the Spring of '99, were looking to build their own reputations.

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