Bil Dunaway & Lionel Terray, First (North) Ski Descent of Mt. Blanc, 1953

Post by blogger | August 22, 2012      

Update: I settled the date of the Blanc descent as July of 1953, source is Terray’s autobiography “Conquistadors of the Useless.” Following is an excerpt from pages 322 and 323 of the 1963 hard cover edition:

…I thought of making a film on ski mountaineering. Skiing was a much more popular sport than climbing, and it seemed that in this way we might attract larger audiences… The plan was to feature the descent of extremly steep slopes, several of which had recently been done, but on reflection I decided to limit the fidld of actaion to the north face of Mont Blanc which, though less difficult than some others, had never been skied down. In the event, the filming turned out to be quite an adventure in itself. We were several times cut off by bad weather in the Vallot hut, at 14,305 feet. The weeks went by, and our cinematographer, Jacques Ertaud, had to leave to fulfil another contract. Luckily Georges Strouve’ was able to take his place.

Hardly had he arrived when, in the course of filming a connecting shot, I misjudged a turn and fell over a seventy-foot ice wall, at the foot of which I went head over heels down the slope, only managing to stop myself a few yards from the edge of a precipice. As I got to my feet a pain in my back told me I had done something to my spine. Fine weather chose this moment to arrive, but in spite of a slight dislocation of my vertebra I managed to finish the film. Bil Dunaway, an American friend, accompanied me on the descent, and Strouve, with the help of Pierre Tairraz, was able to shoot nearly all of it.

The film was mildly humorous in tone. It turned out most satisfactorily, winning first prize at the International Festival of Trenta, and against all expectation “La Conquete du Huantstan” [another film Terray was involved in making] obtained the second. The lectures given with the aid of these two films never attracted vast crowds, but they more than repaid the timed and trouble that had gone into their making…

Bil Dunaway (left) and Lionel Terray, summit of Mt. Blanc 1951.

Bil Dunaway (left) and Lionel Terray, summit of Mt. Blanc 1953. The first ski descent of Mount Blanc, but who took the photo? Click image to enlarge.

ORIGINAL BLOG POST FOLLOWS ******************************************

During my history research for my Wild Snow book, I did extensive interviews with Bil Dunaway in Aspen, Colorado. Bil had a long life of adventure that included combat with the 10th Mountain Division, WWII, ski racing for the French National Team, owning Climbing Magazine for a spell and running the Aspen Times Newspaper for decades. But this is WildSnow, and we’re concerned with ski alpinism. To that end, in 1951 Bil teamed up with famed French alpinist and guide Lionel Terray for a ski descent of Mt. Blanc from the summit. This was the first descent of the mountain’s steep northern reaches, and the first such descent done in a more ‘modern’ style than early descents, including the first in 1929 done by Armand Charlet and Marguette Bouvier down a much easier route. Truly, both are beautiful and exciting moments in the history of ski alpinism.

Recently, I’ve been helping out a French book publisher with a bit of photo research. That’s what caused me to dig up this image (and more) from my archives. Bil had told me years ago that the photo was part of his “personal collection and he had permission to use it and have it published as he wanted to,” so we went ahead and published the photo in Wild Snow with credit to “Bil Dunaway Collection.” Bil never could remember who the photographer was.

With my interest revived by the French book publisher, I thought it would be fun to get this classic photo up on the blog and see if anyone around the world had any information about the mystery photographer.

The idea for the Blanc descent originated with Terray, but Bil was an equal part in the adventure — he was not a guided client. Bil wrote that Terray “decided to not only ski down but to film… but needed another skier… wondered who would be crazy enough to try it with him… he asked me… I liked the idea.”

Anyone familiar with Terray and his exploits seen this or similar photos, and known anything about the still photographer? The movie “Skis Against Mont Blanc” was made by Georges Strouve. Bil wrote that the mountain camera men were Jacky Ertaud and Gerard Geri. Perhaps one of them was the still photographer?

I’ve seen the movie. It’s quite interesting and even has some funny scenes such as one where Bil is poolside in Cham with a bevvy of swimsuit clad French babes.

For additional credit, can anyone familiar with the views from Mt Blanc identify the part of a peak visible through the clouds at lower left in photo?


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16 Responses to “Bil Dunaway & Lionel Terray, First (North) Ski Descent of Mt. Blanc, 1953”

  1. Bernhard August 22nd, 2012 9:29 am

    It seems to be the “Dent du Geant” (just next to the trousers), what is visible more to the lower left could be part of the Tour Ronde or the Point Helbronner. However I am pretty sure about the Dent du Geant.

  2. Simon August 22nd, 2012 9:45 am

    My guess is aig. De tre la tete in the lower left. a pic from mr blanc in clear weather, not sure but does dent du geant really have a couloir that big going from the top?

  3. Lou Dawson August 22nd, 2012 9:55 am

    I’d vote for the Dent du Geant, I think the way it looks is somewhat created by the clouds as well as what’s probably a third generation reproduction that was chopping a bunch of tones in the highlights. I used all sorts of Photoshop tricks to get tonal separation, but what’s missing can’t be re-created.

  4. Bernhard August 22nd, 2012 11:04 am

    @Simon: the photo doesn’t show the Mont Blanc, it’s the Aiguille Blanche de Peutery and the Tre de la Tete looks different from the top of the Mont Blanc.
    However it also could be the Col de Peutery without the Aiguille Blanche de Peutery visible, too. But that’s almost impossible because that would be to the south and the shadows point towards it. So assuming they skied down in the afternoon that would point to the Dent the Geant.

  5. Simon August 22nd, 2012 11:25 am

    So it is, heres the pic i was looking for but your prob. right that its not the one in the picture.

  6. Neil Warren August 22nd, 2012 2:27 pm

    I would agree, it is the Dent du Geant with Mont Mallet behind obscured with cloud between them, then les Periades to the left of those two.

  7. Nick August 22nd, 2012 7:35 pm

    Don’t suppose cameras had self timers in 1951 😉

  8. Lou Dawson August 22nd, 2012 9:11 pm

    Nick, good point! That shot is from quite a low angle… yes, cameras in those days had at least a “bulb” style remote release you could hook up, and I’m pretty sure some had a timer, which is not that tough to build in to a mechanical camera (don’t ask me how I know). Lou

  9. Gordon August 23rd, 2012 11:03 am

    Would love to see “Skis Against Mont Blanc”. Looked around on the web, but only found a press clipping. Not listed in the holdings of the American Alpine Club. Any ideas?

  10. Lou Dawson August 23rd, 2012 2:32 pm

    Gordon, it is fantastic. I’ve seen it at least three times. In fact, it became kind of a joke around Aspen since Dunaway would show up with the movie back in the day and show it sometimes one too many times. But then, he showed it less and less and it faded into obscurity. If I could get a copy I’d get it digitized. I’ve been asking around about it. Seems like it would be more likely to be found around France somewhere.

  11. Gordon August 25th, 2012 11:47 am

    Well, I found the film.

    It’s in PAL format, but makes up for it by being expensive (grin).

    Apparently, it’s one of three films stacked on the DVD.

    Here ya’ go:

  12. Lou Dawson August 26th, 2012 6:49 pm

    Gordon, you are amazing, how in the world did you find that!?

  13. Gordon August 27th, 2012 7:02 am

    Spent some time beating up Google. Actually, your comment: “Seems like it would be more likely to be found around France somewhere” helped re-direct my efforts.

    BTW, thanks for making me aware of this great story! I’ve ordered the DVD and can report back regarding its content if that would be of benefit. I’ve converted PAL format in the past. But, ya just never know what new technical problems may await the unwitting consumer.

  14. Lou Dawson August 27th, 2012 7:38 am

    Gordon, at least judging from the multitude of DVD players I’ve messed around with for years, nearly any can be set to play PAL format by either hacking or just using options in the menus, just google it (you’re good at that!) Perhaps the problem is playing it in a computer DVD drive? Like you say, it would be easy to either rip or capture, then convert to NTSC?

  15. Toby Wheeler January 24th, 2018 5:26 am

    this is a pretty late entry to this discussion but if you google Lionel Terray Julbp you will come up with a page on their website that has some photos and a story of Terray and a bit about his son. AND the movie!! It is about 12 minutes long and has a copywright stuck on the bottom but well worth a look. Cant imagine skiing with those boards; must be 220 cm long at least….

    You tube has Stars at Noon.

  16. Lou Dawson 2 January 24th, 2018 6:31 am

    Thanks Toby, good to hear the old stuff is becoming available online, I was disappointed for years that the Terray/Dunaway film was so hard to get a view of. Lou

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