Chasing the Spirit
The spirit of Trevor Petersen guides the making of a movie
By Peter Chrzanowski
The last time I had skied in France was back in 1976. To this day I have fond memories of being an 18 year old, away from home for the first time, attending the University of Grenoble. It was here that I first heard the word "extreme" and its uncanny application to the sport of skiing.
That was when Sylvain Saudan had completed his several spectacular first ski descents, including the Eiger and several routes in the Chamonix area — most were known previously only for their ice climbing potential. Saudan had shocked the climbing world with his descents, and I was hooked on that E-word.
Other notable extreme skiers at that time included Patrick Vallencant and Jean Marc Boivin, who basically cloned the "E" and popularized it, thus creating the hype around the term extreme skiing. A few years later I keenly followed their progress, which took me, an inexperienced but eager 21 year old, to the Peruvian Andes where I actually met up with both Jean Marc and Patrick on Peru’s tallest peak, Huascaran. Upon arrival in Whistler in 1979 I tried hard to emulate these French heroes of mine. By 1983 I had formed a film company, Extreme Explorations.
What a long strange trip it’s been. But enough history.
Currently, I find myself driven by still another film project — I think this one is No. 12. This one is very special as it evolved originally around the lifestyle of three friends and rather renegade ski bums: Troy Jungen, Ptor Spricenieks and Graydon Card. The first two had accomplished an incredible feat by skiing the north face of Mount Robson, a bone-chilling descent which had defeated various attempts, including five separate tries by me.
As to Grady, well, Grady just shreds, lives to shred and climb and shred again. His dreadlocks and alternative attitude make him an incredibly colourful character that filmmakers like myself tend to instinctively prey on.
It was a tragedy which changed my whole perspective and focus of the film. That incident was the death of Trevor Petersen, on Feb. 26, 1996 in an avalanche which swept down the Couloir Cosmic, situated off the Aguille du Midi in Chamonix.
I knew Trevor well from my earlier years at Whistler. Trev, Steve Smaridge and I carried out a few expeditions as well as film projects, including ski descents off Mount Waddington and Mount Robson. Steve perished in a kayaking accident nearly three years ago. Stevie’s death was perhaps the hardest blow for me to take as he probably was the first of my closer friends to suddenly pass away. I thought, in a way, that perhaps his death would acclimatize or harden me for the news of Trevor’s passing. Instead, I began to feel the loss of Trevor even more intensely as time passed; just the fact that he was not there anymore — not there to exert that incredible energy which radiated from someone so passionate about ski mountaineering.
It seemed so awkward to digest his loss. Hundreds of people turned out for his memorial service in the pouring rain. I had attended funerals previously, but few people touched so many as Trevor’s spirit did on that gloomy, rainy day on the Cheakamus River in Whistler. It was an incredibly touching moment to see his wife and partner, Tanya Reck, and their two young children amongst all those flowers as the rainwater mixed with the tears flowing down their cheeks.
Trevor and I grew apart since our last film together, Reel Radical. I buried myself deeper with more documentary-style projects and mounds of paperwork and distribution deals. I felt more like the weekend warrior than the activist in the sport while Trevor, well, he kept perfecting his mountaineering skills, climbing and skiing dozens of peaks. When we did meet we often talked of skiing and filming "the real shit," the huge steep faces where Trevor had practised his art.
By the second week of March, just a few days after the services for Trev, I was on a plane for Geneva, still in a daze over his death. Originally I intended to follow Troy and Grady’s escapades for a film then dubbed Reel Radical II. It was to be a sequel to a menagerie of adventure documentaries, each in a way a progression from one mountain escapade to the next. But I knew then that Trevor’s spirit had to somehow be the driving force behind the film. He, after all, was an inspiration to so many, including Troy, Ptor and Grady. They had always admired his knowledge of the backcountry and took advice from him just prior to their descent of Robson. Troy was also the last person to share a few moments with Trevor before he left on that last tram ride up the Aguille.
My first stop was Chamonix, where I was to judge the European Extreme Skiing Championships. I had judged five of these events in Valdez, Alaska but to many — including Trevor — the mountains and extreme skiing were not to be judged. I felt in a way I was scorning the purity of the sport so shortly after the passing of a friend.
But then I found myself sitting, chatting and judging with Anselme Baud, whom I had met the year before at a similar event in Crested Butte, Colo. Anselme is a mountaineering legend, a fully certified French mountain guide and also Patrick Vallencant’s original climbing and skiing partner. Mild mannered Anselme had seen many friends perish in the Alps. Somehow he installed a real air of confidence in me, that this event would adhere to the rules and ethics of true mountaineering conduct, rather than some skiing circus created for commercial or corporate greed.
From this point on the magic began to unveil itself. Skiing in the contest were Shane McKonkey and Jan Andre. As it turned out, Jan was the son of another well-known guide, Dominique Andre, with whom I skied Peru’s Huascaran in 1978. Now there was a weird twist of events. I felt things had taken me full circle in the company of revered ski alpinists.
The town of Chamonix, as Whistler had been, was in shock following Trevor’s death. Everyone shared a deep sense of loss and respect for the energetic, pony-tailed Trev. Troy, too, was quiet and distant, occasionally recounting the good times the two had shared.
As I had few resources and wasn’t even wielding a camera of my own, I had to rely on local and visiting filmmakers while in France. Luck, or the magic, started when I met up with Jens Hoffmann, a filmmaker from Munich who was there with a camera crew ready to capture footage for a series of shows highlighting the big "E" contest. Eventually I offered Jens some of my own North American "E" footage for his shows and in return we filmed some incredible moments, including an interview with Troy in one of the few remaining squatter’s shacks somewhere above the town of Cham.
We also met and interviewed two young mountaineers, Pete and Andres, who were the first to come across Trevor’s body, two days after his death.
Trevor had grown to despise the E-word and its over-commercialized links to the sport of mountaineering. It seemed bizarre that the word which he had grown to hate had, at the same time, been his livelihood.
Troy had plans for us to leave Chamonix immediately after the contest. He had organized a converted motorhome, powered by diesel and driven by Dutchie Pete, a veteran Cham ski bum of 12 years. Our destination was the infamous Valley X, La Grave — the nouveau capital of ski bumism.
Accompanying us was Lorenzo Fumo, a snowboarding and mountaineering fanatic whose age I could never guess. He was tanned and fit, looking maybe in his late 30s, but some had him pegged a decade older. Lorenzo was based out of Denmark and drove a Toyota Landcruiser with Montana plates.
Just for the heck of it, we decided to try our luck at the Rossignol factory. Here the magic seemed to kick in again, as we stumbled on to the big cheese of Rossi himself. We sent a few faxes and later that week Dutchie Pete made a run back down from La Grave to deliver us with five spanking new pairs of Vipers. Team Dirt was sponsored by Rossignol for le movie, but of course.
"Aaaah, c’est la vie en France," we smiled on the twisting road from Grenoble towards the mystical village of La Grave. La Grave did not exist until 1977 when a gondola was erected, for sightseeing purposes, that rose 7,000 vertical feet. Then some wild French entrepreneurs decided to put in two T-bars up top on the glacier. It didn’t matter that the terrain accessed not only glaciers but hanging glaciers a snowball’s throw away. Hanging glaciers are heavily seraced and crevassed monstrosities usually with only one way in and one way out — if the snow bridges are intact, otherwise you’re stuck on a 300-foot ice wall with no place to go.
Getting off the gondola at La Grave one had a choice of only two relatively sane runs to the bottom, if you could find them. There are few signs at La Grave. There is no grooming and no patrol. A comment is scribbled every morning on a bulletin board as to the immediate avalanche danger.
Naturally then, in a very twisted way, La Grave has become home to hordes of mountaineer-minded ski bums. The gondolas, actually a string of five in a row, access terrain that leads to France’s biggest national park, Parc National Des Ecrins.
Trevor was in La Grave before he went to Chamonix. I love the place, but it scared me good on several occasions.
We shacked up for 10 days with Grady, who lives in another village above La Grave. All the resident ski bums seemed angry, even hostile, toward newcomers. Troy told me everyone was pissed about an article in Outside Magazine.
"Now every damn yuppie wants to come here," commented one local.
"Yeah, nobody skis with strangers anymore," Troy added. "All the best lines get chewed up too quick if you show foreigners where to go."
Trevor’s spirit is definitely here, I thought.
One day we were talked into taking Jens, a Dane, on a wicked run. It required a 10-minute hike, then an adrenaline side-slip through a notch in the rocks. Below that there was hundreds of feet of exposed ice, then a rock cliff.
I had borrowed Jens’s camera and felt obliged to let him come along. Quickly I got so absorbed scaring myself and filming Troy that I lost sight of Jens. Troy skied a 50-degree face then found a snowbridge over a massive bergshrund at the bottom. We continued filming down the mountain, skirting huge crevasses on the lower glacier, and then realized we were missing Jens.
Eventually he found us, but was white as a ghost. He had missed a turn, fallen in a tricky spot and wound up hanging helpless at the edge of a crevasse for more than 20 minutes.
"I could not move," he recounted. "I just laid there screaming for help. Finally, two Swedes came by. They did not want to help at first — it was too dangerous. But I begged and they threw down a rope. It caught on my ski and they pulled me up."
Just another day at La Grave.
I also met Jean Gabriel Leynaud at La Grave, an award-winning documentary filmmaker from Paris, who was there to film a chronology for French TV’s Canal about three ski/snowboard bums. We became friends and he, too, offered me footage for my project — the magic continued.
"Not bad for a guy who came without a camera," I said to myself.
Unfortunately all things must come to an end. We departed with Dutchie Pete for Chamonix. There I met up with Lars Pyk, a fine Swedish filmmaker, and gave him some stock to do more work with Troy. I spent my last days getting more interviews with Anselme Baud and stumbled on to Vallencant’s son Yannick, who was studying journalism in Paris. Trevor always admired Anselme and Patrick. He should like these interviews...