Martin Chester profiles one of his out-and-out heroes in the wonderful world of mountain guiding
We are sitting on the hut balcony, supping a beer after a day on the Weissmies, and watching the alpenglow kiss the peaks of Monte Rosa on the horizon. John casually drops the time he skied the Marinelli couloir into conversation.
Cue a sharp intake of breath – as the Marinelli is a contender for the longest couloir in the Alps on one of the biggest faces of them all: the Macugnaga, or east face of Monte Rosa. It is the tick of all ticks in my ski dreams. Then John casually mentions that it was the first telemark descent – and I nearly spat my beer.
It is hard to comprehend how the son of a merino sheep farmer, who grew up in the Old Man Plain of Australia, ended up become one of the world’s most esteemed skiing legends, IFMGA mountain guide and stuntman?
John undoubtedly gets his sense of adventure from his dad. In 1937, while at school in England, he went skiing in the Austrian Tyrol, perhaps tempted by the fact that ‘she-ing’ (as he heard it called) was a euphemism for hunting girls! He finished school in Australia, before returning to Biggin Hill as a spitfire pilot. Eventually, once back in Australia, skiing was beginning to take off and “Dad longed to have another go and became a regular, climbing up to the huts and lodges that were being built. When I was about five, he took me along… and thus created a monster.”
So it was no surprise when John moved to Verbier to work a season, and stayed for two and a half years. 47 years later, he is still there! While his dad was wondering when John would get a ‘proper job’, he worked his way from pot washer, to freestyle competitor, to ski instructor/examiner/coach, to stuntman and finally to IFMGA guide. His dad finally realised he was serious when, some 10 years after arriving, John appeared on the big screen as a Russian skier in the Bond film A View to a Kill…
The pinnacle moment in John’s remarkable career was when, in the late 70s, he rented a chalet in an area above Verbier called Clambin with fellow Verbier locals and adventure photographers Ace Kvale and photographer Marko Shapiro. This was an amazing trio with incredible synergy and, before long, ‘Team Clambin’ was attracting many of the big names in skiing to stay with them.
As a consequence, John, Ace, Mark and their guests pushed the frontiers of skiing. Ski brands gave them kit for their pictures; the resort gave them passes for the great skiers they attracted, all in a virtuous circle of mutual benefit. Verbier was firmly put on the serious ski map.
BIG LINES TO BIG SCREENS
While the team may have looked like the original ski bums from the outside, they grafted hard to get what they wanted. And more than anything, they wanted to ski. John started carrying tripods on film shoots in the ‘70s and has now clocked up over 80 film projects, on both sides of the lens. John has starred in all manner of films, from niche Italian telemarking documentaries to The Blizzard of Aahhhs, Vitamin Ski, three Bond movies and Bridget Jones.
John appears to have had a hand in the venue selection, action filming, team safety and coordination of almost every ski clip you may have seen on the big screen.
So what happened next? The Clambin dream lasted over 15 years and John, Ace and Marko are still the very best of friends and ski buddies. But as Verbier became well known, there were soon “too many flies in the box”. I know John well enough to know there is nothing derogatory to others in this phrase; it is simply a lovely metaphor that conjures up just the right image. Fat skis changed everything, and enabled many more people to access their precious secrets. Too many flies invade your head and your karma, as much as your mountains, and Team Clambin found themselves in competition with more careless masses. As John puts it, he likes to base his decisions on the mountains, not other people, preferring to “make his own mistakes”; he got nervous skiing around so many others. The secret, of course, was to look outside the box…
So, John went exploring, to find places other people didn’t ski (yet). It is an enviable list of exotic locations, including Iran, Lebanon, Iceland, Norway, Greece, Japan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Australia, New Zealand and the Himalaya.
In 1989, his team were skiing in the big terrain of Gulmarg when theirs were the only (not just the first) tracks. John has been on a mission ever since: “finding destinations in the mountains where there is still room to move and learn, from the people and the cultures”. He has skied from the 6190m summit of Denali on alpine skis, and (with a high point of 8300m without oxygen) telemarked from around 7000m on Everest. Suddenly, the Marinelli couloir doesn’t seem that outrageous…
A DIFFERENT MINDSET
It was on his way home from the Caucasus, after spending five days storm-bound in a snow cave on Elbrus (5,642m, the highest point in Europe), that John decided to capitalise on his acclimatisation. The north face of Mont Blanc proved to be in mint condition, as were the team. So Monte Rosa was the obvious next adventure.
They went old-school, skinning up to the Monte Rosa hut from Zermatt. With perfect conditions and enviable fitness, they decided to climb through the night, leaving the winter room at 10pm and skinning up the mighty Grenz glacier by moonlight. Reaching the Margherita hut (4556m) at 5am, they brewed up and rested up as best they could.
However good the conditions, you are never going to get perfect snow for all 2500m of vertical on a face like this. Dropping in at the top, it was so firm that John had his heart in his mouth for the first few hundred metres. While the average gradient is quoted between 45-50 degrees, some sections are much steeper. This is also before the era of fat skis so, with the edge of his bindings touching the slope, it was more paramark (parallel telemark) than telemark for a while.
John vividly recalls the levels of adrenaline; and the view straight down into the Macugnaga cemetery. Thankfully, once through the crux section, the snow softened to perfect corn for the remaining 2000m. John had made the first telemark descent of this monster couloir.
However wild John may have been with his friends, becoming an IFMGA guide marked a shift in his mindset. John was relatively late to get his badge and, having been in my early thirties, I flinched at the idea of doing my guides test at 49. But then, with so much more to offer and so much less to prove, it is not such a bad idea! Guiding is a super-rewarding team event and, as a team, you are only as strong as your weakest link. John has definitely mellowed to embrace these rewards, and likes his skiing “extremely interesting” rather than extreme these days.
Everyone should ski with John at least once in their lives. Or go and listen to John’s band, The Lost Guides, play their tunes in Verbier, at the very least. I knew that talking to John about his life history would take me into the heart of ski history; but I accidentally found its very soul in the process.