Guiding Light

I wouldn’t ride it, but hey, it’s your life.

I had heard a few horror stories about overly zealous guides who had ruined heli trips by insisting that they ride everything first. With that in mind I decided to take a proactive role, making it very clear to the heli company that we were professionals and only wanted to work with people who understood our goals and had confidence in our ability. I needn’t have bothered; the friendly Italians who run HeliSki Courmayeur turned out to be about as loose as they come.  They would advise us of the dangers and point out the good zones, but they weren’t about to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do.  Their attitude was neatly summed up by a statement we heard often: “I wouldn’t ride it, but hey, it’s your life.”

It's my life  It's now or never  I ain't gonna live forever - DBK Photo: Ahriel Povich
It’s my life
It’s now or never
I ain’t gonna live forever – DBK
Photo: Ahriel Povich

During our first doors-off experience in the helicopter, we quickly discovered that there were no seatbelts and only one harness, which our skilled cinematographer, Tom Elliott, kindly claimed for himself.  That left me leaning over his shoulder, hanging out of the helicopter with our guide helpfully tugging on the back of my jacket. I’m not too proud to admit that I blew a few shots that day. The next time we flew, I showed up with my own harness and felt a hundred times better about dangling out of the heli while DBK and Stephan ripped their lines.

Mr. Maurer was particularly amused by the mellow approach that our guides took to their work. To fully understand his mindset, it’s worth taking a look back at his first trip to Alaska the previous season — which could have easily been his last. Things had started out well on his tryout with Standard Films, and he was beginning to feel pretty confident riding the steepest lines of his life. The bigger terrain was intense but he was loving it, discovering a whole new part of snowboarding that he’d never dreamed could be so fun and rewarding.

Despite the weather, the trip never bottomed out. Photo: Ahriel Povich
Despite the weather, the trip never bottomed out. Photo: Ahriel Povich

Riding steep lines is a major mental challenge. You have to be able to read the terrain and snow quality from far away, and react quickly in order to take advantage of those precious few days when the conditions are perfect.  Another challenge to consider before dropping in is memorizing your line, since the runs are so steep that it’s impossible to see much more than a few turns ahead of you.  On top of that, there are very few useful reference points, so it’s hard to be completely sure that the cornice in front of you is the one with the nice landing – and not the one with the 300 foot death-cliff.  All of those stresses are magnified by the fact that you are literally burning money, as helicopters don’t come cheap and top-level film crews don’t have much time to waste on rookie riders who hesitate. One strange speed-check in a line can ruin its fluidity, and the shot is sure to be cut.

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