Death in the Afternoon

extreme skiing in Bansko
extreme skiing in Bansko

I’m no pro skier, I’m not sponsored by any manufacturer or filmed on a daily basis as part of one of those tantalizingly extreme films where everyone is skiing in chest deep powder on some remote face in Alaska. I’m just a guy who loves to ride the back country. If it’s un-pisted then that’s just fine with me.  I have never really grown out of the pleasure of being in the mountains with a friend on some fresh snow away from the crowds. The peace of the forest, the wild open desolation of big mountains combined with that heart pumping, adrenaline quickening thrill of charging off down the hill. It’s an intoxicating combination that has had me hooked for the past 18 years.

I think everyone who has watched an extreme skiing video can empathize with the excitement. The thump of helicopter blades as a group of tanned people step out on to the top of some remote mountain.  The shock of fear as the mountain starts to slip the rush of relief as the guy shoots out of the avalanche. Awe as he pulls off a back flip over the impossibly huge cliff, lands it and skis off. This is the stuff million dollar movies are made of!

The reality of backcountry skiing is a little less glamorous. Most of us stink! Never having enough time to wash your ski wear after a sweaty day on the hill lends a locker room aroma to most freeriders.  The chopper dropping you off is the stuff of fantasy. Shitting your self all the way up a ridge in knee deep snow, sweating like crazy, puffing like a steam train is the way most of us get to the start of a run. Hoarding all our money so that we can ski the whole season means our gear is old and spending most days each winter out in all weathers soon ruins the flush of youth.

The money shots in most extreme skiing videos normally involve some sort of slip or avalanche. Nothing can beat the lone skier bopping down an impossibly steep slope as clouds of fresh snow tumble around him.  Again the reality is much less glamorous.  Ripping down a slope in the trees because you are sure it will be safer than open faces, you pop round a corner into a clearing triggering a couple of hundered tons of snow to start slipping down the hill. No one is there to watch and suddenly a perfect day turns into a lottery of life and death. Sat on a summit looking down at a pristine face you try and judge the risk, friends have said it should be safe, you have a good poke around in the snow pack and it appears o.k.  . Yesterday the other side of the mountain was safe but today two turns in and the whole bloody lot starts moving.  A super inviting untracked slope covered in deep deep fresh snow just begs you to carve some lines in it.  So throwing caution to the wind just to be the first person down it you charge off. …

Every day in the back country entails an element of risk, a bad fall, turn or landing in the middle of nowhere can soon escalate into a nightmare. Clipping a tree or rock can easily break something whether it is equipment or bones and getting back to civilization even when you are only 1 or 2 kms from the resort can become a Herculean task in deep snow. Weather can change rapidly in the mountains and once the cloud has come down and the snow is falling areas that you were sure you knew like the back of your hand can become alien.

Avalanche risk is a hugely complicated science. The basic formulas are simple, weight of snow verses angle of slope and friction between layers equals movement or stability. However types of snowflake, the effects of wind, sun, humidity and temperature shifts all add to the mix to make predicting when and where avalanches will fall a dark art. Faces that were totally safe at 10am can be lethal at 1pm an east face can ski like a dream and then the west face of the same mountain can be a disaster waiting to happen. Add to this incredibly complicated mix the fact that what freeriders want to ski is deep fresh snow and you start to get regular deaths on the mountain.  Avalanches do not need to be huge to kill. A tiny avalanche of 20 tons of snow can smash a rider into a tree with the force of a bus traveling at 50kmh.  A light dusty slip on a big face can be enough to de-stabalise a rider so he falls over a cliff. Suffocation under 20cm of snow is common.

Statistics claim that a skier or snowboarder buried under an avalanche has a high chance of survival if he or she is dug out within 15mins, if they were buried alive.  There are many tools available to the freerider to enhance his chances of survival.  Air bag systems like in a car can be worn on the back to help the victim float, avalung systems to help you breathe whilst buried, radio transceivers to help rescue services find you, probes and shovels to dig your friends out and of course helmets and body armour to protect you from impacts. All this kit has its place but is worthless if you were crushed or ripped apart in the avalanche before it buried you.

There you are, your best friend is buried under the snow alive and well somewhere under 200m2 of avalanche debris. You have skied down to the settlement area of the avalanche. Your radio transceiver is working and all your friends have the right equipment. Depending on the equipment you have to either methodically plot a grid pattern to find your buried friend or home in on his signal. 200m2, every second counts, you’re running around over boulders of snow heart racing, mind totally freaked out trying to concentrate on this gadget that is the only link to your mate and his survival. Eventually you find the spot where the signal is strongest and start prodding around with your probe, is that him, or just a lump of ice? You start digging. This isn’t the fluffy powder that fell on the hill, this is now compacted slurry dense as cement, you have got to dig out as much as 1 ton to free up your friend and every second counts. 15minutes is not long and invariably not long enough.

Freeriding is inherently risky, when things go wrong they can go fatally wrong. We ignore the warnings, ride areas that have taken lives and still go back for more. The risks are as obvious. The consequences dire.

The reasons behind freeriding are clear to those who do it. Pleasure, thrill, excitement are all part of it but so much more than this is that it is there for the taking. To ski a sweet line that will be gone in a day. To feel that moment where it all works, perfect snow, a perfect line.  Extreme skiing is one of a few moments in our lives when we are totally in control. Totally alive.  The moment you slip off a ridge, turn into a gully drop into a big face there is no one else to blame, you made that choice. The rush is all yours, the sweetness of the snow the epic turns, all yours.  You own that moment and in that moment you are truly free. Free to have the time of your life, free from all the safety nets of the modern world, free from all the crap. Just you and the hill. Freedom has no safety nets, no one to blame. You make a choice and hope to fuck you made a good one because if you got it wrong, really wrong, you’re dead .

Freeriding is no chummy club where we’re all in it together. If we are kind those that do die are branded as unfortunate or unlucky, if not the dead are branded as fools who didn’t have a clue. All whitewashed over with pat comments of “he died doing what he loved”

That bit of mountain is mine! If you bail out, side slip, show fear, dither or fail to turn expect abuse.  The testosterone, dominating mother nature, or convincing yourself you have dominated her, the buzz of surviving is what it is all about. The thrill of rolling the dice, and winning. When the odds were so high. Pushing the limits of your body, mind and the sport. The serenity of the experience the almost meditative quality of the focused moment. Mix all that up and you might get close.

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