John Jackson, Kazu Kokubo and Blair Habernicht are all staring at me over half eaten pizzas, open-mouthed. It takes a pretty impressive story to illicit this reaction from professional snowboarders as experienced as these. But what I have just told them – and the story you are about to read – is that impressive: Xavier De Le Rue has rewritten the rulebook for backcountry access.
Words by Ed Leigh // Photos by Tero Repo
In 2014 I was invited to the Arctic wilderness of Svalbard with Timeline Productions for the first trip of their Degrees North film project. It was designed for them to take their first tentative steps into the world of paramotors. If you haven’t come across them before, paramotors are paragliding wings, but with the added bonus of a small two-stroke engine that powers a propeller strapped to the pilot’s back. This means that the wing no longer needs the help of thermals and can gain altitude independently – even with two people hanging under it.
You can read the Svalbard story here, but suffice to say it was a huge success. The paramotors were used to scope terrain and film lines – an idea De Le Rue had first explored in 2011 when faced with limited resources for his expedition to Antarctica. During that process he met Christophe Blanc Gras, one of France’s most talented and experienced paragliding pilots, and together they started to realise that paramotors could reveal lines you can’t see from the base of a mountain. Inevitably this opened up an entirely new world of possibility for Xavier, who has the very rare gift of being able to match an active imagination with a skill set and determination to literally turn flights of fancy into a reality.
“Xavier matches an active imagination with a skill set and determination to literally turn flights of fancy into a reality"
De Le Rue’s plan is to use the paramotors like helicopters. He wants to fly tandem up to a peak and then jump out from under a moving canopy onto the face below. It sounds utterly ridiculous, and indeed many people laughed openly in Xavier’s face. But they obviously don’t know the Frenchman very well.
Almost exactly a year on from Svalbard I am back with the crew in Alaska. We are sat on the tarmac at Haines airport. I say airport – in reality it has a perimeter fence, a porta-cabin and a decent sized runway flanked by towering peaks, though right now no one is admiring them. Xavier De Le Rue has lost his cool. If this were a regular occurrence then I’m sure people would be looking distracted, trying to find banal things suddenly fascinating, but everyone is transfixed. No one has seen the famously calm Pyrenean angry, and all of the crew are staring as De Le Rue’s tantrum gains momentum. He is swearing and pacing and no one is quite sure how to react so they are giving him space. He is a big man and this is unfamiliar territory.
The outburst and frustration are understandable, however. He has already blown a small fortune on a fruitless boat trip further north, where the lack of snow was staggering, and the last nine days have been spent staring at grey skies as cabin fever begins to ferment. There are increasingly big holes appearing in the skies, and while other film crews and private clients are airborne, nothing seems to be happening for us.
Ten minutes later no one cares whether it was the tantrum or sheer coincidence, but people are scrambling into action. Nets of gear are being attached to the bottom of the helicopter with long lines and crew members are climbing aboard. Zero to a hundred in heartbeat – this is the classic routine when working with helicopters in the mountains.
These expeditions are not easy or cheap; in this case, ten people are being ferried 15 minutes south west of Haines, over the Chilkat River to Rainbow Glacier. It sits on the fringe of the Seaba heli operation’s usable terrain. The camp site is perfect, offering the safety of flat ground above the glacier and a tusk of rock that stands guard against the elements. The main faces are clearly visible, so the cameramen aren’t walking far, and the icing on the cake is the pitch perfect runway for the paramotor takeoffs.
“De Le Rue’s plan is to use the paramotors like helicopters. He wants to fly tandem up to a peak and then jump out from under a moving canopy onto the face below"
The crew comprises of director/filmer Guido Perrini, filmer/data wrangler Tim Burgess, filmer/producer Matt Hollis, photographer Tero Repo, drone pilot Christoph Weber (yes, the same ex pro and long time collaborator of David Benedek), paramotor pilot Christophe Blanc Gras and the athletes – Tahoe’s Ralph Backstrom, Zermatt’s Sam Anthamatten and of course, the driving force behind the project: Xavier De Le Rue.
There is enough gear and food to last nearly three weeks, and it has taken months of planning to assemble everything. But as the sound of the chopper blades slicing the air fades to nothing there is a palpable moment of elation. Everyone knows that for now there is nothing else, the hard work is done. All that remains is eating, sleeping and, depending on your role, shredding, flying or capturing the action on film.
Camp is set up in three hours and Christophe, as the most senior Frenchman, assumes chef’s duty. Plans are made to leave an hour before first light so we will get up at 4.15. Everyone fills their bottles from the last pot of boiling water to put in their sleeping bags as makeshift hot water bottles. More than six feet of snow has fallen in the last week and the forecast is for five days of settled weather. At this point it couldn’t be more perfect.
I wake at 1.30am to the sound of war. A volley of explosions fills every bit of space in the valley. I slowly gather my senses… I’m in a tent and we are camped in a safe place. I pull on my boots and run outside. Ralph, Sam and Xavier are already stood looking at Grandma’s Wrinkles, the jewel in the crown of lines they wanted to ride. The sky is clear, but a shimmering mist of snow particles hangs in the air, and through it you can see the mountain is bare. It has been stripped back to the rock – an entire winter’s worth of snow has fallen off the face. More than 6 meters of base has avalanched, triggered by a cornice the size of a combine harvester falling off the ridge. The torrent of snow it has created is terrifying – it is the biggest avalanche I have ever seen and it has run more than a mile down the face and out over the glacier below.
“An entire winter’s worth of snow has fallen off the face, triggered by a cornice the size of a combine harvester falling off the ridge"
No one speaks for a long time. To no one in particular, I mutter something about this not being a good omen.
“It’s like Roger Federer warming up for the finals of Wimbledon and the stadium collapsing," replies Sam.
I can’t help but laugh. Vanity is a trait rarely found in a big mountain skiers and snowboarders (unlike a high percentage of their preening freestyle orientated counterparts). Events like the one we have just witnessed do not allow sane people to indulge in posturing and ego polishing, and if they do, they usually don’t last very long. With the show over, the mood settles but I am amazed that all three head back to their tents in a bid to get a little more sleep before we head out.
In the stark light of day the aftermath of the slide is no less shocking. The gradient of the slope, the volume of snow and the distance it travelled leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that not even lichen would have survived a slide of this size. Ralph radios the event in to Seaba and they confirm that other cornice falls on this aspect have happened throughout the region. The accumulated snowfall combined with warmer spring temperatures means that gravity is taking her toll. I watch everyone slowly process the information; there is almost relief that this has happened now, acting as a poignant reminder of the risks the team faces. There is no question at all that they will tread more carefully now.
“Then Xavier shits himself. Well, he sharts. Halfway up the ridge, realizing he is facing a terminal code brown, he races to get the layers off before he ruins them all"
Then Xavier shits himself. Well, he sharts. Halfway up the ridge, realizing he is facing a terminal code brown, he races to get the layers off before he ruins them all. During the storm-bound period in Haines the crew had harvested a large quantity of mussels from the river and Xavier, who consumed more than most, is to suffer their revenge.
It is a massive blow, and over the next 48 hours De Le Rue makes 22 increasingly fragile visits to the toilet. He looks dreadful and is barely eating. In his absence, Anthamatten and Backstrom start knocking off some of the easier lines on foot. The wind is too strong for the paramotor to fly, so with reduced responsibility I join Sam and Ralph for a couple of the runs.
It is the kind of scenario you dream of: perfect snow, some of the world’s best riders as guides, and plenty of time. The latter is the key for me. We are splitboarding and climbing for access, so we have time to absorb lines and features as we climb. One of the things no one tells you about heliboarding is that you rarely get a good seat in the heli where you can see enough of the line, or if you do it’s just a snapshot. Then you have to rely on what someone else tells you so you don’t have the confidence to really let go. I concentrate on every feature and how it changes as we begin to look down on the line; I focus on the crux of the line and try to work out an escape route should anything go wrong.
I am on top of what legendary AK guide Tom Burt calls a bowling ball – a convex slope that rolls out of sight with almost no distinguishing features to orientate yourself. I am trying to hold my nerve as I gather speed towards the abyss but am failing miserably. The slope is turning into an elevator shaft in the 50-degree range and my courage is slipping away as fast as the snow beneath me. I am about to get a serious lesson in commitment. There is no way to stop in terrain this steep, instead you have to know your line well enough to improvise instinctively if things go wrong. The thing that very few people realise is that looking comfortable or even graceful in Alaska means investing a lot of time and money, being patient and humble. I have ventured beyond my comfort zone a few times and been schooled, and this is fast turning into a repeat episode. I am riding into a glacial chute just over a board’s width wide and my novice ‘sluff management’ (the art of avoiding the miniature avalanche created when you turn on steep faces) means that I am being flushed into a bottleneck. Somehow I manage to stay on my feet and bounce out onto the apron below looking for all the world like I meant it. I got lucky. It is a timely reminder of just how good Sam, Ralph and Xavier are and how easy it is to get lured into a false sense of security when you are with them. I make a mental note to stick to the gentle slopes in the 40-degree region.
“The slope is turning into an elevator shaft in the 50-degree range and my courage is slipping away as fast as the snow beneath me. I am about to get a serious lesson in commitment"
We wake late on the fifth morning to find Xavier up and about. His guts are allowing him to eat, and while the sky is milky the wind has dropped. Over the last couple of days, Ralph and Sam have knocked off a few of the smaller lines but have held off anything big, waiting to see if the weather would play ball and allow them access with the paramotors. While the pace of life at camp is gentle, you can feel the atmosphere beginning to change as the prospect of flight becomes a reality. Both De Le Rue and Anthamatten are skilled pilots in their own right. As Xavier said:
“I learned to fly, because I needed to understand the potential and the limitations of paramotors for myself."
Anthamatten learned to fly for the Svalbard expedition, and by the end of that trip was very confident. Backstrom on the other hand has never flown under any kind of wing and doesn’t have any expectations. The boys had used their down time in Haines productively though: Christophe the pilot had strung the paramotor seat from the rafters and it allowed everyone to drill repeatedly the process of unstrapping, clearing the webbing and stabilizing bar, and then jumping out. It is an incredibly involved process that requires fiddly buckles to be undone through cumbersome gloves. It is one thing to do it a metre off the ground in a shed, something else entirely when you are bouncing along a mountain ridge at 20kmh over a 50 degree face.
“To the casual observer, the pilot’s wild eyes and sudden outbursts of heavily-accented English and cackling laughter could easily give the impression of a madman"
As the day wore on the sky cleared and the wind remained calm. It was as if an unseen force was running a gentle electric current through the camp. Everyone was feeding off each other’s adrenaline – all except Christophe Blanc Gras, the pilot. He looks for all the world like a younger, French version of Doc from Back To The Future. Shocks of unruly Blonde hair escape from all corners of his head (even when wearing a balaclava) and, to the casual observer, his wild eyes and sudden outbursts of heavily-accented English and cackling laughter could easily give the impression of a madman.
But, as everyone else gets giddy on excitement Christophe steadies himself. His is the role of greatest responsibility. He has to put Sam, Ralph and Xavier in the right spot, at the right time; all they have to do is jump. He then has to wrestle a huge tandem wing back to earth with just one person beneath it, in a turbulent, ever-changing alpine environment. His position is also isolated – unlike the riders, he has no peers to consult with, so he has to make the right calls. I watch him transforming from the laissez faire chef to a pilot responsible for the lives of others.
By 2 o’clock in the afternoon everything is in place. Christophe has 40kg of engine and fuel strapped to his back and 60kg of Swiss alpinist and skier strapped to his front. As everyone else is busy in their roles I assume the role of pre-flight assistant. Lines are meticulously placed and when Christophe gives the signal, I tear at the engine starter chord and it splutters to life. The throttle is attached to Christophe’s index finger and he taps at it and nods; I grab the bar at the front and sprint down our makeshift runway. This is the critical moment – the wing has to inflate above them before Christophe can apply the power. The wing floats up and with a quick glance up to check, Christophe hits the throttle and they’re gone.
“Sam is dangling unsecured from the front of the harness, the snow has dropped away beneath him and he is dangling first tens and then hundreds of feet up over the glacier below"
It takes less than ten minutes for them to reach the ridge. They begin making low passes across a saddle, but still the lines below roll into spines like witches fingers. It’s not a gentle start by any means. After a change of direction for the wind and three test passes Christophe swoops low and, straining my eyes from 2km away, I can see Sam shift his weight forward to jump… but he doesn’t exit the seat. Instead he is dangling unsecured from the front of the harness, the snow has dropped away beneath him and he is dangling first tens and then hundreds of feet up over the glacier below. Sam has been climbing longer than he has been skiing and is one of the world’s most respected alpinists; you can take from this that his strength to weight ratio is akin to an ant’s, and in this case it probably saved his life.
The look on Sam’s face when they landed wouldn’t have told you that he had been in any immediate danger. Christophe on the other hand looked slightly more worn by the experience. The ensuing debrief revealed that it was Sam’s pack that had got caught, so as Christophe reset the wing, Xavier ditched his pack and got in position. Nine days of down time, two days of food poisoning and then straight into action.
Within minutes, the paramotor was airborne and back in position, swooping across the saddle. On the third pass Xavier jumped.
It was inevitable yet unbelievable, almost like it had a fairytale quality to it. Xavier hung for a second in the air, slightly awkward from having to go from a sitting position to a riding position, and then the tail of the board touched down at the point where the bowling ball of the slope rolled away. Using the momentum of the drop, he released all the frustration and uncertainty of the last month into a huge arcing turn onto a spine. Amid the excitement at our camp, even Guido the director, a wonderfully dry and reserved man who has seen it all when it comes to the mountains, was heard to emit a whoop.
“Xavier hung for a second in the air, slightly awkward from having to go from a sitting position to a riding position, and then the tail of the board touched down at the point where the bowling ball of the slope rolled away"
With the seal broken, a wave of relief washed over everyone. The unknown was suddenly familiar, albeit still new, and the tension had gone. In its place was unbridled excitement and a sense of possibility. Sam and Ralph waited for Christophe’s return like kids waiting for a rollercoaster. Sam was next and copied De Le Rue’s feat with his own line. Then it was Ralph’s turn.
The first thing that strikes you about Ralph is his size: he is huge, as wide and as thick as an anvil, emitting strength and power. It is very rare you meet a professional snowboarder with Ralph’s build; these days riders tend to either be light and willowy hang gliders like Nicolas Müller or short and explosive superbikes of the Sven Thorgren mould. But Ralph is neither; in comparison he is a logging truck – he has thighs like steel girders and shoulders like watermelons. It is not a build you would instantly associate with the gift of flight.
Christophe runs through prep and Ralph nervously gets in position. Christophe offers a few words of advice but is for the most part concentrating on his own responsibilities. The wing inflates as they begin take off but Ralph just misses his cue to sit back and, as they leave the ground, Ralph is dangling unceremoniously out of the front of the harness. He is still strapped in so there is no real danger, but it’s a sobering reminder that this is the first time Ralph has ever flown under a wing and he is actually going to try and jump out of it.
“This is the first time Ralph has ever flown under a wing and he is actually going to try and jump out of it"
Unfazed, the process begins again and the second time works perfectly, although you can hear the paramotor’s engine straining under the extra weight. Using the same face, Christophe positions Ralph over a fresh line and like that he jumps, lands and makes it three from three.
Back at camp there is elation. The huge investment of time, money and energy has paid off; no matter what happens now, the basic elements of the film are in the bag. There is a twenty-minute lag as the boy’s tour back across the valley, but I can see Xavier’s smile from half a kilometer away. I had expected celebration or at the very least a rest, but instead Xavier declares they have only just started. This is the difference between Xavier and most normal people – he is never satisfied.
I had to leave that evening; my time with the crew was running out and an incoming storm was undoubtedly going to cut links with camp. But as I packed I watched the team replicating heli drops. Christophe was ferrying each rider out to a shoulder where they could first drop their bags and then pop out on to a plateau ready to climb the peak.
The speed at which the crew were progressing with this new found skill made me think of something Melody Sky, one of Xavier’s business partners at Timeline Productions in Verbier once told me “Xavier is a natural entrepreneur."
It has since struck me that this is true in both a mental and physical sense. Xavier has got a wonderful lack of ego combined with an open mind and a hunger to progress that means he will consider any and all solutions to the challenges he faces. Both Sam and Ralph have a lot more to give, but with his advancing years (at least in action sports terms) questions are inevitably being asked about Xavier’s legacy. Certainly, there is widespread speculation that this feat could represent his Magnum Opus. I personally hope not. As audacious and defiant as Xavier has been in his pursuit of this goal, it is potentially only the start. He has now collected a skill set and level of experience that could see the limits of big mountain and riding and access completely redefined.
“Xavier has now collected a skill set and level of experience that could see the limits of big mountain and riding and access completely redefined"
“The paramotor offers freedom on a scale big mountain riders have only ever dreamed of"
It won’t happen overnight. The reality, of course, is that you need a very talented and courageous team of people with an incredibly diverse skill set to even think about making this kind of adventure a reality. But people will inevitably follow this example because the only limitations are wind and skill. The economic accessibility offered by using less than a litre of fuel every twenty minutes (as opposed to £2000 a day in a heli), the lack of bureaucracy you face compared with most forms of aviation and the fact that, at just under 40kg, it is incredibly portable, mean that the paramotor offers freedom on a scale big mountain riders have only ever dreamed of.
If you haven’t already, go and watch Degrees North, because as impressive as these photos and tall tales are, seeing is believing and I promise it won’t disappoint.
I am a disciple of the story. I cherish good ones and love telling them. This is one of the best I have, and I know that because for one night in that pizza restaurant, I was the king of the table amongst snowboarding’s most esteemed company.