Book a trip to La Clusaz and be guided by Seb Michaud. Yes, that really is a ‘thing’. Fall-Line spends a day getting gnarly with the freeriding master
If you want the short version of what I’m going to write about below, here it is: if you like the idea of skiing fast, steep, slashing wind lips, jumping cliffs and hot-dogging around some of the best in-bounds/out-of-bounds skiing in the Alps with a local (who happens to be an ex-Freeride World Tour competitor) go ski with Seb Michaud. Close this article, check your diary, and book a trip to La Clusaz and a couple days with Seb (you can actually do that).
Seb will give you a unique take on La Clusaz | Kene E-O
A couple hours into the day my friends and I are fortunate enough to be guided around La Clusaz by Seb, I watch him send a super-photogenic cliff at the top of one of La Clusaz’s signature limestone combes (see main picture). The symmetry of the scene and the airborne style of Seb hits me. I realise we are witnessing something special: a skier in his element.
Seb moved to La Clusaz from the Chablais when he was training with the French national moguls and aerials team as a school boy. It turns out he was briefly coached by one of my favourite people to have ever lived, Franck Dufour, who sadly is no longer with us.
We share a few minutes reminiscing about Franck and other French moguls team members. “Now these are real skiers,” says Seb. We move on to discussing the newer breed of pro skiers, including the most legendary, Candide Thovex, who still lives and rides in La Clusaz and who came through the Club des Sports. Then we talk of another La Clusaz local, Loïc Collomb-Patton, double FWT winner. Loïc will later buzz past us with some friends, giving no more than a crow call as he boosts a good 15 metres off a wind lip with a neat shifty.
The obvious question is this: how has La Clusaz produced such immense, world-dominating freeride talent? Seb has two answers: the first is the Club des Sports, which he describes as being one of the best in the Alps. The training is so dedicated and the standard so high, a few are bound to be top-flight skiers. The best of the best.
Chrigl follows freeride legend Seb around La Clusaz | Kene E-O
The second reason takes more than just a few sentences of explanation, but over the course of the day it becomes abundantly clear: the terrain here is awesome. The huge combes running parallel with each other create natural bowls which, after their steep entry points, via shelves or couloirs, open up into natural terrain parks with lips, rolls, craters and drops. And, being a nice mid-range altitude, they have just the right number of trees, not too sparse and not too dense.
So, where do we go with Seb? He has a few options in mind but first wants to be more clear about the stability of the snowpack. So rather than rush over to the vast off-piste bowls of Combe de Bellachat, we decide to play it safe and warm up with a blast down the La Balme side. It stopped snowing this morning, and already there are tracks down into compressions, which boost out in naturally-formed take-offs. Candide country.
Seb gives us a quick display of how to shred this stuff, chucking his signature laid-out backfilp off one of them. So good.
On the chair back up, we see someone else has made the traverse over to Bellachat and we opt to do it. It means a 10-minute sidestep and a 15-minute bootpack. Seb flies up and is waiting for us at the top with a smile on his face. This run would come to define the memory of La Clusaz for me. After sending the drop at the opening, we hug the cliff, skier’s left. Seb has us reading the convexity of the slope, looking for safe zones and descending one by one. The excitement is ramping up and this is only the first part of our second run.
Loïc Collomb Patton whizzes past. Suddenly, feeling inspired and getting the thumbs up from Seb, I hit the same lip and try to emulate his shifty. Floaty. Gentle transition. Wow. I’m hooked.
We drop into some steeper sections, peppered with trees. Seb asks if I want to follow him down, round and off a “good cliff” but, not being able to see it, and having already witnessed what he might consider to be a “good cliff” I duck out and try to save some luck for later in the day. There is plenty more to go. The turns keep coming. We are all picking slight variations down through the glades. How much vertical was that?!
Hiking up to Bellachat | Kene E-O
We stop back at the base station at the bottom of La Balme for a very basic snack. Seb has a good suggestion for dinner later though: he invites us to his wife’s restaurant, Chez Papaz, promising great food. Meanwhile, we snarf the rest of the quiche, some chocolate, an Orangina and more chocolate. The twinkle in Seb’s eye makes me think I’ll need all the extra sugar I can get, and 20 minutes later it seems I was right. Seb is practically running, along with Chippie, the fittest of our group by some margin, up the chimney-like bootpack up to Couloir La Lana.
I am gasping for air and my thighs are burning. Seb waits patiently at the top. When we crest the col, to drop over the other side, we see what must be 100 turns of virgin, thigh-deep powder. Only our group is here. We are first. Seb sure knows where to go! I quickly realise that this is one of those moments you have to savour. I have a little talk with myself. Don’t. Miss. Anything.
I wait for the others to go ahead, one by one, seeing little more than their tips exiting the snow on every turn, and a cloud of snow billowing behind them.
Far down below me I see Seb skiing flat-out, charging up the wall of a cliff to our left, using an apron of snow like a hip jump and launching back into the main snowfield – any excuse for some airtime! What then follows are some of
the most memorable turns I have ever made. Medium-radius turns. Tight enough to create some rebound for exiting the snow, but fast enough that those exits are more like massive jumps down the snowfield. I will never forget those turns. Nearing the exit and looking over our shoulders we reflect on the immensity of the combe’s walls around us. What a place.
“The symmetry of the scene and the airborne style of Seb hits me. I realise we are witnessing something special: a skier in his element” | Kene E-O
The final flourish of the day is the home run back to town. Just picture, with well-used legs, the frenzied skiing required to keep up with Seb on his favourite little cut-throughs in between pistes and through the forest.
Following his lead we are steaming into moderately blind take-offs and bob-sled-like rabbit runs. By the time we get to the bottom I am in total disbelief. I’ve been taken back to the days of skiing in a group with Franck Dufour as kids, when we were all raggedly keeping up with the master in front. Such fun.
And that is that. Mind blown. And to think that Seb is doing this every day, for the kids in training and for anyone who wants a taste of the incredible freeriding potential that La Clusaz has to offer. Awesome. Thank you, Seb.