Douds Charlet comes from a place where first descents are increasingly difficult to come by: Most lines in the mountains surrounding Chamonix, France, have been claimed by this point. Not to be held back, Charlet and his partner, skier Vivien Bruchez, recently became the first to make the Traverse of the Chamonix Aiguilles on snowboard/skis.
In full view of the Chamonix valley, the rock star line that is the North Face of Chamonix's Aiguille du Plan has seen very few descents since Laurent Giacometti and Jean-Marc Boivin first skied it in 1977. With over 1,600 feet of 45-55 degree hanging glaciers threatened by huge seracs, it's easy to see why. The first part of the route is a wildly exposed, fully committed descent of the that ends with 650 feet of sketchy rappels down an exposed ice chute or a blank rock wall.
In contrast with tradition, Charlet and Bruchez booted up the west face of the Agiuille du Blatiére with their crampons, and then descended the relatively straightforward, 50-degree Contamine Couloir to the north.
Their line is significant in that, for better or worse, the new exit will now open the North Face of the Aiguille du Plan to a wider number of riders.
Douds explains: "For us, we saw it as the best finish to the route. Normally, riders get to the bottom [of the North Face of the Plan] where they have to do four rappels. These are very exposed to rock fall and avalanche from above." The most difficult part? "The exposure. We didn't take a beacon, shovel and probe because if there is an avalanche it would take you over the serac and you're dead. Voila."
27-year-old Jonathon "Douds" Charlet is about as "big mountain" as big mountain gets. Growing up in Chamonix, France as the latest in a long line of mountain guides, Douds began snowboarding in the early '90s. By riding with his brother, freestyle legend Babs Charlet, Douds grew up ticking Chamonix extreme-skiing classics in the winter while building an arsenal of tricks at Europe's snowparks during the summer.
For the past five years, Charlet has been studying for his mountain guide exam from Chamonix's rigorous ENSA (National Ski and Alpinism School), which he will receive this summer.
"Becoming a guide helps me judge conditions and has taught me about ropework, building belays and climbing," says Charlet. "But even if I wasn't a guide, I am a climber -- I love technical climbing on rock and ice -- and I would be doing the same things, for sure."
At the start of the 2011 Freeride World Tour we heard a lot of riders spray about adding freestyle maneuvers into the big-mountain mix. But when the final event of the season rolled around and the crew began edging onto the notoriously steep face of Verbier's Bec des Rosses there was only one rider, Douds Charlet, who actually stepped up with a big spin at the top of the course.
"All the young guys are so strong and when I see the videos it makes me crazy and I wish I hadn't seen it," says Charlet of the new generation of freestyle kicker-trick kids. "I think, man, maybe I should stop freestyle. But my thing is combining nice backcountry riding and couloirs with big tricks in powder without kickers."
After two years of finishing fourth overall in the Freeride World Tour, Douds has plans to compete again this upcoming season to see if he can break the top three.
"In the snowpark you all compete on the same jumps and to win you just have to do the best tricks," says Doud. "But in the Freeride World Tour you have to find the most beautiful line and then ride it with fluidity, speed and jumps all in the same run. It's very interesting and it's cool because you get to travel, ride different snow conditions and different kinds of faces and try to find the best strategy for each face.
But at the end of the day, the mountain guide from Chamonix is all about freeriding. "Contests are really a different kind of pressure. I really liked the Traverse of the Chamonix Aiguilles because we were free to do what we wanted. I really prefer to ride with my friends in Chamonix, to ride the best lines in the best conditions and then try to decide where to go tomorrow. That is always the question all winter long: where will we go tomorrow?"