All Downhill From Here: At The Defi Foly

LAST Sunday in the French Alps, more than 5000 people gathered to watch a succession of professionals and capable amateurs attempt to ski down a mountain and across a lake, from one shore to the other. None of them made it, or even came close. Some were at least able to remain upright, even elegant, cutting a smooth, continuous line through the vertical of the slope and then horizontally across the water, before slowing to a stop and sinking well short of dry land. They looked like captains going down with their ships, and the crowd saluted them as such.

But more often, these skiers lost all form on contact with the lake, which did not behave much like a liquid when struck at speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour. The many who landed badly rolled across the surface as if falling onto wet tarmac from the back of a moving truck. This is the Defi Foly, and the clue is in the title – “defi” means “challenge” in French, and “foly” means what it sounds like. For 22 years, it has been a singular sort of rite in the town of La Clusaz, although it was cancelled in 2007 for lack of snow, making last weekend’s event the 21st anniversary edition.

Pierre Gou, a local shop owner, restaurateur, and alpine entrepreneur, apparently first conceived of it in almost pagan terms, as a metaphor in motion: the mountain is a symbol for winter, the lake stands for summer, and the competitors who ski from one to the other are representing the passage of spring between those seasons, albeit at a massively accelerated rate.

“Pierre is a very special and particular man,” said Alexis Bongard, director of the La Clusaz tourist bureau, as we watched the qualifying stages of this year’s Defi Foly. “He has a lot of crazy ideas. But this one worked, and it still works so many years later.” Gou himself was apparently present, but does not talk much to outsiders, and has long since ceded all responsibility to Bongard’s office and the town’s Club des Sport. Even so, and despite the growing interest of TV networks or the appearance of its most spectacular footage on YouTube, the event remains relatively parochial, and dedicated to the entertainment of residents. “This is a popular event for the public,” said Bongard. “It’s like a big feast, for having fun with your friends and family.”

Geology seems to have shaped Lac des Confins into a natural stadium for this purpose, and admission is free. Fosters are official sponsors, but almost everyone seemed to bring their own beer, along with whole pigs for roasting and in some cases, I was told, “special” mushrooms grown on the surrounding slopes. Bongard pointed to a competitor dressed as a giant pink rabbit, who had moved into the starting position above the lake. “That,” he declared, “is the spirit of the Defi Foly.” The rabbit began his run with a skill that is customary in the region – all around the Massif des Arrives, children learn to ski as soon as they can walk, and sometimes vice versa – but immediately faltered on the water. The resulting impact suggested that he had hit a sea mine, its exposive yield shattering his skis and tearing his big pink head off. Bongard winced.

“You have a lot of speed,” he admitted. “You have a big risk of injury.” The contest is open to anyone over 18, but even brave native sportsmen told me they would never enter it. “I’m not that crazy,” said the Club des Sport’s organiser Stephane Vittoz, brother of world Nordic skiing champion Vincent Vittoz and no slouch himself. “No fucking way,” said local hero Seb Collomb-Gros, a pioneering base-jumper and holder of a world record in free-fall skiing, who had just performed a stunt for the Defi Foly audience, dropping from a helicopter to fly solo overhead in a wing-suit. “I dislike the water. I am happy in the air, and on land I can survive at minus 30 degrees no problem. But that water is fucking cold. I hate it.” The temperature of the lake had in fact been gauged at one or two degrees above freezing, although it hadn’t quite thawed out and the remaining ice was pushed out of the way by motorboats the day before.

According to Defi Foly veterans, however, the real challenge of this event is not the water, nor the land, but negotiating the tiny breath of air between them. They call this “la transition”, and, being French, appear to consider it an almost abstract philosophical problem – how should a man proceed through three elements on a single journey? But it’s also a practical, even technical, concern for anyone taking part. After two decades of trial and error, the riders have found the monoski – a single wide ski which plants both feet together – best suited to the task, and many have customised theirs for the Defi Foly, making them wider and more aqua-dynamic. In the end, though, both equipment and skill seemed to take the contestants only so far.

Among the finalists were Olympic ski-racer Laurent Niol, and professional free-rider Adrien Guarriu, both of whom fell somewhere in the middle, literally and figuratively. The high-water mark was set two years ago by the comparative nobody Freddy Guenef, who traveled 145 metres across the lake, closer to the far side than anyone but the 12 apostles would have thought credible. “C’est Freddy!” shouted the announcer as Guenef set out to beat his own record. But this time Freddy could not make the transition, and was duly humbled with a harsh but compelling reminder of Newton’s three laws of motion.

The eventual winner, Jerome Sicardi, came to a halt at 139 metres, standing still on the lake for a moment of absolute repose, before flailing backward like a butcher in full armour. Thus was the Defi Foly secured for another year. “If anyone ever gets all the way across,” said Alexis Bongard, “then we will never hold this event again. It must remain … something impossible. What is the word in English? Oh, yes. Folly.”

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