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