Where Black Crows fly: we visit their Chamonix HQ

Will Robson is in Chamonix meeting the Black Crows crew at their mountainside HQ. Skis picked, their rad new clothing range donned, it’s up to a vertiginous couloir they go…

Koosje Naberman is busy rooting around under the eaves of a wooden chalet perched on a hillside above Chamonix. “They’re in here somewhere, I know it,” her muffled voice sounds as cardboard boxes are hauled out and contents inspected.

Fall-Line award-winners Black Crows not only produce great skis, but also tech-chic gear for serious snow monkeys

Black Crows not only produce great skis, but also tech-chic gear for serious snow monkeys

‘Here’ is the global HQ of Black Crows (BC)and Koosje, BC’s soft goods product manager, is finding me samples from their new clothing range. Triumphantly, she slaps down a pair of Ventus pants and matching jacket. Clothing is only a season-old venture for Black Crows and it’s a departure for the brand that began life with the Corvus ski in 2006. It spent the next decade perfecting skis aimed at customers who took no prisoners on the Mont Blanc massif, but in recent years big mountain and backcountry purists worldwide have bought into the BC blend of strong design and technical function.

Founding partner Bruno Compagnet is pacing round the office, catching up on business after a ski trip in the remotest Norwegian backcountry with his girlfriend, and BC tester, Layla Kerley. He tells me that the company name came from the observation that whenever you found yourself up some remote mountain, there would often be a flock of yellow-beaked choucas (alpine crows) to keep you company; holding station into the wind.

Black Crows founder Bruno shows off his tats

Black Crows founder Bruno shows off his tats

I change into my Ventus get-up and head to the basement ski room to see what BC marketing manager Chris Booth has for me to test on the Aiguille du Midi. He’s prepping some hot pink Corvus Freebird skis for me with Plum bindings. Chris fits the BC profile: cool and competent. This Australian former ski pro studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris and began work at a corporate law firm in Sydney before some mates suggested a six-week trip to Alaska… and the rest is history.            

Dynamic double (in more ways than one)

In the office for only a few minutes is Bruno’s fellow founder Camille Jaccoux, who grips my hand, fixes me with friendly and intense eye contact, then rushes off to London. If Bruno is the embodiment of mountain man mystique – a ‘professional ski bum’, as he says disarmingly – Camille is the lightning rod of Black Crows’ business dynamism.

Camille too was a ski pro, a Bond stunt double no less, but along with Bruno – and industrialist investor Christophe Villemin in 2006 – he saw the opportunity for Black Crows to develop technically advanced big mountain skis that would open up steeper and deeper terrain to a burgeoning freeride culture.

Only a French brand, whose products meet the demands of serious skiers, could also showcase its first clothing range in the iconic Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris, and launch a high fashion ‘capsule collection’ with French designer Colette that appeared in Vogue. And all the while retaining cred in what must be polar opposite clothing markets.

BC founder Bruno shows Will the way along that vertiginous ridge

BC founder Bruno shows Will the way along that vertiginous ridge

Bruno, Layla and Chris are discussing route options for a run down the Aiguille du Midi. After days of heavy snowfall, it will be a bluebird day. Chris equips me with his spare backcountry pack and harness, plus ice screws. The tough, Gore-Tex Ventus trousers have a thick band stitched high on the thigh, designed to hold an ice screw. The zipped gaiters also forego fashionable mesh backing. This is at Bruno’s insistence, as he likes to keep his skins folded and wrapped above each boot. Layla too tests BC gear to destruction. The women’s Ventus has no bib: it makes having a pee easier…

Some of the Ventus’ features Bruno’s not so happy with however: the back pocket he says has no function at all, but Black Crows’ chief design guru, Yorgo Tloupas, a former graphic designer with Rossignol and Lacoste, insists it stays, as the idea is that customers should also be happy wearing their gear off the mountain.

Help me Rond

It’s mid-May and we’re in the queue (along with the legend that is Seth Morrison) for the first lift up to the Aiguille du Midi at 3,777m and its vast array of descents; the famed Vallée Blanche being by far the most benign of them.

Chris, Layla and Bruno have decided we’re skiing the classic Rond route, via the Rond Glacier on the northwest face of the Aiguille du Midi. Coming out of the ice tunnel onto the famous snow arrête, Bruno points out that as they’ve removed the staked rope at this time of year, I should take care. To my left, it’s a kilometre straight down.

Bruno skis the Ronde

Bruno skis the Rond

Below, we track right, under the cliffs towards the Cosmiques refuge, stepping up towards the col. The traverse round to the beginning of the Rond descent is another decidedly no-fall zone. My uphill hand is halfway down the pole as I round the steep shoulder of the slope.

We enter the first open face of the run; it’s deep in the shadow of the Aiguille, with the télécabine cables hanging taut above. Bruno pulls some elegant turns for my camera, followed by Layla. They both have a style that seems honed to a point of cat-like languor, not easy on a 40° pitch. Chris too swoops past with practised ease. Me? Just happy to be here.

Exit couloir, stage left

After 500m of steep descent in powder, we bear left onto a vertiginous, rocky ridge. I follow Bruno, side-slipping along the ridge until he stops above what he tells me is the exit couloir. I’m wondering where exactly skiing comes into it. He launches over a blind rolling snow bank into certain death I’m sure, before appearing 100m down where the couloir reveals its path.

As if by magic, Layla appears at my side, taking me further to the right where a narrow chute offers a less spectacular entrance to the couloir. There’s enough snow to side-step, though the rocks on either side are so close that the tips catch and bend at times. My guardian angel leads the way, bravely assuming I’m not going to lose grip on this 50° pitch, that more often than not is abseiled down.

Bruno skis in shadow of Aiguille du Midi

Bruno skis in shadow of Aiguille du Midi

The snow is softening in the sun as we set to skiing down to the Rond glacier, which enters our view from way up to the left opposite the couloir. After a traverse round to the old lift station, we run out of snow and hike out the last kilometre, finishing at the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel and a long lunch in Chamonix.

Magic formula?

Skiing the Rond was my good fortune – the weather gods smiled and Bruno, Layla and Chris happened to be in town and on for a classic run in the sunshine. It showed me how a ski company can thrive on authenticity – being right there in the mountains, testing the gear from its front doorstep – and belief in itself and its products.

Black Crows’ clothing is being stocked in the UK by Ski Bartlett, and I predict many will buy into its unique formula of tech-chic. Maybe someone can show Bruno the value of a back pocket on the Ventus…

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