At 48, the man with the piratical beard and the knuckle tattoos that read "TRUE CROW" has been a professional skier longer than many pros have been alive. His ongoing career has kept him at the top of freeskiing for more than two decades, from competing in extreme skiing contests against Doug Coombs to the Instagram and Dynafit era of today.
But most American ski aficionados have never heard of Bruno Compagnet. Perhaps the name rings a bell but there's nothing else—at most, "Isn't that the guy with the dreadlocks?" Considering Compagnet's massive (and historic) ski resumé at the forefront of freeskiing, his low profile is impressive, but it's also emblematic of his style—a master-level pro who prefers to describe himself as a ski bum, a Frenchman who is from the Pyrenees and therefore not exactly French, a character of sometimes deliberate obliqueness and cultivated rock star mystique, a man who got in front and never waited for the pack jostling behind him.
Mystique is also an integral part of the ski company that Compagnet and fellow veteran freeskier Camille Jaccoux started in 2005—Black Crows. From the beginning, Black Crows cultivated an aura where style trumped the standard ski company marketing blueprint, where the spirit of the crusty lifer was embodied by Compagnet as the spiritual heart of the brand. His friend and Black Crows nest-mate Michael "Bird" Shaffer says, "He does really remind me of this crow, flying around looking for a shiny thing, a peak or a line or the good snow, and he's going to go for it until it's his. He's almost childlike when it's something important to him. He's so in the moment."
So in the moment, in fact, that he was almost impossible to get a hold of for this article—over the 2015-16 season Compagnet was skiing in Chamonix, La Grave, the Dolomites, Norway, and more.
Raised in a skiing family (his father was an instructor) in the craggy Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain, Compagnet learned to ski on wooden skis at 4 years old. Tempted by the allure of bigger mountains, he moved to Chamonix at the beginning of the '90s and dove headfirst into the massive terrain there, solo skiing lines off the Aiguille du Midi like the yawning void of the Glacier Ronde, making the requisite thousands of hop turns on a pair of 205-centimeter Rossignol 4S slalom skis. The huge vertical of the Mont Blanc massif is the ultimate venue for leg-burning laps, where Compagnet built the quads and technique that have carried him through endless miles of variable snow on big terrain, and the entire life-cycle of modern freeskiing.
"His pursuit is freedom in the mountains and self-determination, not the industry. The pro thing can get in the way of that and he's really good at not letting that happen." —Michael "Bird" Shaffer
Cham is also where Compagnet was introduced to the concept of ski bumming. "The ski bum phenomenon is something very Anglo-Saxon, which I discovered during my first winter in Chamonix, often shrouding someone who is simply looking for an alternative lifestyle linked to skiing with myths and stories," says Compagnet. "A professional skier trains, participates in competitions, or works in close collaboration with brands, and he has a segment in a ski video at the end of every winter. It's his livelihood, a more serious approach. He is a pro, so he is ready to make concessions even if it's a bluebird powder day." A ski bum, meanwhile, does not.
Inspired by the traveling lifestyle of surfers and also the foreigners (English, American, Aussie, etc.) he met in Chamonix, Compagnet took the idea and ran with it, creating a job for himself as a professional ski bum by producing media and representing the brand, but on his own terms. As Shaffer sees it, "He's free to do what he wants in the mountains and nobody is going to tell him differently. His pursuit is freedom in the mountains and self-determination, not the industry. The pro thing can get in the way of that and he's really good at not letting that happen."
In 1994, Compagnet and his Grands Montets-trained quads entered and won the first extreme/big mountain competition held in Europe, on the Hotel Face of the Brévent ski area in Chamonix. That qualified him for an invite to the World Extremes contest held in Alaska, where he would be the first European to compete against the likes of McConkey, Coombs, and Kreitler at the de facto world championships of big mountain skiing. He was the vanguard for big-hucking French skiers like Seb Michaud and Guerlain Chicherit, who would set the standard on the freeskiing tour through the 2000s, "pushing the sport" every bit as much as their North American counterparts.
Picked up by Salomon as one of the first Euros on their new freeski team, Compagnet competed for over 10 years, with four consecutive invites to the prestigious and formidable Verbier comp, including a second place in 2005. He was never dominant, but his playful yet aggressive style stood out, and his distinctive (now shorn) dreads gave him a visual trademark—somewhat reminiscent of a certain American mohawk. With competitive success and exposure came a salary and budget to support himself and travel. Compagnet used it to explore new mountains, racking up enough miles to make him one of the most well-traveled skiers alive. He skied all through Europe, Scandinavia, South America, deep into Russia, Greenland… wrangling more than a few wild adventures heli skiing or touring in places where few had ever skied. And having some weird ones too—according to fellow veteran Crow Nathan Wallace, someone once made an artsy coffee table book composed entirely of photographs of Compagnet skiing sand dunes and other snow-free desert features in various North African locales. While European ski mountaineers had certainly traveled to some of those destinations, Compagnet was the first modern-style freeride skier in many of them.
"We don't go into the mountains seeking comfort and security. Exposing ourselves and leaving our comfort zone is what makes us feel alive and procures us with sensations we continually look to feel again." —Bruno Compagnet
One summer in Peru, Compagnet extended a ski trip into an endless surf vacation. Rumor has it that he didn't show up to ski that winter, didn't call anybody, just vaporized on some Peruvian beach, leading to a parting of the ways with the Salomon program and more or less to the creation of Black Crows in 2005. The concept was something new for the Euro market—a freeride ski company by and for the hardcore, with skis shaped by the demands of Chamonix's terrain and by the culture of the most fanatical skiers in the alpine capital of the world. When I ask him what place out of all his travels has the most fun-loving locals, Compagnet offers the following explanation in his terse and oblique way: "In Chamonix there are too many fun locals to name them all."
Compagnet was known for being ahead of the game there. He would be the first off the Grands Montets tram on powder days, circumventing the junkshow scrum of tourists and guides by butt-sliding the handrail down the long and rickety stairs that lead from the rock spire of the tram station down onto the glacier. From the jump, Compagnet was a part of the local scene that coalesced in the early 2000s, where a motley crew of international ski bums like Paul MacLeod, Wallace, Dave Rosenbarger, Shaffer, and many others attacked the classic lines in Cham with fat skis and a modern mentality, synthesizing American-style powder-first/all-about-the-down attitude with the European legacy of mountaineering and steep skiing. More than 10 years ago, that group crystallized the style that defines the top level of big-mountain skiing today.
Compagnet, like the rest of the Aiguille du Midi crew, continued to grow as a ski mountaineer, falling in with the late Rémy Lécluse, one of the greatest steep skiers and most prolific first-descenders of all time. "Rémy was a good friend and mentor to all of us, but he was one of the few people that Bruno would actually follow. Rémy wasn't a normal hard, cold Chamoniard. He was really open and exploratory," says Shaffer, "and I think he was learning from skiing with Bruno, too, from watching him ski and seeing how he looked at the terrain."
When I ask Compagnet about all the deaths—like Rosenbarger, Lécluse, Arne Backstrom, and Andreas Fransson—among his peers, he is philosophical. "It is something I have had to learn to live with. We don't go into the mountains seeking comfort and security. Exposing ourselves and leaving our comfort zone is what makes us feel alive and procures us with sensations we continually look to feel again. It is a very strong experience. One thing is for sure, you have to be able to wait until the conditions are right."
More recently, Compagnet has taken on some of the mentor role himself. "He'll notice young skiers who are going hard, maybe don't have much money, and he'll take them under his wing," says Schaffer. "He sees that ski bum who is hanging it out there, scraping by to get after it, and he can relate to that and he gravitates to it. You can really see how the younger French kids know when he shows up at the tram. He's like a Euro Scot Schmidt figure; he was such a front-runner in the media over there with this new style back in the day." But mentorship is a two-way street—younger ski bums keep Compagnet in touch with the real spirit of the game.
One of the keys to true ski mastery is diversity and versatility. More than just the steep skiers like Lécluse, Compagnet has a broad spectrum of influences. When I ask him about who he looked up to as a skier, he mentions Lécluse, but also surfers like Gerry Lopez, monoskiers Alain Revel and Philipe Lecadre, Marco Siffredi (the great Chamonix snowboarder who disappeared descending Everest), and an unknown La Grave local named Paulo.
"Oh yeah," says Wallace, "he was the man at the Grands Montets, but he was always doing more than just banging laps off the tram. Ski touring, telemarking, monoskiing…"
When I ask Compagnet if he monoskied last season, he says, "Just one week." And for someone who made his career on hucking and charging, Compagnet has had no problems switching up his main game—like Chris Davenport, he was one of the first great freeride pros to transition to skins over helicopters, to focus on self-powered exploration and adventure beyond the lifts and crowds. When I ask him what setup he would use if he had to spend the whole winter skiing exclusively on one ski, boot, and binding, he opts for Salomon MTN Lab boots, Plum Guide bindings, and a pair of Black Crows Navis Freebirds (a lighter-weight 100-millimeter touring ski) in a 179. Compagnet made his name hucking and charging on big, heavy, stiff gear, but now his choice for a one-ski quiver is a light, little AT rig.
Lately Compagnet has refined his self-created job, staying that step ahead by exploiting Instagram and social media to share his travels and represent Black Crows as a shredding ski bum ambassador. He seems comfortably ensconced in the kind of later-period career that pro skiers aspire to these days—low-pressure travel with his partner, Layla, pleasure-oriented ski-touring, exploring a second home base in the Dolomites, some light filming. Recently, it was the Lyngen Alps in Norway and touring in the Dolomites with Wallace and his ski buddy, Seth Morrison. This winter, he is planning on hitting the road in a van and dreaming about Kamchatka, the Yukon, mysterious and inaccessible places in the hyperborean North. Wherever Compagnet ends up, it's a good bet he'll still be a step ahead of everyone else.