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The Covid-19 pandemic has undeniably marked the past few months of human life on earth, excluding no one. We have been sorely tested, some more than others, some directly affected, others merely challenged to be patient. We've had time and opportunity to reflect; perhaps we've changed.
When the situation improved and the lockdown eased, each of us returned to their own passions outdoors and - as far as possible - in the mountains.
In the Mont Blanc Massif this new-found freedom coincided with excellent snow conditions, allowing some of the great skiers of the SCARPA® team to tackle descents they'd long dreamed of, even though these were close to home. In Courmayeur, Denis Trento and Manfred Reichegger skied the Brenva Spur. Denis had attempted it a few days previously, but doubts about his physical fitness and motivation made the mountain and the night seem too immense and frightening. Sometimes all it takes is the right companion to completely change feelings and morale. So Manfred (a competitive skier and also a SCARPA® athlete), with his racing equipment more suited to ascents than descents and his unstoppable drive, his experience and his friendship, was the essential ingredient for a successful expedition. Meanwhile, in Chamonix, France, Vivian Bruchez and a tight-knit group of friends were leaving their tracks on the pure white of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, delightedly celebrating their return to the mountains. Listening to them speak, it sounds like they just went out for a breath of fresh air, a picnic. However, they completed a descent that belongs more to legend than history, without resorting to abseiling. A gift from the mountains to reward those who waited patiently, their passion intact.
We contacted Denis and Vivian to hear about their post-quarantine feelings and to hitch a ride on their skis
Hi guys, congratulations on your enthusiasm in attempting and completing these incredible routes that are so rarely skiable. How long have you been dreaming of these descents?
Denis: "80% of what I do in the mountains comes from what I can see from home, or from the training ascents I do on a daily basis. I'm fortunate enough to live right in front of Mont Blanc, and the Brenva Spur is one of the most obvious routes I see every day. The problem with the route is that it's in the right conditions late in the season and, when it is, the logistics of skiing it are too complicated. Over the years I've tried several times, but I've never succeeded, because of that. Unfortunately, during the lockdown there it was right before my eyes in great condition for 50 days straight: I couldn't put it off any longer!
The descent itself is about 700 metres, starting from a rocky spur at 4300 metres; the incline is more than 50 degrees. The whole descent is really exposed, and some sections are also in the fall area of seracs. Given the altitude, the time of year and the varying exposure, it's very hard to find decent conditions on the whole route; in fact we had to ski on hard snow in the highest section. But the most complicated part is getting there and back, particularly at this unusual time when the cable car's closed. To reach the spur we had to set out at 2 am from the valley bottom (at 1400 metres) and walk up to the Pavillon at 2100 metres. There we put on our skis and ascended the Toula glacier to 3300 metres. Then we crossed the Combe Maudite as far as a pass at 3700 metres, before descending the Brenva glacier. From there we climbed the spur using crampons, skied down and redid the whole route in reverse: a total of 3400 metres height difference and eight and a half hours on the mountain".
Vivian: "The north face of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey is 800 metres long with an incline of 50 degrees; you have to avoid sections of ice and enormous seracs... I've dreamed of skiing the route ever since I got into steep mountain skiing! It's a famous but wild peak, always visible from the Punta Helbronner Skyway station. You can keep a constant eye on the conditions....and above all, never stop thinking about it! For me, the story of the first descent by Anselme Baud and Patrick Vallençant was also a great source of inspiration. Following in their footsteps was simply a dream come true".
These descents were made when it was possible to go out and into the mountains after a historic lockdown. What was the experience like for you?
Denis: "To be honest, I've been lucky enough to have an extremely peaceful lockdown. I have three small children and a big garden to play in. So although there were ups and downs, the days passed fairly well. The really hard part was finding a meaning in what I do at a tragic time like this.
I actually found I couldn't really keep up either my motivation or my training. I started off well with hangboards and rollers, thinking it wouldn't be for long; but then when the lockdown continued I prioritised my family completely. So by the end of the lockdown I had zero motivation and very little training, which made it even more complicated to get back into the mountains".
Vivian: "I had the horrible feeling I'd lost my freedom. It was really difficult to stay at home looking out at the horrendous situation that was going on, while the snow gradually melted away. I took advantage of the situation to spend time with my family; I have two daughters, two and a half and six months old. My wife was happy to have me at home! I trained on a fixed bike in the garage, with the computer screen showing mountain videos on a loop. Dreaming, breathing exercises and working on new projects helped me to keep my motivation".
And now? What's in store for you?
Denis: "I won't have bad memories of the lockdown. But the constant bombardment of bad news, the fact of being shut in as the only solution to the world's problems, the criminalisation of outdoor activities, the financial and social hardship - all these highlighted the clear uselessness of what I've been doing all my life. Frankly, I couldn't find a single reason to get back into the mountains. But once again, the mountains sent me their message: face up to difficulty. Slowly and painfully I managed to drag myself to the summit of a mountain, where I once again saw things from the right viewpoint.
We can't give in to this situation. Even if the media only shows us the negative side, just by going back (carefully and with respect for the environment and for other people) to our passions, we can pick ourselves up first, and then society as a whole. And where better to maintain social distance than in the mountains?
Vivian: "I now feel far more aware of how lucky I am to be healthy and to have passions and big dreams, as well as living in a place like Chamonix. I try to live as much as possible in nature, and to be curious, observing and listening to the mountains every day".
Credits: Boris Langenstein, Giovanni Zaccaria