With the 20th anniversary of the Verbier Xtreme - the final and most feared stop on the Freeride World Tour - about to kick off on Saturday, Harriet Coton from Verbier Life sat down with the man who's name is most synonymous with the terrifying Bec des Rosses face: Xavier de le Rue.
After winning the FWT for the third time on the trot in 2010 with the astonishing run shown below, he is now automatically entered as a wild card each year. We wondered what it is about Verbier that keeps him coming back...
What makes this event so special?
To me it represents big mountain freeriding to a higher level, the great possibility to share that with the world and make what we do look like something that’s really studied. It gives access to the inside of the world of freeriding; it brings it to the masses. At the same time, there’s not even one competition that’s close to the involvement that it requires from the riders’ perspective and the show that it gives – it’s a complete event.
What were your thoughts when you first stood at the top of the Bec des Rosses?
The first time I went to the top of the Bec, and the first time I actually rode it, was for my first ever freeride competition. It was very intense because even today that face is still way beyond anything else in terms of competition and what’s being done. So starting with that was probably a bit foolish – I guess I was foolish! But I got a quick correction because I crashed halfway through and tumbled – probably a good dozen tumbles – and hit the rocks after. It was quite a big experience for my first time but it didn’t scare me. Since then, I’ve been going there every year for the competition.
How do you find competing considering your past results? Is there a lot of pressure?
The thing is… that face is so intense. When you’re at the top – even if you have pressure, even if people are expecting something from you – when you strap in, it’s still just you and your skill level and what you want to do, because there’s no other option. You’re just doing what’s possible within yourself, and within a big margin of safety. It’s difficult enough trying to find a margin of safety that you’re comfortable with, because any mistake that you make in some places could mean you’re dead. It’s something very difficult to deal with and a huge paradox between competing and pushing yourself on one hand, and on the other hand making a lethal mistake. You really have to find a big balance, which is really tough. Do you plan to continue competing for years to come?
It’s tough because it’s the comp that I respect the most above every single comp. And I live in Verbier, so I see that face all the time. It fits really well to my style so in a way I really like it. But at the same time, it’s really intense so I don’t know for how long I’m going to have the mental strength and motivation to do it again.
How do athletes manage to find original lines in the competition?
It’s a mountain that offers so many possibilities. With the conditions, the wind could be blowing a few days before in one direction and it could be shaping the face in a way so that there’s new jumps available and new options everywhere that fit really different styles. I think that’s why bringing generations of skiers and snowboarders one after the other always brings new little things, and that’s why it’s such an interesting face.
How do the conditions affect the way the face can be ridden?
The way the conditions can be on the face is so particular that it doesn’t matter if it’s been a good or bad winter. All that matters is where the snow comes, and if it comes with the wind from the right direction. Even if it’s been a super snowy year, you could have a northeast wind for a few days and it will just peel off the face. Then the other way round, it could have been really bad snow everywhere and you could suddenly have a snowstorm coming from the right direction and really loading on the face. It really depends on the temperatures too. Really, like, wait for a week before the comp and you’ll see. There still might be the chance – which happens every second or third year – that within the comp time period, there’s this huge dump that’s perfect and makes the face really good. The time frame when they do the comp is a changing time between the winter, when it’s rarely good conditions, and the spring, when it gets really good conditions. It’s really the turning point, so that’s why conditions normally change drastically within that period.
I feel scared every time! Every time you drop in, even if you’ve been there and done that, conditions change so much that still you don’t have room for a single mistake
How much planning is involved in your own line?
I try to put two or three days into it where I just focus and then once I find a line, I just try to visualise it, and try not to get drowned by my demons. It’s not easy to try and stay realistic, and at the same time see the side of it where you know how to do it. You could just be seeing those moments where you see yourself falling, because we see everything from the outside. It’s so funny – I think that’s something that’s quite common with all of us. As soon as we see something from above, in the angle that we’re used to then it becomes a lot easier so I try to focus on that. But the few days before when you just have to study and try to visualise and imagine how things would look from the top and really try to have it stuck in your head – that part is really, really important. That’s where I’d say all the work gets done.
How do you conquer your fear?
You just have to stick to the idea that you know how to do this and try to forget everything else around it. I try to remember that once I’ve done my first few turns, I’ll be into my bubble. And I always try to tell myself, “Ok – enjoy it. Enjoy every turn!" I think that’s something that’s very important.
Do you still feel scared?
I feel scared every time! Every time you drop in, even if you’ve been there and done that, conditions change so much that still you don’t have room for a single mistake, especially on the very top section. You have five thousand people in front of your face, a helicopter flying above your head, you hear the speaker, you hear people shouting and applauding and then suddenly someone tells you “Five... Four... Three... Two... One... Go!" and then you have to send a really heavy run without stopping, without crashing and people are watching you and judging you – it’s really tough.
How does the Bec des Rosses allow big mountain riders to show their skills in a competitive environment?
Of all the competitions around the world, there’s not one single place that has a set up that’s even close to the one on the Bec. It’s such a long face with so many options, with an angle to the public that’s really impressive and makes it look impossible. And a way into it that makes it possible and makes it so you can send crazy stuff – it’s a very, very unique set up. Nicolas Hale-Wood – who has been organising the tour and other tours in the past – and his team have been scoping the world and they’ve never been able to find anything even close to the Bec, and especially not something that’s in a resort. It’s just perfect – you even have the cable car arriving over it. You know, the angle in the mountains is very important; if you had the same Bec des Rosses but you could only see it from the bottom, it wouldn’t look half as impressive. That’s the key thing in a comp venue.
Xavier de le Rue is sponsored by GoPro, Swatch, The North Face, ABS, Arva, DEELUXE, Rossignol and Smith Optics.