Martin Volken is a professional skier, mountaineer as well as owner and founder of Pro Guide Service and Pro Ski Mountain Service, a skiing and mountaineering guide service and retail store, located in North Bend, Washington. Volken earned his Swiss IMFGA mountain guides license in 1996 and has since been leading ski tours along with rock and ice climbing expeditions throughout the Pacific Northwest. He’s published several guidebooks and pioneered many routes in the Cascades.
The Monte Rosa massif is big. Everything about it is actually. It’s main summit, the Dufourspitze towers at 4,634 meters and its height is surpassed only by Mont Blanc in the Alps.
Seven valleys radiate from its flanks, most of which extend to the south and east. The least known of these valleys is the Anzasca Valley, which drains out and away from the enormous East Face. The little town of Macugnaga is relatively unknown, considering it is situated at the foot of the largest single mountain face in the Alps. The East Face tumbles down for over 2,500 meters and is most likely one of the few spots in the Alps that reaches Himalayan proportions.
Macugnaga has been around for over a thousand years and the indigenous people had carved out a modest farming existence for centuries while facing famine, floods, avalanches and rule ranging from wealthy Milanese families to the Spaniards. Most importantly, the Valser people from the Saas Valley, just to the north of the connecting Monte Moro Pass, resettled the upper Anzasca Valley.
Over time Macugnaga turned into a small Swiss/Walser enclave in Italian territory and remained a hinterland smuggler town for people who did not want to pay the expensive salt tariffs over the much easier Simplon Pass.
Mountaineering in the loose sense of the word had been present in the valley for a long time, simply by default of the incredibly rugged terrain. But it was Ferdinand Imseng, a guide from the neighboring Saas Valley living in Macugnaga, who in 1872 took three Englishmen with another guide and a porter to the top of the Dufourspitze via a giant couloir that drained all the way from summit to the bottom of the East Face.
Regrettably nine years later in 1881, Ferdinand Imseng, fellow guide Battista Pedranzini and client Damiano Marinelli were swept away by the air blast of a large avalanche during another ascent of the wall. This is how the couloir got its name. Only their porter Alessandro Corsi survived as he went around a corner in that very instant to get some water for his guides and client (for an idea of the possible forces that the three unfortunate climbers might have been subjected to, watch this video).
Short efforts to outlaw mountaineering in the area were pointless and instead, the East Face received its own little shelter about half way up the face named after Damiano Marinelli. Some of the mountaineering elite took notice and over time powerful alpinists such as Kurt Diemberger and Hermann Buhl, among many others, put routes up on the face.
Just when it seemed that all route pioneering had been done, a young Swiss guide named Sylvain Saudan showed up to make ski mountaineering history. The fact that he skied the face is remarkable, but the entire first descent story is outrageous.
On June 10th 1969, after several attempts spoiled by schedules, weather or conditions, Sylvain and his partners Gilles Bodin, Michel Trottin and Cardix decided to approach the Silbersattel, the entrance to the couloir with a small Pilatus plane. Due to the small size of the plane, they had to be shuttled from the Zermatt ski area to a small plateau a few hundred meters below the Silbersattel one person at a time. The pilot took off with Sylvain and tried to land on the little plateau, but the pontoons broke through a thin crust layer and the plane augured deep into the snow. Miraculously, the propeller of the plane wasn’t damaged and after several hours of digging the pilot attempted to take off while Sylvain was literally hanging off the tail rudder in order to keep the plane from tipping forward until it was airborne. The pilot had made it clear he would not attempt another landing with one slightly damaged pontoon. And so, Sylvain was left high on Monte Rosa with nothing but his skis and poles. His partners intended to bring the radio, ropes, crampons etc. on the next flight but Sylvain’s mind was made up.
It was the mid afternoon now and the massive East Face was releasing avalanches constantly. Sylvain was spared as he completed the first ski descent of the Marinelli Couloir.
Without a doubt, more technical lines than the Marinelli Couloir are around, but the fantastic purity of the line and the scale of the place make it a super classic. There is backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering, side country skiing, steep skiing and big mountain skiing. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to a place that blurs all those lines as much as a ski descent of the Marinelli.
My friend and fellow guide, Rinaldo Borra and I were having a little “mancation” and decided to go check out this famous line in order to judge the feasibility of guiding it the following week. So many things need to fall into place for a successful descent, such as weather, snow stability, helicopter availability and temperature. All seemed to be lining up and on April 20 we were sitting in a helicopter laboring its way up 11,000 feet of vertical over the Belvedere Glacier and up the East Face. The flight must have lasted less than five minutes and before we knew it, we were standing at 4,500 meters (nearly 15,000 feet) at the Col Gnifetti together with a French and Italian guide and their respective clients.
The first turns, though not really that difficult, were hair raising. The 40-degree wind and a sun-baked slope above the first serac zone didn’t allow gentle warm up turns. This was followed by a V-thread anchored rappel over the actual ice cliff, which lead to the proper “Canalone” at around 4,300 meters. Once in the couloir the pitch of it remained at about 45 degrees for over 1,000 meters before disappearing into a rapidly building cloudbank.
I am happy to admit that I was thankful for every turn I had ever made before on steep bony terrain. One might be able to recover from a fall in softer conditions, but you would most likely be dealing with very hard to judge snow stability issues. There are 3,000-foot tributary couloirs that feed into the main couloir and less than solid snow stability can turn deadly here quite quickly as the “guides cemetery” in Macugnaga proves.
At around 3,000 meters we finally passed the little Marinelli shelter and left the couloir for the equally steep but objectively safer “Crestone Marinelli.” A short squeeze under the dangerous ice cliff of the Nordend Glacier brought us to the lower reaches of the Belvedere Glacier and an awesome Espresso machine in Macugnaga.
Was it the steepest descent I ever made in my life? Probably not, but they were some of the most committing turns in certainly the wildest arena I have ever made. One thing was to confirmed, Sylvain Soudan was one bad agent. He truly is “the skier of the extreme”.