Legendary Sylvain Saudan Skied Like No One Else in the World
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