The Big Four: A ski mountaineering adventure in the Alps with Stian Hagen and Chris Davenport
In April 2008, Black Diamond athletes Chris Davenport and Stian Hagen cast off on an audacious adventure to climb and ski four of Europe’s most famous peaks: the Matterhorn, the Eiger, Mount Blanc and the Monte Rosa. Over 10 days the duo, accompanied by photographer Christian Pondella (as well as a host of filmmakers and photographers, both in the air and on the ground), pulled off the feat. Upon returning to the States, Davenport sent us the following email and images from the trip.
In the fall of 2007 I was searching for a project to challenge myself and my desires to ski bigger and more challenging mountains. After completing my "Ski the 14ers" project and then going on to ski the Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, and many lines on east and north faces of the matterhorn.Denali in the spring of 2007, I naturally turned my attention to the Alps—the birthplace of skiing and alpinism. I immediately came up with four objectives that I thought would challenge my skiing and organizational skills, while at the same time being very interesting and inspiring to the general public when presented in film and photo form. The Matterhorn, the Eiger, Mount Blanc, and the Monte Rosa, the most iconic mountains in the Alps, served as the platform to take my ski mountaineering experience to the cradle of ski mountaineering in the spring of 2008.
With my old friend and skiing partner, Stian Hagen of Oslo, Norway (but living in Chamonix), I planned the project. Photographer Christian Pondella signed on to join us on the climbs and ski descents. Writer and friend Jack Shaw would document the trip for Powder Magazine and several European magazines. Photographer Peter Mathis would shoot the project for German magazine Stern as well as Kastle skis and others. Matchstick Productions, whom I have worked with for over a decade, would produce a film segment for their new movie, "Claim" as well as a television show about the project.
I flew to the Alps on April 26th full of anticipation but also a bit of anxiety, for these peaks would certainly not fall to ski descents without a challenge, be it terrain, weather, or simply logistics. Christian and I arrived in Chamonix and hooked up with Stian for a few days of "warm up" runs in the high peaks above Cham before embarking on our first objective: the East Face of the Matterhorn. Normally a face like this is only skiable maybe a few days each year, and some years not at all. sunrise on the matterhornTiming is everything in the big mountains, and I'd be dishonest if I didn't say that I have had incredible luck the last few years on all of my projects. So we arrived at the base of the Matterhorn with high expectations but tons of nervous energy. On the morning of the climb the weather looked to be perfect and we began our climb of the face full of anticipation. The 800-meter climb went very smoothly and in three hours we were at the top of the skiable terrain. The climb had been relatively easy and fun, not difficult or scary. At the top of the face, where the snow steepens towards a vertical summit block, we put on our skis and called in the film crew. The logistics on this project often presented bigger challenges than the mountains themselves, and once our team of seven was in position, we began our descent. The East Face caught the sun first thing in the morning and by 9:30 a.m. conditions were ideal for big, fast turns and confident skiing. At times Stian and I skied one by one and at times we skied together, enjoying the opportunity to follow each other down one of the world's most famous lines. The film crew captured images from all angles, the base, the helicopter and the Hornli Ridge to skier's left. After no more than five minutes of very steep but incredibly fun steep skiing we were at the bottom and on the glacier, beaming with broad smiles and celebrating a wonderful and safe descent!
The following peaks would repeat a very similar story. The West Face of the Eiger, the North Face of Mount Blanc to the Northeast Ridge of the Dome du Gouter, and the finally the famous Marinelli Couloir on the Monte Rosa, the longest vertical ski run in the Alps, all fell to detailed planning, excellent execution of complicated logistics, and a super motivated team of skiers. While the stian hagen half way up the eiger west face.Matterhorn was our first and perhaps the steepest, each peak provided it's own set of challenges from long and arduous climbs to changeable ski conditions to weather issues. For our team to complete safe ski descents of all of the objectives of the project in a 10-day period is truly remarkable, and is most likely a first for this group of peaks.
The goal of the project was not to ski the most difficult lines in the Alps or first descents, but was to bring the most classic and famous peaks of the range to the broader skiing audience in the form of film and photos, thus raising the bar, opening peoples eyes and progressing ski alpinism as my previous projects certainly have. This project was deeply personal for Stian, Christian and myself, but we also took it to another level by working hard to document the project in a way that would allow the consumer to see possibilities in skiing that they may not have recognized before.
So with this project I continue my pursuit of ski descents on the world's most renowned mountains. I'm already thinking about 2009 and what opportunities might present themselves for me. I'm a firm believer in not forcing an objective, but waiting for it to come to me in the form of a dream or idea that over time develops into a well planned-out goal. For as the famous French climber Gaston Rebuffat once said, "A goal without a plan is just a wish!"