IN THIS NEW SERIES, MARTIN CHESTER PROFILES HIS OUT-AND-OUT HEROES IN THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF MOUNTAIN GUIDING. NEXT UP: ROSS HEWITT. OVER TO MARTIN…
Ross Hewitt’s social media feed is a veritable envy-fest from the first big runs of autumn to the last big lines well into early summer. So how does this responsible engineer (yep – he even has a proper job) come mountain guide manage consistently to knock out the lines of our dreams? Well, it turns out he is that talented right across the board…
Ross took his first steps on skis at Epsom racecourse, of all places. From the age of seven, having moved to Aberdeen, Ross skied with the family once a week, albeit on his dad’s wooden skis with wire bindings. But it wasn’t just skiing that satisfied the young need for speed. In his teens, Ross discovered mountain biking and was a sponsored racer at national level in both cross-country and downhill. So began his life-long obsession with gravity-driven speed.
“Flow sports seem to suit me well, reading terrain and blasting through trying to be as smooth as possible. I think I exploited that young man’s false sense of immortality to the full. I don’t recall ever holding back or fearing I would fall,” he says. Typically, Ross delivered the results as well, with an impressive haul of medals and a Full Blue at university. But it was the amazing self-supported bike adventures into the mountains that fired up his sense of adventure and journeying.
Ross has held down a career as an engineer and, coming from the corporate world, he knows he “doesn’t want to get sucked into working until you’re sick”. The combination of his analytical approach and attention to detail with his need for flow makes a winning combo. “Biking is more technical than skiing, and as an engineer that suits me.”
Although he recently qualified as an IFMGA Mountain Guide, he reckons he is better suited to flow sports than climbing. He still loves riding the local single-track and recently did the Tour of Mont Blanc road circuit unsupported and alone – 8000m vertical, 330km, 18 hours door to door. No mean feat. So when I tell you this is nothing compared to his achievements on skis…
Ross is of a certain era and, like so many of us, was influenced by numerous Scottish ski heroes and cult films like the Blizzard of Aaahh’s. Realising the big lines were possible, he has since skied four laps of the Midi to the road in a day. Think about it: four runs on the west face, to the road (not just to the mid-station) is around 12,000m of vertical. This is where the years of biking fitness pay off – as skiing big lines like this in just two big pitches requires a mind-boggling level of endurance, as well as the skills. My admiration peaks – for as well as having the plums, the fitness and the skills for the job, he has soul and humility.
“The ability to travel fast and light through the mountains on technical terrain really appeals to me, requiring the right mix of the mental, technical and physical abilities to achieve that long-dreamt-about project of an aesthetic line on a big peak.”
But what I really wanted to know is what it takes (and what it is like) to come out of the Aiguille Du Midi station and simply turn left. What I discovered is an amazingly heartfelt and reassuring combination of humility, respect and incredible attention to detail.
First up, Ross admits he can be gripped on 35 degrees, as any of us would, if it is in poor condition. “That illusion of immortality has long since gone and now I go into the mountains with the objective to come back safe.” He has learned the need to be patient, and to wait until these big lines are in perfect nick. There is nothing reckless about his approach.
He also attributes success to skiing with the right people. “Stress can do funny things to people,” he says, and he puts great emphasis on the need for shared decisions about abseil anchors, key transitions and the trust that comes from skiing with people who share the same risk outlook. “There are some pretty wild people in Chamonix,” says Ross – and you get the impression he is a tad more cool, calculated and logical than most.
When he skis those big lines, he recognises that “every single detail is important”. I have never spoken to someone so diligent about his preparation. Perhaps these are the project management skills of Ross the engineer. From analysing the weather and snow conditions, to working with the team at Plum to ensure his kit is in tip-top condition, Ross irons out every variable within his control: “When you are making those crucial turns, the only thing left to worry about is that next turn.”
So what is it like to guide those big lines? Can you ever be sure it’s OK? As always, there is nothing flippant or ill-considered about Ross’s response. For him, it is all about taking the right people to the right places in the right conditions; about keeping the unknowns and uncontrollable factors to a minimum. It is hard to imagine anyone having a better handle on all that, or more of the right experience. But this experience is combined with such a deep and healthy respect for the mountains.
Ross waited more than 20 years to ski the Couturier couloir, for example. He is most proud of skiing off Citadel on Baffin Island. While we may envy the big glory lines on his CV, for Ross, the reward comes from doing something cool and remote – and doing it well.
Ross also has a healthy respect for his team: “I have great sponsors and a big thanks goes to Black Crows Skis, Plum, Julbo, Petzl, Scarpa, Arva, Mountain Boot Company, Lyon Equipment, Concept Pro Shop and Chamonix Sports Massage. Skiing maybe an individual sport but there is a team of super heroes working hard for you in the background.”
So what is the future of big-mountain skiing? Fluidity is his answer. Ross acknowledges that the hard lines were first skied years ago. What happens now is they get skied in better style, with greater fluidity. Ross predicts that speed skiing is the way forward to replace clumsy and time-consuming abseils. Just get your wing out and fly…