Photos by Matt Georges
Could some of the world's finest female snowboarders tame the most extreme resort in the Alps? Johno Verity took them off the map to find out.
I've been shooting girls for about eight years now. The first time was in Iceland, on the set of Lesley McKenna's all-female snowboard film Dropstitch. I was originally there to ride but had nailed myself on a rail earlier in the week so made filming a priority. It turned out to be good fun, and over the years I've taken on a fair few of these jobs.
The general theme seems to be that girls are amazing at giving themselves horrendous kickings. In the seven years that followed Dropstitch, through the lens of my camera, I've watched the injury list grow to include a fractured pelvis, a broken arm, a broken tooth (with a deep gouge in the lip to boot), various concussions, torn knee ligaments and healthy amounts of frustration. I'm not going to beat around the bush here: when filming even the best girls in the world, you need to be aware that you're likely to get more slams than tricks landed.
The 2011 winter in Chamonix was a shocker for snow. It fell as rain up to 2300m on January 8th and then plunged into a six-week long spell of high pressure – icy cold but with relentless blue skies. The Roxy riders I was to be filming with consisted of Margot Rozies, a backcountry kicker rider, Aline Bock the Freeride World Tour champion (both would have little more than blue ice and dirt for landings and powder turns) and park riders Basa Stevlulova and Aimee Fuller, who would have to shred the as yet unbuilt DC park. I was apprehensive.
However, I'm not sure if it was because Roxy team manager Lesley McKenna had sold her soul, or merely that heat convection and atmospheric pressure shifted, but when the girls came, so did the snow. We all slept well the first night, dreaming of the deep untouched powder we would be shredding the next day. We awoke to stormy weather. No problem. With 11 Chamonix winters under my belt, I knew exactly where to go for storm riding. Nobody actually reads articles in snowboard magazines so for the few that do here's a really difficult anagram for you to let you know where we went - The Tack of Le Bour.
Margot was yet to arrive though; she'd managed to put petrol in her diesel car and had been forced to stay the night in a hotel somewhere near Geneva. So while she spent the day sorting that out, and Aimee stayed in bed feeling under the weather, Aline, Basa and I headed up with no less than two photographers and the all important team manager, Lesley, who's not shy of cracking the whip and who has the ability to come up there and do it herself if needed. I headed directly to a pillow line that I'd been filming at earlier in the year. The area is best when it's not too filled in, since its epic features turn into one big slope after loads of snow. It was looking pretty good. I sniffed about and found the first drop to send them off – just a mellow roller into a face of snow that they would see them gouge out bottomless turns at 60 frames a second… Basa dropped in and skipped out on about three inches of fresh covering blue ice. Sketchy conditions for sure, just about the worst for filming because, while it all looked epic, you have be pretty tentative about what’s below. That was when I changed my mind. It was going to be a crap week after all.
While it all looked epic, you have be pretty tentative about what’s below.
I found drop after drop and sent the girls off them, each time telling them that the landings would be softer than the last. Generally they weren't. They stuck with it though, and we scratched about for several hours, ending up with some pretty decent shots. Basa navigated a nice line through a narrow chute and chucked up some rad slashes, while Aline found a fun gap from the nose of a rock into a super tight little transition, managing to get her speed right first time. At least things seemed to be going from worse to bad.
That night they all turned to me to see what I could find them that wouldn't be crap. Feigning confidence, I told them about a kicker spot that we'd be heading to the next day. The snow would be bottomless, I said, because of the direction of the wind and the cloud movements and the lay lines or some other such yibble. All I knew was that I'd been shooting there about five weeks before with the British DC team and we'd managed to get some bangers on film.
On arrival, I found that that due to a complete lack of snow since then, the kickers were still pretty much built and ready to go. Better yet, my lay line chat had somehow paid off: the landings of these jumps were about the only spots on the entire mountain that weren't scoured blue ice. Indeed, they were filled in and ready to send the girls off. First up was Aimee, fresh off her sick bed. Although the angle of the kicker meant that it was very much a heel edge take off, she was apparently fed up with spinning frontside and, in protest, did a heelside back three to double scorpion. Boom! First proper slam in the bag, thanks Fuller.
Margot’s first hit of the whole trip was a huge perfect back 3 indy
I've known Margot since she was a young grom, though I've never spent any extended time with her. I hadn’t noticed before that she's a magnet for trouble. The first time I became aware of it was when I saw her getting in an argument with a bus driver as we arrived at the lift station. I've never seen bus drivers shouting at people before. I remember thinking, “What's his problem, shouting at her?" Then I started to see that this kind of thing happens a lot with Margot – she's not afraid to speak her mind – and for the rest of the week I enjoyed the trail of scuffles and confrontations that she always left behind. She's got a fire in her, a passion for everything she does – be it telling a stranger that they're hiking too slowly, letting people know they need to chill the fuck out, or snowboarding.
She was up on the kicker next. Her first hit of the whole trip was a huge perfect back 3 indy. Margot has a habit celebrating and punching the air about two frames after the landing; pretty much everything that she did well was followed by a shot ruining claim. Personally I love it, if I had my way I'd bring back claiming – it makes you remember that snowboarding is about having a good time and getting pumped on stuff. It can be too easy to forget this, and think that it might actually be about how hard life is in the ghetto or that you'd rather be in a punk rock band, so that when you finally land something you've been working at for years you're not to seem bothered at all. I just hope that her shots get used.
As the elected guide for this trip I was starting to feel the pressure. We still had several days of filming to do, though pretty much everywhere was stripped of snow. Chamonix can be the best resort in the world in good conditions; it's got a pretty much unlimited numbers of steeps to get all extreme on, and a ton of fun areas with hits and drops all over the place, but when there's no snow it turns into the biggest, steepest, iciest, rockiest mogul field in the world. In short, Chamonix – along with its prehistoric lift system and lack of a decent park – can fuck right off unless there's snow. For this reason, knowing that the kicker had a soft landing the day before and that it had been Baltically cold since, I took them back there – pretending I knew exactly what I was doing.
Chamonix can be the best resort in the world in good conditions, but when there's no snow it turns into the world’s biggest, steepest, iciest, rockiest mogul field
The kicker was still on. We changed the approach so that it sent you into some fresh landings, and this time all of the girls hit it. The session started with the best thing I've seen in a while: a huge, laid out backflip from Aimee on her first hit. I've not spent too much time with her in the past, but while she seems happiest riding park she's really up for anything. Most importantly she's up for trying new tricks, and she ended the session by learning underflips. She duly nailed a couple of these, nicely grabbed and with great style. Good work Aimee.
There's a different pace to the way girls ride to the chaps. In Europeland, where we don't have the possibility of using snowmobiles, kickers need to be hiked. This can have an effect on the general levels of enthusiasm. I've come up with a formula to explain it: land their first trick a rider will be up for hitting it loads of times. With some snowboarders though, a slam on the first hit can mean the inverse – it gets sacked off. So, as a filmer you have to use your head and realize it's better to get something rather than nothing. We sent a couple of the riders to smack out some pretty epic looking drops into backlit powder turns, the idea being that if they got stoked on that then we could send them off bigger and better stuff. Simple psychology. The number one thing is to fire up the stoke.
Give Basa Stevlulova a dirty street rail with concrete and spikes, or a huge icy park kicker, and you'll witness an array of tricks. But hand build something into a soft powdery landing and suddenly she's not so sure. On this day she decided she'd had enough, crossed her arms, made a sort of “humph" sound and sat in a hole. We did manage to drag her out to throw down an ollie into one of the nicest pow turns I've ever filmed, though, so all was not lost.
I've been on a few female trips where I've done a bit more than just guiding and filming; I've used them to get some shots done myself. This often happens when playing the crash test dummy – deciding which dirty-looking spiky metal contraption they'd look good jumping, or where to build the kicker, or how much speed is needed, or how sketchy the landing is. Annoyingly for me I didn't need to do this with Margot about. She's been riding a load of pow kickers and it shows. She hit another of the old DC shoot booters, a big droppy one with a flat take off, and nailed a first hit cab 5. Her arms went straight up into the biggest claim of the entire trip.
By the end of the third day things were feeling good. To look at the resort you'd think there was nothing ridable, but I showed them the footage and all of the riders had something pretty worthwhile in the can. In fact it was one of the most surprisingly productive shoots I'd ever been on, and to top it all off we had another sizable dump of snow.
Margot has a habit celebrating and punching the air about two frames after the landing; pretty much everything that she did well was followed by a shot ruining claim
The next day it was cloudy, so I took them into the trees where conditions were now really on. There's a line in this zone that I remember seeing James Stentiford do about eight years ago: technically it's not too hard – there’s a steep drop in, a turn to the right and then a small drop into a tight little landing – but what makes it scary is that if you miss your first turn, there’s a 20 metre cliff into a dirty flat gully. Looking at it from below, though, it looks like a fun doable line, so I sent Margot up to have a go. Once she'd clambered up three different routes (ending up at places she could climb no further, swearing and returning to climb a different one) she made it to the top. She called down and said it was too gnarly and that she wasn't going to do it. The dickhead inside me angrily packed my camera away and marched up to do it myself, until I actually reached the top and looked down. From there it rolled away ominously towards the cliff. I didn't fancy it.
We spent the rest of the day doing laps through the forest, and each time Aline looked at the line. On the last run she decided to give it a go. She dropped in, scraped a rock on the first turn but held it together, her sluff pouring down over the cliff as she turned and dropped off the nose. She'd been struggling to get things going earlier in the day and was getting frustrated, so it was good to see her stomp it and ride away from that line.
The next day we sent Aimee and Basa off to ride a couple of features that they'd built for the girls in the Les Houches DC park. Meanwhile Margot, Aline and Lesley were joined by Roxy skiers Andrea Binning and Lena Stoffel. I took them on a tour. Everyone was on split boards, and I raced to the top of the first pitch to get some shots of them hiking, but instead filmed Margot arguing with a 35-year-old American guy as she climbed. There was a brilliant awkward moment as they both stood at the narrow top of the col, about two metres apart, de-rigging their skins while making angry remarks at each other. Like a parent I told them to shake hands, which they reluctantly did like told-off school children.
For the final two days of the trip, the crew was reduced to Margot and Aline. The high temperatures had returned and the snow on all of the lower slopes was really suffering, so I took them to one of the last spots I thought would be ridable, high up on the tip of Brevant. We found a line with a pretty fun natural hip and a couple of other features, but the whole time I was eyeing up a favourite cliff of mine. It has a roughly 8 metre wall into a tight windlip transition, which you need to ride almost like a hip. If you get the line right, your tail taps the coping at the top of the landing – dragging it down – and it feels epic. Because of the size of the drop you really need catch it in the right place or you'll land flat, but these are actually my favourite kind of jumps – ones that require a real calculation on the takeoff. ¬The windlip had formed perfectly over the winter, and after a week behind the lens I was frothing to stretch my legs. I gave the girls a break from hiking and went up to hit it a couple of times. I managed to persuade Aline to give it a blast too, though she took it with a touch too much speed and dropped about 12 metres to flat! Nevertheless we walked away from the place smiling.
Aline had a disagreement with the photpgrapher. I think it was something to do with expecting too much, or being rude, or World War Two
On the last day we found a couple of good backcountry lines for Aline, and some photogenic features for Margot. Matt Georges, the French photographer with an English sense of humour, was there, but he and Aline had a disagreement about something or other, which I unsuccessfully attempted to get them to sort out, leaving an awkward feeling in the air. I think it was something to do with expecting too much, or being rude, or World War Two. Aline put down a solid run off a drop for the final run of the trip and Matt got another good sequence, which had the miraculous effect of making them friends again. Funny that!
5 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT CHAMONIX
1. It’s NOT home to the highest mountain in Europe
While Chamonix sits at the foot of Mt Blanc and forms the base for thousands of ascents each summer, the highest peak in Europe is //technically// Mt Elbrus in Russia, which stands at 5642m. Mt Blanc, by comparison, is a mere 4810m, placing it second.
2. It’s the “Death-sport capital of the world"
As the centre of all things extreme – from skiing and snowboarding to climbing, base jumping, paragliding and rafting – Cham witnesses more than its fair share of accidents. In fact it clocks an average of 100 deaths per year – that’s two a week!
3. It’s the site of the weirdest plane crash ever
In 1956 an Air India cargo plane on its way from Delhi to Geneva crashed into Mt Blanc, spilling - amongst other things - its cargo of chimpanzees. Incredibly one chimp survived, and was promptly rescued by the team of mountain guides who raced to the peak in order to find survivors and possibly to salvage some of the gold that the plane was rumoured to have been carrying. A film of the disaster was made in 1959 starring Humphry Bogart.
4. It’s still handing out gold medals
Well, kinda. Although Chamonix hosted the first ever Winter Olympics back in 1924, it wasn’t until 2006 that the last gold medal was handed out – to the Great Britain team, no less. It was initially thought that Curling had been a demonstration event in ‘24, but following a campaign by the Glasgow Herald it was proved otherwise.
5. It boasts a record-breaking cable car
The Téléphériqe de l’Aiguille du Midi is a feat of irrational engineering only the French could muster. Built atop a pinnacle of rock in 1955, it was the world’s highest cable car for about two decades and still holds the title for the highest vertical ascent, going from 1035m to 3842m in about 20 minutes. The downright terrifying journey regularly sees passengers pass out or puke.