Looking down in to Lauterbrunnen from the train to Wengen

Riding a train North through the French and Swiss countryside was a heartening experience.  I have long been obsessed with transportation efficiency, and the European rail system is an absolute marvel.  The next big squeeze is rapidly approaching, but there are systems and models available to give hope that we will be able to pull it off.

After a long day of travel, I rolled in to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, and dragged my behemoth ski/glider bag through the dark streets looking for the Horner Hotel and Pub.  The Horner is known primarily as a BASE-jumpers haunt, and I had it recommended to me by a local speedride contact as the best dirt-bag option.  Standing on the porch as I staggered up was a crew of Red Bull athletes known as the Red Bull Air Force, who had come to ‘BASE Paradise’ to celebrate the upcoming marriage of Andy Farrington.  Several also had speedwings, and they had plans the next morning to meet up with the local speedride crew.

Setting up with the crew

Early the next morning we all joined forces, and local athletes Toby Zumsteg, Patrick Pearson, and Ueli Kestenholz amongst many others, guided us around the various speedride zones at Schilthorn.  The terrain was spectacular and the access fast and easy, but the most impressive part was the skills of the Swiss riders who have grown up in this remarkable playground.  It was deeply humbling to hear them speak about the recent ‘dark winter’ of 2009, when they lost 8 friends to this very dangerous sport.  The exceedingly rigorous discipline that the survivors had developed was one of the most striking lessons that I absorbed throughout my trip.

After our initial session the huge speedriding posse disbanded – the Swiss to their normal lives and the Red Bull crew to spend their time BASE jumping.  A few days later a few of us joined back up, including ski celebrity JT Holmes who was also in time for the bachelor party.  Very cool to spend the day riding with an athlete whom I have been watching for many years.

Budget cuisine served in a shovel

But the majority of my time in the region was spent solo, a frequent enough theme in my chaotic life.  As the temps increased, much of the more radical terrain began to unleash in a flurry of wet slabs.  Therefore the available time window was limited to the early mornings, before the solar heating made the snow unstable.  This proved challenging, as it took some time each morning, flying solo, to warm up my body and my mind to make sense out of the madness of this activity.

Schilthorn speedride terrain. A huge wetslab popped off this while I was watching, less than an hour after riding a lap right through it..

Fortunately there was also some lower, significantly mellower terrain, which stayed safe throughout the day.  This provided the perfect venue to push out laps in volume and focus on details, and by the end of my trip I was able to connect a bunch of South-Side-Slider skills to a lifetime of ski training.

North face of the Eiger

My typical routine was to finish the day with a valley flight out over the box canyon of Lauterbrunnen, land in the grassy fields below, and pack up just in time to catch a train across the valley.  Dropping my wing at the Horner along the way, I had enough time to put in 5 or 6 laps skiing the single remaining line with dry snow underneath the North face of the Eiger.  The deep silence there at a lunch rock below one of the largest faces in the Alps is an experience that will continue to resonate for some time in my weary traveling soul.

A short story and some more pictures from La Grave and the Jungfrau Region are posted on Black Diamond’s Ski Journal.

Les Guiberts

Ryan Casey, backlit in Serre Chevalier

Leaving Chamonix, I took a train down south to meet up with friends Ryan Casey and Lacie Hernandez, who were living in a small village outside of La Grave.  Ryan was working on patrol exchange between Sun Valley, Idaho and Serre Chevalier, France.  For the season he swapped jobs, houses, cars, and lives with a young French ski patroller.  In contrast to the destination-resort feel of Chamonix, the small village of Les Guiberts and the skiing in La Grave were much more small-town-roots, set in a dramatic alpine environment.  Their host parents Jacques and Lors graciously accepted Ryan and Lacie (and all their dirt-bag American friends) in to a section of their multi-generational home, and graciously tried to ensure that a genuine, comfortable, culturally-experiential stay was had by all.

Exploring the beautiful streets of old town Briancon

Ketchum friend Adam Majors was also in town, and together we spent a day at La Grave speedriding laps in the spectacular terrain and talking philosophy-shop on the funky old Telepherique.

Towing out to the glacier

On Ryan’s day off from patrol we skied lift-accessed powder laps in the Serre Che terrain,  carefully navigating shark-fin rocks reminiscent of Big Sky Montana.  Later we found our way in to a beautiful side-country couloir that Ryan said had gone un-skied all season.

Dropping in to a steep sidecountry beauty

To finish, we ran a lap on the local Via Ferrata and explored the spooky abandoned war-time fortresses overlooking town.  By the time I caught a bus out of town to the North, I was stimulated and rejuvenated for the final leg of my trip.

Lacie on the Via Ferrata, with Briancon below

Speedride Chamonix

Swooping the tram lap at Brevant

At the end of February, I flew to Geneva to spend 5 weeks in the Alps.  Yet again I was rolling all-chips-in, without a huge buffer.  But I had some work lined up for my return, and I was confident that the experience gained would be worthwhile in the long run.  It was my first trip to Europe, and I have long anticipated and desired the cultural experience.  On my father’s side I am first generation American, so I was psyched to be going to the land of my ancestors.

My primary focus was speedriding, which involves the combination of skiing and flying a very small canopy called a Speed Wing (similar to a paraglider.)  The idea is that the wing is very small so that you do not primarily fly, but rather that you ski while kiting the wing overhead.  This bizarre combination enables you to ski in places that could not normally be accessed– one can fly over terminal cliffs or impassibly steep terrain – only to touch down again and ski in pockets of beautiful but otherwise inaccessible snow below.  In the United States, there are very few ski resorts that allow this dangerous activity.  Even the ones that do only permit the athlete to launch at the top and land at the bottom, but not to touch down along the descent. Therefore it is rather slow to progress, as experience must be gained in the backcountry with hike-to access.  Many European resorts, on the other hand, allow speedriding within certain regions of their terrain.

Sliding turns on the edge of the abyss

So while I have quite a bit of foot-launched speedflying experience (which feeds off my paragliding experience,) plus a lifetime of ski experience, I have had little opportunity to combine the two.

I started my trip in Chamonix, which is known as one of the birthplaces of this sport.  Expecting to encounter speedriders in hoards, I was shocked instead to learn that they are very few and far between.  A young French athlete that I joined for a few laps told me that there are roughly 10 highly active and competent speedriders remaining in the valley!  Very few.  So aside from time with a couple friends passing through town and some brief new acquaintances, I spent the majority of my time riding solo laps trying to stack up vertical experience.

Touching down

A write-up from my time in Chamonix, with more pictures and also a short head-cam video, is posted on Black Diamond’s Ski Journal.  Check it out 🙂