The Wall & The Couloir of Certain Death
Excerpt from ‘Skiing With Demons’ by Chris Tomlinson (SCGB – Leader).
Nothing particularly frightening has ever come out of Switzerland. Graham Greene famously wrote: ‘500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they [the Swiss] produce – the cuckoo clock!’ Given that nothing scary begins with the word ‘Swiss’, it amuses me that the most intimidating ski run in Avoriaz should be called the Le Mur Suisse – The Swiss Wall.
‘The Wall’, as the run is commonly referred to, is officially called Le Pas de Chavanette, it’s often mentioned in newspaper articles with titles like ‘The World’s Scariest Ski Runs’. It usually comes in at second or third on such subjective lists. Less subjective are its vital statistics.
It’s 1km long, during which time it drops 400 metres. The top of the run has an incline of 76%, so steep that you can’t see the face of the slope while standing at the top. It’s often covered in moguls the size of VW Beetles.
Given the unthreatening nature of the word ‘Swiss’, its use in this context must be for purely geographical reference, the top of the run being in France and the bottom being in Switzerland. The word ‘wall’ is more informative because walls are usually vertical, hard and unyielding.
The comparative difficulty of any given run depends almost entirely on the snow conditions they’re attempted in, although, in some cases, the name of the run is important too. Give a run a name like ‘The Wall’ and you give it an auspicious notoriety. It automatically becomes ten degrees steeper than it actually is. With a suitably foreboding name a run can build a reputation – one that gets embellished by those who have skied it, in order to underline their achievement. Comments such as ‘Yes, I skied the Widow Maker – but I don’t want to talk about it,’ followed with a vacant gaze into the distance, being the classic way to do this.
The truth is you don’t need a death wish to ski the Wall. Dozens of not especially accomplished skiers (like me) get down it each day without significant incident and live to embellish the danger they faced. Taking on the Wall, like most skiing, is a mental challenge rather than a physical one.
The most important ingredient for any descent is confidence. If you think you’re going to fall – you will fall. Skiing can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and my main prophets of doom are the Ski Demons.
The Ski Demons are the voices in my head that feed on my self-doubt. They tell me I’m going to fall. They tell me, ‘Frankly Chris, you’re not capable of completing the skiing challenge ahead.’ They doubt my ability, my fitness and my courage. If I pause too long at the top of a pitch they drag me into a debate about the difficulty of the terrain below. ‘It looks a bit icy Chris’ or ‘it’s too steep for you Chris.’ They give me plausible excuses I can use to wimp out. ‘I’m nursing an injury’ or ‘I brought the wrong skis.’
If I man up and drop in, I usually silence them by making those all-important first turns successfully. But if I fall they pipe up again with ‘We told you so.’
If things go completely pear-shaped, and I suffer a sequence of falls their voices become deafening. ‘This time Chris you’ve started a descent you’re not going to finish – you’ll need a helicopter to get out of this one!’
We all have Ski Demons that feed on our mortal fears. Sometimes the fear is rational: fear of injury or death. Sometimes it’s primeval: fear of heights or being buried alive. Sometimes the fear is emotional: fear of failure, fear of embarrassment or fear of fear itself – panic. Skiing is a veritable buffet for demons if we let them eat.
When debutants take their first look at the Wall’s steep and icy entry point, many audibly swallow. The slope seemingly vanishes into mid-air and is often shrouded in mist for dramatic effect. On busy days, the entrance can be blocked with skiers, peering over into the abyss, straining their necks like meerkats to see the extent of the slope, some obviously wishing they hadn’t agreed to ski it in the bar the previous night.
Those who change their mind can watch their more courageous friends descend it from the Chavanette chairlift, which runs down its side. I jokingly call it the ‘Chairlift of Shame’ because it’s ridden by those who’ve wimped out.
Goaded by a mate, I first found myself on the Wall too early in my skiing career and grew to hate what became an annual pilgrimage to it. But, no matter how many times I’d successfully got down it, a battalion of butterflies still amassed in my stomach whenever I approach the wretched run, such was the terror it had engraved in my psyche. Until one day an ESF guide cured me of the problem.
The guide had been organised by a Ski Club Leader and a few of the members, including me, had signed up for a day off-piste. His chiselled facial features were darkly tanned from spending a lifetime in the mountains. His faded, red jacket, with a gold medal hanging from his breast, were signs that he’d reached the highest ranks in the organisation. He was also wearing a white, knitted sweatband that only an ESF guide could wear without looking camp. This head garment was clearly a fashion accessory; he was never going to break into a sweat skiing with ‘Les Anglais’.
After several sweaty and exhausting hours of extreme-skiing (for me at least), we found ourselves at the top of ‘The Couloir of Certain Death’ as it surely must have been called. ‘He never mentioned a couloir, did he?’ I said to my companions.
Like most skiers, we had hired a guide to take us out of our comfort zone and he had spectacularly succeeded. He didn’t flinch when we exhibited the telltale signs of a First Refusal – probing the snow in front with our poles and adopting an ostrich-like stance. He assured us that it was within our capabilities, and that it was part of the ESF’s esprit du corps that they always returned with the same number of clients they’d left with. Not wanting to blot his record, we dropped in.
I tentatively picked my way down using little jump turns; stopping to congratulate myself after completing each one. He was right; it was within our capabilities since most of us made it down without falling. One foolhardy comrade chose ‘route one’. He pointed his skis directly down the couloir and accelerated past me like a missile. Presumably hoping to find somewhere flat enough at the bottom to lose the immense speed he would accumulate, or at least to find somewhere soft to crash. As the couloir exited onto the Wall, neither option presented itself.
After my own less spectacular exit from the couloir, I found myself perched on a mogul halfway up the Wall. While catching my breath with the other survivors, I spluttered, ‘Never thought I’d be so happy to find myself on the bloody Wall.’ They all laughed, but I wasn’t joking.
Now, whenever I find myself panicking on the Wall, I look up at that couloir, I’ve now renamed ‘The Couloir of Almost Certain Death’, and consider myself to be in a comparatively safe position.
The Wall may not be the most difficult run in the Alps, but its notoriety increases with every skier who conquers it. Once I’d got over the Wall, so to speak, no marked piste would ever hold any fear.
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