Part II: BD Employee Evan Bouchier reports on prototype ski testing in Chamonix
Black Diamond employee Evan Bouchier is one of our engineers hard at work on new ski development projects, and fortunately for Evan, 'hard at work' often means testing prototype skis in some truly epic locations. After his last mission to the Pacific Northwest (check out Part I here), Evan made a stop in our Zhuhai, China production facility before jetting for some pow skiing in the Alps. Below are Evan's report and photos from his most recent testing trip to Chamonix, France along with a rad video of him speedflying from the Aguille du Midi.
Since posting from the Pacific Northwest earlier this spring, I spent a month in Zhuhai, China working to develop BD's new ski production facility. While the challenges of a "ground-up" development operation such as this are often overwhelming, it's empowering to have a blank slate and know that all focus is on creating something on the cutting edge; a facility that will enable faster design evolution, with a tighter feedback loop, among other benefits.
When the month was up I flew home to North America, just in time to blast off to Montana with my girlfriend and our dog to catch a ski wedding of epic proportions at the old stomping grounds of Bridger Bowl. Then we busted a U-turn, made the haul back home to Oregon, and I had just enough time to pack a bag and then catch a flight to Europe. No rest for the weary—time to go skiing in the Alps!
I crashed into Chamonix with a big bag full of gear and very little plan. Jon Griffith graciously offered me his couch, and with huge appreciation I tucked myself in to the corner of his small apartment. The ski world may not be familiar with Jon Griffith, but alpinists around the globe have come to recognize him as one of today's premier alpine climbers and photographers. He's known for being one of the few alpinist photogs strong enough to haul the additional load of full photographic equipment high into exposed and committed alpine environments. When I arrived, he had recently finished shooting the images for BD's 2012 Alpinism Digital Catalog, which is a digital evolution of BD (and Chouinard's) iconic catalog publications.
With a bit of guidance from Jon and his roomates, I began to explore the Chamonix valley. The magnitude of the peaks and the incredible access via the network of trams, gondolas and telepheriques was overwhelming, and it took some time to wrap my tired mind around the possibilities of the place. As it turned out, the incredible winter in the Alps had turned off about 3 weeks prior (and the snow had moved to the thirsty Rockies just as I left...) so what snow remained was going through a heavy diurnal freeze/thaw cycle. The resulting ski conditions were slide-for-life-ice in the big terrain, hammered bumps in much of the lower freeride terrain, and a relatively small softening window each day before turning from ice to soup.
As my tendency is to gravitate to big terrain, I found that I felt much safer skiing with my speedwing and speedriding; and therefore much of my descent was a combination of skiing and flying. This results in incredible access to some of the most radical terrain imaginable, and I was able to stack laps off the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, touch down and carve through the bowls at Brevant, and buzz seracs while flying laps down to the Argentierre glacier at Grandes Montets. When a storm did finally come, I unfolded my Compactor Z-poles, put away my wing, and milked the last drops out of the powder days, following locals and making new friends skiing in this freeride and ski-mountaineering mecca.
As a lifelong skier for whom skiing has been a defining factor of my existence, it was an eye-opening experience to spend time in the land of origination of modern ski culture, heritage, and design. From the masterpieces of engineering accomplished in the tramways spanning to the summits of 'insurmountable' peaks, to the cutting edge of ski equipment design, Chamonix is a breeding ground and a testing ground for everything skiing (as well as climbing). As an engineer currently involved in ski design and production it was particularly interesting, and I took every opportunity to absorb the ski concepts and designs and their associated user groups. For example, while a skier from the southern Rockies such as myself may opt for something as big and powerful as Megawatts for everyday skiing, the largest skis chosen by the majority of the Chamonairds were significantly smaller and better suited to steep, often firm conditions. The Scandanavians tend to have a preference for large skis similar to North Americans, whereas through the tunnel in Italy on a sunny day almost everything I saw was of the radical sidecut, carving ski variety.
A fun experience on one of my last days in Chamonix was to come across cinematographer Seb Montaz and his crew, filming on a high-line for a Brazilian TV company. I watched in awe as they walked the line in the gusty winds, and captured as many of my own images of the spectacle as possible. Later on, I chased Seb for a lap down Brevant on my wing.
My time in Chamonix finished with a couple of calm, beautiful days to session the Aiguille du Midi, just as the snow was melting from the run-out and it could no longer be skied back to the tram. I have since vacated Jon's couch and headed down south to stay with an old kayaking buddy near La Grave. Stay tuned for an update from the second half of my trip around La Grave and then heading north to the Swiss Alps to finish in the Jungfrau region.