La Sentinelle: for the love of skiing

The first edition of La Sentinelle was held last weekend in the Cirque de Gavarnie in the Occitan Pyrenées. Before any fresh news comes in, let’s recap on a ski mountaineering event that puts adventure first.

Bruno Compagnet and Minna Riihimaki have been on loads of adventures together, long tours, steepish faces, igloos and tents crumpled by icy polar episodes… From this innocent intimacy, which has long been a topic of conversation for Chamoniards with loose tongues, a friendship as solid as the bond between two Furtis ski poles has formed. Now after sharing so many vertical metres, they have created La Sentinelle, an event that encapsulates their love for adventure skiing, camaraderie and making nice turns on an open surface.

The concept of this unparalleled event rests on five principles: wild routes, fat skis, lots of vert, no rankings and a healthy dose of revelry. It’s a concept that contrasts with skimo races where efforts are timed and contained within a strict framework, where contemplation of the wild space around you is limited to the sight of the skin-tight outfit that’s in front of you and where, instead of a party tent, is a stand with ultra-lightweight equipment waiting to greet you at the finish line. “The idea for La Sentinelle came to me after crossing the Lyngen Alps in Norway. I imagined an event that resembles the reality which we experience in the field; to present skiers who are driven by mountaineering and striking descents with a chance to share it with each other. It’s an opportunity to exchange ideas and meet others through ski mountaineering, without neglecting to have a nice meal and great party afterwards…” explains Bruno Compagnet. To translate this concept into reality, Bruno teamed up with his good friend and rope buddy, Minna Riihimaki. Kept away from the slopes because of her terrible accident spring skiing last year, Minna has put all her energy into this project. The team also called on the services of Layla Jean Kerley for artistic direction. This British skier is behind the name of the backofbeyond association that oversees La Sentinelle and is incidentally the only lady to take to the starting lineup in the event’s first edition.

It might seem as though La Sentinelle is victimising ski mountaineering racers, but this is only because the mountains are being invaded- in the same way as trail running- by frantic ballerinas who haven’t found time to read Voltaire’s proverb: A slow world walks towards wisdom. So with a 100mm underfoot restriction these so-called ballerinas seem to be excluded from the event. “It was mostly just to differentiate the two disciplines. We are not focusing on ascent time or pure athletic performance, which requires ultra-light equipment…What we are into is skiing down on all terrain and all kinds of snow, and to do this, skis that are 100mm underfoot are wonderful”, explains Bruno. Although exemptions for 95mm wide skis were made this year, does this restriction not, effective as it may be, reflect the friction between lovers of beautiful skiing and the time-checking white rabbits who have now reached the snow?

Beyond this conditional liberty, La Sentinelle is a pretty good slog in itself: between 2500 to 3000m of vertical, an unmarked course to preserve the adventurous spirit (each participant is required to carry a GPS chip in case of mishaps) and all within a place of wild natural beauty. With routes tracked all around the Cirque de Gavernie in the Pyrenees national park, this first edition in Occitan country has the most beautiful arena at its disposal. So while we wait to find out whether the participants have the legs to then go and party, let’s just wish La Sentinelle a long and happy life after the success of this first edition.

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