Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme returns

The Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme, is coming to the World Ski and Snowboard Festival 2018 after a more than 15 year hiatus. The return to the original event name is due in part to Vail Resorts settling a decades old conflict with the namesake, legendary skier Sylvain Saudan.

The race, which started back in 1987, is set to be a festival highlight in 2018, bringing out the legends of ski racing, big mountain pros, and a healthy dose of amateur skiers who aren’t afraid to charge. Registration for the 2018 iteration of the event will open on March 1, 2018 at 10:00am and is sure to fill up quickly–register here. The event is being held on Friday, April 13, 2018 and Saturday, April 14.

Advertised in 1988 as “2,500 square feet of thigh burning hell,” the Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme was an infamous ski race held on Blackcomb Mountain starting in the spring of 1987. With the race dropping 2,500 vertical feet from the top of Saudan Couloir Extreme, down to the bottom of Jersey Cream Chair, it went on to gain an international reputation as a classic extreme race.

After the development of 7th Heaven, which opened up a vast area of mostly alpine and glacier skiing, Blackcomb Ski Resort set out to develop an event that would profile its unique terrain. The Saudan Couloir run was chosen, as it was the only double black diamond run in the area at the time and is now rated as one of the top 10 steep in-bound runs in the world (according to Skiing magazine). If you are familiar with the Saudan Couloir Extreme, I’m sure you can imagine the intensity of racing down the hauntingly steep run.

As if the Saudan Couloir Race Extreme wasn’t plagued with enough natural obstacles for participants to battle, during the first two years of the event, major snowstorms covered the run days before the race, causing major ruts on the course. Unfortunately, at this time, grooming equipment was unable to go down terrain as steep as the 42-degree slope of the couloir.

Chris Kent, a former member of the Canadian Alpine Ski Team, became the inaugural champion of the event, placing first in 1987, 1988 and 1990. Kent held the title until Graham Swann took first in 1991, while Kent still managed to impress with second place. Another notable local who competed and took home a couple wins in the Saudan Couloir was Ross Rebagliati, who was considered one of the fastest snowboard racers in the world.

The Saudan Couloir became such a popular event during the ‘80s and ‘90s that TSN, a prominent Canadian sports channel, began filming the event to be broadcast as a 30-minute special. In addition, Blackcomb Ski Resort produced TV spots and highlight reels to help promote the event.

Switzerland’s 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.

Blackcomb had used the ski run’s name without Saudan’s permission and with the event promotion, was clearly using his name for commercial gain. Saudan was displeased with Blackcomb’s unauthorized use and had approached them in the late 80’s to establish a formal licensing agreement. Unfortunately Blackcomb’s management at that time declined to grant Sudan any agreement or settlement and subsequently changed the notorious run’s name to Couloir Extreme.

Now decades later Saudan visited Whistler to formalize a deal with Blackcombs new owners, Vail Resorts,to end a decades-long dispute over the use of his name — and a significant piece of Blackcomb history. Saudan is pictured above with Whistler Blackcomb’s COO Pete Sonntag. “I like our agreement very much,” Saudan said in a thick, French accent. “I think with the new management we can have a good collaboration.”

Origins of the conflict predate the ski lifts. Local die-hards who would hike to the top of Blackcomb to ski ou-of-bounds terrain began calling the gnarliest run — a steep and terrifying chute — the Saudan Couloir, in honour of the man himself. The name stuck with development of the terrain, and when extreme skiing was exploding in popularity in 1987, Blackcomb launched the Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme that descended into the valley.

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. An now it’s all history and the name of the run has been restored to Saudan Couloir, and the Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme is returning.