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Straight Line

A High-Alpine Shepherd

La Grave’s Mathieu “Bonnetbleu” Labbé

ABOVE •The Glacier des Bruyeres is one of those lines not in the guidebooks. Bonnetbleu at work on the steeps in the Parc des Ecrins, where he spent a winter exploring solo and where he has claimed numerous first descents.

When Mathieu Labbé left his hometown of Leffonds, France for Chamonix, his grandmother sent him with her blessings and a blue beanie, or “bonnet” in French. For the next 17 years, he would wear it constantly while in the mountains around La Grave. Now he is known simply as “Bonnetbleu,” and has become a symbol of the essence and history of the mountains he calls home. In nearly two decades, I still haven’t seen him without that blue hat.

Mathieu moved to La Grave in 2000, after a year in Chamonix, and was welcomed easily into the community. The friendly, calm character with quick feet and big lungs ended up joining our ski group, enjoying both what the telepherique  (aerial tram) had to offer as well as the giant, human-powered lines in the surrounding mountains.

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ABOVE • Mathieu takes a quick window forecast from his 300-year-old stone cabin Chez Veronico.

Then, that spring, he blew his knee.

Having entered into a warm social circle, Bonnetbleu decided to stay in La Grave after his operation. But it was his innate penchant for the archaic that truly resonated with the traditional culture of La Grave. With plenty of time for contemplation, he found himself drawn to the local permaculture lifestyle. He already preferred a rudimentary existence, and was always game for spending cold nights in refuges or talking philosophy while skiing some obscure line. When the opportunity arose to move into a 300-year-old stone cabin named Chez Veronico, he took it.

It had no indoor plumbing, but was an “authentic” place to start his dream. He blew away visiting skiers with fare of fresh potatoes, local cured ham, bottles of wine and traditional black bread he helped make from the neighboring village of Villar D’Arene.

Mathieu’s skiing focus soon shifted from the comforts of the telepehrique. A few winters later, he moved to St. Christophe, a village near La Grave, where he explored the Massif des Écrins alone. As tough as his on-snow accomplishments were, no challenge matched his attempts to integrate into the local community, something even other French citizens find difficult. Having traveled to “far off” places like New Zealand and Arizona, his perspective contrasted with those of the locals, who rarely left their village.

Animal husbandry plays a crucial role in the permaculture lifestyle, and Bonnetbleu soon realized working as a shepherd would be an ideal way to earn respect from the locals and produce his own sustenance, while not relinquishing his daily immersion in the mountains he loved. In the hamlet of Les Terasses, just a few houses away from Doug and Emily Coombs, he met Jean Louis and Monique Sionnet, a local couple that took him under their wing. He started helping them with their cows, sheep and chickens, and they gave him a garden plot to farm.

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ABOVE •Grass for the sheep and snow for the shepherd—the backyard provides. Bonnetbleu descends into the clouds toward the village of Les Terrasses.

There, in 2005, Mathieu met Charlotte, the daughter of a shepherd family and a kindred spirit. Soon the couple had two children, a son, Amelio, and a daughter, Jeanne. The new family found a farm in another nearby village, called Les Cours, and bought a herd of goats. Charlotte began making cheese, and with chickens and gardens in the village, Bonnetbleu suddenly found himself with foundations.

Despite its personal rewards, skiing solo became empty in comparison to shared experiences with meaningful partners. Skiing from the telepherique was expensive and meant leaving his family, and soon the concept of lift skiing—and the accompanying “freerider” egoism—fell to the compost heap (literally). Instead, he had to depend more on his wits, skills and sensitivities, both for his skiing and shepherding.

Bonnetbleu now spends his off season herding sheep in the mountains, and he is “good in his skin” as the French say. Amelio is now 9 years old and Jeanne is 5. He and Charlotte own 300 Merino sheep, with which they plan to begin making their own undergarments. For Mathieu, skiing has become a way of tying individual pursuits into one community—my freezer is full of his lamb, and he’s got my strain of garlic in his garden.

Providing directly for family and community sustenance has also pushed his skiing toward being more sustainable. He uses seven-year-old skis, and relies on window weather forecasts versus a smartphone or laptop. Yet he regularly skis lines that make the trendy skiers of the area look amateurish.

Each season, I still look forward eagerly to those predawn mornings of throwing my skis in his straw-stuffed beater van that smells of animals, toward some unknown nook in the Ecrins. Yet, after 17 years, I still can’t recall his last name. To me and everyone else in La Grave, he is still just Bonnetbleu.

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