Steep Skiing Trilogy for the french Benjamin Védrines and Nicolas Jean in the Ecrins massif

After completing a five-face steep skiing sequence on the neighboring Agneaux summit in France’s Écrins massif, french alpinists Benjamin Védrines and Nicolas Jean have completed a new feat on skis. This time, it’s a trilogy on the Ailefroide occidentale, the Pic Sans Nom and the Pelvoux, with 50° faces for a day of vertical climbing. And because these steep slopes reminded them of other 50°, those of Raoul’s strong local beverage called genepi, Raoul being the former keeper of the Selé Hut, they dedicated this big day to him. Interview with Benjamin.

On the phone, Benjamin Védrines starts by giving us the scoop, right off the bat: “I’m pretty tired today. My knees are creaking and my muscles are aching”. Yes, Védrines is feeling the fatigue, ladies and gentlemen. And we almost doubted it when we read about all the mountaineering and skiing he’s been doing since the start of the winter. The five faces of Les Agneaux, just three days ago, may have had something to do with it, but Nicolas Jean’s latest idea is sure to have left the duo feeling stiff.

The 3 mountains skied by Nicolas Jean et Benjamin Védrines : Ailefroide occidentale, pic Sans Nom and Pelvoux. ©Thibault Blais

Steep skiing

Jean, a young Alpine guide, has taken a sabbatical year to devote himself to his personal projects. So when the weather permits, he jumps at the chance. And Védrines usually jumps with him: “The window of good weather was closing, and we clearly wanted to outbid each other after the Agneaux. We’re niche hunters and we know the value of it, we know that it’s rarely snow-covered and in good conditions on these slopes. So we had to go for it.

These were the slopes on the south face of Ailefroide occidentale (3954 m), where we skied the direct south-east route (5.1/5.2) in a round trip starting from Pelvoux-Les Claux at 2am. After descending below the Sélé refuge, the two skiers climbed back up to the Pic Sans Nom (3913 m), to ski the east face on an out-and-back route, skied for the first time by Jérémy Rumebe and Damien Coelho-Mandes in 2020 (5.2). Finally, they slide down the Sialouze glacier towards the Coolidge couloir, which gives access to the Pelvoux and Pointe Puiseux (3943 m). They ski the south face via Rochers Rouges (5.4) before returning to Pelvoux. And because Raoul, the former keeper of the Sélé, left a lasting impression on the two skiers (and many other visitors), notably with his “baptisms” of young guides, performed with the aid of a funnel and local strong alcoholic beverage called génépi (we’ll leave you to imagine the picture), Nicolas and Benjamin christened this sequence : La trilogie du Raoul, 50° cul sec. Enjoy.

Night approach. ©Coll. Jean-Védrines

Nicolas Jean under Ailefroide south face. ©Coll. Jean-Védrines

Some mistake later

The duo completed this day of over 5000 m of positive vertical drop without a moment’s hesitation. Their objective is still to go fast in the mountains, to take advantage of several beautiful slopes, each of which would already be a season’s objective for a steep ski enthusiast. In around 14h30, Jean and Védrines spend as much time as on the five faces of Les Agneaux.

Because there’s more distance between each slope? Perhaps, but not exclusively. They also lost time through carelessness. Benjamin: “At the start of the couloir on the south face of Ailefroide, we decided to leave the skins on to lighten up. Except don’t forget to pick them up on the way down. “We put the skis down a metre from the hole where we’d left them. But we forgot and kept on skiing until we reached the Coste de Sialouze, below the Sélé refuge.

A useful tip for someone who forgot his skins. ©Coll. Jean-Védrines

That’s when the two skins-less skiers realized they’d forgotten, and for a moment saw their project fall through. Védrines: “I told myself it’s dead. I’ll be home at 9:30 and go cycling. But we couldn’t give up, the weather was there, we’d got up at 1am. We couldn’t just walk away from it all. So we started back up towards the Peak without Name. We churned along for 200m, but then things started to pick up. Once we were on the Sialouze glacier, which was flatter and less ridged, we started to sink. So we used one of Jean-Sébastien Knoertzer’s tricks: we wrapped our skis with climbing straps to make a sort of roast, a sausage that slows down the skiing a little. It held up pretty well for the remaining 400 m of ascent.

A blessing in disguise: for the sake of lightness, Védrines and Jean don’t take their harnesses with them, but make up their own with two straps, just in case. Here they are, used in a different way. “If I’d had the harness, it would have hurt to sacrifice it under the ski!” concedes Védrines.

Steep skiing on Ailefroide ©Coll. Jean-Védrines


When asked about his motivations, Benjamin talks about his passion for the mountains, and the unique emulation that emerges from his rope-up with Nicolas Jean: “Maybe I wouldn’t have motivated myself like that with another companion, especially as we’d both had a lot to do in the previous days, with little sleep”. We also knew that we’d already had a busy weekend with the Agneaux race. We had to remain lucid and cautious. This run could be seen as training for another project that the duo have had in mind for some time: a traverse of the Mont-Blanc massif, from the Lex Blanche to the Chardonnet, in a maximum of 3 days. More on this later this winter. For his part, Nicolas Jean is very creative and full of ideas. It’s even said that he comes up with many that he doesn’t tell journalists about…

Pic Sans Nom ©Coll. Jean-Védrines

But for Védrines, this high volume of skiing is also training for his big summer project, K2 (8611 m). After his record-breaking ascent of Broad Peak in 2022 and his accident on K2 (chronicled in the film Edge of Reason), Védrines will be doing it again in June, attempting to beat the record for the world’s second-highest peak, before paragliding back down. “I don’t have a precise training program, but Léo Viret gives me exercises to do and I fit them into my week as I like. Right now, I’m working on a weekly climb of around 10,000 m.” Excuse the pun.

And because endurance isn’t enough at high altitude, Benjamin also tests himself in degraded conditions: “I test myself during the effort with a different or reduced diet. Or even no diet at all. It’s very experimental, so it takes time to measure the effects”. Benjamin has more time than the average person, running faster than anyone else.

Selfie summit : Ailefroide ©Coll. Jean-Védrines

Selfie summit : Pic Sans Nom… ©Coll. Jean-Védrines

Selfie summit : Pelvoux ©Coll. Jean-Védrines

GPS track of Benjamin Védrines, à voir aussi ici >. ©Benjamin Védrines / Géoportail