Leg­endary Syl­vain Sau­dan Skied Like No One Else in the World

SkiTrax - - Contents - by Steve Threndyle

For thou­sands of skiers and snow­board­ers who re­mem­ber a time when there was a Whistler Moun­tain and Black­comb Moun­tain, the in­tim­i­dat­ing tree­less ex­panse that dom­i­nates the view from the top of the Jer­sey Cream chair will al­ways be known by one name – the Sau­dan Couloir. Black­comb ski pa­trollers who rou­tinely hiked into the bowl nick­named it “the Sau­dan Couloir,” a com­pli­ment to the dar­ing FrenchSwiss ex­treme skier who be­came known as the “skieur de l'im­pos­si­ble” for his vi­sion­ary de­scents of Europe's most challenging moun­tains.

Like the steep, rock-stud­ded chutes on Whistler Peak, back in the early 1980's, the Sau­dan could only be ac­cessed via a half-hour boot­pack trail to a sketchy en­trance that was most of­ten ne­go­ti­ated on the weapons of the day, namely 207cm (or longer) GS skis.

The word “vi­sion­ary” (like “au­then­tic,” and even “ex­treme”) is a word that's been pum­meled into mean­ing­less­ness by its overuse in ev­ery­day sto­ry­telling and mar­ket­ing-speak. For the space of a decade and a half, from 1968 un­til 1982, how­ever, Syl­vain Sau­dan was ski­ing like no one else in the world. He was liv­ing his life by a very sim­ple rule. “You fall,” he told me at Peter Chrzanowski's house out­side of Pem­ber­ton, B.C., “pffft. It is over. The end.” Morte.

The com­pactly built, en­er­getic Sau­dan has just turned 80, but could eas­ily pass for be­ing a decade younger. He's come to Bri­tish Columbia at the in­vi­ta­tion of Chrzanowski, who has seen the rare op­por­tu­nity to cor­rect an in­jus­tice of moun­tain nomen­cla­ture now that Whistler-black­comb has been pur­chased by Vail Re­sorts.

Since mov­ing to Whistler in the late 1970's, Chrzanowski was pretty much a one-man ex­treme-ski­ing ad­ven­turer him­self who gained a cer­tain amount of no­to­ri­ety wher­ever he went. He used up eight-and-a-half lives in the 1980's in var­i­ous mis­ad­ven­tures in Peru, the Coast Range and the B.C. Rock­ies. He went to Peru in 1978 and nearly died in a mas­sive land­slide. In 1989, he coaxed Sau­dan to come to Canada to ski on Mount Wadding­ton, the high­est peak in Canada's Coast Range, as part of his film Reel Rad­i­cal. The ski de­scent from Wadding­ton's north­west peak was com­pleted not by Sau­dan, but by two young Whistler hot­shots who had fallen into Chrzanowski's or­bit named Trevor Petersen and Eric Pe­hota.

Af­ter their ad­ven­ture on Wadding­ton, Sau­dan re­turned to Whistler with Chrzanowski and saw some­thing rather odd: T-shirts, cof­fee mugs and other branded prod­uct bear­ing his very own name. When Black­comb opened the Horstman T-bar and Sev­enth Heaven Ex­press in the mid-1980's, the Sau­dan Couloir was now ac­ces­si­ble to any­one who had the co­jones to tackle the gnarly, rut­ted en­trance to get onto the main face. In fact, the Sau­dan Couloir was so challenging that it be­came known as not just an ex­pert (black-di­a­mond) run, but a “dou­ble-black,” or ex­treme, de­scent. Soon, skiers from all over the world were com­ing to Black­comb to ski the in­fa­mous Sau­dan. There was even an all-com­ers race down the Sau­dan Couloir that re­ceived heavy-duty cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship. Un­der­stand­ably, Sau­dan was an­noyed to see his name be­ing usurped with­out hav­ing any per­sonal or, it must be said, fi­nan­cial, con­nec­tion to the re­sort. The de­tails of what was de­manded by Sau­dan and where talks broke off re­main un­clear, but the fact is that Sau­dan's name was stripped from all of the trail maps and signs.

With the takeover of Whistler-black­comb by Vail Re­sorts, Chrzanowski saw an op­por­tu­nity for the Amer­i­can own­ers to make amends with Sau­dan. “Be­sides,” as Chrzanowski says, “no­body around here calls it the Couloir Ex­treme. We all know it's the Sau­dan.”

Sau­dan came to Whistler in mid-april and put on a well-re­ceived pre­sen­ta­tion about some of his moun­tain de­scents in the 1970 as part of the an­nual World Ski and Snow­board Fes­ti­val in Whistler. He even re­ceived a well-timed greet­ing from se­nior Whistler staff mem­bers David Brown­lie and Rob Mac­skim­ming. No of­fi­cial de­ci­sion has been made at press time, but Chrzanowski be­lieves that things are “look­ing good.” Like ex­treme ski­ing it­self, how­ever, the devil is of­ten in the de­tails.

Swiss ex­treme-skier Syl­vain Sau­dan, known as "skieur de l'im­pos­si­ble" at 80

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