A few years ago the book and movie “The Edge of Never” by Bill Kerig made its way through the ski community. Everybody I skied with either read the book or watched the movie. Somehow, I missed it.
Fast forward three years and I meet Bill Kerig as a board member at Spy Hop, a million miles from our ski industry roots. He recently directed “Ready to Fly”, a documentary about the U.S. ski jumping ladies and their battle to compete at the Olympic level. His book “The Edge of Never” was part of the goody bag at the premiere. I spent the following week glutened, and in bed reading.
It changed my life. I quite my job, bought a plane ticket to Geneva, and went to Chamonix. I had no intention of skiiing the Glacier Rhone. Bill’s description of the steepness, exposure, and ice was enough to scare me away. Until it went blue.
This week Chamonix is more winter-like than the Wasatch was all season. It has been snowing 30-40 cm. everyday and we have been skiing socked in, flat-light conditions. When the sun finally came out, Crystal and Brian were both anxious to get back up the Aguille du Midi. Zach, my new friend, kept asking me if I had bought my depends. He described the tram dock at the top like ascending an exposed elevator. But, I wasn’t that scared, just nervous, excited, anticipatory. I was ready to see what Chamonix is really all about.
When you dock at atop the Aguille du Midi, you walk out of the tram onto a bridge that crosses onto the glacier. The bridge is over the Cunningham Couloir, an exposed, repel-in line, with steep, dark walls, that made my stomach lurch as I looked over the railing. We passed by, through the tunnel, and onto the arrete. The arrete was in good shape due to the new snow, and I walked down it easily, balancing my skis and pole in my left hand as I gripped the the rope in my right. About half way down, Crystal stepped over the line and clicked in early to ski the new pow. I did the same, struggling to click my heel into my new bindings, which immediately made me apprehensive. Crystal skied down the first pitch in small, graceful, fall-line turns, and I attempted to follow. My touring boots do little to inspire confidence in me, and I bobbled back in forth in their soft plastic finding my balance. But not before I hit a soft mogul double ejected and panicked. My heart was in my throat as I tumbled, once, twice, and grappled for my skis. We were still skiing in the cloud and I was unsure what was below me, but knew we were heading towards exposure. Great, just what I needed before skiing the exposed, 50 degree, blue ice pitch that is the Glacier Rhone. Binding failure.
As we stood on the traverse on top of the ridge, dropping in one at a time, Crystal double checked my bindings. As I dropped in, my skis chattered between blue ice and fresh snow, my heart thumping in my throat as I took deep breaths and kept my eyes on the traverse ahead. I took my first turns timidly, focusing on each movement, hesitating, moving slower than I have all season. The snow was soft and sluffy, but fun. I finally felt as if I was getting in a rhythm when I realized that Crystal, Brian, and Zach were yelling at me to traverse to the right side of the slope to avoid the ice. I felt strong, confident, excited.
It didn’t last long. We took turns dropping into the Exit Couloir, navigating the steep, rocky entrance, when Crystal challeneged me to ski the whole couloir top to bottom. The couloir looked deceptively short, and my thighs were toast before I was even half way down. We still had to traverse the glacier and ski to the valley floor. Well…. ski until we ran out of snow, then hike to Chamonix Sud. A full 9,000 feet of sunny gratification? Yes please!