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.
We slide the gadget round and all awkwardly watched as the first block crumbled in situ. We try again, only for the second to blow away in front of our eyes, causing Ed to utter the immortal line, “This has never happened before…" Much like building a snowman or shaping a snowball, your building material needs to be wet, and what we hadn’t counted on was that at 3000m the snow is much colder and drier than in Ed’s garden. Luckily, there is a nearby south-facing bank that, having been sat in the sun all day, is just sticky enough to work, but with the extra work fetching the snow rather than just digging it up now required, our dreams of a relatively easy build are now shattered.
"Three. And a half. Fucking. Hours. That’s how long the first igloo takes to build"
Three. And a half. Fucking. Hours. That’s how long the first igloo takes to build. And with night fast approaching and there being nowhere near enough space for all eight of us in the first pod, we have to make an immediate start on the second. Though we plump for a smaller diameter, by this point the clouds has turned into full on blizzard with plummeting temperatures, meaning we now have to dig down and ‘mine’ for snow still wet enough. Every time we ‘strike gold’ the snow freezes and dries out within minutes.
I’m not saying it’s like the Somme - I’m sure they weren’t as cold as we are - but we aren’t just lucky to pull through that and get the second igloo made in three hours. It is down to a solidarity and fortitude in the group - without a single complaint - that sees us safely, finally, with roofs over our heads. Exhausted, five of us climb into the slightly bigger pod, leaving the others to fend for themselves. After a full hour of manoeuvring and taking turns to unpack our sleeping gear (imagine a group of oil tankers trying to turn round in a duck pond) we finally make it into what only just passes as ‘bed’, only for the wind to change direction and start blowing snow in through the door. Too tired to do more than throw a couple of bags in the hole to block it, we turn in and hibernated, hoping things will be different when we wake up.
"If you leave your sodden snowboard boots outside when it’s a good -15°C overnight, they will freeze solid"
And are they. A 5am start yields the most beautiful alpenglow on the distant peaks, surely the most scenic start to a day’s riding you could imagine. Not to mention a decent heap of fresh snow from the now vanished storm, our igloos have become mere lumps in an otherwise untouched landscape, and in the pre-dawn light we can now see the terrain around us, ripe for the taking. Mini golf lines at the head of our valley, steeps either side, perfect snow coating it all.
Point to remember: if you leave your sodden snowboard boots outside when it’s a good -15°C overnight, they will freeze solid. Like, twenty-minutes-putting-each-painful-foot-in solid. Ed, a little wiser than the rest of us, had taken his liners out and kept them in his sleeping bag overnight, but others hadn’t had such good foresight. However, to keep the karmic balance, his super expensive North Face polar camping slippers turn out to have zero grip, sending him arse-over-tit whenever he touches ice, much to the benefit of the group’s moral.
The days have a steady pace to them: get up super early, hike a ridge or feature in time for the sun to hit it, film a line or two, back down for a boil-in-the-bag breakfast. Then it’s time to relax and do some camp work like drying out gear on washing lines made from splitboards and avalanche probes, washing cutlery in the snow, patching up the igloos (usually just adding more snow to the sunny sides, but in one case replacing a wall that calamity-prone Sam Nelson manages to ride through) or finding a spot far from civilisation to take a shit. That’s if you didn’t fancy the camp’s own privy which, needless to say, some didn’t.
Lewis finds possibly the most magnificent spot for a deuce, perched atop one of the gnarliest lines in sight. After a solo hike up the face on what turned out to be near sheet ice, whilst waiting for for it to soften, he narrates the experience to us via walkie talkie, “D'ya know what I mean, things you see when you're taking a shit - that book needs to be written...."
For those who haven’t heard much of him before, Lewis Sonvico has been slightly removed from the UK snowboard scene, racking up BASI qualifications instead of the usual contest results and the odd video part with Tignes-based Minority Crew instead of bro-ing down at events, all the while living in his beloved Jeep.
"Things you see when you're taking a shit - that book needs to be written..."
Ed Leigh already has him down as possibly one of the greatest talents from our shores, whilst Johno - never usually one to draw the limelight away from from himself - is blown away by what he sees, “He’s just got ridiculously good board control!" There are many jaw dropping moments involving Lewis this week, but the highlight has to be ‘The Kraken’ - a two metre crack between rocks complete with gnarly entrance that Lewis casually straight lines with all the nonchalance of waiting for a bus.
However, his snowboarding chops have obviously taken most of his powers to hone - culturally he inhabits a pretty sparse world. It could come from living in a car, but through the week we discover he hasn't heard of either Asterix or Edmund Hillary (much to Kiwi Sian’s chagrin), and has read one book in his whole life: “Derby. I think it was about a horse."
You can only get so far away from a phone mast, and on the second day we get the sad news that reigning Freeride World Tour champion and Verbier local Estelle Ballet has passed away, caught in an avalanche just a few miles from where we’re camped. It’s blow for the group as many of them knew her well through the Tour - we’d even seen and chatted with her the previous day whilst waiting for the lift. Truly one of the most approachable professional riders you could hope to meet, and with a zest for both life and snowboarding, it’s fair to say she’ll be greatly missed on and off the mountain. It’s also a reminder that while we’re having the time of our lives out here, it’s not to be taken at all lightly.
“You'll never find a group of people as stoked as a bunch of old men clinging onto their last days"
After the mid-morning break it’s back to riding. The four riders - Ed, Neil, Johno and Lewis - head back up to various North-facing lines and let rip for the afternoon. The amount of footage we’re logging is pretty impressive, especially as three of them are in their 40s. There’s a drive amongst the group to get stuff done, and not necessarily just for the cameras. Everyone is obviously having a blast, perhaps spurred on by the adventure of what we’re doing. Or, as Ed puts it, “You'll never find a group of people as stoked as a bunch of old men clinging onto their last days."
We’re not quite alone in our valley - as well as the Patrouille des Glaciers taking place in the far distance, the odd Swiss army training group comes through our camp. “Igloos? Zat’s some impressive shit" mutters one as he comes through. “When you get man points from the army you know you're doing it right" says Ed. “Refuge wankers!" shouts Johno as they head off.
“When you get man points from the army you know you're doing it right" says Ed. “Refuge wankers!" shouts Johno
He has been pretty excitable for most of the expedition, displaying the endless energy he’s famous for at every opportunity. After a full day riding and igloo sculpting we even catch him walking Lewis’ board up to the next day’s spot for him at 9pm, and on the way out he’ll shoulder way more than his fair share of the heavy gear. It’s the first time in a few years he’s been a rider on a trip rather than a filmer, and the lack of camera gear has spurred him into hitting some of the biggest drops out of the group, including a sluff-heavy double and a 30 foot plus stalefish, audaciously tweaked out considering he’s fresh from his 40th birthday party.
Then as evening sets in, it’s time for another high calorie boil-in-the bag meal (we have to eat around 3000 calories a day due to the cold and constant hiking). They’re actually pretty tasty, though stronger flavours seep into your sweat exactly twelve hours after consumption, causing a strange waft of sweet and sour or tikka masala to hit you as you’re splitting up the next day. What comes out the other end is pretty intense too, and we haven’t got nearly enough toilet paper. Neil utilises a method he calls ‘the hook’ - the less said about it the better.
"We haven’t got nearly enough toilet paper. Neil utilises a method he calls ‘the hook’ - the less said about it the better"
Whilst he’s not pioneering backcountry toilet techniques, Neil McNair (you may have seen his shirts) is putting his years of mountain experience to good use, both for the group’s safety and his own riding. Every line is clearly planned to the inch, and where the others go big Neil’s lines are creations of pure beauty. Each turn demonstrates perfect board control, but at such speed that for the observer his first rooster tails seem to be just settling as he pulls up for a coffee at base camp. There’s a good reason why he’s one of the most sought out backcountry coaches in Europe.
After dinner it’s time to drink whiskey and watch the sun slowly set over the Swiss Alps before retiring to bed as the cold quickly seeps in. Johno and I share a pod nine feet in diameter, roomy it ain’t but by the end it feels like home, albeit a chilly one. Even with an insulated mat and down sleeping bag I still need a puffy jacket to keep warm, and the bottom of my bag is filled with boot liners, socks, gloves (these freeze too!) and camera batteries (to preserve precious charge) - basically anything damp or electrical, which makes for a less-than-comfy bed. Still, sleep arrives quickly and deeply - we’re working a lot harder than we realise - and by the end I’m as attached to our little igloo village as I’ve been to any flat or holiday home.
The end comes far too fast, but we don’t leave camp until the crew has ticked off the last few pockets, Lewis shutting the zone down with a perfect mid-line method, stomped with his trademark effortlessness. By the time we ride down en-masse, mega packs re-shouldered, the terrain around us is a panorama of scarred track after track, evidence of a one-of-a-kind experience. A band of riders all from the UK and hailing from almost the complete history of British freeriding - it’s a great feeling to be part of a group with an infatuation for snowboarding that spans decades.
Like all the very best trips, it ends with a jolting return to reality, a realisation that normal life isn’t as simple as what you’ve just experienced.
But it is nice to get home and find some toilet paper.
A huge thank you to AlpKit, whose great down jackets, sleeping bags and generosity literally kept us alive. Also to Babette and Paul at the Prafleurie Cabin for help with logistics. And finally to Ed Leigh for the inspiration and invitation to his Igloo Adventure.