Beyond Respectable Risk

On Le Toûno’s West Shoulder

I didn’t set out to ride Le Toûno’s west shoulder.

Clinging to the prominent peak, alone, I rode with the understanding that a fall could cost my life. I felt the weight of exposing both my friends below, and my loved ones at home, to the worst-case scenario. And while it was the line of my life, it also led to a stern lesson, which is best understood in the context of respectable risk.

As a steep, switchbacking road reached the heart of Saint Luc—a village in the Swiss canton of Valais—Le Toûno first came into view. There, in crisp midday light, the obvious line was a clean, shaded couloir—a classic descent that sees local traffic on a regular basis. It falls to the northwest, about 2,000 vertical feet from the entrance to the fan. I immediately wanted to ride it. I was with Justin Hostynek and Severin Van Der Meer, lucky to be a guest of the Absinthe Films crew. We’d meet Brandon Cocard and media crew Sean Sullivan, Shane Charlebois, and David Vladyka that afternoon.

ABOVE The author and the Absinthe Films crew in Saint-Luc, Switzerland, with the upper reaches of Le Toûno rop right. Photo: Sean Kerrick Sullivan

Two days later, we pushed towards a zone adjacent to Le Toûno, with a few jump spots in mind. By the midway point on Saint-Luc’s nine-minute poma, though, I began considering soloing the couloir. I figured it was isolated and sheltered enough to hold stable, preserved snow. I asked the crew how they’d feel if I peeled off to ride the line. We established a communications plan, Vlady shared local knowledge, and I started hiking.

Two hours later I was high on Le Toûno’s south slopes, keeping a decent pace and enjoying myself. But there was an impasse fast approaching–in 50 feet I’d reach a rock buttress. I braced myself to turn back, acknowledging I may be on the wrong section for the top-out. I had a little water left, but not enough to support the elevation loss required for a re-route. I could see a way forward, a chimney with sporty but manageable moves. I was confident I could climb it but was less certain about down-climbing without a rope, or what lay beyond. It was committing, and I wasn’t sure it would take me to the ridge, let alone to my drop.

I started climbing the chimney, aware I was accepting a risk beyond my typical tolerance. Acceptable risk is a personal decision, a limit only you can set. While I pushed it, I was willing to do so. Respectable risk, however, comes into play when making decisions that will expose others to hazards or potential trauma and loss. We don’t only question whether we surpass our personal risk tolerances, but also whether we transfer appropriate risk to group members or people at home. We ask whether the people directly affected by our choices would respect our decisions, assuming they had a full understanding of the associated objective hazards and our ability to mitigate those hazards. As I committed to the chimney, I failed to meet the standards of respectable risk. There’s no denying I was selfish.

The chimney led to a slot between spires on the mountain’s razor-thin shoulder. Reaching the notch, I was met by a maze of rock and snow. I was west of the couloir, gripped by the realization I may be blocked from its entrance. Below me were 60-degree slopes, exposed rocks, and cliffs. Above, the ridge continued at about the same pitch, leading to a fifth-class crux. I weighed my limited options and continued climbing. Past one of the sketchiest moves I’ve ever made in snowboard boots, I reached a sub-peak, the high point of the mountain’s west shoulder. I was stuck.

I walked my perch, looking for routes I may have missed. Nothing looked great, but there was an option for a 10-foot bomb drop to a pad on the shoulder’s north face. It was rocky, with no chance of a clean landing, but supported–I figured I could control the fall. From there, the face looked navigable. I went over the move in my head, then sat down for another moment. I asked what my mentors might do and how they’d coached me through similar situations. The decision to drop in came as if on the wind, and I understood it to be fleeting–a subtle, seductive signal from Le Toûno inviting me to ride.

The bomb-drop went well, though a rolling rock narrowly missed my head as I stopped my fall on the face. The next few hundred feet was a cycle of move, stop, and assess. Sheer awe brought me back online as I reached an open section above a long spine, my guard dropping briefly as I looked around. The face was incredible, the steepest sustained pitch I’d ever ridden and by far the most exposed. There was joy as I made turns on the spine, opening up for just a moment before reverting to survival boarding.

As the spine closed out I committed to its runnel, a narrow chute holding deep, stable snow. The tight space felt comfortable, like the couloirs I’ve sought out in my home range on the BC coast. Still, after two turns I was 15 feet from a cliff. I couldn’t see the bottom, but could tell it linked with the lower third of the couloir I’d set out to ride. I stopped, pulled against the wall, thought about it just long enough to keep momentum. “Cliffs here stick out,” I told myself, “go as big as you can. Jump over everything.” It was maybe a 40-foot air. I cleared the rocks by a board length.

When I re-joined the Absinthe boys, they were shocked by my story. They thanked me for managing the descent properly and asked that I don’t take chances like that again. I won’t—while I wouldn’t change the past, were I alone on Le Toûno’s south face tomorrow I’d turn around at the buttress. Looking back, I feel fervent appreciation for the adventure, including what was added by the elevated danger. But reflection carries an element of guilt. To the extent that my line on Le Toûno pushed my abilities as a snowboarder, it also showed disregard for my people. I’ll carry that as I continue to explore the mountains. I’ll draw on the lessons of Le Toûno. The rider I want to be goes fast, takes chances, thrives on exposure and steeps—but does so in a calculated manner, with respectable decisions behind every new descent.

An enormous thank you to Absinthe Films, who made a life-changing adventure of an Indiegogo prize. These guys provide the best platform for progression I’ve experienced, and their crew is more inclusive than I ever would have guessed.

This article was originally published in Volume 16, Issue 1 of The Snowboarder’s Journal.

Start your subscription today. 


The Snowboarder's Journal mailing list

We respect your time, and only send you the occasional update.