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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Updated: March 27, 1:30 PM ET
Fransson skis first descent on Denali

By Devon O'Neil
ESPN Action Sports

The most significant ski mountaineering news this past spring came from a bold, 28-year-old Swedish alpinist and extreme skier who shattered the upper half of his body one year ago in the French Alps, breaking his neck and 15 other bones in a 600-foot fall after he was ripped off his rappel by a wet-slab avalanche.

Andreas Fransson, whose recent feats in Chamonix have put him at the forefront of the most dangerous game on snow, recovered from his 2010 accident on the Aguille Verte to complete a gripping solo first descent of 20,320-foot Denali's south face in mid-May -- a route Chris Davenport last year called "the baddest unskied line in North America." Fransson skied (and rappelled, traversed and downclimbed) the 8,000-foot face in 12 and a half hours, the crowning achievement in a relentless month of fast-and-light assaults on the continent's highest peak.

Not only was the Alaska trip Fransson's first time above 15,782 feet (the summit of Mont Blanc), but he descended much of the south face at night, sans headlamp, at one point hunkering under a cliff for hours to avoid rocks whizzing past his head like a waterfall. Nevertheless, the descent could be trumped by "much bigger" things to come, according to Fransson, who doesn't talk publicly about future plans because it could influence his decision making on the mountain, he says.

Since moving to Chamonix in 2006, Fransson has earned a reputation for his commitment to a certain way of life. He trains 10 hours a day -- "He's one of the fittest people I've ever met, honestly," says photographer Tero Repo -- and enjoys "opening lines up," as he puts it. Whether that means they've never been skied, or they've laid dormant for decades, or just haven't seen tracks this year, the principle for Fransson is the same: lead, don't follow.

Fransson has been called "the best extreme skier in Chamonix."

He realizes his approach invites a ridiculous amount of risk. A number of his ski partners are no longer alive, including highly respected pros Fredrik Ericsson and Arne Backstrom. Yet Fransson continues to chase cutting-edge steep descents, the kind where if you fall you might not stop for 4,000 feet.

His standards are stiff. "If you're going to ski big lines, you have to be super confident as an alpine climber," he says. "You have to be able to solo hard alpine routes if you're going to be able to ski hard routes. Because there's no one else to go with anyway. And you have to train hard. Have your rope work sorted out, so you're super quick and you can build an anchor. And ski the runs top to bottom without stopping, so you don't feel that rest."

Repo recalls a conversation he had with Fransson a few weeks after his 2010 accident. "He said he was talking to his parents once and he told them, 'There might be a day when I'm not here anymore,'" Repo said. "For me, as a father, that sounds unfair. It's unfair to his friends and his relatives, and maybe it's selfish. But, then again, if he wants it, he should go for it."

Repo paused. "I have to say, I'm always scared when I go with him that the worst will happen. But I trust him."

Fransson's take: "Society has an absurd general belief that life is about hanging on as long as possible. So people [are] often hanging on for the sake of hanging on and not for really living ... I can go on for days about this, but the important things in life are unsayable, so let's just live it out and see what we find behind the curtains in front of the big game we are all playing."

Don't tell Denali, but Fransson grew up sliding rails and jumping cliffs.

Technically speaking, Fransson is a rare hybrid: capable of climbing with world-renowned alpinists like American Colin Haley and Canadian Maxime Turgeon, while skiing broken walls with the likes of French snowboarder Xavier de Le Rue. Haley, who was skiing with Fransson on the day of his accident in April 2010, calls Fransson "almost certainly the best extreme skier in Chamonix, and perhaps the world." As proof, Haley says, most people take four hours to ski the north face of the Aguille du Midi, "and Andreas does it in something like 45 minutes."

De Le Rue is more cautious with his praise. "Chamonix is a strange place concerning the claim of a performance," he says. "A lot has been done there, and all the runs that Andreas does have been done before, and it takes a lot of time to get a deserved reputation. I don't think Andreas is completely there yet in some Chamoniards' minds, but if he keeps going that way, there is no doubt he could get there."

Don't tell Denali, but Fransson grew up sliding rails and jumping cliffs on telemark twin tips. He worked as a ski instructor and heli guide and followed the big-mountain competition scene for a while, practicing his rope work by rappelling off cornices at his home resort of Riksgransen. Then he moved to Chamonix, and his world changed.

"I'm very challenge based," he says. "Like, I don't need to have perfect powder, I just like the challenge of planning something, going through the pains and the fears and the doubts before you do something, and then you do it and execute it and try to do it in the best way possible."

On Denali, while many other teams hunkered down due to weather, Fransson darted up and down like an ant on a log, acclimatizing and skiing. Once the weather cleared Fransson and his climbing partner, fellow Swede Magnus Kastengren, set out for the summit. When they got there, after four hours of hiking, it was 2 p.m. and warm.

He steeled himself, said goodbye to Kastengren and dropped in to the monster's throat on his 177-centimeter Nordica Enforcers. The surface ranged from bulletproof to "cruisy" to 70-degree ice. When the rock barrage began, he conceded and settled in for a long night on Denali.

"I learned a lot of the mind games from my accident," Fransson says. "It's so easy to get stressed and feel like you have to get down, and to feel like you have to do it fast and get away from there. But the safest way is usually to stay put, so I did, until 11 o'clock."

He finally rappelled over the bergschrund at 2:30 a.m. and made it down to relative safety. But he still needed to ski through the icefall that leads back to the other side of the mountain. He rested for a couple of hours, boiled water and ate some food, then at 5 a.m. approached the icefall, which was highly complex. "You can't see where you are going," Fransson says, "but I was lucky because when we went in on our reconnaissance trip, I took a photo. So I brought that up on the camera, zoomed in and found a way through. And there was only one way, actually, that worked on the whole thing."

Even after safely returning to base camp, Fransson was far from finished. He took a rest day then joined Kastengren for a 33-hour round-trip push up the Cassin Ridge. "For perspective," Haley says, "the Cassin Ridge is one of the most famous alpine climbs in the world, and has been climbed in under 36 hours fewer than 10 times."

Two days later, Fransson skied the Messner Couloir -- a 5,000-foot, 45-degree beast -- in a snowstorm. All told, he says he slept three hours in three days.

While waiting in the Anchorage airport to fly back to Europe, Fransson looked back on the expedition, and in particular Denali's south face. "There's a lot of people who get inspired by these things, but personally, I feel like it's behind me," he said. "It feels like any other ski: you turn left and right, and when the snow ends, you do a rappel or you downclimb or you jump or you straightline. That's skiing."