As our team, representing the Smugglers’ Notch resort, lined up on the Italian side of the Matterhorn for the first stage of Le Raid Blanc, a pretty blonde woman stepped up and handed us RECCO strips. They looked like Band-Aids. “Pour le . . . uh, for ze shoes,” she said. We stuffed them in our pockets; we didn’t have time to stick them on our ski boots.
“Cinque, quatre, trois . . .” the starter counted down. “Deux, un, GO! L’équipe Américain Smoocher’s Nuts.”
We were still chuckling about the French pronunciation of Smugglers’ Notch when, skiing as fast as we dared, and following close on the tails of our guide, we dropped over the Breithorn onto the Gornergletcher with its arctic-blue crevasses and tumbling ice blocks the size of mobile homes.
It was then I remembered that the RECCO strips were body locators.
Ouray’s own Janelle Smiley (née Leeper) has been featured in these pages recently for her exploits on the world randonée, or ski mountaineering, racing circuit. Her sport and ours, 25 years ago, are worlds apart. It’s possible now to be a professional, sponsored rando skier. Her gear is hyper-specialized, feather-light carbon-fiber stuff. Her La Sportiva boots, for example, weigh about a pound each. The pair lists for $2,999. Same for her skis, bindings – everything. Light is nice when you’re racing up mountains and down.
In 1987, when we did the second edition of the Raid Blanc, it was a six-day combination mountaineering test and made-for-TV superstars competition across mountains, and borders, between Italy, Switzerland and France. (The superstars included World Cup racers Jean-Noel Augert and Patrick Russel, climber Catherine Destivelle, Formula 1 champions, and so on.) Our team was supplied with Rossignol 3Gs, 203 cm long, metal-sandwich giant slalom skis. We skied in our regular alpine boots (which weighed about four pounds each) and used a “binding insert” when we donned climbing skins and switched to free-heel, uphill mode.
As far as we knew, the only other race of this kind was one the Swiss Army invented to test its mountain troops, who scrambled non-stop, in eight hours or so, over the white-whale ridges from Verbier to Zermatt.
I was our team’s mandatory journalist. Each team of five had to have a journalist and a guide certified by the French mountain guides association. Our guide was James Merrel, a smoker of unfiltered Turkish cigarettes whose favorite saying was, “No problem.” As in: You see that bottomless crevasse over there? No problem!
The Vermonters who put the team together (the only American team among the 38 in the international field) had skied with James before, on off-piste vacations to his home mountains in the Haute Savoie. The next time they came back, James wrote to them, “I have a very great thing to propose you for these winter...It is one week ski, Le Raid Blanc...Do you want to do one American team with me? It is very expensive, but you can be sponsoring because it is a very big run in Europe.”
Smugglers did the sponsoring, and thanks to a few articles I’d written for Powder magazine, I was invited to do the journaling. By the time we made it down the glacier to Zermatt, two teams had already abandoned their journalists in order to go faster. It was a risk. You took a two-and-a-half-hour penalty for abandoning your journalist. But a number of teams, including the one featuring extreme skier Jean Marc Boivin, decided it was worth it; their journalists were too slow; they’d make up the time by charging, unencumbered, the remaining five-and-a-half days.
(Besides being a burden, journalists, I learned, especially sports journalists, were not particularly well thought of in France. Gulping water at lunch that first day, I asked a member of the Deux Alpes team how they had fared on the morning run. “Oh, OK,” he moaned. “But for ze fucking journalist.”)
I was not the slowest member of our team; I was the second slowest. Our fifth was a late substitute, a college friend of the Vermonters, a mining engineer from Reno without a lot of wild-snow experience and a shoulder that dislocated a little too easily. The European photographers loved him; he looked just like the Marlboro Man.
I had done my best to get ready for the Raid. I skied non-stops on Telluride’s tall, steep mountain. But at 38, I was the oldest of our group by five years, and the only one married and with kids. I had already begun to dial back my riskier exploits at home, a natural, perhaps even a hormonal response to progeny and responsibility.
So it was disconcerting to be thrust into the cavalier ethos of European competition. The French called the event “the Dakar of the Snow.” Which said a lot. The Raid’s creator, Thierry Sabine, had also founded the Paris-Dakar, in which drivers raced motorcycles and all-wheel-drive vehicles from Paris to Marseille and then across the Sahara, through Timbuktu, to Dakar, Senegal. People died every year on the sand. Thierry himself had been killed just the year before, in 1986, when his helicopter crashed into a dune.
To be continued....