“Winter…” began a classic article by Chris Moran a couple of years back. ”The nights are drawing in, it’s getting colder and I’m in a room with a group of snowboarding fanatics. One of them turns to me. ‘Riding powder is…’ he says, scrunching up his face and looking to the ceiling for some inspiration. ‘It’s like… er, it’s f**king ACE!’ The room explodes in agreement. After all, he’s hit the nail on the head. Riding powder is simply fantastic.”
Since this issue features a sizeable article about avalanches, I thought it would be a good idea to get this fact out the way first. We’re not overly morbid at White Lines, and indeed this quote sums up our attitude better than anything I could come up with. “Riding powder is f**king ace.” Amen to that. When I sit here in the office and think back to my favourite moments on a board, they’re nearly all powder related: bouncing through trees on a flat light day in Val d’Isère… laying down a big old toeside turn in some far-off a field of freshies, my hand trailing through the snow… or just hitting a jump I wouldn’t normally dare and ragdolling like an idiot, then getting up with a grin and half of France’s annual snowfall plastered on my face. Powder, man. It’s like, er… well you know the rest.
But here’s another undeniable fact, the yin to our heavenly yang: powder can be scary. I learnt this lesson the hard way, during a season in Tignes back in 1998. The winter had seen incredible amounts of snow – so much snow we spent numerous stormy days leaping into drifts from third floor balconies. On those rare occasions when the clouds parted and we were confronted with bluebird conditions, we lapped up fresh lines like a pack of dogs hoovering up the leftovers. On one such day, three of us decided to tackle the steep and open face known as the Lavachet Wall. It was approaching midday and the whole of the resort was becoming tracked out, yet this vast, virgin powder field remained tantalisingly empty. We stepped out of the gondola, ducked under the ropes and made the long traverse around the side.
All appeared to go well. The three of us – myself, my brother George and a Kiwi seasonaire called Dan – slipped down through the giant avalanche barriers at the top of the Wall and opened up the throttle, enjoying perhaps our best lines of the season. At the base of the slope is a steep ditch built to separate the slope from the road, and as we unstrapped and climbed up it we were buzzing hard. High up on the face, the three clean tracks we’d left behind looked great. Then, like clockwork, a bus appeared to ferry us back up to the lift. Another run was on the cards as we squeezed up to the window, craning our necks to take another admiring look at those lovely lines…
To this day I don’t know if the skiers were planning to ride the face anyway, or if they’d simply followed our tracks. Neither do I know if it was pure bad luck, or if the skis had created more pressure on the snowpack than our boards. What I do know is that where a massive powder face had sat just moments before, there was now an ugly field of rocks, earth and grass. It later transpired that two guys had dropped down the same line and triggered a huge avalanche. One of them escaped to the side as the slope began to crack; the other was taken down amongst football fields of tumbling snow and finally piled into the ditch we’d just scaled. He was eventually found some five hours later, buried six metres below the surface and stripped down to his underwear. Nearly every bone in his body was broken, and if there was any consolation to be taken from such a tragic event it was that his death had been quick.
Since that day I’ve ridden plenty more powder lines, and enjoyed every one of them. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you readers give up the greatest pleasure snowboarding can provide; snow – heaps of snow – is what this sport is all about. However since that near miss I have taken the time to learn a bit more about backcountry safety, and am generally less gung ho when the stormclouds roll in.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: read our Buried Alive article on p.70, then read about the lovely stashes of pow-pow waiting to be discovered in Canada and start planning your next dream line. Here’s to a safe, epic winter.