Words • Tess Weaver Strokes | Photos • Tero Repo
On April 3, 2017, skiers Kristopher Turdell, Loic Collomb-Patton and Léo Slemmet were in a three-way tie for the Freeride World Tour (FWT) title. It was the final day of the Xtreme Verbier contest—otherwise known as the FWT finals—and after an American competitor landed a switch 180, it was time for 24-year-old Chamonix, France-native, Léo Slemett, to drop in to the north face of the Bec Des Rosses, the infamous big-mountain venue in Verbier, Switzerland. He started off his run with something no one had ever done in the contest’s 22-year history: a 360 in the Central Couloir. He followed-up the consequential move with a series of clean, high amplitude airs—it was enough to earn him the title of overall 2017 Freeride World Tour Champion.
“Looking back at that day, I took some risks… that was big,” recalls Slemett. “The couloir is super steep and narrow, it’s a no-fall zone. I asked some [veteran] competitors and they told me no one had tried a trick there.”
Five years ago, Slemett joined the FWT at age 19 as its youngest competitor in history. Slemett, who often prefers listening to music over chatting with fellow competitors, started the competition season with little confidence and he was kicked off the tour on account of poor results. He trained harder, started enjoying skiing even more and the following year won two major Freeride World Qualifiers (FWQ) events and topped the rankings. This year, he surprised himself with the overall title. Then he ended the season winning the Chilean Freeride Championships. The focus required to excel on the Freeride World Tour can consume a lot of time and energy, but Slemett finds solace in skiing and competing.
Born in Chamonix to a family of skiers—both of Slemett’s brothers are ski instructors—Slemett took every advantage of growing up in the heart of the Alps. Slemett started participating in big-mountain competitions in 2011, prompted by the head coach of the Young Riders Crew (YRC), Greg Liscot, who secured a sponsor for Slemett to travel to the U.S. to compete in junior freeride contests at Snowbird, Utah and Taos, New Mexico, and the Junior Freeride World Tour stop in Austria. Slemett joined YRC as its youngest member at age 12. Established by Liscot 15 years ago as one of the only ski programs of its kind, YRC each winter teaches around 65 young skiers in Chamonix the ski skills and avalanche education to safely ski off piste. Slemett still skies with the YRC a few days each season to connect with local kids. He feeds off their enthusiasm, and just like the students, still benefits from Liscot’s coaching.
“At the beginning, Léo skied by instinct, but that wasn’t enough to win competitions,” says Liscot. “We spent two winters working on the mental part of competing and his technique. What impressed me most was his motivation to work endlessly to improve his skiing. After that, I knew Léo could do anything he wanted to do in skiing, including become world champion. With his humble attitude, he is a role model for all the juniors on our team.”
That mental fortitude and unassuming nature was part of the reason Sam Anthamatten started training with Slemett at the beginning of last season. The two met on the FWT in 2015 and started skiing together more when Slemett gained interest in steep skiing. “I think we really have a similar vision of skiing,” says Anthamatten. Slemett jumped at the chance to join his TNF teammate, along with fellow TNF athlete and FWT competitor Markus Eder, on an expedition to Georgia’s Mt. Ushba in spring 2017.
“The last couple years, I have been looking to explore new mountains and work on my alpinist skills,” says Slemett. “This was the perfect opportunity to do that alongside one of the best mountain athletes.”
After he secured his FWT title in early April, Slemett joined Eder and Anthamatten on a scouting trip to Mt. Ushba, where he heli-skied in terrain unlike anything Slemett had seen before. He returned to the Alps and spent two months skiing and mountaineering on big peaks around Chamonix. That training gave Slemett the confidence to successfully climb what’s widely considered the most difficult mountain in the Caucuses in June. Icy conditions prevented the team from skiing a first descent on the peak’s north face, but Slemett walked away from the mission with a new resolve to focus on ski mountaineering and steep skiing.
Slemett looks forward to joining Anthamatten and Eder on Ushba again next year. He’s hoping his new World Champion title will help with future expeditions, like a trip to Pakistan to ski some 6,000-meter peaks with a snowboarder guide from Chamonix. He’ll continue to compete on the FWT and push himself to improve every step of the way. If big mountain competitions are an indicator of Slemett’s ability to focus, train, manage risk and achieve his goals in steep skiing, chances are he’ll succeed.