As the ultimate backcountry experience, heli-boarding remains at the top of most riders’ to-do lists. Often it’s either prohibitively expensive or just plain illegal, but if you’re looking in the right places it might be easier than you think. On a late-season mission to Courmayeur, Stephan Maurer and David Bertschinger Karg found that good things come to those who wait.
Words and photos by Ahriel Povich, from WL issue 111.
When most people think of Western Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc, they usually associate it with Chamonix. However, the famous French town that hosted the very first Winter Olympics is really only half of the story. The massive mountain range stretches right into Italy’s Aosta Valley, where the people are more laid back and heli-boarding is legal. Yes, some of the locals have a strange attraction to rhinestones and a bad habit of rocking Speedos, but don’t think for a second that the riding is for pussies. With an average of around a hundred deaths per year, Mont Blanc has the dubious honor of being one of the deadliest mountains on the planet.
The possibility of adding a couple of snowboarders to that statistic was pretty much the furthest thing from my mind when I called Stephan Maurer and David Bertschinger Karg (aka DBK) and proposed a heli trip to northern Italy. They were busy filming for German über-production company Isenseven’s twelfth movie, A Way We Go and were already sitting on a lot of backcountry freestyle footage. Still, the Swiss duo was stoked on the possibility of finishing off the season with a few heavy lines in an exotic location.
DBK and Stephan Maurer in 'A Way We Go'
[part title="The Desination"]
As far as holiday destinations go, you just can’t beat Italy. If you want your streets spotless and your trains on time, then you might have better luck a bit further north in one of the schnitzel-loving nations, but if you just want to kick back and live well then Italy’s the place. Here the locals place a high value on ‘La Dolce Vita’ -- literally translated as the sweet life.
Here the locals place a high value on ‘La Dolce Vita’ -- literally translated as the sweet life.
Other than football, sex and creative tax-dodging, the top national priority is eating. Naturally we attempted to embrace the local culture, and wound up spending at least a third of the trip in a food-induced coma. The lighter (yet potentially more dangerous) option is the Italian ‘apéro’, the practice of heading straight from the slopes to the bar, but there’s still just no getting away from the food. All of the watering-holes in the beautiful village of Courmayeur, where we stayed, have the truly excellent policy of giving out free grub when you order your drinks. Never mind the classic bowl of peanuts and stale crisps – we’re talking fine cured meats, local cheeses, small sandwiches, fresh vegetables, delicious anti-pasti and hot focaccia.
For those of you who don’t follow international politics, Italy has been dominated for nearly two decades by a dirty old man named Silvio Berlusconi, whose in-office exploits made Prince Harry look like the Pope. When a nation keeps re-electing a dude who has become synonymous with multiple sex scandals, fraud cases and corruption charges, it’s a good indicator that they’re down for a good time. Interested in a wine tasting by candlelight? How about boning up on your Roman history in the small medieval village? Or perhaps you want to find out just what goes on at a ‘bunga bunga’ party? Whatever your speed, a trip to Mont Blanc’s bountiful backside is certain to be memorable.
Of course, I didn’t come all the way to the Aosta Valley just to get in touch with my inner wineoceros, but anyone who’s been stuck waiting out weeks of bad weather in Alaska will tell you that good distractions are essential. Unless you get really lucky, the down days are simply part of the deal on a heli trip. In our case, we spent the first few days of our trip waiting for a snowfall decent enough to open up some lines. Then, out of nowhere, three feet of fresh fell from the sky. To our dismay, this actually turned out to be too much, and the new layer was about as stable as Tony Soprano on speed. We had no choice but to go back to being tourists for a few more days. Just as the snowpack was finally starting to seem safe, the wind arrived to blow most of the powder away and further increase the risk of an avalanche.
Driven by frustration and impatience, we lost the plot on the first windy day and decided to take the helicopter out for an expensive joyride, searching hopefully for a protected zone to shred. No such luck. In fact, I never even made it out of the helicopter and paid dearly with a nauseating ride that made any roller coaster I’ve ever been on look pretty tame. A chopper may be the best possible mode of transport for accessing gnarly terrain, but the cramped quarters aren’t so sweet should you find yourself in need of a place to puke. In an airplane you have those handy paper bags tucked behind every seat, and almost every other mode of transport I’ve been in offers the option of a window to hang your head out of. In a heli, however, you really only have two choices: swallow it or wear it. I chose the former, and made a promise to myself to be more patient in the future.
In ten days, we only got two where everything lined up. When it was finally on, it was worth the wait, and we were immediately blown away by the endless potential of the vast playground that is the Italian side of Mont Blanc. Just five minutes in the bird and we were alone on top of nearly endless untracked terrain. The lines the riders stepped to were steep and sharky, and the snow was still far from stable. With the guides seemingly on siesta, responsibility for our safety was largely left up to us.
[part title="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."
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.
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.
Nothing trumps experience, but new technology offers certain advantages that never existed in the early days of big mountain riding. Now, every rider uses some sort of digital camera to get a last minute glimpse of their line before dropping in. Even then, though, you still have to flip everything in your head. Most riders don't have the benefit of a photographic memory like Jeremy Jones, so the mental game of choosing the right line can be pretty terrifying.
On the day of Stephan's AK accident he chose a line that his guide failed to mention would actually be a first descent. He'd been such a natural so far that everyone's confidence in him was solid, perhaps to a fault. Shortly after he dropped in, he came to a section that was much steeper than he expected and he had to slow down. Just a moment's hesitation was enough for the sluff behind him to catch up, sending him tomahawking over rocks and cliffs down the entire face of the mountain. Luckily Stephan had been wearing both a helmet and an airbag, which undoubtedly saved his life.
He was helicoptered to Juneau and waited for nearly a week while tests were run to assess whether he had any serious internal injuries. Miraculously he turned out to be fine and, rather than souring him to the experience, his AK ordeal had left him hungry for more lines. The rider who showed up to push himself in Italy was smarter and more calculated than the one that tumbled down the mountain the previous year in Alaska. Rather than traversing across the steep faces in search of jumps, Stephan took a page out Xavier De Le Rue’s book, riding as fast as possible and leaving the sluff far behind.
You can get dropped into an endless powder field that I would feel comfortable taking my father down or, if you want to push it, there’s terrain that’s as technical as anywhere in the world.
It’s important to have a healthy amount of fear and respect for the lines you want to ride, so Stephan’s experience was a real asset to DBK, who had never ridden that sort of terrain before. Both of these riders are part of a new generation of pros who came up through the freestyle scene, winning competitions and filming well rounded video parts, before following the predictable path to powder addiction. At 23 DBK is one of the few riders around who can hold his own in a slopestyle contest, get creative in the streets and a point it down a 45 degree couloir.
Though the landscape in the Aosta Valley can be a bit rockier than AK, there’s a huge variety of terrain for non-pros of every level to enjoy. You can get dropped into an endless powder field that I would feel comfortable taking my father down or, if you want to push it, there’s terrain that’s as technical as anywhere in the world. And the true beauty of the heli-drop is that you pretty much have the mountain all to yourself without having to exert any physical effort. That means that you get to save all of your energy for sending it on the long ride down….
[part title="Advice on Heli Boarding in Courmayeur"]
- The closet airport to Courmayeur is in Geneva, Switzerland. This is actually a bonus since you can easily stash some cash in a secret bank account, load up your bag with chocolate and still arrive at the heli-pad in just over an hour.
- There are lots of affordable places to stay in Courmayeur and there is a cable car from the center of town that delivers you straight to the park for those days that you don’t want to fly.
- Even on a tight budget, you should strongly consider at least a day of heli-boarding. Two drops can be had for around 300 quid and, between the insane views of Mont Blanc on the way up and the thirty-minute powder run on the way down, it’s money well spent.