We’re in what Ed Leigh calls ‘the mental car wash’ – splitboards crunching through snow, Gore Tex rustling… all is peaceful as our group skins up from the back of the Mont Fort lift. The sky is blue, the snow is fresh and the prospect of three days riding and sleeping in Verbier’s backcountry actually coming true is so palpable that it’s surreal. Conditions are perfect.
A few hours later and everything has turned to shit. Our estimate to build the first igloo crumbled faster than the first block – now it’s dark, blowing a hooley and as we struggle through the blizzard to pack snow onto the walls of the second someone is yelling “That’s the wrong type of snow!” at me. The dream trip, for now, has turned into a nightmare.
I got a phone call out of the blue one day from Ed Leigh (BBC presenter and UK professional snowboarding loudmouth) – “Sam! So, I just bought an igloo builder off the internet!” A plan formed to shoot the last of a British freeriding project I’d been working on with a crew of our choosing, building and living in our own igloos above 3000m. After months of preparation and collecting the right kit a gap had opened right at the start of our weather window, so hastily abandoning my relatives on a rare visit, I jumped in the car and headed for Switzerland, pausing only to pick up Johno Verity, former pro and cameraman on the Freeride World Tour, and Sam Nelson, brand man for McNair Shirts, Poler and Dragon, amongst others.
In Verbier we met up with Ed and his wife Sian, backcountry specialist Neil McNair, wunderkind Lewis Sonvico and our photographer for the trip, Melody Sky. With the team assembled, bags packed and a few beers sunk to some snowboard films, it was time for an early night before an even earlier start.
“So, I just bought an igloo builder off the internet!”
Backcountry snowboarding is one thing, riding spring powder down the back of Verbier’s Mont Fort with a 40kg pack on your back is another. Even at the end of a winter schlepping around the Alps with a massive camera bag, it’s still a struggle traversing down from the lift to get to the point where the real work starts: a four-hour skin up, complete with the same luggage. We have to carry in everything we needed for the three-day mission: food, kitchen equipment and sleeping kit, as well as all the trappings of us media sherpas.
However, splitboarding with a giant rucksack turns out to be much the same as without – hard work but, ultimately enjoyable. The turns have been most definitely earned as we start our final descent to the campsite we’d picked out in advance. Then, just as everything had been going so good, it all starts to unravel.
First, the clouds roll in. Thick bastards that – whilst they probably looked like gorgeous marshmallows from below – at our altitude smothered the division between snow and sky, making our ride to camp more like the shittest game of ‘What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?’ Stop. Start. Stop.
Despite a 5 am wake up call, by this point the day is starting to get on, so using every slight break in the weather and Neil’s stunning map and compass skills we slowly pick and traverse our way down the Prafleurie Glacier to our camp zone.
It turns out that the best way to build an igloo, rather than cutting out blocks like Pingu, is to use the contraption we’ve brought with us. The igloo builder is an open-sided bucket on a long stick which you anchor into the snow via stake on the other end. You fill the bucket with snow, tamp it down, slide the bucket round in an arc and repeat the process, spiralling an igloo into existence. We’d all seen Ed and Johno’s timelapse of them building one in the garden and they’d confidently told us it would take no more than an hour and a half to assemble our main pod that would sleep three, then an hour each for the smaller ‘two bed’ bunkers. With great ceremony the builder is assembled, an area stamped out and the first bucket filled.