Living in Verbier, one of the backcountry capitals of the world and home to competitions like Extreme Verbier and the Freeride World Tour, I decided that this season I had better start branching out beyond groomed pistes and the odd kicker and really push myself and my riding to the limits.
Making the decision was easy. Anyone who’s watched a snowboarding video can tell you that gliding down an open face and slashing through fields of powder looks like the coolest thing in the world. But anyone who has ventured a few meters off piste only to find themselves thrashing around in what could be custard, trying to get back on their feet while they dig their board further into the treacherous mess can confirm that it’s not as easy as it looks. Add the looming danger of a quick but not so painless death and the whole thing can seem quite daunting.
Before this season my experiences of riding off-piste had been limited to following my crazy and questionably suicidal brother, feeling the thrill of ignoring no entry signs and giggling nervously at ‘danger of death’ warnings. On our first adventure in Alpe d’Huez I was so relieved to have finished the lung-crushing hike that it hadn’t occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
“So Mim, if there is actually an avalanche…?”
He laughed, “You’ve seen xXx, just go straight down” and with that he dropped into the bowl.
I took a deep breath, pictured Xander Cage straight-lining, sluff hot on his heels, and tried to follow.
Shrieking manically as I picked up speed for the first few meters, I didn’t really think about turning until all of a sudden I was cartwheeling, choking on powder and then lying in what felt like a very cold cloud. I flailed around trying to get up, somehow ended up launching myself face first, and repeated the whole scenario several times .
When I finally reached the bottom of the bowl I looked up and around. We were essentially at the bottom of a funnel. A funnel which would have filled up pretty quickly if anything had started to slide. Weirdly more flightened having reached the bottom, I hurried back towards the safety of the piste.
It wasn’t until I was back at the bar getting bollocked by a usually laid back friend that I realised just how stupid we’d been. Blindly venturing into one of the most avalanche prone areas in resort after a heavy snowfall with no avalanche gear, we probably wouldn’t have been found until May.
Since then I’ve tried to educate myself. In my first week in Verbier I went to the Farinet’s annual avalanche safety talk, which was essentially a powerpoint presentation of all the ways you can die on the mountain. This was followed by a talk by local Freeride celebrity, Xavier De La Rue, showing us a video of his worst avalanche and explaining that he should basically be dead.
This didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. I learnt that if you’re caught in an avalanche you have about a 15 minute window to be found and dug out, but after this your chances of being found alive start to fall quicker than a first-time snowboarder. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually run out of oxygen, but poison yourself with carbon dioxide from your own stinkbreath of doom. I started reading a book on avalanche safety (Staying alive in avalanche terrain, Bruce Tremper) but all that I’ve taken from it so far is that it’s basically impossible to predict an avalanche and that I’m probably going to die.
Since being in Verbier I’ve done my best to ignore these creeping fears and have had a few great days following friends down faces that I would never have even found, let alone considered facing. Excuse the pun. I’ve built my confidence dodging trees, swinging my hips and concentrating on keeping up with the guys rather than panicking and bailing as soon as I pick up speed, like the old Kiki.
Verbier’s yellow marked itineraries are a great place to get a taste for freeriding, as you get to practise on different terrain without actually venturing too far out of your comfort zone. While they tend to get tracked out and crispy pretty easily, a leg burning mogul-run can be a nice challenging change from tearing it down the pistes.
On white-out days I love going up to the Col de Gentiane and making my way down the itinerary to Tortin, keeping my eyes peeled for the yellow guide poles and feeling like the only person on the mountain. Somehow I always end up taking a different route, and there’s something therapeutic about the stages of apprehension, regret, panic and finally elation on the way down.
The first time I ended up staring into the mist-filled valley, realising that it was too late to turn back, it also occured to me that I had no phone signal and no one knew where I was. While this was a terrifying realisation considering the high avalanche risk and my relative lack of skill and experience, I put my music on, bent my knees and descended into the mist.
Reflecting on the ride with a cappuccino and a celebratory bag of Maltesers at the lift cafe, I realised that the run had been an extreme form of mindfulness. The mix of fear and adrenaline is primal. Your senses are cut off by the mist and music yet you’re one hundred percent alert to the feel of board and the snow beneath your feet. Your breaths and turns begin to feel like meditation. You’re focused on the movement and living in the moment in the most real way possible.
I channelled these feelings when faced with my biggest challenge yet. I finally made it up the Mont Gelé lift, a telecabine that takes you to the top of a peak with no pisted runs. My faith in my friend Liam was slightly wavering as he had accidentally just led me on a climb over what had been a slab avalanche and was now a slippery mix of ice and mud, but having made it out unscathed I was feeling particularly invincible.
Looking over the ridge at the wide open mountain and toeing what was definitely more like powder than the crispy blanket that I’d just tackled, my usual apprehension was replaced by the urge to go. We took it in turns dropping in, and waiting for each other in safe spots under rocks (starting to get a bit more sensible now!) This time, by the end of the run I was rearing for another one. On the way back up the lift Liam pointed out a couloir that we would take. A steep, narrow path between jagged rocks leading back into the open powder field.
The apprehension was back. “Wait until I go around the corner, wait another twenty seconds and then drop in” said Liam. I waited a lot longer than twenty seconds. When I finally mustered up the courage I started side slipping down before making a few very controlled turns. It may not have been very dignified, and I certainly didn’t look like those guys in the videos, but I made it out alive, with the burning desire to go again.
Our next adventure took us on a climb up the aptly named “Stairway to Heaven.” After traversing from the Col de Gentianes I was faced with a vertical climb that was less of a stairway and more of a treacherous slippery mess. Digging my board into the snow above me to stop myself sliding back down, I tried to ignore the burning in my thighs and lungs as I prayed that the ride would be worth it.
It was. When I finally caught my breath at the top I looked over at the open powder field, untracked apart from a few squiggly lines. We had one last traverse to tackle before gliding weightlessly through the waist deep, fluffy powder, spraying white clouds as the soaring feeling in my chest took me higher than the peak of Mont Fort. When we finally came to a stop, I pulled my goggles up to feel the hot sun on my face, gushing like a teenager after her first kiss. That was the best ride of my life.
Riding back down for a quick lunch break, I was still buzzing with adrenaline, throwing my weight from my toes to my heels, caressing the piste while making deep carves. All of a sudden the wind was knocked of me, the world spun around me and I was on my back, registering the blinding, throbbing pain in my skull. Liam had straightlined into me, and it was a miracle that we weren’t both in a lot more trouble.
Typing this in bed a few days later, with my neck still in a brace, and a dull headache still pulsing in my temples, I’m considering the irony that after all of my fears of freeriding, all three of the concussions I’ve suffered this season have happened on the piste. (Will I ever learn?) I’m not saying that those fears are unfounded, but accidents can happen anywhere, and fears shouldn’t put you off pursuing the most amazing experiences that life has to offer.