Words: John Stifter
After a day of monoskiing two feet of powder with Glen Plake at Chamonix's Grand Montets, ski mountaineer savant Nate Wallace called in via Skype to chat about the 2011-12 season in the French Alps. A part-time resident of Chamonix, France, since the winter of 1998-99, Wallace has been churning out video edits of friends skiing big powder descents in the Alps, providing a rare look into the massive terrain surrounding the iconic ski mountaineering hotspot. Wallace, who now only guides film and photo crews, has been enjoying the biggest snowfall in 20 years below 2,000 meters in the Chamonix valley after several below-average seasons. We interrupted his shepherd's pie dinner preparation to hear about his May 1 powder day and more.
You've been producing a slew of edits this season. When and where was the latest shot?
That was from about five days ago on the Grand Montets and the Aiguille di Midi cause it's spring. Brevent's finished.
Talk about the unusual amount of snowfall this season in Cham.
December, January, and February was the most snow I’d ever seen under 2,000 meters, which means the valley and in the forest and stuff like that. Then it went high pressure at the end of February and March. By the end of April—I don't even know the last how many days—we've had like seven feet in the last two weeks.
How has all that snow made the skiing up high off the Aiguille?
It's been ski area skiing. I've only put my skins on twice this winter. A lot of people were skiing a lot of south faces cause it was high pressure in late February and they were skiing some pretty cool stuff. But by the second week of April, it's started to come in and it's been more ski area skiing cause it's been snowing so low all the way to the valley. Hence, the video.
How do you decide where to ski?
Well it all depends on the weather. We're gonna try to go up to Mont Blanc in a few days, but who knows with the weather? We had the highest winds recorded since 1924 two nights ago up to 112mph in the valley, tearing off roofs and stuff. So we went from the most epic powder conditions, like waist deep for two weeks, and then in one day it switched like 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the valley plus the winds. Total inversion going on. It's just the climate change. Same thing happened to Mammoth this season. And now it dumps. It's freaky.
So what are the longtime locals saying about this winter and the opposite ends of the weather spectrum?
There is no spectrum. There's been no steep skiing. It's been so cold all winter that we've had no snow up high, so the images you're seeing are of valley skiing.
What's it been like for you and friends, skiing the all that valley powder?
It's been the best winter I've had since I was in my 20s. For me, ski touring and steep skiing has only happened because that's where you go cause there's powder. I spent the whole season on rockered skis and alpine boots. I haven't done that in three years.
With all this snow, what has the European protocol for avalanche mitigation been like?
There's no difference between American and European avalanche protocol from what I've seen. Have you seen much avalanche protocol in Jackson or other places? Ten years ago, the only avalanche protocol was that there were only 'X' amount of people dumb enough to be in those places, and now it's bigger. There weren't so many takers back then and that was avalanche protocol. If you really go to a high-level avalanche school, you find the more you know the less you know. There is no avalanche protocol—if you're smart, you just don't go. And if you're dumb enough, you go and generally those are the best skiers. Avalanche protocol has never really existed in skiing.
You started filming this last year. What spawned the interest for you?
I spent my life trying to ski hard and be badass, but you turn 40 and all you have is stories and no momentos, which is what they call a photo in French. Souvenir, no? It was during The Ordinary Skier and I saw what they were doing and I was like, "I can do that" and they used some of my footage. Nobody cares what I can do, but I want to show what my friends can do. I was a journalist and felt kinda numb to writing because I couldn't write fiction. And with filming I felt like I could put other people in the front. It's my view of them without putting myself into the mix. It's this kind of new-age journalism for me.
Well, you've definitely captured something that's not seen too often.
People mislabeled me and a lot of other people in the sport, although we do deal with extreme things and have 'this' hanging over our heads. But we're still about the powder. You talk to American Dave [Rosenbarger] and ask him why did you go to steep stuff, and it's all about the powder. It's easy to make an edit or a movie and say how dangerous it is, but it's hard to make a movie and say how much fun it is.