Words: James Stentiford
Photography: James Mcphail
March 2008 James Stentiford – one of the UK’s most experienced freeriders – took a team of up-and-coming freestyle kids out of the snowboard park and into the backcountry. His mission: to challenge their horizons and show them what they’d been missing.
To be a top pro these days you need to be able to ride everything – it’s no good being a plain old park rat or a rail kid. Look at Transworld’s Snowboarder of the Year, Wolle Nyvelt – a super technical freestyler who also charges big Alaskan lines. Travis Rice too is equally at home riding an icy kicker at the X-Games or being dropped out of a heli on top of an exposed line. And Nicolas Müller? Need I say more!
With this in mind I decided it was time to take the British DC team out of their comfort zone (i.e. the park) and hopefully open their eyes to the endless possibilities of the backcountry. OK, I’m a freerider myself, but I can assure you this wasn’t about me showing off; I wasn’t trying to show these kids up in my own chosen arena. It had more to do with the fact that standing around in a terrain park for the next six days made me want to throw myself out of the nearest cable car.
The team consisted of myself (team manager), trusted photographer Jamesy ‘ Five Snicks’ McPhail (his Snickers habit would come in handy when bloodsugar levels were low) Sam Cullum (halfpipe specialist and Olympic hopeful) Seb ‘The human dustbin’ Kern (he literally ate his way around Europe), his brother Nate (newly crowned British slopestyle champ) and Laura Hill (our rail specialist).
We had a loose plan to leave the British Championships in Laax and head to Austria in search of powder. With no hotels booked, however, we were free to head anywhere in Europe if conditions dictated. The end of March is usually the perfect time for early spring powder – with plenty of precipitation but also plenty of sunny days – and having studied the weather charts it looked like our luck was in. The forecast was good.
It was the morning after the closing party at the Brits, and as I walked into Seb and Sam’s room the stench of booze hit me. I reminded them of their previous night’s promise, and they groaned and rolled over. They had assured me they would be ready to shred at 10 o’clock sharp, and I had left the party at around 2am, watching the pair of them grinning from ear to ear as they as they charged back into the mosh pit. It was slightly later than 10 when we finally got on the lift, but quite an achievement nonetheless to get the crew out of bed and on the mountain. We headed for a little cliff band that we’d first spotted on our way to the comp. It had snowed during the night and the sky mirrored most of the riders’ heads: a little foggy. The light was coming and going, making it tough to get good pictures.
Welcome to the world of photo shoots. I reckon every pro snowboarder must have spent many hours sitting in the cold on top of a mountain, waiting for the sun to poke through or some cloud to shift, strapped into their bindings and shifting around impatiently trying not to get piles. Sometimes the light never does improve, and a trip to the café for a hot chocolate is the only conciliation. No wonder most photographers these days stick to man made and urban terrain; conditions here are more controllable and results easier to get. But where’s the challenge in that?
After a lot of waiting for the mist to clear and a few unsuccessful cliff attempts (due in equal part to
the sticky powder and the team’s choice of small jib sticks) Nate spotted a nice drop with a short, steep landing and some room to flatten the take off. He and Seb went to work with their boards and shovels, and before long Nate stomped a nice method (an important trick in anyone’s arsenal) followed by a front 3 indy- proving he wasn’t just a park rat. Job done! With a long drive ahead we called it quits. We had opened our photo account on day one, which always helps everyone to feel a little more relaxed.
For extra motivation we decided that for the duration of the trip, whoever got the best shot of the day got to eat whatever they wanted. The others would be restricted to a
diet of vegetables and rice. Nothing like a little incentive to motivate riders! After crossing the border into Austria, Nate ate like a king at arguably the best service station in the world. If Carlsberg did service stations, this is what they would be like (apart from maybe a few more buxom waitresses). Imagine a food court set in a big wooden chalet with chefs cooking fresh ingredients from around the world right in front of you. One of you fancies Italian? Your mate wants a Chinese? Not a problem here. There’s even a sex shop just in case the misses fancies something for the weekend. Beats the choice of overpriced soggy egg sandwich or Burger King any day. In Austria, people actually purposely drive to service stations at the weekend to hang out with their family and eat.
I’d managed to book us into the YHA in Innsbruck for our first night, saving a bit of money for more extravagant meals ahead. It was a concrete block of a building, with rooms halfway between a hospital ward and school dorms. The receptionist took great pleasure in explaining the many rules to us. I imagined she’d be up in a flash if we were talking too loud after curfew. Luckily we had to get our heads down as tomorrow was forecast to be sunny.
We woke up to torrential rain. The nice day predicted by Europe’s many weather sites had failed to materialise. It was another lesson for the team: things don’t always go to plan on snowboard trips (actually thinking about it, they almost never turn out the way you think – for better or for worse). Is the increasingly erratic weather due to global warming, or is it just a cycle? Or perhaps we are all reading too much into normal unpredictable mountain weather? I don’t know, but it was clear we were at the mercy of mother nature. It wasn’t a total disaster though – rain in the valley meant powder up on the mountain! We spent a soggy morning in Innsbruck’s old town, running from café to café, getting charged up on coffee and checking out the old architecture. The old town transports you back to the 16th century, complete with cobbled streets and a prison tower; the only giveaways are the golden arches of McDonalds and the hoards of Japanese tourists.
Someone came up with the clever idea of driving up to the Seegrube cable car to see if their weather forecast might shed any light on what our next move should be. Seegrube is the resort that overlooks Innsbruck, and is home to some of the best freeriding in Austria with unbelievable city backdrops. We found out on arrival that the resort was closed for the next week due to work on the cable car, so even if the weather cleared up we were buggered.
We were back to square one, with plenty of work still to be done. A long trawl of the weather websites revealed a change to our initial forecast – the whole of Europe was now getting hammered by snow and rain. The next five days looked bad for Austria, but it did look like there was a small window around Chamonix in France (my home resort) for the very next day. Unfortunately, Cham was a six hour drive away. I was starting to think I should have become a skateboard team manager, or at least taken the team to Mammoth (where I could have sunbathed for a week while Jamesy shot sequence after sequence over the most perfect kickers).
After some frantic packing our two-car convoy headed west in the fading light, dreaming of sunshine and powder. It rained for the whole six hour drive, occasionally turning to snow, and it was well after midnight as we headed over the pass to Chamonix, the snow getting heavier and sticking to the road. James had wisely taken the long way round on the motorway, but in my shiny new Nissan X-Trail we had opted for the direct route. The only problem was, I still had summer tyres. As I changed gear to slow down on a descent, the car started sliding towards the outside barrier. This only extended for another 50 metres before ending abruptly, giving us no protection from a long drop to the valley floor. It all seemed to happen in slow motion: I had the wheel on full lock but was powerless, slipping towards the edge. Just as I was bracing myself for impact, the tyres gripped and we accelerated back into the middle of the road, the four of us screaming like girls. Soon we calmed down and began to discuss how close we came to disaster; our crazy chase around Europe in search of powder was suddenly put into perspective. Not really what you need after six hours of driving and an early start the next morning.
Safely in Chamonix, my tired crew went to bed hoping – praying – we’d get some sunshine the next day. I’d resigned myself to the fact that what would be, would be.
Powder doesn’t wait for anyone in Chamonix, so we needed to be up early and have a good plan of where we were going to go. Being as this was the only sunny day forecast for the week it was now or never. We woke up to find clear blue skies as the sun was rising; the gods seemed to be smiling on us at last. Chamonix is busy as hell but for a good reason – it’s got some of the best lift accessed runs in the world, with incredible backdrops. It’s both heaven and hell for shooting – great when you get the shot, but frustrating when some overly keen seasonaire puts a track through your line just as you’re strapping into your binding.
In typical Chamonix (or should I say French) style, the opening of the lifts was delayed due to the snow. Obviously the mountains need to be secured, but I’m sure the ski patrol smoke a few Gauloises, drink an extra coffee and make sure they get first tracks just to wind up the frothing seasonaires. But hey, it’s the French way and I sort of admire them for it; they’re not super efficient like American resorts, and not overly anal like the Swiss and Austrians. It’s a bit loose and chaotic but you are free to do as you please. In the past I have found myself in the Aguille du Midi cable car (which goes up to 3842m and accesses some of the best but most crevassed freeriding in the world) with a family of snowbladers in sunglasses and jester hats. They had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. Yes indeed, there is definitely no nanny state here.
So, with the ski patrol still to sink their final espresso, we waited patiently for the lift to open, looking up through the crisp sunshine at pristine, snow covered mountains. It was like waiting for the gate to open on a bunch of wound up bulls. There was the usual Chamonix mob with plenty of duct tape holding together their well-worn jackets, backpacks and helmets. Everyone was laughing and joking, chatting away, but with one beady eye always kept on the lifties, ready to pounce. On a good powder day I’ve seen people trampled on and punched in lift queues here, so we needed to stick together.
I also had the avalanche conditions to think about, with four backcountry novices in the team and their parents relying on me to keep them safe. There had been some wind so there was a chance of small slab avalanches, and sure enough – just to settle everyone’s nerves – I released a little slab while traversing to a cliff spot. Welcome to the backcountry. The snow was deep and light, ideal for powder turns and cliffs, so with everyone else frantically tracking the obvious lines we took a fifteen minute hike up a cat track to a nice, quiet spot I had in mind.
Taking care to avoid any exposed and loaded slopes, we went to work on a number of short, steep pitches. Sam laid out a perfect backside turn with the power and finesse of a veteran like Serge Vitelli (for any of you youngsters who haven’t heard of him, Serge is a former French pro from the 80’s and 90’s who has a turn named after him). Nate and Seb dropped a few cliffs, initially struggling to land in the deep powder with their 154 jib sticks, but soon getting the hang of it by landing heavily on the back leg. Laura also got involved, dropping a decent size windlip. It was impressive to see the team adapt to their new environment and start to work out how to approach natural terrain. A couple of weeks of this and they’d be accomplished freeriders! Give them a decent sized board and I’d be out of a job.
Nate and Sam found a windlip which we could shape into a small transition and use like a hip. This was the closest we came to a proper kicker session all week. The late March sun was warming things up quickly, making hiking tough – and landing in the deep stodgy powder even harder. After a few rag dolls Sam got the shot, and with the sun making conditions a sketchier all the time we retreated to the restaurant for a typical French lunch of baguette, cheese and Perrier. Jamesy now had a good few photos in the bag, so we kicked back and enjoyed the view of Mt Blanc and the Aguille du Midi. That night, as a reward for the team’s efforts, we dined heartily at Alan Peru’s – everyone enjoying a starter and dessert. It was a well-earned relief from rice and vegetables.
Well, that was it for sun – just a small window of opportunity. The next morning it was back to overcast skies and light snow, so we were going to have to get creative to finish the story off. After an extended breakfast and a few too many coffees, some tired bodies reluctantly put on their boots and trudged out into the snowy fog. Things were starting to take their toll. We headed up the valley towards Switzerland, where right next to the road there were loads of big rock features to jib and air over.
Seeing a possible feature in natural terrain and working out if it’s possible takes a lot more ingenuity than just going to the park and spinning to win. Nate found a big rock to air over and started building a kicker as the snow really started to chuck it down. Meanwhile Seb and Sam went off to build a quarter pipe against a rock, and Laura had spotted a gap to ledge on a shuttered-up chalet which looked gnarly. It was great to see everyone spot different opportunities for photos in the same area, each picking something that suited their style of riding. I could really see their different styles coming out in the backcountry, which is not always evident in the park. Park riding is pretty uniform; everyone hits a line of kickers or rails pretty much doing the same tricks. In the backcountry individuality really comes out. There are so many different obstacles and lines, and everyone sees and rides a mountain differently. During the week I was surprised how often someone would spot something I hadn’t even considered.
It was meant to be a pure backcountry trip to challenge the ‘yo-est’ team in snowboarding, but sometimes conditions mean compromise. As we were running out of ideas on the final day we spotted a transitioned walkway tunnel, perfect for building a wallride. It was after all a DC team trip, so there had to be some urban jibbing in the article – otherwise the kids would think we’ve gone soft. I got to tow them into it with the Nissan, do handbreak turns and nearly roll the car on bank, so good fun was had by all.
When you’re putting together a snowboard story, sometimes you score perfect weather and sometimes you have to pull out all the stops to get the shots you need. This trip was definitely one of the latter. I guess that’s half the fun of snowboard travel: not knowing what you are going to get, the gamble, the unknown! I dropped everyone off at the airport, exhausted but satisfied, and as I drove back home I reflected on our trip: the ups the downs, the effort everyone put in. I was impressed with the way these young riders had taken up the challenge, and felt a little pride in being their team manager. I hoped that they’d enjoyed the trip, and learned a little something about their snowboarding along the way.
Anyway, next year we’re going to the DC Mountain Lab so that will keep everyone happy.