Photo: Freeride Word Tour / T. Lloyd
Arriving in Ordino at two in the morning, we’re then up again and ready to go at seven. After some exciting ‘continental’ driving and a chilly chairlift - especially opened for us - I’m tired, dazed and thoroughly lost after eighteen hours of travel and non-sleep. Perfect then that someone has put a giant fucking clock on top of the mountain that's rearing its head up through the pre-dawn haze in front of me. This is the start of the 2016 Freeride World Tour, taking place in Vallnord Arcalis, Andorra.
It kicks off almost immediately, Camille Armand dropping first for France pretty much as I arrive at the finish line, still trying to find my bearings. His run is smooth, controlled and features a mid-line backflip which is enough to hold him in third come the end of the comp.
I’m here with two aims: (a) cover the event and (b) shoot with Sascha Hamm, the only British snowboarder on the tour and a favourite with the other competitors for his eccentric behaviour and loose riding style. His motto: ‘Speed is my friend’. It’s more than worrying then when after Flo Orley appears at the bottom of the course, it’s not Sascha who drops next but the USA’s Colin Boyd - has the gentleman/weekend lunatic abandoned me?
No, I’m told - he just can’t hack the 4.30am wake up time and almost missed his place, therefore he’ll be dropping after the official running order. Sigh of relief. Relaxed, I sit back and watch some of the world's best freeriders drop into a face that - even at low tide - is spectacular. Live streams are one thing, in the flesh it's something else.
I've seen my fair share of slopestyle events up close, but there's something about the rawness here that elevates this above the rest. Plus the camaraderie here is special - everyone wants everyone else to stick their lines. Not just out of sportsmanship mind, this is gnarly stuff and accidents happen, made too obvious when Jonathon Charlet takes a brutal tumble at Mach 10 right on the home straight.
Hamm's trademark velocity lights up the face, ripping turns and sending some of the biggest drops of the day so far
Christoffer Granbom's score of 80 looks set to take it, but then Hamm drops. Finally. His trademark velocity lights up the face, ripping turns and sending some of the biggest drops of the day so far. There's little doubt that he's taken the win - his first ever on the tour - as he arrives at the finish, but when the board ticks over to 81.75 the rest of the riders show their appreciation, rushing over to congratulate him.
Later at the prize giving, both he and Camille Armand will dedicate their podium spots to their recently-fallen friend 'Minh' - this season's snow pack is as sketchy as ever after all.
It's then the turn of the women snowboarders - the reigning champ Estelle Balet once again snapping up a victory with the first tracks down one of the bottom colouirs, whilst newcomer Marion Haerty snaps at her heels. Finnish-born Mikaela Hollsten nipped in at the end to claim third place, displacing wildcard entry and Olympian slopestyle rider Kjersti Buass from the podium by a point or two on her freeride debut!
We managed to catch up with her - mutually relived at finding fellow FWT rookies in the crowd - and the stoke was radiating from her. "When I came up there today and saw people dropping in I was like 'Woah! I can hit that! That's a feature, wow I didn't see that,'" she said, "But then I was like 'Just stick to your line for now, don't make it too over-complicated. Just get to the bottom and have fun.'"
"I didn't really know what to expect coming in here, but being able to do pow slashes in your run... I can get really used to that."
Even with the Laax Open halfpipe raging over in Switzerland, this is the contest that what most people call snowboarding can most relate to, something we can aspire to more than any double wild cat fakie.
Love snowboarding? You'll adore the Freeride World Tour. Next stop Chamonix...