For three years, Bruno Gouvy was the world’s fastest monoskier. Rocking a one-piece suit-for fashion, not irony-he reached 110 miles per hour on a monoski. It was 1983 when he set the record, and it stood until 1986.
That accomplishment, though merely a blip on his illustrious C.V., tells you a lot about Gouvy. He was all in for a good time, so long as that good time was defined by significant effort, some risk, and a big thrill. Gouvy was a pioneer in the multi-sport approach to adventure. Long before JT Holmes and Shane McConkey mixed skiing, BASE jumping, and wingsuit flying, Gouvy was using the tools available in his era to maximize the fun and challenge of descending from the most intense peaks in the Alps.
Monoski, he did. But Gouvy was known more as an extreme snowboarder, mountaineer, windsurfer, and paraglider. From an interview published in Ski (January 1989), he said, “I’m not strictly a climber, a snowboarder, a skydiver or a [windsurfer]. I’m happy to play whatever the conditions are right for.”
Gouvy was a contemporary of Jean-Marc Boivin, Patrick Vallencant, and other ski mountaineering luminaries from the 1980s golden age of Chamonix steep skiing. The crew, linked through a love of the mountains more than friendship, had a healthy competition among its ranks. That competition to go big and to rack up firsts helped to establish the outer parameters of would become the freeride movement.
Gouvy was born in 1962 to parents who loved to sail. He translated this love of the sea into windsurfing, going so far as to cross the Mediterranean by board. This may have provided an inkling into his future of pushing the limit. “After it’s over,” he told Ski Magazine, “I want it again and again. But it’s not just the risk and the thrill that are satisfying. It’s the effort. I don’t like things too easy.”
And so he set big, uncompromising goals. In 1986, he parachuted out of a plane to land on the Petite Aiguille de Dru. After rappelling down two-thirds of the way, he snowboarded down the mid-central, 50-degree, hanging glacier. When the glacier petered out to a cliff drop, Gouvy pulled a paraglider out of his Felix the Cat-style bag of tricks and flew the rest of the way into town. Being French, we can only imagine that he busted out a fine bottle of wine and a cigarette from that same enormous backpack to top off the day.
In 1988, he climbed the Eiger, bivouacked near the summit, and snowboarded down to meet a helicopter at the base. He hitched two rides that day: one to the top of the Matterhorn (14,685 feet) and the second to the top of the south face of Les Grands Jorasses (13,806 feet). By nightfall, he clocked in his third massive descent in a single day. He nearly lost a couple of fingers to frostbite in the attempt, but he fought with doctors to hold out on the imminent amputations. Who’s to say if the doctor’s prognosis was wrong or Gouvy’s will triumphed over medicine? Either way, Gouvy sidestepped gangrene from the frostbite and kept all of his fingers intact.
Not much is written about his day-to-day existence and lesser known exploits around Chamonix. When he made the news, it was for going big. He held a sky-diving freefall record for a spell. And, of course, there was his riding. Gouvy went as big on a snowboard as his contemporaries went on skis, which was unheard of at the time. He was part of a group to make the first snowboard descent of Mont Blanc and the first boarder to descend from above the 8,000-meter mark in the Himalaya. As skiers were perfecting their high-angle hop turns, Gouvy did the same on a snowboard-except that he had an ice axe in each hand as backup.
Bruno Gouvy died in 1990, at 27 years old, on the Aiguille Verte of Mont Blanc. He had been delivered by helicopter to the top and started his descent with an uncontrolled, 3,000-foot skid. He was unable to recover and fell into a crevasse.
Gouvy didn’t become the household name that the rest of his Chamonix colleagues did, which is too bad considering his impressive legacy. He may have had a competitive streak, and by some accounts, he struggled with false modesty. But you don’t attempt the athletic feats Gouvy was going after without a fair dose of confidence. Plus, everyone knew one thing: Gouvy had style-and we’re not talking about his propensity for one-pieces. Hucking yourself down a 50-degree pitch didn’t impress the elite of Chamonix; descending with style, skill, ambition did.
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