Tof Henry searches for the ski/life bal­ance in Cha­monix


Swedish pho­tog­ra­pher Daniel Rönnbäck was stand­ing in the tram­line of Cha­monix’s Aigu­ille du Midi with the late An­dreas Frans­son when he first saw Christophe “Tof ” Henry. It was 2012 and Frans­son nod­ded to­ward the third-gen­er­a­tion Cha­mo­ni­ard, whose black mop of hair wisped across his tanned cheeks, and said to Rönnbäck, “That kid is the next gen­er­a­tion of steep ski­ing. He’s the fastest skier in Cha­monix.”

But you wouldn’t need a steep ski­ing leg­end like Frans­son whis­per­ing in your ear to no­tice Henry’s swag­ger. The way he cuts to the front of the tram­line with baggy bibs hang­ing off his broad 6-foot-3-inch frame re­sem­bles a high school bas­ket­ball star waltz­ing in late to class. Or per­haps you’ve seen POV videos of him straightlin­ing sheets of blue ice on 50-de­gree test-piece lines be­fore launch­ing onto vari­able snow and crank­ing GS turns on an ex­posed hang­ing glacier.

Around the Cha­monix Val­ley, where he has lived for all of his 33 years, Henry is known to skip en­trance rap­pels above clas­sic lines like the nar­row Col du Plan couloir or the highly cov­eted Mal­lory-porter, a route that plunges 5,000 ver­ti­cal feet be­low the Aigu­ille du Midi ca­ble car. He skis no-fall zones like he’s freerid­ing in­bounds and does so on high avalanche days in bad weather with low vis­i­bil­ity. And just in case you’re un­sure if Henry is a big deal, he’s ready to let you know. “I ski top of Mal­lory in May last year with nine turns,” he says loud enough for any­one on the street to hear it. “No fuck­ing hop turns!”

Sit­ting out­side the El­e­va­tion 1904 bar just off Cha­monix’s main square on an April af­ter­noon in baggy jeans and two hood­ies, Henry was drink­ing like he skis—fast and with­out hes­i­ta­tion. I asked if he ever brings a guide along to han­dle his pho­tog­ra­phers or film crews. “I don’t need a guide,” he says. “I’m bet­ter than guide. They ask me where is the good snow.”

When pressed on what he’s try­ing to ac­com­plish in his ski ca­reer, it might be the eas­i­est ques­tion he’s ever an­swered. “My goal is to ski all the hugest lines you can in Cham in dif­fer­ent way and style: fast and big,” he says, his thump­ing pulse vis­i­ble in his jugu­lar vein.

De­spite all of the im­pas­sioned chest beat­ing, his con­nec­tion to the peaks is a source of vi­tal­ity that calls him on a near-daily pil­grim­age. Skirt­ing the thin line be­tween di­aled and loose is pre­cisely where Henry feels cen­tered and free. Yet down on the val­ley floor, his world is weighted with per­sonal woes and an un­set­tled fam­ily dy­namic threat­en­ing to knock him off-bal­ance.

After an hour or two of throw­ing back beers, re­count­ing his fa­vorite ski lines and dream­ing of sum­mer van-life to ski first de­scents in the Chilean An­des, Henry spot­ted a blonde ras­cal with a red ban­dana around his neck run­ning by on the side­walk. “Jules!” Henry called out to his 6-year-old son, who kept on run­ning, babysit­ter in tow. When the boy passed again, Henry swooped the kick­ing child up into his lap. The boy squirmed out of his grasp and ran off. For the first time all day, Henry’s en­dur­ing smile gave way to a trou­bled face. “Some­times he doesn’t want to spend time,” he says softly with a long, sad drag on his cig­a­rette.

Henry grew up ski­ing from the age of 2 in Cha­monix. His par­ents were work­ing-class week­end war­riors at best, not deeply em­bed­ded in the moun­tain cul­ture so of­ten ro­man­ti­cized in the birth­place of alpin­ism. He had an un­re­mark­able child­hood and a sub­dued per­son­al­ity un­til he was 15. That’s when he started ski­ing with fel­low Cha­mo­ni­ard Aurélien Du­croz, an even­tual two-time Freeride World Cham­pion skier. “We would freeride to­gether, learn­ing how to use the big wide ski,” Henry says. “This was the new revo­lu­tion.” Hav­ing such un­matched ac­cess to big ver­ti­cal and long sea­sons breeds rapid pro­gres­sion in Cha­monix, if the mo­ti­va­tion is there. And it was, so much so that Henry was too busy ski­ing to fin­ish high school. By age 20, he was ski­ing faster than most lo­cals on open freeride ter­rain, work­ing as a ski in­struc­tor and find­ing sum­mer la­bor jobs clear­ing trees and build­ing a zip line and ropes cour­ses—any­thing to keep him out­doors.

In 2014, tragedy struck the Henry fam­ily, when his mother, Fran­coise, died of leukemia. Soon there­after, a Christ­mas din­ner ended early after an ar­gu­ment erupted be­tween Henry and his fa­ther. The two have not spo­ken or seen each other since. That left just a few close friends at his wed­ding in April 2016. A lit­tle more than a year later, Henry’s wife took Jules, who they had when she was 22 and Henry was 27, and left, for the sec­ond time, with

an­other man. Henry, mean­while, was ski­ing in Chile for two months. That July, he posted a video on In­sta­gram of him ski­ing a couloir barely wide enough for his skis with the cap­tion: [sic] “No more mum no more dad no more love from my wife, miss­ing my son, for­tu­natly the pas­sion is here and save me...”

When he re­turned home to face the mu­sic last Septem­ber, he was a wreck, liv­ing out of his 2005 Volk­swa­gen Trans­porter van piled with 25 pairs of skis, and only see­ing Jules once a week. His younger sis­ter, Caro­line, who had the hard task of break­ing the news to Henry about his wife’s “ex­tra con­ju­gal man,” was wor­ried about him. “Tof wanted to stay at the bar and drink, and I was wor­ried if he’d go to the moun­tain and maybe not worry about the risk as much,” she says as smoke rib­bons swirl from her cig­a­rette on the pa­tio of the Cha­monix café where she works one of two jobs. “He thinks he knows ev­ery­thing, but Mother Na­ture is stronger than him and I am scared that some­times he for­get it. But I know when he feels bad, the ski­ing and the moun­tains are his medicine, his ther­apy.”

In­deed, the day after they buried their mother in the same Cha­monix ceme­tery where cen­turies of leg­endary alpin­ists lay, Henry was ski­ing off the Midi. But when Henry talks about ski­ing, it sounds more like a drug than ther­apy. “I’m so stoked in the moun­tains, I al­ways want more,” he says. “It make you crazy. I get down and I just want more, more, more.”

At 18 years old, Henry started ski­ing with Pier­francesco “Pif ” Dilib­erto, the monoski­ing founder of TKB Films. Nathan Wal­lace, an Amer­i­can ski moun­taineer who has called Cha­monix home for more than two decades and an­other of Henry’s men­tors, re­mem­bers Henry didn’t have a back­pack or avalanche equip­ment while film­ing with Dilib­erto. “Just a hel­met, and he was straightlin­ing crazy avalanche zones,” says Wal­lace. “We wouldn’t even ski with him.”

Henry cer­tainly earned his early rep­u­ta­tion for quasi-reck­less ski­ing, and although he still hasn’t done much to dis­pel it, Cha­monix is a dif­fi­cult place to find some­one on a high enough horse to call an­other skier out for be­ing

dan­ger­ous. An es­ti­mated 100 peo­ple die each year in the Mont Blanc range alone. Dilib­erto re­lents the fact that al­most half of his friends have died in the moun­tains. “We are a full hard drive of bad sto­ries,” he says. Henry tends to shirk off any con­ver­sa­tions veer­ing to­ward the topic of death in the moun­tains.

But per­haps ski­ing al­most ev­ery day, in­clud­ing 50 laps on the clas­sic Cos­miques Couloir and the Glacier Rond in one sea­son alone, re­ally does pro­vide Henry with an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of how the daily weather con­di­tions af­fect the snow, where the pock­ets of in­sta­bil­ity sit, and when it’s best to out­run his own slough by straightlin­ing a face.

“Some­times I see Tof ski and think what he’s do­ing is a bit stupid,” says Julien “Pica” Herry, a lo­cal UIAGM moun­tain guide and pro­fes­sional steep snow­boarder. “But on the other hand, speed is a def­i­nite ad­van­tage… Some places have a slab or crevasse.”

Save for hit­ting a tree in Ja­pan in 2015 and suf­fer­ing se­ri­ous in­ter­nal in­juries, Henry has a pretty good safety record. “Peo­ple think I am just crazy and go, but ev­ery­thing is cal­cu­lated,” he says. And that’s the side of him that In­sta­gram fol­low­ers and après bar flies don’t see.

After a few days of fresh snow in mid-april, the fore­cast popped blue on a Satur­day morn­ing. All the lines would be re­filled with just a few fresh tracks ready to be had on the north face of the Midi. On the phone the night be­fore, Henry de­clared that he would be the first one at the top of the Col du Plan the next morn­ing, open­ing up the line be­fore run­ning off to teach a morn­ing ski school les­son, which he still does to sup­ple­ment his in­come from spon­sors.

In­deed, as the first pub­lic bin rose into the blue shadow of the north face at 8:03 a.m., an all-black fig­ure was putting smooth turns on the open face above an ex­posed serac be­fore travers­ing skier’s right and dis­ap­pear­ing into the tight chute. But the skier was not Henry; it was Wal­lace. Henry had pulled the plug when he woke up that morn­ing and felt his head was off. “Back in the day, he would have just gone to thrash it,” says Wal­lace.

Back at Henry’s tiny apart­ment, amidst skis crowded into ev­ery cor­ner of the room (the small­est is the Ar­mada In­vic­tus at 108mm un­der­foot), Henry plays videos of him­self roped up, in­ten­tion­ally re­leas­ing slabs by ski-cut­ting a wind-loaded slope with two be­lay­ers, to show what kind of pre­cau­tions he takes.

He claims his ap­pro­pri­a­tion of risk has shifted in the past few years. In­stead of throw­ing him­self off of mas­sive jumps or pulling some freeride tricks on medium-sized cliff drops, he’s push­ing his lim­its on steep lines where even a mi­nor mis­take means cer­tain death. “I re­ally like it and I’m do­ing good, I think this is the way to go,” he says. “I’m not try­ing to be the best pro skier or moun­taineer, I just want to make the most ex­pe­ri­ence out of my good feel­ings. I’m not think­ing about the re­sult, just my pas­sion.”

“I’m not try­ing to be the best pro skier or moun­taineer, I just want to make the most ex­pe­ri­ence out of my good feel­ings.” –Tof Henry

Last spring, Henry showed up hun­gover and in a crabby mood to ski the tech­ni­cal Pain du Su­cre after mak­ing the first ski de­scent on the Tri­o­let the day be­fore. Once on slope, though, he switched over to fo­cused lead­er­ship, set­ting the skin track and giv­ing en­cour­ag­ing tips to a filmer strug­gling to make kick turns on the slushy ap­proach. At the sum­mit, Henry dropped in first, paint­ing pow­er­ful, arc­ing turns on the face as if it weren’t perched di­rectly above a sheer 300-foot cliff band. It was an­other mega clas­sic that rarely gets skied, but later that night at din­ner, Henry again shifted the con­ver­sa­tion to fam­ily.

“It’s hard to com­bine the pas­sion and fam­ily,” he says. “You can’t be both top of ski and top of fam­ily life.” For some­one who won’t speak with his fa­ther, rarely vis­its his ail­ing grand­mother, and in­ter­acts with his nearby sis­ter more on In­sta­gram and What­sapp than in per­son, he pro­fesses a strong love for fam­ily val­ues. He sees his son once or twice a week when he’s not trav­el­ing or film­ing. “The only way for me to do it is to do what I love and try to see him as much in per­son,” says Henry, whose de­sire to pro­vide for his son is an­other force driv­ing him to the top of his game.

He told a story about meet­ing a 60-year-old Amer­i­can man with no wife, no kids. “But I have the ski!” the man said. Henry was dumb­founded. “Imag­ine fin­ish like this,” he says. “So bad. He is miss­ing so much.”

To­ward the end of the meal, he lit up de­scrib­ing the day Jules skied the Val­lée Blanche at the age of 5. “He loves to make the ‘smok­ing turn’ rooster tail like Dad.” When asked if he’ll let Jules ski the Mal­lory, a se­ri­ous look fell across his face. “I’m gonna tell him it’s a bad drug.”

Henry is of­ten first in line at the Aigu­ille du Midi tram. He likes to be there alone, sip­ping cof­fee with a crois­sant, be­fore he goes into the high alpine where he feels most at ease.

Henry, along with Jonathan Charlet, was the first to climb and ski the North Face of Aigu­ille de Tri­o­let. Rap­pel­ing into some of the most dan­ger­ous lines in the world is how Henry copes with life’s chal­lenges.

ABOVE: Henry skied the Mal­lory, one of the most iconic steep ski­ing de­scents in the world, the day after his wed­ding.LEFT: There are two ways to ski from the nee­dle-point sum­mit of the Aigu­ille du Plan. This is Henry’s fa­vorite.BE­LOW: Henry looks for­ward to the off-sea­son when he takes time off from trav­el­ing and film­ing to spend time with his son, Jules.

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