Photography by Rene Robert and JM Portes
[This feature was originally published in Volume 19 of TransWorld SNOWboarding, February, 2006. Subscribe to the World’s No 1 Snowboarding Magazine right here]
A rider’s quest for snowboarding’s Holy Grail—Everest’s Hornbein Couloir.
By Trey Cook
If you’re going to make a name for yourself as a big-mountain rider, there could be few better places to begin your journey than Chamonix, France. Nestled in a valley 3,810 meters below the highest summit in Western Europe, Mont Blanc, Chamonix is known as the birthplace of Alpinism. It also developed a name for itself as one of the early cradles of skiing when it hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Combine these two pursuits and you’re sure to find a crew of nutcases who insist on skiing faster and steeper than whatever mentalists came before them. And it’s also not too hard to imagine that wherever world-class Alpinists and world-class skiers congregate, over the course of a cold, dark winter, the two are inevitably bound to congregate and procreate. And every so often the gentle people of the valley are blessed with a child who just happens to be dialed straight into Gnarl Factor 11.
Philippe and Michelle Siffredi celebrated the birth of their fourth child, Marco, on the 22nd of May 1979. And it was during Marco’s early childhood that the mountains in his backyard developed their reputation as a hotbed of extreme skiing-not the X Games type of extreme, but O.G. extreme skiing: if you fall, you die.
As a kid in Chamonix, Marco didn’t need to look to comic books or movies for heroes when local skiers like the emblematic Jean-Marc Boivin were already larger than life with their outrageous first descents of impossibly steep lines. One of the first to make the same kind of impact on a snowboard was the legendary Bruno Gouvy who became famous in 1986 for parachuting from a helicopter onto the fin-like summit of a 1,000-meter, near-vertical tower called the Petit Dru. He then rappelled approximately two-thirds of the way down the face, where he strapped in and made turns down a 250-meter, 50-degree, hanging glacier, below which was nothing but 500 meters of crisp Alpine air. He finished the day’s activities by parapenting from the bottom of the snowpatch back to Chamonix.
When Gouvy died on the Aiguille Verte in 1990, two young Chamonix mountain guides soon became the heirs apparent to the extreme snowboarding crown. Jerome Ruby and Dede Rhem scored first descents of some of the sickest lines in the valley, including the coveted first descent, ski or snowboard, of the North Face of the Aiguille du Triolet.
Marco, inspired by these feats, soon began ticking some of the valley’s steeper routes. In May of 1996, only a year after learning to ride, Marco knocked off one of the valley’s test pieces: the Mallory on the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, a 1,000-meter, wildly exposed rock garden with passages close to 55 degrees. To end the season, he stuck the first snowboard descent of the Chardonnet (sustained 55 degrees) with his friend Philippe Forte, who would later die in an avalanche on Chamonix’s Grands Montets ski area.
Big Peaks, Massive Cojones
Marco went from strength to strength, racking up more first descents in the valley before extending his horizons to bigger peaks. Before he left for Peru’s Tocllaraju (6,032 m) during Fall 1998 with Philippe Forte and photographer Rene Robert, a friend’s mother gave him a cross pendant. The team successfully summited and descended the peak, and from that point on, the cross became a good-luck charm that accompanied Marco on all his future attempts.
Back in Chamonix in June of 1999, he snaked the first snowboard descent and second-ever descent of the highly coveted Nant Blanc on the Aiguille Verte. The Nant Blanc is a 1,000-meter line averaging 55 degrees with sections of 60 degrees. It had never been repeated following Jean-Marc Boivin’s epic ski descent in 1989. Good conditions on lines like that are rare, and it was certainly one of the cherries that many of the hard guys in the valley talked about picking, but very few of them were actually capable of doing so. Rene Robert’s photos of the descent are awe-inspiring, and for those few who still thought of Marco as just another snowboard punk, the descent solidified his place among the world’s best extreme skiers/snowboarders.
Marco followed the Nant Blanc performance by going higher. In the fall of that same year, he added the first descent of Dorje Lhakpa (6,988 meters) in Nepal to his resume. From the summit, he had a clear view of two of the world’s highest peaks-Shishapangma and Mount Everest. The seed was planted, and on his return to Chamonix, Marco contacted the best in the business, Russell Brice of Himalayan Expeditions, a commercial guiding operation specializing in fully equipped expeditions to 8,000-meter peaks. Brice wisely advised the young rider to try his hand at other 8,000-meter peaks (eight of the world’s fourteen are in Nepal) before attempting Everest to see if his body could even adapt to the extreme altitude, and the two began making plans for another Himalayan giant, Cho Oyu. But first, Marco returned to South America in June 2000 to summit Huayna Potosi, a 6,088-meter summit in Bolivia. During that fall, Marco summited and rode the sixth-highest peak on Earth, 8,201-meter Cho Oyu. High on these successes, Marco was ready for Everest.
Mt Everest – Part 1
In spring of 2001, Marco left with Himalayan Expeditions for Everest. A few days ahead of him was Dr. Stefan Gatt from Austria, an experienced rider/Alpinist with his own successful snowboard descent of Cho Oyu. Although Gatt chose to climb without the assistance of Sherpas or supplemental oxygen (making the outrageous attempt infinitely more difficult), the two riders shared the same goal, and it would be a race to see who would become the first person to score a snowboard descent of Everest.
Marco’s hope was to summit and descend by the Hornbein Couloir, but when he got to the mountain, there was hardly any snow on the windswept summit. By leaving in spring, he had a better chance of summiting due to the lighter snow conditions, but those same conditions made it impossible for him to realize his original plan. As the climbers moved up the mountain, enough snow accumulated to enable the descent via plan B, the Norton Couloir.
Marco summited on May 23, the day after his 22nd birthday. He dropped in and started making turns past the long line of exhausted climbers. Not far from the summit his binding broke in the extreme high-altitude cold. Luckily, one of the Sherpas was able to fix it with bailing wire, and Marco entered the couloir, shredding 1,800 meters on slopes of 40 to 45 degrees. He stopped at the North Col to rest for an hour before finishing off the last 1,000 meters and arrived at Advanced Base Camp less than four hours after leaving the summit.
Back at Base Camp, the team was already on the satellite phone, and it was only a matter of minutes before the amazing news spread to every corner of the snowboarding universe. Although Gatt had summited less than 24 hours ahead of Marco, he had taken his board off and down-climbed past 100 meters of the steepest terrain. Because he rode all the way from the summit back to Advanced Base Camp, Marco’s historic descent was recorded as the first continuous snowboard descent of the world’s highest mountain.
Never Say “Last Run”
Shishpangma, another giant of the Himalayas, was the next stop along Marco’s road to the Hornbein Couloir—the true North Face of Everest and his ultimate goal. He summited Shishpangma—the second highest peak in the world—during the fall of 2001 without his snowbaord (because of high winds).
Marco and his Sherpa friend Phurba, along with Russell Brice and Loppasang Temba Sherpa spent the following summer in Chamonix. It was during this time that the plan for a second Everest attemp was drawn up. The dangers, the logistics, and the funding could have delayed and deterred any team, but Marco would not be held back.