No Risk, No Reward | Marion Haerty

Marion Haerty is not afraid of a challenge and in her latest film project for The North Face, ‘Line and Air’, she explores some of the steepest faces in the Swiss backcountry

Above Marion Haerty at Air Ride with TNF, 2022. Photo: ©Mathis Dumas.

Marion Haerty is not afraid of a challenge. In her latest film project for The North Face, ‘Line and Air’, the four-time Freeride World Tour champion joins fellow big mountain rider Géraldine Fasnacht to explore some of the steepest faces in the Swiss backcountry. But there’s a twist. To access the lines, the two women fly up from the valley in a tiny propellor plane, landing on precarious glaciers and ascending the rest of the way on foot. To Géraldine – a wingsuit flyer, qualified pilot and owner of said plane – this is all in a day’s work. For Marion, it’s a leap of faith that promises to test her limits. As Xavier de Le Rue puts it: “A project like this requires a cool head. You need to have the mental strength for it….and you need to want it.”

“Maybe I could use the natural playground of my country to express myself on a snowboard? This is why I chose to be a freerider”

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Marion Haerty in the last decade, however, it’s that she wants it. Seizing opportunities is her M.O. After all, she tells me plainly, “As a woman, you don’t have the chance to do a video project or have a budget every year.”

That tenacious attitude has been key to Marion’s snowboarding career so far. Having been given her first board for Christmas at 10-years-old, she learned to ride in the French resort of Chamrousse and was soon dreaming of emulating her magazine heroes like Margot Rozies and Leanne Pelosi. “I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do when I grow up!’”

Stints on the World Cup slopestyle and boardercross circuits followed as a teenager, but funding the travel required to train in the world’s best parks was a struggle and she ultimately missed out on qualification for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Nonetheless, she refused to give up. Instead, she began looking for an alternate path. The Freeride World Tour, she realised, was “an opportunity to use my terrain, my mountains. Maybe I can use the natural playground of my country to express myself on a snowboard? This is why I chose to be a freeride.”

“It’s really important to empty your head of emotions. Don’t take bad feelings into the mountains”

It was a wise move. Her edge control and playful approach to features – both hard-earned in boardercross and slope – transferred perfectly to backcountry terrain, and she was crowned champion in only her second year on tour. Moving to Chamonix, she refined her big mountain chops further, and between 2019 and 2021 she managed a FWT threepeat – something still unmatched by any other rider, male or female. In short, she had found her calling. “Everyone was so nice, everyone was so happy,” she recalls of her time on tour. “It was a kind of family. I was like, ‘OK this is what I want to do. Maybe this is why I’m here.’”

FWT, Verbier Podium. Photo: ©Mathis Dumas.

Marion’s career victories have included lines down some of the gnarliest peaks in the world, not least the infamous Bec des Rosses – home of the Verbier Xtreme. As always, she relishes the challenge. “It’s one of the scariest faces we have in competition. It’s really steep, at the top you can see nothing. It’s a big place where heroes are made. And it’s where I can express myself the most.”

We’ve all faced up to our fears on a snowboard, and I wonder how she goes about preparing herself mentally for a big descent like the Bec des Rosses – or the terrifyingly exposed Aiguille de l’Amône, which she tackled for the ender of her short film ‘Insitu’. Does she use breathing exercises?

“It’s a good thing to be scared. If you stop being scared, it starts being dangerous”

“It’s really important to empty your head of emotions,” she replies. “What I’ve learned in Chamonix is not to take bad feelings into the mountains. Maybe you’re angry, maybe your boyfriend dumped you the day before or something… but if you ride with anger it’s not a good thing. I really try to be empty of bad emotions at the top of the mountain and make space for my own passion.” With any line, she says, getting the mental aspect dialled is just as important as the snow conditions. “It’s all the time about confidence.”

Natural Selection Tour Alaska Backcountry 2022, Marion Haerty competition warm up run. Photo: Dean “Blotto” Gray.

To help build the necessary skill set, Marion employs the services of a mental coach and soaks up everything she can from experienced mountain people like renowned climber Liv Sansoz or her boyfriend – who’s a trained guide. “You don’t have a federation in this sport so you have to make your own team,” she explains. “You have to be surrounded by good people.”

So does anything still scare her?

“Everything!” she laughs. “But it’s a good thing to be scared. This is how I balance [my decisions] in big mountains. If you stop being scared, it starts being dangerous. When I’m a little bit scared, I’ll do everything I can to reduce the risk.”

Marion Haerty at Natural Selection. Photo: Chad Chomlack.

Sometimes, though, the risk of doing a line is just too great – and having mental strength means being brave enough to say no. During filming for ‘Line and Air’, conditions in the Swiss Alps became progressively sketchier, and after one particularly icy descent – at the tail end of an exhausting winter – Marion decided to take a break from filming, leaving Géraldine to complete the final mission with a new partner.

“It was stressful to say goodbye to the Freeride World Tour and risk losing everything on the Natural Selection, but I learned so much. I don’t regret the change at all”

“When you’re in the big mountains you have to make your own decisions,” she reasons. “There’s so much on your shoulders compared to competitions; nobody else is gonna check the safety. So it’s important to take a step back when you don’t feel it. It’s about listening to your gut.”

Chatting to Marion, it becomes increasingly clear that courage – and a desire to keep learning – are perhaps her greatest superpowers. Nowhere were these qualities more evident than during her experience at the Natural Selection. As the reigning Freeride World Tour Champion, Marion gained a coveted invite from Travis Rice to the inaugural event of his new backcountry contest in 2021. She duly stepped up, putting her reputation on the line on a Jackson Hole powder face whose man-made jumps rendered it closer to a slopestyle course than a big mountain descent.

Marion Haerty rides a line during day two finals at Natural Selection Tour stop one in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA on 28 January, 2022. Photo: Ben Gavelda.

While her ability to pick a line and attack it with speed ensured she made it to the final head-to-head with Zoi Sadaowski-Synnott, Marion is the first to admit that her rusty freestyle skills ultimately let her down. “When you give up slopestyle, it’s really hard to get those tricks back.” Still, as her countrywoman Édith Piaf once put it, je ne regrette rien: “It was stressful to say goodbye to the Freeride World Tour and risk losing everything on the Natural Selection, but I learned so much. I don’t regret the change at all.”

It would have been easy, at this point, for Marion to retreat to Europe and the familiar environment of the freeride circuit. Yet true to form, when the chance came to enter Natural Selection a second time in 2022, she leapt at it. “Natural Selection is the pinnacle,” she says. “I’ve got experience from slopestyle, I’ve got experience from big mountain, so it’s kind of [the ultimate challenge].”

Photo: Sebastien Baritussio.

Her second go at cracking America was more successful, making it from Jackson Hole to the final stop in Alaska, where she came within a whisker of claiming the overall title. The unique experience of AK whet her appetite for more, and she’s already planning a third attempt – in fact she’s been building more explosive power in the gym to help with her tricks and has made plans to dust off her park skills alongside the French national team. Don’t bet against her going all the way in 2023.

“Nepal was the most beautiful experience of my life. The women there are incredible. It was not just about reaching the summit, it was about the whole adventure”

Although she’s clearly competitive, what drives Marion to take up these challenges is largely the camaraderie that forms amongst the crew. “It’s about the human experience, not just performance,” she explains. “I was really happy to hang out with the girls like Elena Hight or Hana Beaman – they’ve been my heroes since I was a kid. Now we’re like family.”

That love of making connections in the mountains is the inspiration behind her forthcoming film, ‘Didi’. Last spring, Marion travelled to Nepal with an all-female crew to tackle Lobouche – a 6100m peak normally ascended by climbers training for Everest. The line they ultimately took back down – involving cloudy skies, bulletproof snow and a belay – doesn’t sound like much fun at all, but the true reward on this trip was the opportunity to spend time with female sherpas and porters. “It was the most beautiful experience of my life,” she enthuses. “The women there are incredible – super kind despite being poor, always laughing and making jokes. So it was not just about reaching the summit, it was about the whole adventure.”

“Hilaree Nelson was a big role model, because you can still be a mum, and a bit older, and still be a badass on snow. She’s inspired me”

Dropping for International Women’s Day in March, ‘Didi’ (which means ‘big sister’ in Napali) promises to build on the welcome momentum for female-focused outdoor films. “It was a crew of didis!” she notes, proudly.

So what’s next? After a well-earned rest over the close season, Marion is preparing to set her unwavering aim on new targets. “I have some ideas,” she says, keeping her cards close to her chest. “Not just competitions, for sure – although I’ve seen something to do on the Natural Selection that I want to reach.” Whatever her plans, she hopes to combine them as much as possible to minimise the amount she travels. “It’s something I think about a lot now as a rider. You can see with your own eyes that the snow is melting and you’re an actor in this. On the one hand you want to live your dream, but on the other you have this responsibility [to the planet]. So I try to manage my year differently now and make less impact.”

Looking further ahead, she has no plans to hang up her boots any time soon. “So I’m 30 years old,” she says. “I look at Hilaree Nelson [the American ski mountaineer] who we lost this year. This girl was a big role model, because you can still be a mum, and a bit older, and still be a badass on snow. She’s inspired me. My dream is to be better on snow. Every year I want to be better. It’s about keeping the fire inside me. If I have that fire, everything [else] will follow.”

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