Mind Over Mountain: Andreas Fransson’s Story


This story was first published in the October 2013 issue of Backcountry Magazine. Fransson died in an avalanche on the Chilean-Argentinean border on Monday, September 29, 2014.

Andreas Fransson stabs a ski pole into the pillowy, 45-degree snow slope below the imposing granite summit of the Aiguille du Midi. He’s 20 feet beyond the four-inch-thick anchor line that serves as a hand rope to keep tourists from plunging 3,000 feet down the Aiguille’s North Face. “If I were by myself, I would ski this,” he told me earlier as we rose by tram from clouds that shrouded the iconic North Face, a proving ground for steep skiers and a playground for Fransson.

He looks around now, as though the cobalt sky and rolling clouds might somehow influence his decision more than the slabby pillow underfoot. He spends five quiet minutes playing out the descent in his head, then retreats. “I was looking for every reason to ski it,” Andreas says. He, photographer Daniel Rönnbäck and I click off skis to ascend a sun-warmed slope for the Glacier Rond, a classic Chamonix steep ski far less intimidating than any of the lines that fall down the North Face.

“Yeah. That would have scared me a little bit,” I reply casually. I pick up my skis. My gloves are damp with nervous sweat.

“A little bit is fine,” Andreas says. “It’s when you get nauseous that it’s not good. There are only a few people who like that.”

Andreas Fransson and the author peering down from the Aiguille du Midi. Chamonix, France. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Andreas Fransson and the author peering down from the Aiguille du Midi. Chamonix, France. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

At 30, he’s already one of them, with a lengthy list of nauseating firsts he’s claimed in the Alps and abroad. In May 2011, he soloed a first descent of Denali’s 8,000-foot South Face, a 24-hour trip. Earlier that year, in an ESPN.com countdown of the world’s top unskied lines, Chris Davenport, who knows steep from shit, called the route “the baddest unskied line in North America.” It was, in a way, Andreas’s comeback tour after a 2010 avalanche ripped him from his rappel on Chamonix’s Aiguille Verte and dropped him 400 meters, shattering his neck. A year after his Denali descent, he skied the Whillans Ramp, a 60-degree snow slope on the east face of Argentina’s Aguja Poincenot (3,002 meters). He called that descent “the most technical skiing I have done in my life, with 1,000 meters of exposure.”

But Andreas has been making big moves since he started skiing at Riksgränsen, the world’s northernmost ski resort located 200km north of the Arctic Circle on Sweden’s border with Norway. He calls it Europe’s version of Squaw Valley, and first skied there at age 14. “I started going there all the time,” he said as we drank tea in his Taconnaz apartment the night before our day on the Midi. “And then, when I quit school, I started working there straight away.”

At 15, he began his ski-instructor education. Five years later, he was heli guiding. He spent his summers in Australia and winters back home in Sweden where he started ski touring around Riksgränsen. “I started to see all these lines that I would like to ski, and in my free time, I went and skied all of them,” he said. In typical Scandinavian style, his early tours were on telemark gear. But ski touring wasn’t so popular, even among his crew of freeskiing friends. Many of them, like Wille Lindberg and Henrik Windstedt, now compete regularly on the Freeride World Tour circuit, competitions that Andreas moved away from a few years back after too many injuries. (He’s had three knee surgeries and two shoulder reconstructions.)

So he began taking guide courses. “When I first got my rock-climbing certificate, I was like, ‘Fuck! Now I can do a lot of cool stuff with my skiing,’” he said. And he began treating his guide’s education like homework, bringing to it the training ethic and athleticism of his Olympian ancestry (his grandfather, Harry Brännkärr, was once the best cross-country skier in Finland, and his uncle, Onni Brännkärr, carried the Olympic flame to the ’52 Helinski Games). “It was like I was studying steep skiing the same way people study in university…. So now I can get down anything by building [rock and snow] anchors. It’s very easy for me, but for the normal skier, if you haven’t spent years doing that, it’s totally impossible.”

In 2005, at age 22, Andreas came to Chamonix.  “When I first came here, nobody skied the Mallory Route,” Andreas said, referring to the Aiguille du Midi’s serac- and cliff-studded North Face first skied by Anselme Baud, Daniel Chauchefoin and Yves Détry’s in 1977. “But me and my friends started skiing it. I was the first person to ski it in a long time.”

Fransson dropping into the Heart of the Rond. Aiguille du Midi, France. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Fransson dropping into the Heart of the Rond. Aiguille du Midi, France. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

The Glacier Rond begins with a granite-hard and rock-strewn sideslip the width of my skis, with a resident hand line no bigger than an electric cord. “Just let me know when you aren’t feeling it, and I can put you on a rope,” Andreas says. But I’m more comfortable with skis on my feet than I was walking the slick path above the North Face or even on our first run today down the comparably mild Vallée Blanche. Andreas easily picks his way through the cheese-grater, ski-shredding entry, and Daniel and I carefully follow. The snow below is chalky, dry powder, and I take six turns before stopping to catch my breath.

“You’re doing great,” Andreas tells me, smiling widely, sitting in the snow as if he were perched outside a café in the village, 3,000 meters below. “Most people’s hearts are beating like crazy up here.” Under my helmet, my veins pulse at my temples. We carve the Rond’s first 500-meter snowfield before heading northwest into the Exit Couloir. Airy powder gives way to soft corn before we cut right, away from the traditional route and down a 100-foot chute bristled with boulders. Andreas stops around a rocky knob, and sits down to scope the next variation—a 50-degree halfpipe that’s five feet wide until it drops out of sight into clouds 100 feet below.

“Can you rappel?” he asks. I can’t believe he picked such a place to ask this question.

“Yes,” I say. “With skis on or with skis off?”

“Skis on,” Andreas answers. I’ve never done that before, but it can’t be too different from a normal rappel, I think. “I used to ski this. It’s a sideslip,” he says, before pausing. “When I was younger.”

“I was telling Seth Morrison when he was here to think about all the good stuff and take away all the shitty stuff, you know?” Andreas adds. By that, he means building anchors, using ropes in dangerous terrain, whatever skill in his guide quiver to remove the risk of falling off the mountain. “The scary thing is, everybody has been using this sling I set five years ago,” he says as he wraps fresh cordelette around a granite horn.

The rappel is awkward, but over the 60 meters, I get the hang of dangling fakey by my waist, my tips brushing the snow. At the bottom, the snow is isothermic, knee-bending mush. Andreas asks if we want to go back to the Midi midstation, or ride down and out to the village—“the adventure option,” he calls it. Short on time to get to the Midi before closing, we opt for adventure. It sucks.

Fransson, Salén and the author skinning across Le Tour glacier. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Fransson, Bjarne Salén and the author skinning across Le Tour glacier. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

We wander among fog-obscured crevasses roped to one another before thrashing through willows and sideslipping a streambed more filled with boulders than snow. But Andreas smiles through it all and when we reach the road, sweat-soaked and tired, we’ve descended 3,000 meters from the top of the Midi. And there to pick us up is Bruno Bertrand, global freeski marketing manager with Salomon.

He’s passing through town to drop skis off for Andreas. “They’re heavy,” Daniel says, picking up a pair, 90mm or so underfoot and plain white except for a Salomon logo. “They’re like GS skis,” Andreas says. “They were lighter, but that’s not what I want.” Bruno points to the tips, marked AFI and AFII in black pen. “For Andreas,” he says.

Bruno’s worked with Andreas at Salomon for two winters, he tells me after we drop Andreas at the edge of town to grab his Saab. “I’m in charge of all the team stuff,” Bruno says. “And I respect all the others, but with Andreas, it’s so much deeper. It’s all about passion and life: the way he trains, the way he’s so precise on everything.”

Bruno, Andreas, Daniel and I all grab a drink (Coke for Andreas) before heading our separate ways. Andreas is off to do yoga, and, if there’s time, he’ll train at the climbing gym. I guess today’s nine-hour session wasn’t quite enough for him.

[Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Fransson skiing Qui Remeu. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Back in our hotel room Daniel flicks through the day’s photos on his Macbook. He comes across one of Andreas lowering me through a rocky hourglass that disappears into clouds. I tell him how scared I was, looking down that seemingly bottomless chute. “That’s why I wanted to rope up,” I say.

“That’s the thing about Andreas,” Daniel replies. “Other guys are willing to risk it, but not him.” This is Daniel’s third time in Chamonix shooting Andreas, and, back in Sweden, Andreas taught Daniel during his ski-instructor education. But Daniel’s comment confuses me. Andreas’s casual descents track routes that were unthinkable 20 years ago, and his bolder moves are defining modern extreme skiing. So how is he not the maddest skier still alive?

Fransson, the author and Bjarne Salén skinning into the Argentière Basin. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Fransson, the author and Bjarne Salén skinning into the Argentière Basin. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

“OK guys. We’re going to take the high traverse. Move quickly across the serac fall. It can kill you,” Andreas says coolly when we unload from the Grand Montets cable car in the morning. We’re heading into the Argentière Basin, just up valley from the Aiguille du Midi, and joined by Bjarne Salén. Bjarne shot most of “Tempting Fear,” the Salomon Freeski TV webisode that chronicled Andreas’s last two seasons.

Andreas sets a track up the middle of the Argentière Basin, plotting our options as other groups flock to the cirque’s biggest lines. I wander behind with Bjarne as he shoots video. Bjarne is only 24, but this is his fourth winter in Chamonix, and he and Andreas have spent four months together in Patagonia and Ecuador.

Andreas’s smile has been indelible since I arrived three days back, in time for his 30th birthday party. So I ask Bjarne if Andreas’s face is constantly lit up. “No. Not always,” Bjarne says. “He’s smiling a lot and giving a lot of energy to everyone he’s with, especially if you deserve it. He’s a happy person and gives a lot.” Just this morning, Andreas energetically chatted with nearly everybody in the tramline as if he were a greeter. But once on the tram, he silently gazed out the window. At one point, he closed his Scandinavian-blue eyes, smiled and pressed his skis to his lips. “Does he get serious?” I ask Bjarne.

“When we’re in the mountains and it is serious, then he is very serious when it comes to danger and stuff,” Bjarne replies. “But sometimes I need to tell him, ‘Hey, dude. Chill out. We’re not in a serious place.’”

After another hour of glacier walking, we find ourselves in a serious place. East-facing Qui Remue angles skyward from our position beside a toothy bergschrund. The ramp is squeezed for 500 meters between black rock and a dirty ice bulge, and a cornice at the ridge looks like a cresting wave ready to break.

Andreas and I rope together, Daniel and Bjarne do the same, and Andreas crosses the bergschrund first. He sinks to his waist in soft snow, then retreats. “Tension, Tyler, tension,” he yells. Then he kicks steps into the far wall of the icy chasm and yells for slack as he crosses. The rest of us follow, and Andreas begins booting up the 50-degree plane, racing ahead with complete ease.

Climbing Qui Remue. Argentière Basin. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Climbing Qui Remue. Argentière Basin. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

After almost two hours of climbing, I catch up toward the top. He’s leaning into the pitch like he’s at a bar, looking up at a 20-foot awning that’s actually a monster cornice. “What are you thinking about?” I ask.

“The most important thing is keeping it safe, and I need to manage the risk, like what’s above,” he says, gesturing to the white roof. “If it’s difficult, I’m focused on the present. But then, like this, my pulse is not racing, and I need to tell myself, ‘OK, Andreas. Don’t lose focus.’” We’re 15 stories off the valley floor, above a bergschrund and below a school bus of a cornice, and his nerves are as cool as Qui Remue’s black-ice walls.

Daniel and Bjarne join us, and Andreas moves across the slope to hack a notch through the point at which cornice tapers to a two-foot overhang. We top out on a knife-edge of snow with westward views toward Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi and views east down Qui Remue and the entire Argentière Basin: Andreas’s domain.

Andreas Fransson and the author on the Montenvers train back to Chamonix. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Andreas Fransson and the author on the Montenvers train back to Chamonix. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Andreas lives with his girlfriend, Alejandra Campos, five minutes outside of Chamonix in a dark, downstairs apartment below some wealthy Frenchman’s vacation home. Ale and Andreas met in Chile two years back—she’s from Valparaíso, two hours west of Santiago on the Pacific coast—at the end of Andreas and Bjarne’s first trip to South America. They met at a yoga class, and have been together since. Alejandra, a yoga instructor, calls their relationship extreme, and their conversation flutters between English and Spanish as they refer to one another as “mi amor.”

After pizza, we sit around a table cluttered with sliced-open vegetables and oversized tea mugs. Daniel cues up a photo of Qui Remue. “That’s what we skied, Ale,” Andreas says with childlike excitement. “Beautiful, huh?”

“It’s nice,” she replies as she stands, walks around the table and drapes her arms over Andreas’s shoulders. She’s not a skier, but as we talk more, she shows a deep understanding of her partner’s balance of life and risk.

“At the beginning, I was very afraid. But now, I’m not afraid,” she says. “He does these extreme things to meet himself. He’s trying to push everything to the limit, and it’s very obvious in everything he does.”

She goes on: “If you just stay there and are doing everything that everyone else is doing, you don’t learn much. But Andreas is a creative person. So he needs to do something in a way that he’s creating something new. And what he’s doing in skiing is opening boundaries…mental boundaries of what you think is possible to do.”

Daniel flips through more photos as Andreas and I talk about risk. “You can stand there and think about it for days, but then there will still be a little voice inside you that says, ‘No. You shouldn’t do it…think, think, rethink.’ And then at one point you need to say, ‘OK. I’m just going,’” Andreas says. I think back to how he stood at the top of the North Face yesterday afternoon, deeply calculating every move on the route before retreating. “If you’re going to do something great, it will always also be an act of madness,” he then says.

Andreas Fransson: Writer, thinker, yogi. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

Andreas Fransson: Writer, thinker, yogi. [Photo] Daniel Rönnbäck

“Thirty-six fifty,” Bjarne says, guessing our elevation as the sun finally breaks through valley clouds. We’re resting atop a couloir one ridge over from the Argentière Basin, a no-name line split between brown, granite walls that Andreas is calling the Rock ‘n’ Roll Couloir. We’re waiting for the sun to soften the steep chute, and Daniel is positioned across valley to shoot the line with a long lens.

“I’m guessing three five,” Andreas says.

“How high was the col over there?” Bjarne asks, pointing toward the Col du Chardonnet, the first pass along the Haute Route, which we skied earlier today.

“Thirty-three fifty,” Andreas answers, biting a piece of canned tuna off his knife. His guess is closest. “And I totally sandbagged this day, just so you know. I said it was much easier than it is.”

“You always sandbag your days, my friend,” Bjarne says as a half dozen black crows rise from within the couloir and swirl around us.

“These black birds are super important,” Andreas says to me with a smile so big that his eyes squint. “They’re the reincarnation of dead skiers. I like the idea that the world is reverse, and black has no color, so the birds are really white. They are angels.”

I step into my skis as the birds rise and fall. Andreas lowers me through the first 20 meters of the couloir where the snow has softened to a thin layer of edgeable corn. He rappels down while Bjarne shoots video from above. Humming a hauntingly somber melody, Andreas leans into the 45-degree pitch to pause for a second. “On the shores of a mystical ocean, there lies a cave with a magic door,” he sings quietly as he pushes off with a huge smile to carve his first turn into the wet corn. “All are welcome, but those who enter…never shall return not a single day more….”

This story was first published in the October 2013 issue of Backcountry Magazine. Fransson died in an avalanche on the Chilean-Argentinean border on Monday, September 29, 2014.

Related posts:


  1. […] Mind Over Mountain: Andreas Fransson’s Story – I was the first person to ski it in a long time.” The Glacier Rond begins with … and their conversation flutters between English and Spanish as they refer to one another as “mi amor.” After pizza, we sit around a table cluttered with sliced-open … […]

Speak Your Mind