Britain now has a snowboarding speed record, thanks to 20-year-old Jamie Barrow, a student at Bath University.
“That was absolutely incredible! 142.78 km/h, that’s a British record. That feels so good, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done!”
Until this week, there had been no official British snowboarding speed record. The world record, meanwhile, stands at 201.907 km/h, set by the Australian snowboarder Darren Powell at Les Arcs in France in 1999.
As soon as he had set his record, Barrow knew he could break it. “I wasn’t quite fully tucked in, I know I can go back and do it faster,” he said. And he set off back up the glacier, to beat the target he had just set.
Barrow’s record attempts took place during XSpeedSki, an annual celebration of speed on snow held on the slopes of the Mont-Fort in Verbier. The Speedmaster contest, held straight after the FIS Speed Ski World Cup, offers athletes like Barrow the chance to test themselves to the limit.
Only after his first run did he learn that, according to the rules, his next run would have to start from higher up the glacier. At first he was apprehensive. The run may appear to spectators as smooth as an ice rink, but taken at speed it’s “a little bit bumpy”, according to Barrow, scattered with “death cookies, as we call them”.
When you’re travelling at a speed that would earn you a ticket on many of Europe’s motorways, you don’t want to fall. It would be bad enough on skis, fitted with safety bindings; if you tumbled at that speed while strapped onto a snowboard, the consequences do not bear thinking about.
The danger is that much greater because a snowboard is inherently more unstable. “With skiing, you have two points of balance,” said Barrow, “but on a snowboard, if you hit a bump you’ll fall, because you don’t have a second way to balance yourself. When the skiers have already gone down, and there are all these tracks and bumps, you worry you’ll suddenly catch an edge and fall over. Just last weekend that happened to a couple of snowboarders going fast; one broke both their legs.”
Barrow bit the bullet and tackled the run a second time, from the higher starting point – and this time clocked an impressive 151.60 km/h. “That was scary up top,” he said, “I had second thoughts going up, but I’m so glad I did it. But the scarier it is, when you finish it, the better the adrenaline rush – and that’s what I live for.”
See our video interview with him after his first run.
And this was his reaction after his second run:
The location for his challenges will be familiar to any skier or snowboarder who has visited the resorts of Verbier or Nendaz: the slopes of the Mont-Fort, at 3,330 metres, the summit of the whole 4 Valleys ski area in the Swiss Valais.
The views from the top station of the cable car are spectacular, taking in Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, countless glacier-draped peaks, and extending across the Swiss Plateau to the Jura Mountains in the distance. This is the starting point for some of Verbier’s celebrated off-piste runs, as well as the entry point to a steep mogul field that has confounded many an intermediate skier and snowboarder.
From the platform of the cable car station, you also have a stomach-churning view onto the speed skiing run that has been the venue for this week’s FIS Speed Ski World Cup, a super-smooth sheet of hard-packed snow, as blank and featureless as a funeral shroud.
At the age of 20, Barrow has already had a few brushes with injury. He currently has a slipped disc in his back, and has previously suffered from a slipped disc in his neck and concussions “more times than I can count”.
These, however, were all a result of boarder cross, Barrow’s main discipline: he is a member of the British snowboard cross team, and was British junior champion from 2009 to 2011.
He has had to drop out of the competition because of his slipped disc, but if his injury improves he says he’d like to get back into boarder cross – “and hopefully compete for my country at the next Winter Olympic Games”.
In the meantime he has other ambitions, all relating to going very fast. “I still want to break the 100 mph [160.93 km/h] barrier,” he says, as well as “set the world record for being towed by a snowmobile – and maybe even for being towed by a small plane.” He is also planning to tackle the world indoor snowboarding speed record – in Holland.
Up on the glacier on the Mont-Fort, meanwhile, the high start of the run – the highest ever – allowed several skiers to exceed the existing course record, including Philippe May. By the end of the day, Simone Origone’s speed of 225.820 km/h had become the new course record.
Snow conditions did not, however, allow for the use of the special ramp erected at the start of the run in a bid to smash the world speed ski record of 251.40 km/h, set by Origone in 2006. The weather forecast for the next few days is not promising: a new world record may have to wait another year.