Blairgowrie-based Stefan Morrocco is making a film about “godfather of extreme skiing” Sylvain Saudan’s experience working as an instructor at Glenshee in the 1960s. The film also will explore history of the ski centre and the “evolution of risk”. Gayle Ritchie finds out more.
Dubbed “skier of the impossible”, Sylvain Sudan is revered in the world of extreme snowsports.
When the Swiss daredevil skied down Chamonix’s treacherous 55 degree Couloir Spencer in 1967, he achieved what was deemed the impossible.
He went on to ski many impressive first descents including the Eiger, Mount McKinley’s sheer southwest face, and Mont Blanc du Tacul.
Born in 1936 in Lausanne on the banks of Lake Geneva, Saudan qualified as a mountain guide and instructor in his early 20s.
In 1961, after passing his international qualification, he looked for ski teaching jobs around the world, ending up at Glenshee.
Saudan credits the Scottish ski resort for helping him to improve his ski skills, once saying: “Okay, we don’t want to compare Glenshee to Chamonix or Zermatt, but the best way to learn to ski is when the snow is not so smooth every day.”
He also recalled Glenshee’s mountains were “much smaller than the Alps, but they hid some serious lines. The ice and the cold were additional difficulties”.
He worked as an instructor for Derek Brightman at the ski school for two seasons in 1962, enjoying all that the brutal Scottish weather could throw at him.
Blairgowrie-based filmmaker Stefan Morrocco, founder of Morrocco Media, has been researching Saudan’s experience at Glenshee and plans to make this the focus of a new film.
It follows on from a film called Comfort Zones he made about ski touring, also known as ski mountaineering, in 2019.
Filmed in unexplored backcountry terrain around Glenshee and Lochnagar with a group of exceptional skiers, it explored their relationship with risk and expanding their comfort zones.
At the heart of the film was Dr Philip Ebert, who lives in Dundee and is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Stirling University.
And the hope is that Philip will be featured in Stefan’s new film.
“The idea of doing a film about Sylvain Saudan occurred to me when we were out in the backcountry doing Comfort Zones and exploring the concept of risk,” says Stefan.
“Philip and the other guys were tackling perilously steep mountainsides, narrow, rock-strewn gullies and ice-streaked ravines.
“It made me wonder whether Saudan had skied the gullies beyond Glenshee. Did he experiment with the steep stuff in the area? It would be brilliant to know more about his time here.”
As part of his research, Stefan hopes to explore “the evolution of risk”, looking at changes in risk associated with backcountry skiing, comparing it with when Saudan was skiing at Glenshee to the new breed of backcountry skiers who tackle the “steep stuff” around the area.
“As equipment has evolved, skiing has evolved,” he says.
“The equipment available in the 60s meant skiing was slower, but today’s modern equipment allows us to ski faster. There’s also more awareness of avalanches with modern technology.”
Birth of skiing
Stefan has already uncovered a wealth of fascinating stories about the birth of skiing in Scotland and its development at Glenshee.
“I’ve tracked down Derek Brightman who was head of the ski school in the 60s and employed Saudan,” says Stefan.
“He lives between Aviemore and France so when lockdown lifts, I’ll hopefully be able to get him on film.
“Derek remembers Sylvain worked at Glenshee for two seasons. He turned up one day, knocked on Derek’s office door, more or less asking for a job.
“Derek was about to head off with a group of skiers up the Tiger, the notoriously steep black run.
“He challenged Saudan, saying, ‘If you can ski down the Tiger faster than me, I’ll give you a job. And of course, he got the job!”
Stefan has tracked down copies of Dundee Ski Club (DSC) journals from the early 60s via the club’s honorary vice-president, Ian Steven, of Newport-on-Tay.
“There are heaps of interesting stories in them,” he says.
“DSC bought Gulabin Lodge in Glenshee in the 60s as a base for members to stay when they skied.
“It was a big community, even in the 40s.”
Stefan also spoke to Jimmy Reid, who is good friends with his dad and lives in Birkhill.
He pioneered a 300m rope tow up the Cairnwell in 1958 which was powered by an old tractor engine.
“Jimmy drove all the crazy vehicles at Glenshee when they first installed some tows,” adds Stefan.
The Covid crisis has stopped Stefan from heading out into the wilderness to film but he’s been able to crack on with research.
“It’s a bit like torture because ski conditions are fantastic right now!” he says.
“Hopefully I can do some filming later in the season.
“A lot of the guys I need to chat to are in their 80s and critical to the success of the film so hopefully I can get their interviews done soon.”
Stefan is looking for funding and has yet to create a pitch document but hopes a ski manufacturer might be keen to get on board.
The initial plan will be to show the yet-to-be-named film, which he expects will be around 20 minutes, at a film festival before it goes online.
“It’s early days but if there’s interest around it, it might be the case that I could expand it to maybe 40 minutes or an hour and sell it as bigger TV documentary.
“I think there’s a huge buzz around skiing, the idea of risk, of a big name like Sylvain Saudan, and of course, Glenshee.”
For more details, see www.morroccomedia.com