All the fun of the FWT

Death-defying leaps for the competitors, high thrills and raclette for the spectators: the Xtreme Verbier, climax of the Freeride World Tour, is a spectacle unlike any other.

Spectators at the Xtreme Verbier, final round of the Freeride World TourFirst, find yourself a sunny, sheltered viewpoint. Next, whack on some sun screen. Then pull out your binoculars, and peer through them at the cliffs opposite – and pray that the skier hurtling over them doesn’t smash his body to pieces on the rocks below.

The Xtreme Verbier has to be one of the more bizarre events on the international skiing and snowboarding circuit. Thousands of spectators gather on a col high above the Swiss ski resort of Verbier to watch the world’s top freeriders risk their lives on a mountain that was once considered unskiable.

Competitor at Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World Tour, being photographedHelicopters circle above carrying camera crews. Every trick and jump is beamed live in high-definition detail onto a giant screen – along with every mistake and fall.

The chance of an accident, lasting injury or death is very real. You can’t help feeling queasy watching: is this the ski world’s equivalent of watching blood sports, or rubbernecking at a car crash?

During the Xtreme Verbier, the climax of the Freeride World Tour, the Swiss resort takes on a party atmosphere. Stalls line the main street selling items such as avalanche airbags, probes, shovels, transceivers and anything else that the thought of a sudden, nasty death in the mountains might inspire you to buy. If you fancy your chances as a future competitor, scale the giant scaffold at the end of the street, ride down a snowy chute and pirouette onto a giant airbag – and judges will rate your tricks.

On the big day, competitors and spectators alike ride a sequence of gondolas and cable cars up to the Col des Gentianes at nearly 2,900 metres, and spectacular views of the Mont Blanc massif. High above looms the Mont-Fort, the highest point of Verbier’s ski area (3,303 m), venue for the FIS World Cup Final in speed skiing at the end of the season, and a fresh attempt to break the world record, which currently stands at just over 250 kph.

Spectators at the Xtreme Verbier, final round of the Freeride World TourToday’s death-defying antics, however, are confined to the 3,223-metre Bec des Rosses, which looms across the valley like a giant snow-dusted tombstone. You feel giddy just looking at it.

The athletes have been up on the col on the preceding days, scrutinising the face of the Bec through binoculars, and picking out and memorising their lines down slopes festooned with cliffs and rock bands. Gradients range between 45 and 60 degrees – which means that as the athletes ride down, they won’t be able to see more than a few metres in front of them.

During the wait for the athletes to hike the ridge to the top of the Bec, spectators have the luxury of contemplating violent death in comfort. This season there’s a new restaurant up on the Col, like a giant, high-tech eco-igloo, where you can buy hot drinks or mulled wine to soothe your nerves.

Outside there are stalls where you can buy Freeride World Tour souvenirs, anything from an official avalanche airbag backpack (CHF 990) to FWT-branded underpants (CHF 10). Today they only have S and M sizes left, but the woman on the stall says they’re very stretchy – presumably to accommodate those giant cojones?

Not far away, an emergency rescue helicopter is on hand, complete with medical team. Each of the competitors is equipped with helmet, back protection and backpack containing search and rescue equipment, but if you tumble down a cliff, you want help as soon as possible.

As the start of the contest approaches, helicopters carrying film crews wheel through the sky above the Bec like impatient vultures. The women are to kick off the contest, from a lower starting point: first snowboarders, then skiers. The men will then ride from the summit, in the same order.

Spectators at the Xtreme Verbier, final round of the Freeride World TourWatching them through binoculars are a team of experts stationed on the col, who will judge each run for choice of line, fluidity, level of control, technique, and quality of tricks, jumps and landings. The spectators have the benefit of seeing close-ups on the giant screen – filmed both from the helicopters, and from cameras stationed at various points on the mountain.

One by one they go down, mixing fast powder turns, technical sequences through the rocks, straight-lining couloirs, leaping off cliffs and pulling tricks along the way, before sweeping in long graceful curves across the open snowfields at the bottom of the face. Their grace seems effortless.

The last group to come down, the men skiers, seem jinxed: one rider after another takes a tumble. Each time the crowd falls silent; when one of the skiers clips rocks at the foot of a jump with his skis and cartwheels across the snow, even the commentator sounds sick at the thought of the consequences. Miraculously, though, the rider gets up, and even skis part of the way down on one ski.

The mood at the award ceremony is euphoric – perhaps all the more in the knowledge that no one has been badly hurt. To round the event off, a helicopter takes to the sky high above, and three people leap out in wing suits, whizzing through the air past the crowd towards Verbier way below. The spectators head for the igloo, to fortify themselves with plates of chips and spag bol: the Xtreme Verbier is over for another year. Thank god everyone is still in one piece…

 

  • Video: Best of Xtreme Verbier 2013 © Freeride World Tour
  • See more videos and full competition results at www.freerideworldtour.com

Britain’s record-breaking freerider

39-year-old James Stentiford talks about cliffs, injuries – and turning your age and nationality to your advantage

 

British Snowboarder James Stentiford after coming 3rd at Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World Tour

James Stentiford in front of the vertiginous Bec des Rosses

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.

Rescue helicopter on standby at the Xtreme Verbier, final round of the Freeride World Tour“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.”

Spectators at the Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World TourPart of the anxiety, says Stentiford, is worrying about what might go wrong. “You definitely think about getting hurt,” he says.

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.”

Photographer at Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World TourHe 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!”

Aline Bock’s top 5 resorts

The Womens’ Snowboard Freeride World Champion for 2010 picks her favourite five spots for snowboarding

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Interview by James Bedding 

“When people ask me the best resort to ride, I always say: it’s the place you know best. You know the danger points, you know what it looks like in summer, you know about all the cliffs, what’s underneath the surface of the snow.

For me, that would be the mountains near Lake Constance, where I grew up, and around Innsbruck, where I live now.

I totally recommend the Arlberg  – places like St. Anton and Lech. The whole area is amazing to ride. It has everything – tree runs, steep faces, gnarly faces if you really want to go crazy. I’ve been riding there since I was a little kid – it’s just an hour away from Lake Constance and an hour from Innsbruck. I know the danger zones, I know which cliffs are kind of gnarly, and where I should take care.

If it’s really safe and stable, there’s always a lot of lines to do, but if it’s just dumping with snow, you can always hide in the trees – where there’s a good feel, and it’s not so dangerous because it’s a lot less steep.

If friends come to visit, and there’s not a lot of powder, I love going to one of the parks. We often go to Mayrhofen – I really recommend the Mayrhofen Vans Penken Park. I’ll still do some kickers and rails – it’s like going back to my past.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Before freeride, I started with competitions in the half-pipe and slopestyle. In fact, I think it’s important to do all kinds of riding. You shouldn’t be just a freerider, or a freestyler, or do just boarder cross – being an all-round snowboarder is what makes a snowboarder good. So every time friends come to visit and we go riding in a park, I’m totally stoked.

One place that is special because it is so close to the city – Innsbruck – is Axamer Lixum. It has really nice, steep slopes, but it’s also a great family resort. If there’s powder you can also go in the trees. It’s not super-gnarly, but the mountains are amazing – you feel like you could be in Chamonix, the views are like – wow!

Outside Europe, I have been riding quite a lot in Squaw Valley lately – but I would recommend the whole Lake Tahoe area.It’s not known for super-speed gnarly lines, but it’s great fun to ride there. It has super-nice mountains with an amazing view down to the lake, and tree runs all over the place.

If they have a storm, it goes on for three days, and you can have a metre of fresh powder – and then you can be sure that you’re going to have a week of sun, because it’s California. It never gets that cold, either – here in the Alps you have sometimes minus 20 degrees; over there, minus 5 to minus 10 is the coldest it gets. Sometimes it gets really warm, so you have to get up really early.

Number five would probably be my home town, where I learned skiing. A lot of people haven’t heard of it. It’s called the Bregenzerwald, in the Vorarlberg in Austria.

It’s where Gigi Rüff comes from – he’s an amazing snowboarder. It consists of lots of different villages; but Damüls would be the one for me – it feels like home. It has everything you could ask for – you can go backcountry and find really nice slopes. And it’s great for learning, too.

If you want to go off-piste, though, you should always check out the avalanche risk, and make sure you know how the snow layers built up over the season. It’s really important to get training in off-piste safety.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

Resort details

Axamer Lizum (www.axamer-lizum.at) was the venue for many of the alpine events of the Winter Olympic Games that were held in Innsbruck in 1964 and 1976. The ski area is 50 minutes by bus from the city, one of the most appealing in the Alps; the journey is free with a local lift pass. Ski packages to Axamer Lizum are available from Crystal (www.crystalski.co.uk), and city/ski breaks based in Innsbruck from Inghams (www.inghams.co.uk).

Lake Tahoe is one of the deepest and clearest freshwater lakes in the world, surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada – which tend to have gentler contours and thicker tree cover than, say, the Colorado Rockies. The best views of the lake, arguably, are from the ski slopes of Heavenly (www.skiheavenly.com). There are seven ski areas around the lake, including the venue for the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, Squaw Valley (www.squaw.com). Trips to the two resorts are available from Ski Safari (www.skisafari.com) and Ski Independence (www.ski-i.com).

The Bregenzerwald (www.bregenzerwald.at) consists of 22 villages, little known among British skiers, in the far west of Austria, close to the borders with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany. Damüls has access to 109km of piste rising to an altitude of 2,100 metres, and is regarded as reasonably snow-sure. You can buy day passes for the different ski areas; passes of two and a half days or longer cover all 17, plus a couple of neighbouring regions. For advice on arranging an independent touring holiday, contact the Austrian Tourist Office (www.austria.info/uk).

The well-known resorts of the Arlberg (www.stantonamarlberg.com; www.lech-zuers.at and Mayrhofen (www.mayrhofen.at) appear in the brochures of most ski companies.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

 

How to snowboard down cliffs in style

Meet Aline Bock, the Women’s Snowboard Freeride World Champion

Spectators looking up at the Bec des Rosses face, Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World Tour

Spectators look up at the cliffs of the Bec des Rosses

In the flesh, Aline Bock does not appear out of her mind. This surprises me, because this 28 year-old German has made a name for herself by snowboarding vertiginous mountains and free-falling down cliff faces, all with effortless grace.

“A crazy person could not do this,” says Aline. “It is dangerous, and you really have to know what you are doing. You have to know your own abilities, and be very sure of yourself and your riding.”

It is because of her stylish riding that Aline is the current Women’s Snowboard Freeride World Champion. The title is decided over a series of events known as the Freeride World Tour, in which skiers and snowboarders compete side-by-side. It was at the culminating event of last season – the Nissan Xtreme in Verbier, in which Aline came second – that she was crowned overall winner for 2010.

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl

She has begun this season well, winning the opening event of the women’s tour earlier this month, at La Clusaz in France. The men’s and women’s tours go on to take in resorts throughout the Alps as well as the Rocky Mountains, California’s Sierra Nevada, and even the Russian Caucasus – at Sochi, the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Only at the finals – the Nissan Xtreme in Verbier, on March 19 – will we find out who will be World Champion for 2011.

The latter event is held on the 3,222-metre Bec des Rosses, a scarily steep mountain festooned with cliffs and rock bands: 500 metres from top to bottom, it was considered unskiable until a few years ago. There are no lifts or helicopter transfers: competitors have to hike to the jagged summit. You feel giddy just looking at it.

The Nissan Xtreme attracts about 5,000 spectators – skiers and snowboarders, mostly – who watch from the Col des Gentianes, served by the Jumbo cable car. From here, they follow the riders through binoculars, and watch footage beamed onto giant screens, much of it filmed from helicopters.

At points – where the competitors launch over the top of a cliff, and free-fall down a rock face to the powder below – the entire crowd holds its breath. A panel of judges watches the competitors through binoculars, judging each for choice of line, fluidity of run, and level of control.

What, for Aline, would constitute a perfect run, I wondered? “Firstly, perfect conditions – like powder, but not so much that it’s very avalanchey. And of course a good layer underneath, so you can be sure of not hitting any sharks [small stones and rocks concealed just below the surface]. For the start, a really nice windlip to do a freestyle trick off; and then a steep face where you can do some fast, really nice powder turns, spraying the snow in the air. Then a technical part that you can ride through really fast, ending with a medium-size cliff where you can do a trick. Last of all, either a couloir to straight-line down, or a big powder field without any tracks where you can do amazing big turns.”

One of the skills you need on the Bec des Rosses, says Aline, is the ability to plan and memorise your route in advance. For the face is so steep that you cannot see ahead of you for more than a few metres; as you leap over a cliff, you cannot see where you are going to land. Which is why, in the days leading up to the contest, competitors scrutinise every detail of the face – powder fields, couloirs, cliffs, rocks – through binoculars, and figure out the route they will take.

Helicopter at Xtreme Verbier, Freeride World Tour

A rescue helicopter on standby

“You need experience to do that,” says Aline. “You have to be able to judge, through the binoculars, how big a cliffs is, how steep the landing is.” Of course, when it comes to the contest, competitors are effectively experiencing the face in mirror image. “You have to recognise everything from an unfamiliar angle,” says Aline. “The rock where you decided you would have to go left, and the one you decided to jump off, and where you would traverse. You go down, and you think, oh my god, is this it? It all looks so different!”

It all sounds terrifying to me – and I ask Aline whether to compete you have to be totally fearless. “Not at all,” she says. “This is an extreme sport, you have to be aware how dangerous it could be, and how it could all end. It is also a very mental sport, you have to think a lot about different things, and fear is a very, very good thing because it stops you doing stupid stuff. Sometimes you just step back, and say – no, I’m not doing this, it’s too dangerous. You don’t have to kill yourself. At the end of the run, you want to be down there safe, phoning your parents, saying, hey, I’m down and I’m safe.”

So, what does it feel like at the top of the Bec des Rosses, waiting for your turn to go down? “My heart is running, my blood is full of adrenalin, and I know there are a lot of people watching – I can see them from up there. But for those 20 seconds just before I drop in, there’s nothing in my head: just the line I want to do, the powder I want to feel, and the fun I want to have. My line and my head just go click. It’s out, no one is here, this is me, myself and I, on top of the mountain, I’m riding down and I’m having fun.”

Snowboarder Aline Bock

© Daniel Zangerl