Sylvain Saudan, 'godfather of extreme skiing,' lends his name (again) to Blackcomb Mountain

Now 81, Sylvain Saudan is in B.C. to formalize a deal and end a decades-long legal fight over the use of his name and a significant piece of Blackcomb history.

Saudan Couloir Extreme ski race was wildly successful when it started — but there was a problem

Sylvain Saudan is considered the godfather of extreme skiing and the namesake of Blackcomb Mountain's Saudan Couloir Extreme ski race. (Vancouver International Mountain Film Fest/Sylvain Saudan)

In French he is the "skieur de l'impossible."

In English he's the "godfather of extreme skiing."

In every language, Switzerland's Sylvain Saudan is a legend — slayer of the world's steepest slopes and owner of 23 first descents, including an epic 1982 descent of Pakistan's Hidden Peak which gained him entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest and steepest slope ever skied. 

Now 81, Saudan is in B.C. to formalize a deal with Vail Resorts, the new owners of Whistler Blackcomb, and to end a decades-long dispute over the use of his name — and a significant piece of Blackcomb history.

"I like it very much," Saudan said in a thick, French accent. "I think with the new management we can have a good collaboration."

Sylvain Saudan (center) at the top of the Saudan Couloir this past April with filmmaker Peter Chrzanowski (left). (Peter Chrzanowski)

Origins of the conflict predate the ski lifts.

Local die-hards who would hike to the top of Blackcomb to ski virgin terrain began calling the gnarliest run — a steep and terrifying chute — the Saudan Couloir, in honour of the man himself. 

The name stuck, and when extreme skiing was exploding in popularity in 1987, Blackcomb launched a race that set off from the top of the Saudan Couloir and descended into the valley.

It was named, not surprisingly, the Saudan Couloir Extreme.

'Thigh-burning hell'

Marketed as "2,500 vertical feet of thigh-burning hell," the race grew in fame and popularity.

TSN signed on as a broadcaster and major corporate sponsors like Labatts jumped on board.

The Saudan Couloir Extreme was becoming big business, but none of the companies involved had ever approached Saudan to ask if they could use his name.

So when a friend returned from Whistler with news about how his name was being used, Saudan was shocked.

"He said, 'You have got to look at what they are doing, even the small shop in the hotel is called Saudan Couloir!' I was surprised," Saudan said.

Pemberton filmmaker and extreme skier Peter Chrzanowski has worked with Saudan over the years and witnessed the evolution of the race.

Huge corporate sponsors

"All these corporates were using his name without his permission," said Chrzanowski.

"For nine years it was called the Saudan Couloir — it was on the maps, it was on the race, on posters. And it had huge sponsors like Air Canada and Fuji."

A classic poster advertising the Saudan Couloir Extreme, created by artist Brent Lynch. (Whistler Museum/Whistler Museum.org)

"He found out about it ... and asked [Blackcomb] what are you doing with my name? And instead of talking to him they cowered and changed the name to the Couloir Extreme thinking he'll go away."

The sudden name change was not popular with locals, and it didn't sit well with Saudan.

Sylvain Saudan on stage at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver earlier this week. The "godfather of extreme skiing" presented two of his films to a sold out audience. (Peter Chrzanowski)

For years he fought to be compensated. Eventually a settlement was reached, rumoured to be an amount just over six figures.

This past spring Saudan struck another deal with the mountain.

The name of the run has been restored to Saudan Couloir, and there's a chance the race will return in April of 2018 with his name as well, although a spokesman from Whistler Blackcomb said a final decision was still pending.

"We have a collaboration," said Saudan. "Now we'll see if it is a big success."

Sylvain Saudan, 81, made it into the Guiness Book of World Records for his 1982 ski descent of Pakistan’s Hidden Peak, considered the steepest and highest ever. (Peter Chrzanowski)

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of the story stated the Saudan Couloir Extreme ski race would return in April of 2018 however a spokesman from Whistler Blackcomb says a final decision about the race had not been made.
    Nov 12, 2017 2:51 PM PT

About the Author

Karin Larsen

@CBCLarsen

Karin Larsen is a former Olympian and award winning sports broadcaster covering BC teams and athletes for 25 years.