Big Mountain Descents Need Style Ethics, Argues Top Steep Skier

adventure journal artesonrajuA few weeks ago Bjarne Salén and I went into Peru’s Paron Valley to continue our acclimatization on the mythical and indeed beautiful mountain Artesonraju, 6025m. The mountain is widely known from the Paramount Pictures logo and for being one of the main objectives for climbers (and a few skiers) in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca. I thought it would be a perfect second step in our acclimatization because it’s very straightforward and doesn’t have any major difficulties neither for climbing nor skiing. But it’s needed to be said again, it’s up there among the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen and I was really psyched to get the chance to ski it.

After an easy hike up to moraine camp at 4800 meters we took one day of rest to really get the feel for the mountains and the conditions. At arrival the mountain looked pristine and perfect after a few days of wet snowfall. But on our rest day gusty storm winds were totally devastating for the ski conditions and plumes of snow were permanent on several places of the face. The result for my freeride dreams of the face was quiet obvious, but I always want to go up there and really give dreams a chance to unfold. You never know, maybe there would be an untouched corner of the face where the snow would be at least consistent and grippy.

We started at midnight that following day for the summit bid, skipping the high camps but giving myself time to really walk slow if I would need to. I really downgraded myself with the timing. In the middle of the night we reached the bergschrund and before six o’clock I was at 5700m, high up on the face and maybe one or two hours from the top. Above the bergschrund my feelings for the conditions were not good, but I still reasoned I wanted to go as far as I could until I could see what the wind had done with our objective. Bjarne followed me up to the schrund, and waited there together with our newfound Ecuadorian guide friends who had abandoned their try already there.

It was a beautiful sunrise, and it was a devastating view to see the face: perfect steep skiing powder destroyed by warm winds and then refrozen through the cold night. The result: ice-topped sastrugi as far as the eye could see.

This is a face that has been skied quite a few times. Ever since Patrick Vallençant did the first descent more than 30 years ago people have come to ski this beauty. It’s arguable what skiing means, but I realized I could not do anything more than sideslip and hop turn this face at best. My dreams of steepness were set up on GS turns and smiles, not doing my best to kick in my edges into the ice.

The ethics of skiing need to catch up with those of climbing.

Later, after I left the mountain, I was surprised to hear comments saying that I gave up too easily, that I should have finished the project no matter what. For me, though, that’s totally ignoring the process of why I do things. And skiing, I think, needs a bit more of ideology and style than we have right now. We’re where climbing was 30 or 40 years ago, when getting up by any means possible was the only thing that mattered. Success was counted by reaching the summit, and the means, whether they included using oxygen, aid, or drilling bolt ladders, was forgotten in the process.

Now we’re in the same situation in mountain skiing as climbing was back then: It’s all about just getting down things and no one usually ask how we did it. Any decent skier can technically get down any classic ski run. And that might be great for them, but no one usually asks how (style, technique, reading conditions, avoiding risk), and the mainstream focuses instead on what (the name of the run) we did.

Of course, skiing the hardest and steepest things out there will never look pretty, but skiing classic lines by the high standards of the skiers of today should look amazing – if the timing of the right skiers are at the right place at the right time in the right conditions. It’s just a personal opinion, but I think the ethics of skiing need to catch up with those of climbing to preserve some of the aesthetics mountain skiing deserves to have. But don’t be afraid of going out there and try. With trying comes defeats, but it’s the only way of reaching for our dreams.

So this is all that went through my head on the higher slopes of Artesonraju, one of the most beautiful ski mountains I have ever seen. I knew I would reach the summit in an hour or two, but I also knew I would only sideslip the upper 400 meters with an ice axe. It would be a mountaineering micro success, reaching the summit and then getting back down alive. Down climbing was, at least for my ability, a no-go with the soft unreliable sugar snow below the ice topped surface. It would have been a nightmare. But with skis on, it felt okay, but it was for sure not pretty.

If I had a dream line in climbing that I really do free and was almost at the top when it started raining, I wouldn’t try to go up by any means. I would be there for the experience of climbing those pitches, not for getting to the summit. I would smile with the wind and rain in my face with equal joy and disappointment. I would just turn around and if the dream was strong enough, then I would come back one day. But I would definitely take a defeat for a defeat, knowing that it’s part of life and the only ingredient in life that creates the room for the sweetness of success.

On Artesonraju, I made a platform, clicked in to my skis, and effectively lost vertical meters quickly by making a turn here, a turn there. I side slipped where I felt like I had to.

I got down to Bjarne, Estalin and Pablo – we high-fived and returned back down to camp.

There wasn’t much to be said. Everyone there knew the ways of the mountains, and we were already onto the next one to be tried, the food, the drinks, and the friends down in town.


Swedish ski mountaineer Andreas Fransson lives in Chamonix. You can see more of his photos and read more of his exploits and thoughts at andreasfransson.se and follow him on Twitter, @ndreasfransson. Photo of Frendo route by Ben Briggs


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{ 26 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Jim HarrisJim Harris

    Hmm, “ethics?” Chopping holds or drilling a bolt latter falls into the realm of ethics since those will affect the challenges and experience for future climbers. I don’t see why GS vs hop turns needs similar consideration. Sure, skiing a big line fast and in perfect conditions is preferable, but should that mean a ski descent doesn’t “count” if one skis it slow?

    • @brodyleven

      Good point. It isn’t like skiing GS turns is the equivalent of redpointing. It would be the equivalent of something like…climbing using ONLY dynamic moves, or climbing without any dynos, or climbing but never putting your hands over your head. re: GS turns: It’s a style thing, not an ethics thing.

      Hop turns “count” the same way a growling, screaming, struggling, shaking, sewing-machine leg climber getting to the top of a climb “counts.”

      I think.

      • Chris

        I disagree with the analogy that hop turns in skiing = sewing-machine-gasping up a climb. Some alpines climbing routes can be done in a t-shirt and climbing shoes one day, crampons and dry tools on another. Sometimes a ski line requires hop turns. If you’re goal is to free climb an alpine route – or ski GS turns down a run – I think its important to say so, from the beginning. Set the expectation before you even get on the line, and if you get there and the conditions aren’t right for it, you’ll either need to turn around or make a compromise, right?

  • Michael PearlmanMichael Pearlman

    I agree completely with what Fransson is getting at here, though maybe he’s putting climbing ethics on too high a pedestal. Turning back in the face of ugly conditions means you approach skiing differently. THat’is your right, even if not everyone sees it that way.

  • Dennis

    Nice article and I couldn’t agree more. You brought back what my 12 year old daughter said when we watched a YouTube video of some guys climbing and then skiing down Mt Robson. Her reaction was why bother skiing down it when the skiing really sucked so bad. They were basically just side slipping down the mountain with their ice axes. It looked like a great climb though. It was sort of to her what’s the point bringing skis if you can’t really ski. This article reminded me of her comments.

    • @brodyleven

      And I’d argue that it’s simply style, as Tim Roberts said above. A lot of time, I prefer to sideslip with ice axes in hand. But is that any less skiing than arcing turns down a face?

    • Donny Roth

      I would say: got to the top under your own power; are honest about details about the accomplishment; acknowledge all members of the team that support the effort; don’t leave anything behind; and don’t endanger others are the things that comprise the ethics. These apply going up, as well as down.

      The other stuff is style. And I agree with Andreas that in a sport where conditions are so variable, style is a way to distinguish different efforts. Skiing big lines with a more aggressive, cleaner style is certainly a frontier. But in this case, safety still trumps everything, and pro skiers, the ones setting the example, need to honor the accomplishments of all pushing themselves and coming home safely. To insinuate that only descents done in grand style “count” will lead to tragedy.

      There’s no rule that says one can’t return and try to do it “better” with the experience and knowledge gained.

  • Hotdog

    The point of the article as I understand it isn’t that skiing down steep faces in poor conditions is unethical. More that’s it’s really lame to do it just so you can say you did it. I’m not impressed if the skiing is shitty – why even bother? I’ll definitely never ski at that level, but the steep ski descents I’ve seen on the internet are about the most boring and pointless things I’ve ever seen online. Just to claim you were the first to descend some face – lame. Shows how far it’s gotten that this is what we have to do to pump up our ego’s and try to make a name for ourselves. The world’s been scoured over and now we’re all left to mountain speed climbs and ski descents that in a lot of cases most wouldn’t even consider skiing….

  • Coop

    To me ethics comes into play when faced with drilling a bolt hole when there is a perfectly good nut/cam crack right there. You were faced with a style question, grunt it or do it graceful and smooth. Graceful and smooth takes it any day…so, I’m with you.

  • Chris Argue

    Andreas, I think your analogy of “a dream line in climbing that I really do free and was almost at the top when it started raining, I wouldn’t try to go up by any means.” is excellent. For some, this style is ok, just as sideslipping a line is ok for some. Others hold themselves to higher standards.

  • Kim Kircher

    I applaud Andreas for considering the why and the how, not just the what. If for him, the beauty is in the experience and the ethics, than he followed his heart. And for that I say Bravo.

  • Andy

    The style and ethics conversation makes me think about 14er skiing in Colorado, where skiing the peak only “counts” if you meet a fairly strict set of guidelines.

  • Kathleen Rock

    Sometimes you get somewhere and the only choice is to ski down one way or the other but counting it as somehow up there with the great accomplishments of outdoorsy athleticism is where I have a problem with it.
    It can like comparing that fourteen year old boy’s ascent of Everest to Sir Edmund Hillary’s. I always feel like I’m left asking, “Wait, how is it the same thing?”

  • Luca Pandolfi

    U missed the point !

    GS turns were his dream … when he talks about ethics he means what he did not want to do continuing his ascent and then sideslipping half of the line with an ice axe in his hand.

    I am completely agree ! it might happen to find some bad snow and sideslip but there is people making that “his own style”…AND THAT S NOT SKIING, that s like climbing pulling on gear.

    Then hop turns and gs turns is a style difference… but sideslipping a line ( like u c people doing every year in chamonix on classics like Mallory) is not ethics at all !!

  • Luke

    Obvisouly being able to ski a line in style is nice when the conditions alow, but if you can make it down a line in terrible conditions that also takes skill as well. What difference is this to the line Andreas skied in Patagonia last year, skiing while on belay, hop turns down the face. He never mentioned the lack of style in that descent.

  • Kate

    This all really sucks. I ski because I ski. I just climb up mountains and rip down them, I don’t make videos about it, I don’t write articles about it. I just do It, because I love to do it. Why should it matter about what you climb and how you got down it?? Was it amazing? Are you still alive?? Did you push your own limits? Great. Good for you! Who gives a crap. Wake up tomorrow and do it again. You don’t need ethics or whatever if you do it for the love of the mountains.

  • Ben Clark

    There is no sense in arguing over fun. GS turns imply you are respecting yourself, hop turns-respecting the mountain.

    Somewhere in there it became about the experience you were bringing to the mountain rather than what the mountain brings to you-I think we can all respect the aim in seeking that unique journey to our own desires and the horizon that shapes the perspective we gain from it just as equally as we can respect the reality of time, place and getting it done. Thanks for sharing, but I would have skied it ;-)

  • Peter Arrowsmith

    I did find that this article touched a few nerves. In climbing I have always been very aware of the UK trad tradition, and have stuck to that for personal reasons all over the world. I only got into skiing 12 years ago and welcome discussion on what making a descent means to people… in their hearts.
    Personally, I would treasure the memories of an easy couloir which I made in my own evaluated ‘good style’ way over a steeper route which I survival skied. But this is a purely personal decision, sometimes I also get the urge to test myself and adapt to what the mountain offers.

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