All caption quotes by Gary Bigham
You never ask what one does in Chamonix. It’s rude. You ask what they skied today.
Photographer Gary Bigham was one of the original American ski bums who moved to France’s Chamonix Valley in the late 1970s and spent 50 years skiing the area’s notoriously challenging terrain. He also took some of the most memorable images of 1980s and ’90s ski culture, documenting a freewheeling era of neon one-pieces, monoskis, wild on-slope antics and perpetually untracked powder fields; it was a period of time sometimes referred to as the “Age of Ski Bums.”
But I know Gary for the other things he did in Chamonix, the off-snow existence his photos only hint at: Gary the musician, the showman, the rock star, a fun-making, joke-slinging, generally hilarious character with thunderous dark sides and legendary hangovers.
“Look! Somebody threw away a perfectly good baby!” Ever the joker, Gary is fond of telling people that his daughter Guri came from the “free bin” in Telluride, Colorado, and points to this photo as evidence. Three decades after it was first published in the Patagonia Fall 1993 Kids’ Catalog, it’s more iconic than ever. Photo: Gary Bigham
Can you spot the original?
The author holds up a sheet of slides unearthed from Gary’s archives, including the iconic “Lamb Chop Dag” image that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has called one of his favourite photos of fleece pile in use. When the photo first appeared in the Winter 1989 catalog, the caption read: “Lamb Chop Dag about to set a World Lamb Speed Record.” What it didn’t say was that “Lamb Chop Dag” was actually David Moe, co-founder of Powder Magazine. Photos: Layla Kerley (left), Gary Bigham (right)
By the time his daughter Guri and I were young teenagers, we rarely saw Gary on skis with a camera in his hand. Gary the Ski Photographer was a bygone character, stashed in a chaotic treasure chest of slides, or recollected in his classic aprés film and photo slideshows—done the old-fashioned way, to the whirring clunks of a carousel slide projector—and set to a soundtrack of eccentric commentary.
Gary the Ski Photographer may be a bygone character, but Gary the Skier is very much alive—and within his house, the rule “no school (or work) on a powder day” still applies. Photo: Layla Kerley
Gary’s house in Argentière is itself a ski relic, a classic alpine chalet filled with memorabilia and humorous alcoves—behind one picture, for example, is a hole you can put your face through to scare the daylights out of unsuspecting guests. The more doors you open, the bigger it becomes, a feeling enhanced by a host of unconventional add-ons: a wine cellar, a sauna, a swing in the living room and a seemingly never-ending dinner table which can—and regularly does—seat 20 people.
Growing up in Europe’s capital of extreme sports—or its graveyard of failed extreme sport ambitions, depending on who you ask—was all you’d envision and much more. My parents were also ski bums and moved from England to Chamonix when I was a child. When I met Guri at age 11, she became my first non-French friend, and I became part of an extended, pleasantly dysfunctional family.
When it snowed, Gary’s house would snuggle into its own groovy tempo, firelight breathing life into the ballet skiers dancing in their picture frames. Because “no school on a powder day” was law between those walls, Guri and I would coordinate sleepovers with incoming storms, hoping we’d be snowed in or the road to Chamonix would close. Gary would take us to the Grand Montets ski area in the morning, where we’d load the tram alongside packs of slavering powder wolves. On the way down, he’d wait patiently for us as we ploughed through chest-deeper blower, howling wildly.
“One ski is better than none … I guess.” Monoskier Cathy Breyton and friends wiggle their way down the north face of the Grand Montets at the Joël Géry Memorial in March of 1985. Photo: Gary Bigham
Our respective parents left us free to roam our mountainous backyard, and we never missed an opportunity to be part of Chamonix’s thriving, festive ski scene. Retro Sundays became our tribute to neon ski suits and ski ballet, and on Fridays, we’d cross the road from middle school to the MBC Chamonix Microbrewery and watch Gary’s band, Gary Bigham and the Crevasseholes. My dad would make guest appearances on his saxophone, everybody jamming to songs like “All You Need is GLOVEs.” Beer would flow, and the crammed bar would go wild.
Left: “Who says psychedelics are bad for you? I can’t remember this guy’s name, but he didn’t say no to drugs.” Chamonix, May of 1991. Photo: Gary Bigham
Right: She called it the “E.T. look.” An unnamed skier does her best extra-terrestrial impression at the top of the Grand Montets in the early 1980s. Photo: Gary Bigham
For a little English girl, the parade of vibrantly coloured ski-lebrities flowing through Gary’s house—each more awesome (and, now I realise, probably more intoxicated) than the last—was a revelation. It was a new vision of how our existence could play out, a shiny dimension where it was somehow possible to both make a living and ski all winter, or even all year.
“Jorge Colon in typical laidback mode—it’s always a treat to see a picture of him with some kind of clothing on. Jorge kicks back on the roof of his van next to my house in the 1980s. A special thanks to Jorge for sending Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, John Wasson and Yvon Chouinard my way for a stay those many years ago!” Photo: Gary Bigham
Fifteen years later, as a ski photographer myself, it’s my turn to dance with those powder-hungry snow wolves, to tame them, even become one of them. I spent years of hard-fought boot-packing to be closer to the man I fell in love with (a skier, of course), and now I live out my wildest teenage fantasies following him into cathedrals of ice and limestone.
“If it’s not in English, don’t worry about it!” Out-of-bounds skiing was still strictly prohibited by most US resorts in the early 1980s, and some American skiers relocated to places like Chamonix for the less restrictive rules. One such nameless duo hops the gate off the top of the Grand Montets (no word on whether they noticed the skull and crossbones). Photo: Gary Bigham
When the opportunity came up to write a story about Gary, it gave me and Guri an excuse to do something we’d talked about for years. The magnetic pull of childhood nostalgia drew us back to the attic and Gary’s stash of images. This time, our photographic time traveling had a purpose: to digitise and save the countless one-of-a-kind photos and films, while cataloging the stories and quotes that keep them alive.
The Bigham household is a lesson in poetic chaos. Bjorn Bertoft and Gary and Guri Bigham venture into a huge chest of old slides, pulled from Gary’s attic after years of gathering dust. Originally hesitant, Gary ended up orchestrating the whole show with his wooden spoon (he was making banana bread for his grandson, Kaikane, at the time). Photo: Layla Kerley
Poring over the slides, I felt a pang of longing for an era we never knew. We were holding the coattails of that golden age, the Age of Ski Bums, and the landscapes—our backyard draped in a pristine white cloak, now vanished along with its fabled medieval dragons and soon-to-be fabled glaciers—pulled powerfully on my heartstrings. The Kodachrome patina glamourised the seracs, granite pinnacles and damn-right dodgy places where I have since stood to take my own photographs. I recognised the youthful, familiar faces of those whose achievements or tragedies have written this valley’s history.
Left: Gary wasn’t just a still photographer; he also shot four ski movies on 16mm film, which Guri and Layla also digitised. Randy Wieman throws down a monster spread eagle while filming for Gary’s 1986 movie, Ski Tangle Tango, on the north face of the Grands Montets. Photo: Gary Bigham
Right: “Michel Pellé used to be a guide on the Stages Vallençant, a course started by the famous skier Patrick Vallençant to teach steep skiing. I took this photo while filming for Vallençant, in the Passerelle Couloir off the Aiguille du Midi. Or maybe it was the Gervasutti Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul … I can’t remember due to brain damage.” Chamonix, April of 1982. Photo: Gary Bigham
The Age of Ski Bums has passed. But the unnamed one that replaced it has led to a place I’ve longed to be part of since I first sat at Gary’s endless dinner table, starry-eyed, listening to legends ask each other what they’d skied that day.
It’s Chamonix, after all. Anything else would be rude.
It’s rude to ask what one does in Chamonix, but there’s no shortage of skiing to talk about. A lot has changed in the 60 years since Gary moved to Chamonix, but the sunset powder turns are just as dreamy and the views of town are just as stunning. Photos: Layla Kerley