Mathéo Jacquemoud Interview: Trajectory of a Dreamer

With freedom on our minds, a new skier and alpinist landed at Black Crows. Mathéo Jacquemoud talked to us in his home in Saint-Nicolas de Véroce. As a skier and climber on steep slopes that are as impressive as his mountaineering career, he spoke of his experiences in these uncertain, overwhelming times, as he guides an entire generation of committed alpinists on the ridge. Without further ado, let’s go.

Hi Mathéo. For the past year, our lives have been a balancing act between resilience and resignation. We have taken a step back from the world yet moved closer to the wilderness, which has become our final free space. As a freeskier with a lot of projects on the go, how have you adapted your way of life and profession in these turbulent, anxiety-ridden times?

Fortunately for me, my professional life hasn’t changed that much as I have continued to work as a ski mountaineering coach for the French team. The athletes have been able to train and compete on the world circuit unaffected. From my end, I did have to put off expeditions last September to Makalu and Dhaulagiri (they are the world’s fifth and seventh highest peaks, respectively, and have never been skied before). It’s no big deal as there are some wonderful skiing spots where I live. My partners have been patient, aware that the public health situation has worked against us and brought our projects to a standstill. I try to remain patient looking forward to the future …

In the end, this year has been one for the purists, right? The public health crisis and the fact that lifts weren’t running have benefited those who can make tracks and open couloirs in the snow, far removed from the crowds. I imagine that you must feel privileged.

Yes, we are undoubtedly living in a time unlike any other, comparable only to the olden days. In any case, I almost never take the lifts because my clients like to set off from the bottom and climb right up to the summits. This year has been a calm one, a far cry from the usual race to the track. It has been more conducive to appreciating solitude at altitude. More than ever, high mountains took on a unique feel this winter. It was a real privilege to enjoy the descent in this way. I like trying to show how we live in the mountains. Conveying this, as I’m doing at the moment, is a pure experience.

How did you meet Black Crows?

I would say things happened naturally. Flo Bastien reached out to me. We began exchanging messages together, and it progressed naturally from there. I liked the idea right away, because I knew a lot of people who used their skis. The fact that it’s a French brand based in Chamonix, near my home, made me join the project quickly. It fills me with excitement!

By the way, which model of skis do you use?

I ski on Black Crows Mentis, the successors to the Vastus. With their 80-millimeter waist, I really love the look of them, as they allow me to go on long mountaineering tours. With these lightweight and high-performance skis, I can climb big differences in height without too much effort and move on the slopes with confidence. In short, they are pure mountaineering skis. I really appreciate this kind of model in my daily high-alpine routine.

 

Cool! Do you have any upcoming expedition projects, if of course possible?

I’ll be going to Pakistan in June and July to climb Broad Peak and K2 with some Italian friends. I’ll be doing all of the preparation beforehand, from May onward. I’ll use a hypoxic chamber in France to acclimatize to at least 6500 meters and in order to spend as little time as possible climbing on-site. This training technique involves going into a partially sealed room so that I can train with a lower amount of oxygen. The lack of oxygen boosts my breathing capacity and increases my red blood cell count to cope with the altitude once I’m there. This project aims to go from base camp to summit in one push, with an ascent window of around 24 hours. It will therefore be best to arrive perfectly prepared, physically and mentally ready to get straight into the zone and to succeed without encountering any insurmountable obstacles.

How do you see the evolution of ski mountaineering, between steep slopes and big expeditions, today?

I think that the current trend is to give a lot of media coverage to our projects and challenges, which is good for us. However, our precursors were there long before us. They pulled off some insane things that made history, helping us get a glimpse of what would come next. For example, fast and light – where you pack as light as possible so that you spend less time exposed to danger on routes and make a quicker descent – already existed long ago. Although the general public wasn’t necessarily aware of it, the expeditions were all the more incredible because the kit then was not as good as it is now. Personally, I like to have an alpinist’s logic on skis, from managing my line to that of my rope mates. It’s all in a spirit of togetherness and sharing, so that we make it to the end of the challenge and enjoy ourselves in a unique environment. I like tasting adventure more than risk. It’s extremely important for me to be in control of what I do on a steep slope. The competitive mindset of someone who always tries to ski steeper can be dangerous. It’s not really my thing. I try to steer clear of this state of mind as much as possible. It’s difficult to measure a performance on the big slopes. Things move forward when everyone plays their part. A mixture of innovative visions inspires my practice and leads me to new ideas. Today’s skiers all bring their own visions to the slopes. What they achieve there depends on the spirit of the skiers, the snow conditions and how they go about things. Every ascent is different; each has its own unique feel.

Do you sometimes get frightened in the mountains?

I usually give up before it gets to that. I try to remain cautious and clear-sighted. If even small doubts about the initial route enter my mind, I change my plans before I get frightened. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t have any stories about big scares. I have always kept in mind that the bad feeling I can get helps me to make the right decisions. I try to leave as little room as possible for chance. Listening to one another is key. I reduce the risks that I face in the mountains to the absolute minimum, especially at high altitude, where you just can’t make too many mistakes.

Do you prefer to set foot on the legendary faces that everyone dreams of treading, or to innovate by exploring unknown couloirs?

Let’s just say that, in general, I work with the aesthetics of a given mountain. Obviously, if I feel pulled to a legendary face, then I’ll go there and I’ll ski it. This is because it represents a dream of sorts for me as well as many other people. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of routes such as the Couturier couloir. I need to adopt an alpine approach, to be thorough in my research, to visualize impressive perspectives, and to have a notion of freedom and solitude on the face. I would like to take on summits such as the Grandes Jorasses, the Matterhorn, Monte Viso, and the Eiger, where the research for the ascent route is mountaineering-oriented, and the descent is winding. It’s the fuel to my particular fire.

Is competitive skiing definitively a thing of the past for you?

In my opinion, nothing is ever definitive. But for the moment, I can’t see myself going back to it as I’m very busy with my coaching role. The French team’s performances are a reflection of my state of mind. So, I need to be totally present with them to achieve results. It really excites me to grasp the psychology of my 25 athletes and transforming their states of mind into performances on the slopes in order to work with them toward victories. It drives me to keep on going in this direction. My job as a guide also takes up a lot of my time. Finally, there is the development and representation work alongside my sponsors that fills the remaining slots in my calendar. That said, I must admit that this was the first winter where I missed competing on a personal level. I could see that I was strong and in shape, and I felt like testing my strength on the way up …

How do you see the next stage of your career?

I really enjoy what I’m doing right now. I have some great targets with the French teams. In the future, I think that I would like to broaden my skill set to become a really complete mountaineer. I love paragliding, and I would like to be able to bring this into my guiding excursions. I want to offer a comprehensive, high-alpine experience, from the summit to going back down to the valley. I also want to continue going on wonderful expeditions around the world and in the company of friends, because this is what drives my dreams and makes me feel alive. Hopefully, we can calmly start all of this again very soon, because the mountains are calling me and I miss those adventures far from home.

 

A conversation made by Maxence Gallot

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