Over the past decade, no skier has enjoyed more success in big-mountain competitions than Aurelien Ducroz of France. Ducroz, 30, won the Freeride World Tour overall title in 2009 and 2011 and finished on the season-ending podium seven of the nine years he's competed, including three of four years on the Freeskiing World Tour. (He's also a three-time winner of the Verbier Xtreme.) Yet according to Ducroz, this year will be his last in competitive freeskiing.
The Chamonix-born skier, whose father is a mountain guide and mother is a ski instructor, still lives in the tiny Argentiere village where he grew up. After competing on the ski jumping World Cup circuit in his teens, he married his high school sweetheart and now has two young children. But lest one get the wrong idea, Ducroz is not retiring from adventure, only competitive freeskiing.
For the past three summers, Ducroz has devoted his life to open-ocean sailing, which presents his next challenge. He's competed in two transatlantic races in the past two years, including a monthlong solo competition in 2011 from France to Brazil, no communication allowed. (He was forced to abandon the race after both his rudders broke roughly 1,000 miles from land.) His ultimate goal is to prepare for a solo round-the-world race in 2016 that takes three months on a 60-foot boat. If you stop, you're disqualified. We sat down with Ducroz for a chat on the eve of his 10th and final season on the Freeride World Tour.
Any sadness leaving the Freeride World Tour after this year?
Of course. It's going to be really hard to stop, because it's been my life for 10 years. Going away with really good friends every 10 days to nice places. And it's been my real 10 years, like when I've created myself, because before that I was at home with my mom. I've been thinking the last two years about stopping, but I was not ready. Now with the sailing projects, I'm more ready, because I know I will have something else to focus on. I really don't want to be on my sofa and looking on the internet for the freeride results.
Have you decided how you'll spend your time after the tour?
I already have a plan for the next four years, kind of. I'm going to film a documentary where the idea is to go skiing by sailing. I'll get a boat and go wherever I want. The plan is to make a world tour, starting with Norway, then Greenland, then South Georgia and eventually Alaska. We're planning for Kamchatka too -- Russia. I don't know if I'll rent boats everywhere or what, but that's the general idea. I'm also competing more and more in sailing, and there is a transatlantic plan that starts in November, meaning I'll be back home maybe at Christmas. The ultimate goal is to go for the next Vendée Globe in 2016.
What's it like to sail across the Atlantic?
Difficult. When I went off to do my first transatlantic, my wife was at home with our first kid, who was 3 years old. And that was very hard for them, because they could not get any communication with me for 28 days. It was hard for me too; when you're out sailing, you just hope nothing is going on and everything is OK. You have to put your mind in a very egoist way and just think about you. Because if you start thinking about how they're doing, it can get to be too much very fast. You are already up and down when you're solo sailing.
Any close calls?
The biggest one was in 2011, when I did the sail from France to Brazil. It's 4,500 nautical miles, but I broke both rudders on the boat after 20 days. Then I'm like, OK, I'm on the Equator in the middle of the Atlantic. I think there is like 1,000 miles to Cape Verde and 1,500 miles to Brazil, so what do I do? During the two years of preparation, I was learning how to sail and learning everything I could, but of course there were so many things I didn't know. Like repairing things and solving problems. I had a VHF radio, so after talking with some friends who were within 10 miles, I managed to fix one rudder and sail back to Cape Verde.
How important is winning to you?
It's really important. Part of the reason I like skiing and solo ocean racing is you're on your own. In both sports, you have one starting gate and one finish line, but between that, you do whatever you want. When it works, it's a big thing because you did it really by yourself. But also, when you lose, you know why. And you have no one to complain to.
You were born and raised in Chamonix, and you still live there. What's it like being a native in that valley?
There are not many. I grew up in a little village called Lajoux, in Argentiere. It's a very small village; there are no cars. My house was always open. I will do everything I can to offer the same thing to my children. I know how good it is and I really want to give that to them. It's like a golden jail, because when you are there you don't want to leave. But it's small, and it's important to go out and see the world and see why you love being in Chamonix. I'm traveling a lot and I'm super happy to do that, but I'm always more excited to go home.