From Big Mountain To Ski Mountaineering | The Leo Slemett Interview
We chat to Leo Slemett – winner of the 2017 Freeride World Tour and a man with an impressive collection of steep descents under his belt
Header Image: M Knoll \ Mathis Dumas
Glen Plake, Andreas Franson and Scott Schmidt. Many of the finest freeride skiers on the planet have passed through Chamonix, spending time living amongst some of the most serious and easily accessible freeride terrain in the world.
Few, however, have had the chance to be brought up in the Chamonix Valley and, with that, learn their way around this incredible playground essentially from the moment they could walk. It’s the kind of upbringing that can shape a skier, one that many would love to have had themselves, and one that Leo Slemett can call his own.
Winner of the 2017 Freeride World Tour and someone who lives and breathes the Chamonix mindset, Leo’s embraced what his childhood provided him with and taken it to brave new heights.
Gaining confidence from Freeride World Tour events, Leo’s applied that to the world of steep skiing and, needless to say, the results have been astonishing. During the 2018 / 2019 season, we saw descents of the Mallory and Aiguille du Plan North Faces from the Frenchman – both graded at 5.4 (5.5 is the highest technical ski grade in the world).
“Even the slightest mistake … on a route like the North Face of the Aiguille du Plan can cost you your life”
These descents are a whole different environment from the terrain found on the Freeride World Tour faces. Even the slightest mistake amongst the hanging glaciers found on a route like the North Face of the Aiguille du Plan can cost you your life.
We caught up with Leo to talk to him about his Chamonix childhood, and how he went about moving from the fast paced and flowing skiing found on the FWT circuit to the controlled, more defensive, skiing that’s required on the exposed north faces of the Alps.
What it was like for you growing up in Chamonix?
My family is not from Chamonix, they came here for my father’s job (in 1982). It’s myself and two brothers, the three of us have all been born in Chamonix and we’ve all grown up here. The thing about growing up in Chamonix is that it’s like you don’t realise how lucky you are until you have the opportunity to travel around.
“I really enjoy going somewhere – but there’s nothing like some really playful days at home”
After some years, after some trips around, always whenever I came back, I was always like ‘Okay, that was a cool trip’ – I really enjoy going somewhere – but there’s nothing like some really playful days at home, it’s different to what we can find somewhere else.
It’s not like I’m saying that it’s the best place to be, or the best place in the world. When you grow up here and you start to really realise you can play with the mountain, then the possibilities of going far beyond your expectations are extremely high. Soon after I started skiing, I realised that I’ll have something to do until… well, the end of time. It’s like there is more than a lifetime’s worth of lines to complete in Chamonix.
Yeah I guess it’s a place that has endless opportunities. And the people in Chamonix are what makes it so amazing.
Yeah, that’s the thing and I think it’s why we have the vision, especially because of the Aiguille du Midi cable car station (the cable car that takes skis from 1,035 to 3,842 metres). I think maybe Zermatt, or very few places are similar to Chamonix.
Chamonix is very unique because it’s like; you can climb, you can fly, you can ski and it’s like there is a lot of different ways to finally find yourself doing something where you can find the true love toward the mountain.
“My brother gave me the way to explore the mountains on my skis and then I had to go by my own”
Since I was young I had the opportunity to ski with my eldest brother, to have some good times out there with other skiers and local Chamonix heroes, so that’s been a good thing for me as I had the opportunity to go into some really cool places ever since I was quite young.
Then step by step I was always looking to go to these places by myself and with my friends. So yeah, it was like at some point my brother gave me the way to explore the mountains on my skis and then I had to go by my own.
Awesome. So you spoke about the Midi – I’ve seen that you’ve recently been spending a lot of time up on the Midi and more importantly, a lot of time on the North Face of the Midi. I see that you skied the Mallory and the Aiguille du Plan. How was that and how did you find yourself getting into that sort of terrain? Was it a natural progression?
What makes the difference for me between the steep skiing and freeride categories is when you are going freeriding. It’s like you are doing some backcountry lines where you can really play with the terrain. Wide open carves and cliff drops. But when you are going into the steep skiing, it’s like you have to adapt yourself to the terrain. Jump turns and rapells.
So when I’m going to steep skiing, it’s to realise a line – like a specific ski itinerary, like the Mallory. But when I’m going into the freeride, it’s to create a line and play with the terrain. What’s great about about skiing is that this vision is my own. Some people have a different vision. You’re free to do as you wish.
So how do you feel your background in the Freeride World Tour (FWT) has helped you in this steep terrain?
It’s been almost 10 years of competing since I started in freeride competition. I would say, for sure, it’s helped when I’m going for a big line in steep skiing. It’s like even more straightforward than what it’s like at the start of the FWT.
But with the experience I have with the FWT, it’s really helpful to manage that stress and to finally be in connection with the elements that you are going into. It’s like when you are in the competition, it’s always impressive, especially in Verbier; it’s steep, you have a big crowd and you have the noise of the helicopter and everything. You have to be in control and manage yourself, and you take part of all the elements to make yourself comfortable.
For me in steep skiing, it’s the same. At the start of the line, it’s steeper, there is the consideration of the snowpack and a lot of things. You are just trying to make yourself as comfortable as you would be in a competition to realise the descent without [any] problems.
Would you say you feel the same amount of stress and pressure standing at the top of a FWT line as you do maybe standing on top of the Mallory about to drop in?
I would say sometimes it’s even more stressful to go into a steep line, because there is no place for any mistakes. During a FWT competition, you are pushing the limits but you’ve had a mountain guide sweep the slope for avalanche safety and there are a lot of things that have been taken into consideration before the event that you don’t have to think about.
When you are going into steep skiing descents, you have to manage all of those things with your group plus your skiing. I would say steep skiing is even more stressful – there is no place for any mistakes because if you start to tumble in steep lines it’s like yeah… there is not much chance to stop.
How do you prepare to make sure you’re always at the top of your game, both in freeride terrain and steep and exposed ski mountaineering terrain?
From December to March, I’m really focused on the competition and I try to progress and push my skiing for the competition. Then, at the second half of the season after Verbier (the final stop of the FWT), I can get into steep skiing and ski mountaineering stuff.
I get a high amount of confidence after the first part of the season whilst on the FWT and when I’m able to adapt that into steep skiing, it’s like… it’s a crazy feeling.
“He really pushed the limits in his movie”
All those training sessions are also important for the second part of the season because when you are able to jump above the ice and do some drop into some really gnarly zones, into the north face (of the Midi), or whatever, it’s like oh shit, my skis are stronger than they’ve ever been before and now I’m able to repeat something that we were doing in the freeride zones and bring it into the steep terrain.
I would say the best influence I got was from the movie La Liste by Jeremie Heitze. He really pushed the limits in his movie and proved that all the training that we are doing throughout the season are also skills that we can bring into the steep terrain.
Do you have any tips for people who are looking at getting into ski mountaineering? Obviously not routes like the Aiguille du Plan, but maybe some of the classic ski mountaineering ascents and descents around the Alps?
I would say that it’s important to take your time and to go when you feel comfortable to go by yourself and to never follow the tracks.
Right now, with social media and everything, it looks super easy to access some of the big lines and it’s cool, of course, to watch the achievements of your friends, professionals, or whatever. But it’s also really important to realise that everyone is a different skier and until you feel comfortable to go by yourself, the mountain will not move. It’s important to take safety into consideration because you can get yourself into some really scary situations really quickly when in backcountry terrain. The mountains always have the last word.
Can give me a favourite descent of all time?
This year has been one of the best seasons. But I can’t guarantee they’ll be the best all time descents. Maybe in the future I will do some bigger lines. I hope.
But yeah, the Aiguille du Plan was one of the nicest combos that I have ever done. Also the Mallory this year, to do it in mid-June [14th June], to ski the Mallory at this period, two days before my birthday with some really nice fresh snow until the midsection… it was really nice.
No, second. Maybe the Mallory [this year] was my favourite descent. It’s the one I’d been looking up at since being a kid, since I have been taking the gondola to the top of the Aiguille du Midi.
I’ve been looking to the Mallory for years. Before I skied it, I had the opportunity to climb it. I climbed it on January 1st 2017 with a friend, I told him that I had to ski it this year  and so I skied it for the first time in 2017. This year I did the same, I climbed it a few days after Verbier, then I skied it in June – it’s a pretty cool line. The Mallory is definitely symbolic for me.
What was more stressful for you; climbing the Mallory, or skiing the Mallory?
The climbing! It was winter conditions and it’s like a massive piece of rock and ice that you’ve got to climb. So yeah, I had some experience in ice climbing, but I wasn’t that strong and the friend I was with [David Goettler] was really experienced. We did it really smoothly and in good timing and I felt really comfortable at the end, but it was definitely something new for me.
So do you have any plans for this coming season?
Yeah, I’ve got some ideas in mind, still in the Mont Blanc massif. It’s looking like I’ll continue to mix paragliding and skiing, and do some nice combos on some lines that I haven’t skied yet.
I’ve also got a project coming up out in Nepal next September . The idea will be to go to an expedition in Nepal to ski some higher mountains.
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