39-year-old James Stentiford talks about cliffs, injuries – and turning your age and nationality to your advantage
Last Sunday, a 39-year-old man from Devon flung himself down a 600-metre rock face and landed in the record books. On the way, James Stentiford leapt over jagged rocks, edged down narrow gulleys, soared over a cliff and swept in graceful curves across open snowfields. It was a fast and fluid run that won him a podium place at the Nissan Xtreme Verbier, the most prestigious freeride event in the calendar – a first for a British snowboarder.
It’s a dramatic achievement at an event that is thrilling and terrifying to watch in equal measure. The contest is held on the 3,223-metre Bec des Rosses, a dauntingly steep mountain festooned with rock bands and cliffs, with gradients ranging from 45 to 60 degrees. Several thousand spectators watch from the mountain opposite, following the action through binoculars or on giant screens that display images beamed from the helicopters that circle overhead like vultures.
Anyone thinking that an inability to feel fear was a requirement for taking part would be wrong. Even the hour-long hike up is scary, says Stentiford, for it leads over giddying cliffs.
“When you’re standing at the top, with your boots strapped in your bindings, you’re petrified. You can see all the people looking up at you, and you can see how far down it is to the bottom. It’s very intimidating. It’s horrible – I don’t think there’s a worse feeling. It’s absolute fear.”
Less than a minute later, his run was over. “The relief when you get to the finish is unbelievable. You can definitely kill yourself on that mountain, and to get to the bottom in one piece – I was over the moon.”
And when he found out he had won third place? “Surprised, exhilarated – just absolutely brilliant. To stand at age 39 on the podium at your first ever Xtreme Verbier as an Englishman, is a dream come true. That’s as good as it gets.”
Euphoric as crossing the finish line may be, you do wonder what drives the competitors. “The whole week before an event my nerves are so bad,” he says. “I ask – why am I doing this to myself? The night before, I only sleep four or five hours, I keep waking up thinking about the line I’m planning to take, the cliffs I’ll come off. It’s like a battle in your mind, to convince yourself it’s going to be good.”
But nerves do play a vital role. “If I’m not nervous, I generally have a really bad run. The more nervous I feel, generally the better I ride. But once I’m in the gate, focused, and ready to go, that’s it – all the thinking goes out of the window.”
Over the years, he has suffered torn ligaments on both knees, a broken foot, torn ankle ligaments, a squashed disc in his back, broken wrists and torn shoulder ligaments. “And quite a few concussions,” he adds. “Little bashes where you see stars, and then six or seven serious ones over the years. For me, that’s one of the worst injuries, because your mind is so confused – it’s a horrible experience.”
Fears of injury do increase as you get older, he says. “When I was 23, I hadn’t seen big avalanches, I hadn’t seen people getting badly injured, I hadn’t heard about people dying in the mountains. After 20 years, being in a lot of situations and hearing a lot of stories, you realise how serious it can get. When you’re 23, you are immortal, but as you get older, you realise what a fine balance life is.”
Somehow, that does not stop Stentiford doing things that most of us would consider crazy. But then he has always enjoyed taking risks. He fell in love with snow sports aged seven, when his parents took him skiing. “I had no technique whatsoever, I just wanted to go as fast as I could. So my parents instantly bought me a helmet.”
But it was after sixth form, when he was working a season in the German resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, that he found his calling. “The world tour came to town. I hadn’t seen professional snowboarders before – I just followed them around for a week, and was blown away by what they could do.”
He soon figured out how to make money out of sponsorship, and has been a professional snowboarder ever since, based for the winters in Chamonix. The first few summers he did odd jobs to finance his passion – anything from car valeting to working for international directory enquiries. In recent years, he has been running a snow, skateboard and surf team for DC, a manufacturer of footwear and sports equipment. He spends his summers in North Devon, where he lives with his girlfriend, and indulges his other passion – surfing.
Podium finishes are, however, something of a novelty. “To be honest, competing isn’t really my thing, it’s not what snowboarding is about for me,” he says, echoing the sentiment of many freeriders. But this year, he decided to enter the Freeride World Tour – partly “as an excuse to spend more time in the mountains” – and found himself gradually working his way up the rankings. In Chamonix, at the start of the Tour, he came ninth, before scoring fifth in St. Moritz, fourth in Sochi, Russia, and third in Fieberbrunn, Austria.
It’s a great achievement, especially at a time when Britain’s snowboarding scene is dominated by freestylers. “Because the industry in the UK is based around the snow domes and dry slopes, everyone is focused on tricks,” says Stentiford. “Everyone is a product of their environment, so naturally kids grow up in the UK aspiring to ride rails and kickers – because we haven’t got the big mountains that European countries have.”
Should that discourage the rest of us? “No way. I think in a lot of ways being British is an advantage, because you’re not spoilt by growing up in the mountains. You’re hungry to do well, and if you’ve got the motivation, you’re going to be successful. So if you’re British, enjoy it, get out there and make the most of it!”
And the secret of success as you get older? “My best piece of advice would be: stretch. Stay flexible. That definitely helps when you fall – and being flexible has certainly been part of my longevity. But you’re never too old to enjoy the mountains. In Chamonix, I see 70- or 80-year-old guys out ski touring. It’s all in the mind – what you want to do, you can. And instead of thinking about it, crack on and do it, because life is bloody short!”
- To see videos of the runs, visit www.freerideworldtour.com
- Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
- Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)