Spacewalk

Inside the uncommon mind of steep skier Andreas Fransson

Another belay into the unthinkable, expanding Fransson's mind. PHOTO: Tero Repo
Another belay into the unthinkable, expanding Fransson’s mind. PHOTO: Tero Repo

This story originally published in the December, 41.4 issue of POWDER magazine. Chilean authorities confirmed on September 30, 2014, that Andreas Fransson was killed in an avalanche while climbing and skiing Monte San Lorenzo in Chile.

Live and direct from a Patagonian hostel in El Chaltén, Argentina, Andreas Fransson has just recovered from his most recent ski, perhaps the most challenging turns of his life. “It was the limit for me, quite steep and tilting away the whole time,” he says. “I had to travel all this way to find it on a 250-vertical-meter line.”

That line (featured in the next photo below), the Whillans Ramp on Cerro Poincenot, may be the most ridiculous thing anyone skis this year. It’s a novelty run, a spindly little double fall line strip of snow that dead-ends well below the summit. But the setting—halfway up a mostly bare tower of granite—and the mind-bending exposure result in one of the most spectacular long-lens skiing images ever captured, like someone skiing on a ledge halfway up the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan.

Holyf*ckingshit. PHOTO: Bjarne Salen
Holyf*ckingshit. Fransson skied the angled shelf of snow on lookers left. PHOTO: Bjarne Salen

People will look at those photos (right and below) and wonder why anyone would do something so far out there. So does Fransson. To be able to ski the king lines, and survive, you have to be smart—smart enough that the risks, hazards, and consequences will be glaringly apparent. Fransson’s motivations are personal—growth, exploration, to experience things that are way beyond normal human existence—but he is constantly questioning himself, wondering where another path would take him. His blog is full of long, thoughtful essays about his process of trying to understand life and his path through it.

There are great ski mountaineers and great big-mountain skiers. But there isn’t anyone else whose work could be compared in the same breath with greats of both genres, say, Pierre Tardivel and Seth Morrison. There might be a couple of other people with the capability; Andreas is the only one really exercising it. Over the last few seasons, he has amassed a collection of descents on three continents that is unparalleled, from ultra-gnar first descents in remote locations to rare repeats of Chamonix’s scariest.

The 30-year-old Fransson (at the time of his death, Fransson was 31) is a thinker, a philosopher, an existentialist. His thoughts don’t linger on success or triumph or the radness of it all, but on the paradoxes that always emerge when you focus in on something absolutely. Fransson says he is most proud of the runs he didn’t take, because backing off is harder than dropping in. Which is illustrative not just of his thoughtfulness, but also the level where he’s operating; backing off isn’t failure in this game, it’s mandatory. By his own estimation, he has “about a 25 percent success rate on firsts [descents], and maybe 50 to 60 percent on anything fairly difficult.” Given the fatal consequences of miscalculation, this is not a pursuit that rewards Just Doing It.

Fransson on the Whillans Ramp on Cerro Poincenot, in the central Andes.
Fransson on the Whillans Ramp on Cerro Poincenot (above), in the central Andes.

The accomplishments, and more, the work he’s put in with shooter Bjarne Sahlen, Tero Repo, and others to capture them, are paying off. Oakley and Salomon have picked him up, and filmmaker Mike Douglas spent last season producing a film version of Fransson’s blog/diary, called Tempting Fear. There’s no shortage of spectacle in the film, from Fransson’s P.O.V. on Denali to heli shots of he and snowboarder Xavier de la Rue dropping Chamonix deathgnar. But what stands out far more are the feelings and thought process behind it all. It may be navel-gazing, but it’s a lot more interesting than the kind of pre-packaged narrative of Go For It equals Victory that dominates the way athletes and sports are presented in the media.

Andreas Fransson, 1983-2014. PHOTO: Tero Repo
Andreas Fransson, 1983-2014. PHOTO: Tero Repo

Douglas, who has no interest in making formulaic films about rad guys, says that Fransson is “…the polar opposite of the way that athletes are presented in the media. For the first two seasons when he really started getting into the steeps, he didn’t publicize it, didn’t really talk about it or post photos. He wanted to prove to himself that he was doing it for the right reasons, for his own passion.” The filmmaker wanted to document Fransson’s life and thoughts because he thinks it’s going start discussions. “He’s putting himself in these positions where no humans are. It’s like he’s doing a service in a way, going out there and bringing something back from that place for the rest of us.”

Fransson isn’t coming out of nowhere. He was a freeski competitor, a demo-team level ski instructor in Sweden (that’s right Action Sports Industry, the leading candidate for gnarliest dude in the world is a Swedish ski instructor with a receding hairline and a penchant for quoting William Blake), and has appeared multiple times in photos shot by the aforementioned and POWDER Senior Photographer Mattias Fredriksson. But Fransson really came to skiing’s attention a few years ago, when a big winter in the Alps had brought a lot of the classic steeps into condition. All kinds of people in Chamonix, France, were sending the popular lines, but Fransson was hitting the outer limits stuff. Descents that had only been done a couple of times in decades, haunted-house lines that marked the edge of what was possible by the best steep skiers in history on the perfect day.

And he didn’t stop. It’s fair to assume he took a couple of groomer laps in there, maybe skied some casual pow runs (Fransson says, “I love all kinds of skiing—park, powder, bumps, racing…”), but he also snagged repeats in good style on the Pan du Sucre, the West Face of Mont Blanc, and the utterly grotesque Aiguille du Plan. Any one of those lines would be the run of a lifetime for a great skier, but to keep stacking them like that was…disturbing.

The odds caught up with Fransson in 2010 at Chamonix, when an avalanche blew him off the rope mid-rappel on a descent of the Y Couloir on the Aiguille Verte, a serious line that had only seen a couple of descents. Among other injuries, he suffered a broken neck, pelvis, and ribs, and his partner, top-level mountaineer Colin Hailey, was shaken enough to write that he was done with that kind of skiing.

Fransson channeling his Tardivel in Chamonix. PHOTO: Tero Repo
Fransson channeling his Tardivel in Chamonix. PHOTO: Tero Repo

A year later, presumably after thinking about it a lot, Fransson has recovered from his injuries enough to step completely into the void, solo for over 24 hours on a first descent of Denali’s vast and immensely hazardous South Face. It was a rappel-fest, and probably an awful ski, but also one of the most notable mountaineering achievements of the season. Perhaps the closest recent comparison is German Luis Stitzinger’s incredible ski descent of the un-climbed Diamir Face on the Himalayan 8,000-meter peak Nanga Parbat.

Throw in some filming in Cham, high-altitude descents in Peru, a couple on the Fitz Roy massif in Patagonia, and that’s a pretty tidy season. But Fransson reckons his best trip was to Norway, for powder couloirs in Lyngen. The footage from there in Tempting Fear is stunning, as exciting as anything the big boys of TGR and MSP are getting in Alaska.

There’s no doubt that all the work is going to pay off in the form of sponsorship and increased budgets. The question remains: What will Fransson do with it? Right now, he’s sitting in a hostel in Patagonia thinking about it, shifting the possibilities in his head, wondering about the road not taken, the dangers of success, and what will be the next spacewalk.