“Today Wasn’t my Day to Die”
October 10, 2016
This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news, information, and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.
Death always stalks the extreme skiers and snowboarders who compete on perilous mountain tops. Dominic Bliss discovers more.
The avalanche started just seconds after Julien Lopez had been given the word to go. He pointed his skis downhill, set off on his run, but within a few metres the massive slab of snow he was on began to slip down the mountain. From then on it was a race against time. Could he outrun the avalanche?
At first this professional skier was able to stay a few metres ahead of the tumbling snow even as it rapidly increased in speed, size and momentum. At one point it looked as if he might have escaped it but then, panicked by
the situation, he suddenly face-planted and started tumbling himself. Momentarily he regained his footing. It was too late, though. The avalanche had engulfed him.
Fortunately this was an organised snow sport event – a stop on the Freeride World Tour – so there were plenty of ski patrollcrs on hand to dig Lopez out
of the snow. He was buried for just five minutes.
"I was going full-speed and I went head over heels," he said moments after they had exhumed him. "'I just had time to get back up on my feet when 'Wham!', I was lucky. very lucky. What a scare. Today wasn't my day to die, though."Julien Lopez
Frenchman Lopez is a regular competitor on the Freeride World Tour (FWT), an annual five-stop tour staged in ski resorts in Europe and Alaska. But it’s nothing like the
skiing or snowboarding events you sec on marked pistes, in snow parks or at the Winter Olympics. Riders (as the skiers or boarders are collectively known) display their skills on steep, ungroomed,
out-of-bounds mountain slopes. There’s a start gate at the summit which they normally reach by helicopter and, around 500 metres below, there’s a finish gate. In between are natural cliff faces, couloirs, cornices and even exposed rocks. As riders negotiate these – sometimes with aplomb, sometimes without – they are awarded points by a panel of judges watching from below. It’s not a race. The winners aren’t those who descend the fastest; rather they’re the most fluid, the most stylish, the most in control, the ones who choose the best lines and display impressive jumps. In that aspect it’s more like surfing than competitive skiing.
The organisers describe it thus: “It’s a vertical free-verse poem on the mountain. It’s the ultimate expression of all that is fun and liberating about sliding on snow in wintertime.” According to France’s Le Monde newspaper, the riders are ”kings of the off-piste, half-skiers, half-lcaruses”.
Some call the sport ‘free riding’, others prefer ‘extreme’, ‘big mountain’ or ‘back country’ skiing. There are various event organizers operating around the world including the Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships, and the freeskiing World Tour (in North America); there used to be the World Extreme Skiing Championship in Alaska.
Given all the rocks and potential avalanches, safety is taken very seriously indeed. Mandatory for all riders in the FWT, for example, are helmets, back protectors, transceivers, probes, shovels and an avalanche airbag system. Ski patrollers inspect each course and bomb suspect areas to trigger any avalanches before the riders compete. A medical helicopter is-on standby in case of serious accidents. No one has died on the Freeride World Tour. Not yet, anyway.
Britain’s Sascha Mann competes in the snowboard category. He knows all about the dangers of free riding thanks to a brush with death back in 2008. Snowboarding alone in Austria, he accidentally triggered an avalanche, slid off a 10-metre cliff and found himself buried in deep snow. He was stuck fast and it was getting dark. Fortunately there was an air pocket and he could just move his right arm. Even more fortunately, his mobile phone was in a pocket on his right side, and within reach. He eventually managed to call in a rescue team, guiding them to his position by listening out for the sound of their helicopter rotor blades, but not before he had recorded a farewell on his head-mounted camera. “To start with I had resigned myself to death,” he remembers. “I said my goodbyes to my family. We all watched [the footage] after I’d got home.”
"The adrenaline doesn't come when you're actually riding. It comes,when you're at the bottom of the slope, when you've finished. Before that, it's all about keeping calm and staying in control."Sascha Hamm
39-year-old Hamm is a frequent visitor to Alpine hospitals. In the 25 years he’s been doing back country snowboarding, he has suffered broken arms, ripped the meniscus in his left knee and t0rn the cruciate ligament in his right. In March 2016 he broke ribs, shoulder, arm, and suffered internal injuries while competing in an FWT event in Austria. He says the physical damage inevitably makes him more cautious. “When you’ve never had anything bad happen to you, you just go for it. You jump off something and whatever happens, happens. But when you’ve had bad things happen to you, you go a bit safer.”
He has also learned to control the adrenaline that comes with leaping down steep slopes. “If you scare yourself, you build up too much adrenaline, and them you don’t usually perform well. So you try to stay within the limits. In any case, the adrenaline doesn’t come when you’re actually riding. It comes when you’re at the bottom of the slope, when you’ve finished. Before that, it’s all about keeping calm and staying in control.”
Sometimes calm and control just aren’t possible. Many of Lopez’s and Hamm’s peers have lost hold of both, and died pursuing the sport they love. In April 2016, FWT’s Swiss snowboard champion Estelle Balet was killed in an avalanche while performing for a film crew. More recently, another FWT regular, Swedish skier Matilda Rapaport, was fatally injured in an avalanche while filming for a video game in the Chilean Andes. (Neither accident was during competition, however.)
Both women had been riding with safety equipment. But sometimes that’s just not enough. As one FWT guide says: “‘Ne are in nature. This is what free riding is. There is always a risk.”