“I love what I do. I don’t need much, just enough to go travelling and ski.”
We’re halfway up a mountain in the French ski resort of Chamonix, and Bruno Compagnet is waxing lyrical about the life that he’s created for himself. The Frenchman with the pirate beard and tattoos looks every inch the mountain man, so the peripatetic philosophy he’s spouting seems entirely appropriate.
Indeed, you could imagine that after we finish up at Montenvers station, where we’ve been enjoying the views of the Mer de Glace glacier over a few cold beers, Compagnet might head back down into town to perch at an après-ski bar for the rest of the evening, sinking a few more cold ones before hitting the sack in anticipation of another full day on the snow.
In fact, you’d only be half right. Because often, after a day’s skiing, Compagnet actually jumps into his little Fiat Panda and blasts off straight to the office to share his opinions on the kit he’s been using. He may look like he’s just having fun while he’s carving up the powder, but he’s also product testing for Black Crows, the Chamonix-based ski and fashion brand that he co-founded in 2006, which is now distributed in 18 countries. You could say it’s the best job in the world and Compagnet would probably agree. “Part of the idea with Black Crows is to be able to live the life I want,” he explains. “To ski.” And that’s why I’m here – for a unique tour of the mountain with someone who knows them like the back of his Gore-Tex-gloved hand.
Ask most keen skiers their favourite place to pound the powder and they’ll say Chamonix. Without doubt one of the most beautiful places in the Alps, its mountain walls are steep, rugged and filled with glaciers, while its off-piste is some of the best to be found. That’s the reason a young Compagnet, who was born in Saint-Lary in the Pyrenees, fell in love with the area, after visiting with his father. “What I saw was so emotional,” he says. “The mountains were so massive, so spectacular and beautiful. How had I missed something so stunning? I had to come back.”
Compagnet resolved to return, and in his early 20s, he left his childhood mountains with just an old van and two pairs of skis and went off to start his new life in Chamonix. In the late 90s, he took part in France’s first freeride competition, the Red Bull Snow Thrill. He won, and as a result, he was picked up by Salomon to ski in its pro team. It was there that he met Black Crows co-founder Camille Jaccoux. The pair struck it off immediately and the idea for their business was hatched after a conversation about how difficult it was to find skis that were well suited to the unique off-piste terrain of Chamonix, where Jaccoux himself was from.
“We felt that no matter what skis we used, there was nothing that performed well in the variable conditions of Chamonix, where you can ski from 13,000ft to 3,000ft [3,962m–914m] in a single run,” says Jaccoux. “Sure, there were skis that performed well when conditions were nice, but there was nothing out there that thrived when conditions were tough. So we set out to make a ski for Chamonix, and that was the start of Black Crows.”
Today, Chamonix is home to 10,000 residents and welcomes more than six million annual visitors. The sprawling ski area consists of six different lift systems, which some might describe as complicated, but each is worth getting to grips with. Beginners and intermediates will prefer the friendlier runs at Le Tour-Vallorcine while sun lovers should choose the sunny south-side skiing at Brévent-Flègere with stunning views over the Mont Blanc and the impressive mountain range around the Aiguille du Midi.
Hardcore skiers, on the other hand, will flock to Argentière’s freeride haven Les Grands Montets or challenge themselves at the mecca for extreme skiing, the Aiguille du Midi – which is where we find ourselves heading on our first day skiing together. And what a privilege it is to be here with Compagnet. He’s still regarded as one of the best freeskiers of all time, so it’s with some nervous anticipation that I ride the Aiguille du Midi cabin to 3,842m.
Aiguille in French means “needle” and that is exactly what it is. The old cabin drops us off on one of the Alps’ most spectacular pinnacles, and once you step outside, you have to balance on the terrifying ridge that dips down into the abyss on both sides, holding on tight to an ice-axe as you climb to a point where you can safely put your skis on. Compagnet and his girlfriend Layla Kerley, who’s also with us, seem totally unaffected. This is their daily life.
Compagnet skis away towards Grand Envers du Plan, a steeper version of the mythical Vallée Blanche descent, one of the world’s best off-piste runs with 2,800 vertical metres of sheer beauty from the top of Aiguille du Midi all the way down to Chamonix. Ahead of us, 40cm of perfect feather-light powder is waiting. It looks steep but the sun is shining, the sky is dark blue. The view over the jagged mountains is unbeatable. Compagnet knows the descents perfectly, cruising down between gaping crevasses, while still finding time to chat with us. We only spot five or six other skiers. It is February in Chamonix and we are on one of the world’s most amazing ski mountains.
“Chamonix has changed over the years,” says Compagnet later. “There are more people going to extreme places without enough knowledge. I leave once in a while to seek a more relaxed attitude towards the mountains, but my heart still belongs to Chamonix. There are so many opportunities, and there is such a raw energy. You become humble in Chamonix.”
No wonder passionate mountain people from all over the world flock here. It’s a unique vibe, with extreme skiers, freeriders, climbers and mountaineers mixing with party lovers. The main street is always abuzz with shoppers, sidling between the boutiques and numerous ski shops where skis, ice-axes and crampons are displayed side by side with haute couture, interior decoration, luxury watches and jewellery. Top outdoor and mountain sports brands such as Patagonia and The North Face all have flagship stores, while the likes of Moncler, Ogier and Swarowski are also present.
Of course, you’ll find Black Crows as well. Since launching, it has established itself as something rather unique in the conservative world of ski makers, combining technical know-how with a bold, design-led aesthetic. The designs are as practical as they are fashionable; they could be worn on an extreme ski run in Chamonix as easily as the streets of Paris or New York. As a result, you’ll find the brand in Paris’s famous department stores Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché, but it really made its name with a collaboration with the original high-end concept store, Chez Colette, back in 2008. As well as distinctive window displays in Colette’s Paris store, there’s been a capsule collection and even a ski club hosted by Black Crows in Chamonix for Colette. Last year, the brand launched a new collection of outerwear, co-designed by Camille Kunz, an award-winning fashion designer, which will spread the word even further.
We could talk about fashion all day long, but I’m here to ski. The second morning the sky is white with a light snowfall. Compagnet texts, saying to meet at the bottom of the Grands Montets ski lifts. Layla Kerley and housemate Thor Falkanger are there, too. We go all the way up to the top. It is windy and the visibility is nearly zero. We decide to head to Rectiligne, a classic couloir on Grands Montets, 350m long, running straight down to the Nant Blanc glacier. As we arrive, it is snowing heavily and the couloir is filling up with light snow. We ski down one by one, stopping by the rock walls occasionally to regain visibility in the swirling wind. When the storms roll in from the north-west it usually snows a lot in the Chamonix valley, and that’s when you need to do your homework or hire a mountain guide to find the best and safest untracked snow and avoid the hordes of powder enthusiasts. But what a thrill that is.
Today, it happens to be Thor’s birthday, so after a morning on the snow, we stop for a celebratory drink. It’s an excellent time to reflect on what I’ve experienced here. Thor is only turning 22 but with his Scandinavian calm and amazing feel for skiing, he is one of Compagnet’s best ski buddies. I can see why they get on. Age is just a number, right? “It annoys me when people ask, do you still ski?” says 48-year-old Compagnet. “In surfing and other lifestyle sports, it’s totally acceptable to dedicate your life to your passion. I mean, skiing is my life!”