You get the feeling Patrick Vallençant did not like to be told no. He may have even been a bit of a punk, but he was smart and leaned from his mistakes. His rewards were in accordance with how hard he pushed.
Vallençant was one of a handful of the men who defined extreme skiing in its infancy. Don’t mistake infancy for small. In some sports, the level of risk grows proportionately to time, equipment technology, and the wisdom of observed experience. Steep skiing didn’t evolve like that. The early men and women were hitting it hard. Some lines that were skied in the 1970s and 1980s have never been attempted again; they’re simply too big. What Val and his contemporaries did was open up minds to what is possible, if not necessarily recommended.
That’s also where I met my first snow, mysterious and from elsewhere, impalpable in its fragility.
Despite his family owning a small ski area outside of Lyon, France, Vallençant’s path from city boy to world-renowned ski mountaineer was not without trial. In fact, until his mid-20s, he seemed to be locked in a pattern of pushing back against authoritarian influences that didn’t believe in his skills as much as he did. He was born immediately after World War II, on June 9, 1946, into a strict upbringing. His emotional escape as a teen was to leave the ski area boundary and pretend he was navigating crevasse fields.
His first introduction to the big mountains came during his attendance at the École Militaire de Haute Montagne (High Mountain Military School), in Chamonix. He lasted two years before getting kicked out and going to jail for six months. The details of his exit from school and entrance to jail are fuzzy. Suffice to say his appetite to explore the mountains wasn’t dampened by the delay of military school and jail.
After a few years spent refining his skills as a ski instructor in Val D’Isere and Les Menuires, he enrolled at the École Nationale de Ski et Alpinisme (ENSA) – the French equivalent of an AMGA mountain guide school. Repeating the oft refrain from his early life, Vallençant’s instructors and fellow trainees mocked his urban childhood and didn’t think he could meet the stringent standards. Vallençant proved them wrong and earned his certification. His rock skills were not the strongest, but his skiing skills and tenacity carried him through.
While at ENSA (1970-1973), Vallençant was actively seeking first descents. His early years of ski mountaineering were marred by some impulsive decisions, which he later attributed to the “sins of youth.” When his ego was bruised in the course of any outing, he came away stronger, wiser, and less reactionary. In those three years, he claimed the following first descents: North Face of the Grande Casse, Couloir des Italiens, North Face of the Tour Ronde, North Face of the Courtes, Y Couloir on the Aiguille d’Argentière, and Couloir Whymper on the Aiguille Verte. His primary partners were his girlfriend (later wife) Marie-Jo and Anselme Baud.
In August 1973, Vallençant and Baud would lock down another major descent and lock in an ethos. For months, they had planned to climb the Couloir Couturier on the Aiguille Verte, then nab the first ski descent. Very near to the day they would make their attempt, Serge Cachat-Rosset was dropped on the summit by a helicopter and skied the five-hour trip down. Furious at Cachat-Rosset’s use of a helicopter to reach the top, the duo pushed hard to ascend by foot and descend by ski in just four hours. They didn’t reach the true summit, but the effort made waves in the mountaineering world and set Vallençant up with sponsors and speaking engagements that would finance his passions.
With his new, higher profile, his first big expedition was to rack up first descents in the Oisans massifs. Here in the Southern Alps of France, home of the famed l’Alpe d’Huez and La Grave, Vallençant logged five, massive first ski descents. One of his support crew on this expedition was a fellow 1973 graduate of ENSA, Jean-Marc Boivin. The two would meet again, in different countries, pursuing similar goals – not always amicably.
In 1978, Boivin and Vallençant found themselves in an international race to be the first to summit and ski Huascaran (6750m), in Peru. The race was only in the minds of these incredibly competitive athletes, who challenged “typical” mountaineering practices to be the first to the top. Vallençant and his partner summited first, with Boivin 30 minutes behind. They wore each other out in the process and still had a massive crevasse minefield and rotten snow bridges to navigate on the descent. They pushed so late into the night, they were forced to sleep out, without food, water, or sleeping bags, and return to camp the next day.
In the 1980s, Vallençant established the Stages Vallençant in Chamonix, to teach steep skiing, and he co-founded the technical apparel brand Degré 7. There’s no doubt that he remained competitive till the end, but his later years were marked by a quieter confidence in his skills and in his achievements. He died in a non-skiing climbing accident in 1989, at the age of 43, while abseiling from the top of La Beaume Rouge, in France. A broken carabiner was to blame.
Notable Ski Descents not listed above:
Oisans Massifs (1973)
North Couloir of the Coup de Sabre
Northwest Couloir of the Pic Sans Nom
North Couloir of the Col du Diable
Barre Noire in the Ecrins
Gravelotte of the Meije
Southwest and North faces of Huascaran
Southeast face of the Artesonraju
West Face of Yerupaja (consistent 65-degree pitch)
Photos: Wikimedia Commons