Words: Hans Ludwig
[Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of the interview with Powder Senior Correspondent Hans Ludwig and Glen Plake that appeared in the December 2009 issue.]
Hans Ludwig: You’ve been splitting your time between Cham and the secret hideout in Nevada for the last few years–what is it about Chamonix that makes it the best spot for the ski chalet?
Glen Plake: Well, I just like Chamonix because of the consistency, like why I like Mammoth—there’s always good weather, typically good conditions, and there’s elevation there, so it’s easy to get snow. That’s the technical side of it, and then there’s the other benefits—the history of Chamonix, the culture of Chamonix… it’s a place where I went when I was real young and it left an impact on me. And it’s almost… civilized. It’s not a little ski town; it’s a city. There’s no off-season. Chamonix is never closed. You go to other places out of ski season, Tignes or something, it’s dead. In Cham, something’s always going on. That’s why you can live in Chamonix, and not La Grave. What would you be doing in La Grave right now?
So do you have a tick list of stuff there you really want to get done, or do you just take what the conditions give you?
There’s so much to do there, it can affect you two ways: It can drive you crazy because there’s so much to do, or it can calm you, like, “There’s so much to do and I’ll take what I can get and it’ll be great,” and I think I’m probably along those lines. I’m not real pushy on it… there’s a lot of people out there now too, so nothing is really secret.
Cham skiers like Andreas Fransson, Tobias Granath, Nate Wallace, Thor Husted etc. have been doing some pretty impressive skiing. Pierre Tardivel is still getting after it, you and Nate both mentioned an American guy named David who had a productive winter…should the skiers in Cham be getting more attention? Should we be covering that stuff more? I mean, they’re not really seeking the attention, but if this was surfing those guys are the heavy North Shore locals paddling out at Waimea, right?
Well, that’s what they are. It is gnarly stuff. And Dave Rothenberg did have an amazing year. I think that the North Shore was surfed 30 years ago, and it’s still appreciated. The sport hasn’t changed, the routes haven’t changed. We have different gear and a little more knowledge, but I think it should still be talked about. It’s amazing how “normal”, let’s say, that it’s become. I mean, Dave, and Andreas, and Nate, they were skiing things on a daily basis. And it’s not the same as it was 20 years ago—they weren’t doing that stuff on a daily basis. It was two, three, four projects a year.
In June, you, Nathan, and Remy Lecluse skied the Peuterey Ridge, a super proud and coveted line that had been skied just twice since Vallencant and Baud dropped it in 1977. That’s a huge jump from the skiing we all saw in Blizzard of Aahhh’s, even a huge step from the lines that you and Darren Johnson were doing here in the Sierra in the ‘90s. When you were in Cham in the late ‘80s, did you ever see yourself doing something like that?
Yeah, absolutely. I was there. I watched Tardivel ski the Jager, and I was like, “Oooooh. I want to do that someday.” And you gotta remember, I skied Grandes Montets with Vallencant… we’d ride the trams, say hello, and laugh; and Jean-Marc Boivin was still alive, he’d just done the Nant Blanc, so I was there during a time of influence. I was left standing there, going “So I’m this so-called extreme skier… well, I got some work to do.” And so I went down that path. And I said in Powder Magazine at some point that I wouldn’t be an extreme skier for at least another ten years. (laughs)
You guys always wanted to qualify it when people called you extreme skiers back in the day. You were very precise about how what you were doing was something else. But now, you’re actually doing stuff at that level.
I have been for quite a few years, I feel very confident with that stuff. The label “extreme skier”, I’m not afraid of it at all.
It’s applicable now.
And I don’t say I’m a big-mountain skier, or a freeride skier, but I am comfortable saying that I’ve done quite a lot of extreme skiing, actually. Is there a qualifying, a pass, who knows? So now that brings up, is some powder line in Alaska extreme skiing? Not sure.
Most sports accomplishments are quickly eclipsed, but thirty years later those classic big lines put up by Vallencant etc still hold their place as great challenges. Statistically it’s been easier to win the Hahnenkamm than to ski the Peuterey. Do you think today’s young pros will see those lines the same way in another ten years?
They are a great challenge, for sure. I hope people still see them that way. I don’t think it’ll be any different then than it is now. I mean the hundred-yard dash is the hundred-yard dash.
Yeah, but people break records all the time… and those lines just sit there, going years without descents.
That’s the mark, and the mark doesn’t change. They don’t move it, they don’t put jumps in it. They don’t do nothin’. It’s the hundred-yard dash and that’s that. Skiing’s kinda funny, seems like, I don’t know if it’s cause we can, or the opportunity… we don’t seem to have any problems throwing stuff away in the sport of skiing, and I don’t think it should be done so quickly.
But it is kind of coming back into fashion, there are some pretty serious skiers that are willing to put their time into doing that stuff.
It’s your time, and the cold reality is, it’s your life too. I mean, it’s not safe.
You’ve had this really successful career, what would appear to be a great life, and you’re putting all that on the line on burly descents like Callengate in Peru. Given the risks/difficulty and your ability to, say, go heli skiing in Revelstoke or sit on the beach somewhere, what’s keeping you fired to do this stuff? You’re not a 25-year-old with nothing to lose.
Well, I don’t think you can do that stuff when you’re 25. Anyone that does stuff like that at 25 is gonna have a heck of story behind ’em. Actually, I take that back, there are 25 year olds that are doing it. There’s this crew in Chamonix and they’re pulling it off as far as special circumstances, who they are, their backgrounds, and the influence that we have on them, that their fathers who are guides have on them.
If you don’t have the youth or whatever, it’s time, it’s stubbornness. Which is my deal. But if you have a 25 year old doing that stuff, you have Marco Siffredi stuff going on. When you look at his life and see what he did in just a few seasons, I couldn’t do that in ten years. Those are the special gifts that come through every now and then. For me, it was just a lot of learning. Fortunately, I grew up with mountains to play in, and that teaches you the important part of mountaineering, the hard work of it, the patience, the stubbornness need to finish what you started. It’s so easy to, what we say in water skiing is, “it’s so easy to just throw the handle and go home.”
I know you’re planning another Peru trip. What are some other ski goals for the next couple of seasons?
Couple projects in Peru, one we want to finish, and two we want to start. I’d like to get back to the Himalaya, sooner than later, because I’m good right now, strong right now, and I need to take advantage of it while I can. But I can’t force these things, you gotta let ’em happen. Do I want to go back to the Himalaya? Absolutely. I’d like to go over for some steep skiing, and I’m feeling a little bit of the altitude bug, because I’ve felt really good up there. The extreme thing is funny, but I’ve always thought that the words that begin with “E” are kinda cool to live by—we all talk about ethics, but at the same time, I like to think about the aEsthetics–does it look like it wants to be skied. The elegance of the whole thing. So I like to think about “Does it pass all the E List?”
So watched the video from your Himalaya trip, and it seemed like when most American skiers go to there, it’s a big production to ski one big goal, Everest or something, but you guys were just putting yourselves in a position to ski the best available lines in a cool area, and do it in good style, no drama, no casualties.
Nobody had been there since 1961, and the only info we had about that expedition—another E word; exploration—was a black and white photo from an Italian expedition that was climbing in the next valley over. That’s the only info we had. I tried to tell the story, I tried to get it out, and you know why nobody wanted to cover it? Because it wasn’t an expedition to go get a big fat trophy peak. We’re kind of mixed up that way.
What have you learned from your ski partners?
You know I’ve been really lucky with my partners, whether it’s old Hudak that taught me moguls in Tahoe, or Darren, where all the stuff that we learned stumbling around in the Sierra proved to be correct in the Himalayas 20 years later; I’m standing in the Himalaya going, “Ok, here’s what were going to do,” and I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I’m really proud of what Darren and I have been able to stumble onto over the years. At the same time, I take Nate for a ski in Mammoth, he’s pretty young at the time, now ten years later he’s taking me around this place that I supposedly know real well, so all of sudden there’s another good partner. It’s so important to have great partners, and I’ve been really lucky. My partnership with Remy for expeditions has been another lucky thing.
You know, we don’t have coaches, we don’t have schools for this, you’re learnin’ from the people you’re around, or trying to teach each other. You learn a lot about each other… I don’t think it’s talked about enough, how important it is.
I love soloing, but the partnerships that you form are what makes things happen most of the time.
I never take Remy’s guiding history for granted—I’m not his client, I’m not counting on him to magically bail me out. We talk about that a lot. He’ll help me get up that scary 65-degree pitch that’s got me on pins and needles, and I’ll bust trail for him. It all evens out.
AT gear is getting so much better, do you think we’ll all just be skiing on tourable gear in the near future?
Absolutely. I think it’s the greatest thing going on in the sport right now. The thing that has changed is the development of touring gear. I think it’s a great thing; it really opens the opportunity for people to ski without a ski resort. It goes back to my dad going out for an afternoon ski up Killebrew Canyon in —and hour up, ten minutes down, all the way to what we do in Cham. It’s perfect for the guy who lives on a potato farm in Idaho—see that hill there? You can skin up and slide on down. It’s fun! (laughs).
You’ve had your differences with the industry and others over the years. Looking back is there anything that you regret or would do differently in hindsight?
No, I’ve pretty much ignored it. I have to go to these meetings and we might talk about it. But I just do my thing, do the Down Home Tours, and ignore it. I’m not gonna waste my time. And now it’s even worse with the Internet, and all these friggin’ talk sites, and Facebook. I just ignore it.
The ski industry didn’t know what to do with me when I showed up, and they don’t know what to do with me now. And they never will. There’s some people in the industry, my sponsors, that believe in me. They get grief for it too. “What’s Glen’s program? I don’t know. Glen’s going to be Glen.” Either you believe in it or you don’t. I was in a meeting the other day and I couldn’t produce my web Information. It’s like, “Um, guys, I don’t have a website, actually.” (laughs)
They couldn’t establish a value for me. I think it’s more valuable to sign a poster and smile at someone in Michigan and make a skiing connection with not just a 50 year old, but a five year old, and have fun skiing together, hope to cross paths again. That’s worth a thousand website hits or whatever.
You’ve been a marketing icon, but you’re not on the web, you’re doing your promo work face to face, like a politician shaking hands instead of making a TV commercial.
Sure. Would I embrace an infrastructure, absolutely; but it comes down to I’m just a dumb skier, workin’ for some ski companies that are struggling to get by.
In one of the Stump films, you talk about how you had created a job for yourself as a freeskier or a film skier. Now it looks like you helped create jobs for a lot of people, and a whole industry has sprung up around packaging and selling freeskiing and all kinds of other non-traditional sports. When you look at the Winter X Games and all the stuff that Red Bull does, do you feel some pride that skiers are making money doing this stuff you pioneered, or is it a negative influence on the sport, a distraction?
In the same way that I’m comfortable with the label “extreme skier”, I feel comfortable taking some credit for the whole action sports athlete thing. I’m not gonna say I was the first, but I was there. I heard a reliable source telling someone “This guy is why there is an X Games, why there is a Tony Hawk.” I don’t go that far but… the association with that stuff, I think, is kinda cool. The fact that Tony Hawk made his debut in a Stump film is another subject… (laughs) If you asked him what his first film appearance or whatever was, he’d probably say the Bones Brigade video or something, but it wasn’t. It was a Greg Stump ski movie.