Into the Unknown: How Two French Skiers Made Mountaineering History


, by Fabienne Lang

The approach to the Épéna. Photography courtesy of: Symon Welfringer and Xavier Cailhol

Experience the thrill of achieving one of the toughest ski descents in the Alps and learn the secrets behind Symon Welfringer and Xavier Caihol’s daring adventure.

“You have to play some mental games with yourself to forget that if you fall, there is nothing there to stop you,” explains Symon Welfringer, a hint of seriousness in his tone.

“When you are on the slope, you don’t see the bottom. In fact, there is a void. When we looked at the bottom of the slope, there was nothing there. So, to forget about the void, I pictured imaginary walls around the slope,” he shares his invaluable tactics.

On March 22, French mountaineers Symon Welfringer and Xavier Cailhol combined ski touring, mountaineering, steep skiing, and cycling for a new adventure few have dared attempt before. The pair skied down the imposing north face of Épéna (11,223 feet / 3,421 m) in the Vanoise region of the French Alps – marking the first successful ski descent on this face of the mountain.

With an average incline ranging between 50 and 60 degrees, this wasn’t your average ski run – it was a heart-pounding feat. This line stands among the toughest ski descents in the Alps and is believed to be the second line in the world at this level of difficulty.

“You feel like you are flying,” Symon shares. “I’ve never been base jumping but I believe it’s the same feeling.” Recounting their descent, he paints a vivid picture of the exhilarating moment when they leapt from the summit, skis slicing through the crisp mountain air as they soared down the steep slope.

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And let's not forget the Herculean effort it took to get to the top of the slope. Picture a three-hour uphill cycle lugging a ton of gear, followed by a grueling 1000m wall climb with axes and ski boots. To say these two French mountaineers etched their names into mountaineering history would be an understatement.

When you are on the slope, you don’t see the bottom. In fact, there is a void. When we looked at the bottom of the slope, there was nothing there.

Chatting with Symon today, you'd never guess the monumental achievement he recently achieved. With his charming demeanor and relaxed attitude, you'd think he just strolled down the block for a coffee. Yet, this was only his fourth foray into steep skiing. “I had never skied anything like this before,” he admits, humbly reflecting on his recent journey into the adrenaline-fueled world of extreme skiing.

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But make no mistake – Symon is no rookie when it comes to the mountains. A seasoned mountaineer and mountain guide, he's already earned his stripes, including the prestigious Piolets d’Or honor in 2021 for his first ascent of the south face of Sani Pakkush in Pakistan, standing tall at 22,811 feet / 6,953 meters.

Even with his accolades and experience, Symon, alongside his intrepid companion Xavier, encountered their fair share of challenges on the Épéna route. Yet, it's precisely these challenges that fuel their passion for pushing the limits and exploring the untamed beauty of the world's most formidable peaks.

(L) Symon Welfringer and Xavier Caihol (R) The summit of the Épéna. Photography courtesy of: Symon Welfringer and Xavier Caihol

Opening the north face route of Épéna

“We talked about the descent being tricky but the way up is quite technical,” Symon elaborates. “You have mixed climbing pitches and ice climbing pitches that you need the proper conditions for, which are hard to find in winter.” Xavier had attempted the route three times prior to March 22nd, yet each time, the fickle mountain refused to yield. Thankfully, luck finally smiled upon the duo, granting them the perfect conditions on their chosen day of conquest.

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“Going up the north face in terms of alpinism is hard,” Symon emphasizes. “Plus, we carried our skis on our backs, which added weight, and wore ski boots to climb, which meant the way up was quite something. But the descent was still the trickiest part,” he reveals, underscoring the gravity of their audacious descent.

“In steep skiing, you can be 99 percent sure your turn will work, but you need to not fall into the other one percent,” Symon shares. “To avoid falling into that one percent, you need to not be afraid, because if you are too afraid you can’t focus 100 percent,” he muses, a touch of gravity in his tone. “It’s a balance between taking in what’s around you, being aware of the dangers, yet not overly leaning into the fear.”

Photography courtesy of: Symon Welfringer and Xavier Caihol

Communication was their lifeline during the descent, a verbal thread connecting them as securely as any rope. “When we were skiing down we talked a lot. We exchanged information about the snow and ski conditions, how we were feeling, if we were afraid or not,” Symon recounts. “During the descent, we weren’t roped up like we were when we were climbing but our words replaced the rope.”

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At first glance, you might expect Symon and Xavier to jubilantly celebrate at the foot of the slope. Yet, the rush of pure joy was slow to arrive. “You are completely focused for so many hours that you can’t pass from a state of total focus to total joy. It takes time. You slowly realize what you’ve done and I think the moment you are the happiest is a day or two after. You feel light,” Symon explains with a smile.

“Directly after the adventure I’d say you feel more relief than anything else,” he admits. “You need time to let the moment fully sink in.”

In steep skiing, you can be 99 percent sure your turn will work, but you need to not fall into the other one percent.

That's why Symon finds solace in the rhythmic pedal strokes of cycling to and from his adventures. “One of the most satisfying aspects once I’ve finished the mountaineering part is cycling for hours, because it gives me time to think about what I just did,” he reveals. “It’s pure joy.”

Cycling not only serves as a mental aperitif and digestif but also adds layers to the adventure tapestry. "It turns it into multiple adventures all in one,” Symon muses. "Cycling adds another layer to your adventure because you also have to think about the weight you’ll be carrying on your bike, as well as if it’ll tire you too much before you even start the climbing and skiing, but it gives extra value to your whole adventure" he concludes, a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

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What’s in a name?

But what Symon “really love[s] about opening routes is finding their names,” he beams. “For me, it’s the best moment,” he grins. “I really like the name we came up with because ‘Épéna’ in French sounds like ‘épine,’ which means ‘thorn.’ So we did a wordplay and came up with the route name ‘Pas de Rose Sans Épine’ – ‘No Rose Without a Thorn.’” It’s the perfect encapsulation of their adventure.

Photography courtesy of: Symon Welfringer and Xavier Caihol

Forging ahead

In the wise words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.” So, it’s no surprise Symon is already on his next adventure, this time in Nepal alongside his friend Charles Dubouloz. Their sights are set on climbing Gyachung Kang – the 15th tallest mountain in the world, standing at 26,089 feet / 7,952 m.

As Symon brilliantly puts it, “We all know about the 14 ‘8,000ers’, but what about the 15th?” That’s part of the allure for him – the call of uncharted territory, the thrill of carving his own path. Who knows what imaginative name he'll bestow upon this new route? It's all part of the adventure.

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