During the early summer of 1999 in Chamonix, France, if news of a big snowboard descent hit town, no one would have expected it to come from a 20-year-old kid who had been riding for only four years. The town, arguably the extreme mountain sports capital of the world, is full of talented, ambitious, high-achieving alpinists, skiers, and mountain guides.
When Marco Siffredi, a gap-toothed, blond-haired local, rode the Nant Blanc on the Aiguille Verte in June 1999 (above), it had been skied exactly once before, in 1985 by Jean-Marc Boivin. Siffredi, who had grown up in Chamonix, had had his eye on the line for a while, 3,300 meters that averaged 55 degrees, with sections of 60 and 65 degrees. To call it “no-fall” terrain is a bit of an understatement – Chamonix writer Trey Cook wrote that at its most serious section, “a blown edge, a miscalculated turn, or a momentary lapse of concentration and the rider might as well have jumped from an airplane without a parachute.”
Siffredi had gone out with a friend and climbed the 3,000-meter mixed route on the northwest face, and his friend dropped down the Whymper Couloir on the back side while Siffredi waited for the snow on the Nant Blanc to soften, then he cruised it. Photos from RenÃ© Robert confirmed it, and Siffredi was big news.
Three years later, Siffredi was dead, his body lying somewhere high in the Hornbein Couloir on Mt. Everest. He was 23 years old.
After cutting his teeth during his late teens on the extreme terrain around his hometown, he knocked off one alpine testpiece after another before going higher, heading to Peru to attempt a snowboard descent of 19,790-foot Tocllaraju in 1998, and starting a tradition of taking a cross his friend’s mother had given him as a good luck charm.
In June 1999, he rode the Nant Blanc and that fall went to Nepal and ticked the first descent of Dorje Lhakpa, a 22,854-foot peak in the Himalaya. The next fall, he set his sights on 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest peak, a step toward the ultimate goal: a snowboard descent of Mt. Everest.
In spring 2001, Siffredi traveled to Everest to try to summit and then descend by the Hornbein Couloir, the steepest line on the mountain. When he arrived, the Hornbein Couloir didn’t have enough snow to ski, so Siffredi changed plans to ride the Norton Couloir. Dr. Stefan Gatt, an Austrian mountaineer and snowboarder (who had also ridden from the summit of Cho Oyu) summited the day before Siffredi, and snowboarded from the summit – but removed his board and downclimbed a steep 300-foot section. The next day, Siffredi summited and pulled off the first continuous snowboard descent of the world’s highest mountain.
In 2002, Siffredi headed back to Everest to take another shot at the Hornbein Couloir, this time in the fall, when there would be more snow cover in the couloir. On September 8, 2002, he summited with a team of Sherpas, exhausted from climbing through deep snow. The Sherpas turned around to descend, meeting Siffredi after a few turns and wishing him luck. Then he disappeared forever.
There are a few theories on what happened to Siffredi – Everest record keeper Elizabeth Hawley wrote in the 2003 American Alpine Journal that Siffredi’s track ended at 28,215 feet, where there were no crevasses for him to fall into. One theory is that, exhausted, he sat down, fell asleep, and never woke back up. Another is that he made it across the North Face, but was swept down by an avalanche.
At a memorial service a month later at the team’s base camp, Siffredi’s tracks in the Hornbein Couloir were still visible, almost 13,000 feet above.
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