Sunday 23 September 2012

Patagonian Realizations - Skiing the Whillans Ramp on Poincenot

Skiing the Whillans ramp on Poincenot, Cerro Fitzroy massif, Argentina. Photo: Bjarne Sahlén

Last Wednesday Bjarne Salén and myself walked in towards the Fitzroy massif from El Chaltén. After about 5 hours we arrived at Laguna Los Tres and pitched our tent. From there we skinned up about 600 meters to get some good skiing and check the conditions. We found great snow conditions and skied down to our tent in the sunset.
The next day we woke up early and started skinning in the dark and about five hours later we arrived at the Whillans ramp on Poincenot. The weather was ok, but far from perfect with really hard winds, and clouds coming and going.
I changed to crampons and ice axes and started up the ramp in powder varied with breakable crust. It was steep from beginning to end and always slanting out towards the huge cliffs below. It was so steep and unstable ground that I didn’t feel like I could stop and relax so when I found a belay one forth up I clipped my self in and backed it up with another nut. In my mind I imagined a rappel there just as a back up on the way down.
Then I continued traversing to the left. At one point I was climbing on slabs with only 20 cm of snow on top. This was the scariest moment. But I came trough and the upper section eased of a tinny bit from extremely steep (for skiing) to just really steep. I continued up to the top of the field and then built a platform with my ice axe to put my skis on.
Bjarne had told me to talk to the camera and describe my feelings on the way up and down. I realized, that if you are able to talk to the camera, then it’s not that difficult. I only managed to take one photo and put on the Go Pro– then I set of.
It was a wonderful feeling mixed with plain fear. The skiing is always skiing, and not that complicated, but I was concerned about the traverse with the rocky slabs with far from perfect snow lower down.
When I got there I hit steps with my pole in front of me, held on with the ice axe on my left side and traversed slowly forward. It took time, but I never lost control. It was really steep. When I got down to the anchor I clipped myself in and by a reflex I started rappelling, but realizing this was much easier than what I had just skied I stopped after 15 meters and skied/side stepped the last part down, and then climbed back above the seracs and skied all the way down to Bjarne. 
For me, there is not even a pre made trail to follow when it comes to reacting on what I just did. I don’t know if I should feel pride, joy or shame. What happened was simply something that occurred and something I had to do in my inner world of adventures.
Skiing on the upper snowfield on the Whillans ramp

I don’t see the point in repeating something dangerous when you have already reaped the rewards, and I can’t see any more rewards coming out from this trail, so therefore I feel it’s highly unlikely I would do something like this again.
It’s arguable if skiing on this level is skiing anymore and as I sidestepped about half the run I wouldn’t call it very stylish. On the other hand, in my reality, in these conditions I would be extremely impressed if someone would ski the whole thing with “style”, and although surely possible it would be a game with very low odds of success trying to do turns where I could barely get my skis to stick while sidestepping.
For me this whole business comes down to two things: where does extreme skiing stand as a sport within the skiing game and how are we supposed to judge anything that is done in the mountains? 
I sometimes look with disgust at the subjectivity of my own sport. That is, of course, only when I lower my self to judge what others are doing in the mountains. For me the question how has always been more important than the question what. In other words, it has always been more important how a line has been skied than which line that was skied. Doing stylish turns was always more worthy than sidestepping the line. Down in the valley it can sound like two different persons skied a line when one did it with big turns in a fast time and the other sidestepped the whole thing in a day.
But when we are arguing about these things we have kind of lost the thin red line of purpose in the first place.  If we are thinking of these things, then there is a risk that we are playing this game for others and not for ourselves. Is it worth risking your life to make others think you are cool, a great skier, have courage, are a great alpinist or something else?
American freeskiing legend, Doug Coombs, used to state that: “The best skier is the one who have the most fun”!
I think he was on to something here, but I like to modify the statement to: “The best skiers are the ones following their own path”, or; “The best skiers are skiing with heart”.
For me, skiing and what we do in the mountains is beyond fun, it’s a way of living with all the up’s and down’s life includes. Sometimes I’m full of joy and sometimes I’m feeling down and sometimes I’m not feeling at all. Life is just what happens to be everyday, of course it’s the way I made it, and I’m a skier, so I go up there on the mountain and make my turns. It can be as simple as that. Skiing with heart, then, means that I’m truly up there on the peaks skiing because that’s what I happen to love to do, what comes out of the day comes out – let it be any possible feeling I could think of.
Skiing becomes the platform from which I live my life. Obviously one can change skiing to something else – like, surfing, yoga, climbing or what else?
Doing things with heart also means that you sometimes do things you can’t explain – Like skiing a really difficult line because you feel it will add something to your life.
I had been looking at skiing the ramp on Poincenot for years and at the same time I have, since I started skiing, been looking for a line that would demand the best out of me. You have to be very fortunate to find this right combination of variables coming together on one spot at one time and then happen to be ready to face the situation.
Skiiing the Whillans ramp on Poincenot

The mountain has to be formed in a perfect way making for difficult skiing, but easy enough to be possible to ski. The snow conditions have to be just right as well as the timing and the weather. If you happen to be on an expedition and you don’t live at this spot, then you have to be very lucky to just happen to be there when it all comes together.
You also have to be ready in your mind and be ready to face your inner demons and the consequences of your actions. This might be the hardest.
This whole thing was just something I had to go through to get past my folly of looking for limits. Blake said:
“Let the fool persist in his folly and he will become wise”.
I will by all means not pretend to be wise, but I have been living for skiing my whole life and I have always been looking for this border that I just come this far to find.
250 vertical meters of snow, ice and rock might seem insignificant, but like anything in life, if the timing is right it can also be magic because enchantments sees no limits.
For me this was magic and I got what I came for. I understand the different feelings people get from this but be aware: If you start looking down judging what others do, first look in to your own life and all your own little battles. We are all here to learn, and it might just not be so, that reality is built up exactly like you where thought in school. 

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Twitter: @ndreasfransson



  1. Going to this place & writing your thoughts helps all of us understand the desire and limits we all have, at some level, in our own selves.
    Thank for for slowing down and sharing your philosophy.. and wisdom

  2. amazing !! I could imagine being there with axes rather than poles !!
    the name of the route is Whillans after a british
    climber who did the first ascent.. it is a normal
    mistake to call it Williams..
    cheers ! Marcos Couch

  3. Thank you for the honesty in this post. You cut right through all the sponsored-athlete-radness that seems to permeate the sport of skiing right now. I especially appreciate this line: "If we are thinking of these things, then there is a risk that we are playing this game for others and not for ourselves. Is it worth risking your life to make others think you are cool, a great skier, have courage, are a great alpinist or something else?"
    The enduring quality of the skiers I most admire (whether world famous or local ski bums) is the love of their sport. To see someone play in a world that she or he loves, to do so with style and grace, and to also be open and gracious as to let it truly hit her or his heart makes my skin tingle. Your love of skiing brings out my own.

  4. Great big thanks for your words guys! Marcos, you are of course right with the name! Thanks!

  5. Your writing is excellent, it is so candid and even though I will never ski at this level it helps me reflect on what it means to pursue my own mountains. Well done, and stay safe out there- your perspective is rare and valuable.

  6. Had I only seen the pictures and not read what you wrote, I would have shrugged you off as another typical glory hound out in search of your 15 minutes of fame. Fortunately your words put a completely different perspective on what you did and bring it down to earth. Well written and honest. It's important to question our intentions when we do things, whether in the extreme situations you describe or in our otherwise mundane lives. I respect those that have chosen to follow their dreams for their own glory and satisfaction, not that of others. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Having seen that ramp in person I can't really say I understand the appeal of skiing it (not that I could pull that off, of course). I did truly enjoy reading your account of the experience, however. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so eloquently. Chalten is a special place in the special place that is South America.

    (I just now stumbled upon your blog, you seem to be a rare writing talent in the world of pro skiers. Please do keep on sharing your reflections.)