If you are a keen skier or snowboarder then there is a high chance you love al things equipment related. It's an area of the sport that I find interesting and am not ashamed to admit i'm a tech nerd. A big part of the sport is travel, which means taking into account moving around with all this awesome stuff and so I feel its important to pack correctly and take the essentials.
I move around between each hemisphere chasing the snow and so packing is second nature to me now, its no longer a stress. My bag with clothes and 'normal' things can change a lot depending on how long I will spend in each place but my snowboard bag stays the same, it has all the essentials that I need for snowboarding and i'm going to run through what I take on my travels.
This is pretty much the most important part of any backcountry skier/snowboarders kit, It should never be left behind.
Shovel, probe and a good transceiver are the essentials and should always be carried with you when venturing into any side/backcountry. I always ride with a backpack, even in resort, and will always have my shovel, probe and transceiver on me just in case. It also helps with getting used to wearing the gear and feeling comfortable. Make sure you know how to use it all and what to do if an avalanche was to happen.
If going backcountry is your thing then I feel that the more safety gear and knowledge you have the better, this will at east mean you have all the tools required if the worst was to happen. Look for local avalanche courses, read as much as you can,I recommend a book by Bruce Tremper – Staying alive in avalanche terrain.
A good quality backpack is something worth spending a bit of money on. It needs to feel comfortable when loaded with gear and it needs to suit your needs. I have a 48litre Dakine pack which is the perfect size for carrying all my splitboard gear if I need too. I can fit all my snow safety gear along with skins, crampons, water bottle, spare layers and food. A lot of people say that 25 litres is enough for a daypack but in my experience its never enough, I have found that 48litres is fine for one day or multiple days.
Whats in my daypack
- Snow safety equipment
- Mutli-tool – get yourself a Leatherman or a Gerber
- Medical tape – incase anything breaks its always good to be able to bodge a repair
- Spare Lens – Carry a low light lens if you can.
- Sunglasses – needed for hiking in the sun, you don't want a sweaty goggle face
- Camera – Mirrorless cameras are great. Makes it easy to get that 'Insta-banger'
- Balaclava or 'buff” - Merino is best for breathability
For backcountry days I will add the following
- Splitboard skins
- Spare base layer – after hiking its good to be able to change out of a sweaty base layer, merino works well
- For overnight trips I will add a packable down jacket, Primus stove and lighter with metal cup
- Collapsable poles
I aways wear shell jacket and pants with zero insulation. I find its easier to warm up by adding the right layers rather then being too warm and unable to do anything about it. Also a packable down jacket is great for the colder nights. I use a Jack Wolfskin jacket that packs into its own pocket, a really warm jacket that uses up little space.
Good gloves are key. Leather is usually the way to go for warmth, I currently use Oyuki which have a great fit and stay warm.
Good goggles are also essential, there are many brands out there so just find what works for you and fits you properly but don't skimp on the cost. Theres an exciting new British brand called 'Panda Optics' making great fitting new goggles, be sure to check them out.
The key to keeping a good temperature when riding is to get your base layers right. Merino wool is the new thing with temperature regulation and as long as you layer up properly then it does work. A Long sleeve base layer and a mid-weight zip up are must haves. It's much better to be able to lose or add a layer to deal with changes in body temperature.
If your going to spend a lot of time in the backcountry then its good to have a decent pair of trail shoes. They are perfect if you need to hike over rough ground to get to the snow and are great to put on after a long day riding.
Everyone has their own preference when it comes to which boards to ride, I have friends that can ride a soft park board perfectly in the backcountry. For me though, I like the stiffest boards due to their response and the confidence they provide when holding an edge and not washing out on hard landings. For me, the Never Summer Chairman is the best freeride board I have ridden. It has hybrid camber, which is rocker between your feet with camber under the bindings providing you with good float in the powder but still the snappy response of a full camber board.
I take my splitboard everywhere I go. Its a side of the sport that is really taking off now and with all the new tech it looks like its here to stay. Long gone are the days of cutting your old board in half, the new factory splitboards feel like riding a regular snowboard meaning there's no excuse to not get out and explore.
Regular bindings again is preference. Im always trying out new ones if I can but as long as they feel solid then thats all you need.
Splitboarding is not cheap. The boards themselves are expensive but then you also need the gear to go with it. Skins, poles, crampons and bindings. Voile have a great kit that means you can adapt regular bindings but you lose a lot of performance. Its great for starting out but you get to a point where it becomes frustrating.
Splitboard specific bindings are the next logical step, it makes the board feel more responsive and a lot easier to control. They improve your riding and give you a lot more confidence which is key when you are out exploring.
Obviously an essential part of your snowboard gear. For me, I always struggled finding a boot that was stiff enough or that didn't collapse. Im a big guy with dodgy ankles and found that most boots would just break down after two weeks of hard riding. I was lucky enough to find Fitwell, a small Italian brand who make,in my opinion, the best freeride and splitboard specific boots on the market. If youre like me and crave response from your boots then I strongly suggest them. Boots need to be comfortable and allow you to do what you want them to do, as with most of this gear it again comes down to personal preference.
So that should just about do you. Everyone will carry slightly different gear, but I think this is the basic for any keen snowboarder who wants to get out into the backcountry. Unfortunately this does mean more gear then normal but it's important to have the right stuff in every situation.
Follow my social media
Insta - Leon.butler87
Japan is a beautiful country with some of the most forgiving and generous people I have come across, they can never do enough to help you. I worked for a well known ski and snowboard shop called 'Rhythm' where there were a few locals working with us and I can honestly say they were the most amazing people who are always stoked on life and want to share their happiness. Whether its getting your carve on or partying, they are just a good time. It was these people that made my experience in Japan one I will never forget, In fact the whole crew at Rhythm are pretty special.
There is no better feeling than going riding with your friends followed by an Onsen and chowing down on Ramen or Sushi. An Onsen is natural hot water that springs from the earth and is routed into public pools. The catch is that you have to be in your birthday suit which at first its pretty strange but once you realise no one cares about your junk, its actually feels natural and is amazing for resting aching muscles after a day's shred.
Japan is the total experience. The food, the people, the culture and the riding all mix together to create this complete package that is unlike most places i have been to, and its the reason you need to go to Japan at least once in your life.
When it comes to exploring the backcountry it's a slightly different story. The locals keep their cards close to their chest and are careful who they share their knowledge with, and while it can be frustrating, I think its a positive thing. You have to earn your turns before you have even got onto the snow. It also protects this very special place from becoming overrun with people.
There are two really good guiding companies in the valley, Evergreen and The Good Guides. The Good Guides is run by Jerry Williams, a very good guide who has been in the valley a long time. Evergreen is run by Dave Enright, another person who has been in Hakuba a long time. There is also one of the most prominent avalanche researchers in the world called Bill Glude ( See him on the 'Billabong Lines' movie). So there's no shortage of people to ask.
Although still a relatively sleepy place, Hakuba is starting to become more well known. Situated on the south island of Japan and about 3 hours from Tokyo on the bullet train, it receives slightly less snowfall than the more well known Niseko who, on average, will get around 14 metres annually while Hakuba will get a mere 11 metres. … Hakuba more than makes up for it with the sheer size of their mountains.
This year they hosted the first Asian Freeride World Tour Qualifier event which brought with it some of the biggest names in skiing and snowboarding (maybe you saw a certain Travis Rice throwing down). I noticed over winter there were a lot of names and film crews, so while it's still Niseko's little brother I feel it's an area on the up.
Japan has the most ski areas per country then anywhere else, the figure is now around 500 although it was once a lot more than that. The Hakuba Valley is made up of 11 resorts ranging in different heights and aspects, meaning there is always snow to be found if you know where to look. Happo One, Tsugaike and Goryu are the biggest and are the gateways (literally) into the huge mountains that dominate the background.
The terrain around Hakuba is very unique. The mountains are huge with horribly steep faces, throw into the mix the huge amounts of snow that Japan gets and the endless terrain traps and it makes for an intimidating prospect. Doing your research is important here, you need to have your snow safety knowledge up to scratch and keep an eye on the ever changing weather. Hakuba weather changes so often. We have hiked in winds that you could barely stand up in, weather forecasts that predict 10cm will drop over 70cm and cloudy days will become bluebird in the drop of a hat.
But saying that, just getting out and exploring is recommended, its hard to judge faces from photos here, but you can usually skin up a safe ridge line out of the resorts and get a good look at the potential....of which it seems there is a lot. Just always be willing turn back around.
I didn't get out as much as I wanted this winter, but the times I did go backcountry were incredible. It was definitely quality over quantity with some of the deepest snow and epic line choices. It seems like it takes a little bit more effort then most places to get the goods, but its totally worth it.
I'm not going to be the one who spills the beans on the secret spots, but I will share one of the best lines we found this winter.
For me, it was the best line of my season and it happened to be on the last day too. We set off early from Goryu (after mistaking woman's make up for suncream, although it still did the job) in order to beat the ever increasing warmth.
We had a rough idea where we wanted to get to, but had no idea if the line was possible or if the conditions would be safe enough. Putting our skins on at the top of the resort we set off up through the trees and into the alpine, luckily there was a pretty decent skin track already so no breaking trail. We were expecting a tough skin and while there were a few tricky sections it was nothing too taxing and after 45 mins we were stood on top of the ridge line that lead to our goal. It was exposed and windy but the views soon took our minds of it. In front of us were Alaskan style mountains rising into the sky while behind us the snow dropped dramatically down to the valley floor.
There were a few people around, but in Japan it seems to be less skiers and more people hiking with camping gear and crampons, I find it insane to climb up these mountains and not feel the need to ride back down, but it's good for us.
After a quick transition from touring set up we rode down to the top of the spine we had been eying up. Both of us had the same strange thought, absolutely scared but had a good gut feeling about it. Doug did a few stability tests which made us feel more comfortable.
Standing above this spine was awe inspiring, we were looking straight down the most perfect looking steep, snowy face that just seemed to drop away into the valley below.
I dropped in first and rode some beautiful soft spring pow, stopping half way down to wait for Doug. Once we regrouped, Doug dropped in to finish the rest of the spine, the snow was on point and accentuated by the rooster tails being kicked up from his skis. I followed and found a nice open face on the left that dropped back into the valley, getting some turns in on some flawless Japanese snow.
Once we got to the valley floor the snow suddenly changed into porridge, we struggled to keep speed up on the flat ground. This is pretty typical in Japan, as the elevations aren't the highest you do get a lot of sticky snow on the lower slopes.
We didn't want to stay around too long due to the heat and danger of wet slides, and after a short stop involving me falling into a river, we ended up back at Goryu. Looking back at the mountains we had just come off left a feeling of achievement and the stoke was high.
To end it all, as we got back into resort, there was a race going on. Not just any race, but a kayak race......on snow. It was carnage, but the free beer was flowing and it was hilarious to watch.
Welcome to the craziness of Japan..
See my gallery for more photos of Japan
Japan Winter Edit
Japan.....where do i start. A crazy country full of juxtapositions and contradictions.......but what a place it is, words don't really do justice to its beauty and craziness.
I'll run through the past 2 months in a hurry and get to the good stuff.....the pow!
Landing in Tokyo after 20 hours of travelling I was greeted by the amazing Japanese infrastructure, it was a bit of a shock to enter such a hectic world....a far cry from the temples and rice fields in my mind.
I have never felt so alien (being a 6 foot 4 gaijan), But after asking the friendly people of Tokyo i found my way out of Narita Airport and on my way to the infamous Bullet train to Nagano.
It was all a bit of a blurr once I got to the Bullet train, literally and figuratively. Its an incredible experience but to be honest I was in and out of sleep the whole way, so I couldn't even tell you what the journey was like.
To cut a long story short, I reached the beautiful town of Hakuba, met my work colleagues and got drunk. Next two days were spent seriously confused.
Fast forward to just after New Years and I went on my first splitboard trip out of one of the resorts called Happo One. The Hakuba Valley is made up of 11 ski areas, fairly small but with plenty to offer. This day was a stunner and due to the serious lack of snow we thought we would venture out into the Hakuba backcountry to stretch the legs, not really expecting much. Touring straight out of Happo we were greeted by some of the most impressive and gnarliest mountains I've seen. Japan, famed for having lots of snow and small mountains, just threw that notion out of the window with a swift kick to the nuts. These mountains are insane. Alaska style spines, European couloirs with Japanese snow......unfortunately they are very very hard to get too and very dangerous.
We managed to find a ridgeline with a south facing slope that looked safe and looked like it could deliver. With views all the way to Mount Fuji, we dropped into our first Japanese face, and it did not dissapoint.
A short decent followed by a sweaty skin back out reminded us to maybe lay off the beer for a while, a short lived thought that lasted until the end of the day celebrations.
We didn't get our first real dump of snow for another week but when a storm hit us it ended up delivering the goods.
This fell just before the first ever Asian Freeride World Tour Qualifier event, of which I was stoked to be a part of.
I was in the 2 star event, and on the day we had terrible visibility and wind, I didn't put down a very good run but I was happy to just be a part of the experience. There as alot of hype around the event and it was god to see the local rippers being put on the map.
The following 2 weeks was the most snow I have ever seen. 2.5 metres of dry Japanese powder fell in 5 days, and it just kept getting topped up. I had the deepest turns of my life, one turn In particular will stick in my mind forever. The vibe here is very different to other places, it has a mellow, soul riding feel, much closer to the roots of snowboarding. Far removed from the fast paced cliff hucking European vibe, which is good in its own way. I have struggled a little bit at times here to find steep faces or cliffs to session, but when you sit back and just enjoy what there is on offer here you realise how good it really is.
The food is just as good as the snow, my perfect day no consists of a morning riding then Ramen for lunch followed by beers or an Onsen. Its really doesn't get much better then that.
It seemed like everyone in snowsports turned up at the right time, from Travis Rice and Ken Block to Sam Anthamatten. It was insane to see the level of riding and its inspiring to rub shoulders with your hero's.
There were so many good days that its hard to pick one out in particular, the have all merged into a frothy mess of powder and bottomless turns.
The season is now in full swing, we get regular dumps of snow, have had way more sunny days then I was expecting and everyone is fizzing. Im exploring the any resorts and slowly figuring out where to go on which day. Im still; yet to properly explore the backcountry but I'm hoping once the weather settles we will be able to go and get at some of these huge mountains on offer.
So my downtime at home is always nice, its good to see family and catch up with friends and wind down after a hectic winter but its also filled with anxiety over what should i do next.
My problem is i want to do too much, I talk myself out of certain situations as it scares me or its hard or more often then not its because its unfamiliar and my confidence is sometimes lacking.
Doubt sets in and i panic about whats next. Where do i go from here. Its a stressful and real struggle that i'm sure i'm not alone in, I have a great life but its not always as easy as it looks.
Im a creative thinker, which also makes me a bit of a dreamer but sometimes the left side of my brain chips in with reasons why i shouldn't do things and that sends me in to a spiral of doubting myself. The left side of the brain is the analytical side, its the sensible one, and thats important especially if you associate it with backcountry snowboarding . You need that little voice that is going to question every choice you make, Its how you stay safe. The right side of the brain is the creative side, its the part that gives you the imagination to spot that cliff to huck off or to see that creative line choice or even if wearing that luminous green jacket is definitely a good decision.
It's when i am not being creative, either with work or just when i'm home, that the left side has too much to say and i end up questioning what i'm doing in a non productive way. I end up thinking that taking the comfortable or familiar option is best, no matter how bad that option may have been. Its hard to take that step towards your end goal, sometimes its too much, and thats fine, but i am starting to learn that i need that push and to listen to the creative side a bit more otherwise i will always end up thinking, what if.
This is why snowboarding and the mountains are so important. The simplicity of strapping in and painting a line down a mountain taps into all that creativity and both inspires and invigorates, it also affects the analytical part of us too.
Competing on the Freeride World Tour Qualifiers, to me, is the perfect balance of left and right, Analytical and creative. Its not just going fast or big, its reading what style suits that particular mountain or conditions. Is it a more playful mountain or is it better suited to speed. How many drops is the right amount and how big, how do i make the run look smooth. These are all the things that go through your head, accompanied by nerves and stress. But after your run, if its gone well, you get the biggest release of endorphins which make you feel euphoric. Its was all worth it. Decision making in that short moment comes easily, and you get feedback instantly wether its good or bad. And thats where the key is, you learn that bad feedback can be used positively, whether its taking less speed going into that drop or maybe the line i picked didn't suit the flow of the mountain.
I used to think my imagination was a hindrance, like i thought to much about where i wanted to be, all the while missing whats going on now. Ive realise this isn't a bad thing. I still imagine myself finding my perfect lifestyle with the perfect job which allows me to do the things i love. It may be unrealistic to some but i have realised i need this way of thinking to be a yard stick, to push myself and to not settle for the things that have no meaning to me.
This lifestyle, however unstable it is, teaches us transferable skills that help with every day life. Skiers and Snowboarders go out of their way to feel uncomfortable, to push their limits and to learn. Its a lifestyle that is often looked down upon as its not the norm, but the skills that are leant in the mountains can prepare you for life more then you'll realise.
There was a study done which showed that skiers and snowboarders make the best entrepreneurs as they take risks and aren't afraid to get it wrong. I would maybe question the sources of this study, i don't think asking Dave, the local shredder, really counts. But if you think about it, look at people like Richard Branson, an adrenaline junkie at heart, he's never afraid to get it wrong and regularly does so.
This doesn't mean i am going to suddenly stop questioning my choices, or stressing over what is next. But instead to accept it and to realise that its not a bad thing to constantly question myself and try and adjust my train of thought into the most productive way.
And if it doesn't work, hey at least i got to have a good time doing it!
I have been wanting to write about the New Zealand backcountry for a long time now, and in particular how good the hut system is, so i figured as i am sat in a DOC hut then now would be the perfect time.
New Zealand is blessed with some incredible ski areas that have endless amounts of sidecountry within easy reach of the chairlifts but it's not until you head into the backcountry that you see its true potential. The rugged, raw mountains and the adventurous spirit that is installed in kiwis and their infectious attitude to skiing and snowboarding that makes it such a unique place.
You are encouraged to strap on your skis or splitboard and explore, just make sure you know exactly what you are doing in the backcountry as the terrain can be intimidating here and you need to be prepared to experience 4 seasons in a day( bad Crowded House reference, sorry). Due to the insane weather that hits NZ most kiwis are very knowledgeable when it comes to the weather patterns here so just ask a local if you are unsure.
The hut system in New Zealand is great, there are a lot of huts owned by guiding companies which are incredible and luxurious which is reflected in the daily price, But the Department of Conservation (DOC) have installed their own huts deep in the mountains. In summer they are accessed via walking tracks, but in winter they become a backcountry tourers dream with huts dotted around ridgelines, glaciers and steep faces. It always shocks me on the locations they get these huts into, but they are usually well positioned as a base for multiple day tours.
Do your research before as some huts are very basic with no heating for means of cooking, so be prepared.
There is a wealth of knowledge available to you online about huts and how they are reached. The main website being www.skitouring.co.nz, this is a public forum where locals have uploaded detailed routes, photos and topo maps to help you on your trip. Use www.topomap.co.nz to get unlimited topographic maps for the whole on NZ.
One thing to be careful of when using these websites is that the routes are written by guides and locals and if theres one thing you need to know about kiwi backcountry skiers and split boarders is that they are tough bastards. If they say its a hard 3 hours skin to a hut then they mean it, by the same token if they say its easy then still treat it as hard. Just know your own limits and ability.
If you are ever unsure about a route then just get in contact with guides or use the online forums, people go out of their way to help you if it means you're out exploring.
You earn your turns here but the reward is great. There is a different vibe here compared to anywhere else i have been, maybe its the dramatic landscapes or the get out and explore attitude, whatever it is makes for expereinces that will last a lifetime.
The winter looked to be over with warm weather, but winter made a comeback this week with parts of NZ getting up to a metre of new snow. I took a trip to the Kirtleburn hut which sits in the Pisa Range opposite Cardrona. The terrain is fairly mellow up here but there are a few steep gullys dotted around but it takes nothing away from the beauty of the place. Its a 3 hours skin from the top of Snow Farm to the hut, starting on very flat terrain before branching off up a gully.
Reaching the hut at around 5pm i settled into the very basic hut, had some food and a rest before going for a sunset skin up to a near peak. Watching the sun set over the mountains in the distance i could see Mount Aspiring towering over the rat, i wasn't expecting views like that but it was stunning.
Once the sun had set i enjoyed a run back to the hut by moonlight, it was so bright i could see all the undulations in the snow as the moon added definition to the dark background.
I was worried it would be a cold night with no heating, but luckily i was pretty comfortable in my sleeping back ( probably the heat radiating from my sunburn keeping me warm) and had a really peaceful nights sleep.
Sunrise filled the hut early and i watched the local animals playing around in the morning glow. There was a lot of snow in the area but i needed to wait for it to soften up which was around 11am. After packing up my gear i set off back to Snow Farm, finding some nice snow in a small couloir along the way.
Getting back to the car, although tired from the day before, i had that feeling of achievement. I hadn't done anything hard or gnarly but it was satisfying just getting out there and exploring using nothing but your own power.
If you are a keen ski tourer or split boarder then NZ should be high on your list of places to travel too, you definitely won't regret it and will provide you with a yarn to tell for a lifetime.
Welcome to Mount Olympus - Playground of the gods
This week I entered my second Freeride comp of the season here in NZ, it was being held in a small club field near Christchurch some 6 hours road trip away from Wanaka. Mount Olympus has legendary status here in New Zealand and is on every freeriders list.
For those who don't know, an NZ club field is a unique thing, it's like stepping back in time to when there was a rawness around mountain sports and a less commercial atmosphere.
The 'clubbies' are usually deep in the mountains and consist of a gnarly access road that looks like Fred Flintstone has cut it, a basic base building and 'nutcracker' tow ropes which are an art form to master. They are notoriously hard to get to, but if it was easy then everyone would go there, the isolation is part of the magic.
I finished up in the ski workshop and left Wanaka around midnight to start the long drive to Mt Olympus. I stopped around 3 am as I realised I had no petrol and that NZ doesn't do 24-hour fuel stations meant that I had a 4-hour wait/sleep until the fuel station opened up, kind of a blessing as I was cooked!
At 7am, I was on the road again and was greeted by an incredible NZ sunrise over the Canterbury Plains. Living in Wanaka you forget how beautiful the rest of the south island is and the mountains rising up out of the Canterbury flats at sunrise is an incredible sight.
The access road to Mount Olympus is up there when it comes to scary roads. Steep drops on one side, avalanche debris on the other and rocks so big the trusty Subaru could only just clear them.....But this is all part of what makes Olympus so special, you earn your turns before even reaching the snow. It's pretty rare to arrive at a ski area's car park and immediately feel the excitement and energy around it but Mount Olympus definitely had that.
The lodge was definitely not what I was expecting. Its' pretty luxurious with a hot tub on the deck looking over the mountain, a bar, fireplace and a big area to chill out in. The staff are all super friendly and help to create a fun atmosphere.
Just looking around from the deck you can see the incredible mountains available to you, from steep chutes to open faces with endless amounts of cliffs to drop.
The day I arrived was inspection day, my first challenge was the Nutcrackers. I was probably more nervous about these then the actual competition but as it turned out they weren't too bad.....and by that I mean they were uncomfortable and awkward and you are never sure if you are going to get bucked off, but you do get used to them.....so I'm told.
The freeride venue had been moved a few times due to the hot weather affecting snow conditions and safety but eventually they decided on a face that was pretty short but spent most of the day in the shade so the snow was stable and untracked. The downside was that this face was very 'sharky' which was going to make it more of a challenge for each rider. It doesn't take much for a rock to ruin your run (and your skis) as a few people found out.
That night people were studying the face and picking their lines. Olympus has a friendly vibe and is super easy to chat with new people. Everyone eats dinner together, washes dishes and socialises so its stays pretty relaxed (although the Olympus parties are legendary)
The next morning we had our briefing after breakfast and for once I was not nervous, in fact, I was really excited. I had a rough line picked out but didn't decide until just before dropping in. It's always the hardest part trying to pick a line that will look fluid but still has those technical sections mixed with drops but I was pretty confident in my line choice. I've learned that it's not always about how big you can go, sometimes it's about reading the conditions and adapting your style to suit them.
After the long boot pack to the start gate, and a few minutes to take in the views, it was my time to drop. I hit my first drop on the highest part so that I could get to my next cliff, annoyingly I put my hand on the snow when I landed. I carried on straight into the next drop and landed it perfectly into some fresh snow that I could ride with speed and control before coming to the bottom section. I chose to pick my way through some rocks to get to my last and biggest drop which I hit with a flat base and stomped the landing. A few fast turns and I was at the bottom, I felt great and with people coming over to congratulate me, I knew that it was a good run. There's no better feeling than being cheered across the finish line by people that you look up to for inspiration.
After watching the rest of the comp I shared a few beers with some people on the finish line while looking out at the amazing views. It still amazes me how quickly people bond at freeride events, there is such a high energy and intensity before the comp that I think people let go once it has finished. The level was super high again, and I finished in 4th place with a score of 61. I was a few points off the podium as a result of my hand drag so I was kind of disappointed but at the same time stoked to come 4th in such a good competition.
I had to drive back to Wanaka straight away and missed out on what would have been a pretty loose after party. I was amped to be part of this event and as always its the people you meet that you remember. Hopefully, this is the start of a New Zealand club field freeride series.
This was a special competition, you could feel the energy of the place and the atmosphere was very different to other comps. People were taking it seriously but the underlying fact was that everyone was there to push themselves and to truly enjoy the moment.
Wow, it's been awhile since i last wrote something, partly down to laziness but mostly down to the NZ season being on point. Mother nature took its sweet time, but it was oh so worth it!
We had one of the biggest dumps of snow that NZ has seen for a long time and then it just kept on being topped up with cold snowy nights followed by sunny mornings. I have been trying to challenge myself with bigger drops and more technical features of which Treble Cone has more than you can shake a stick at. Im slowly discovering that its a mental state, there is obviously skill involved but there is a point where you plateau out and taking that next step is purely in the mind........everyone has the fear but the next step involves harnessing it and using it to match what you want to achieve.
For me 'the fear' had been stopping me from stepping up to bigger drops but i'm slowly getting over it and beginning to see that i can do it if i have confidence. It's kind of refreshing to be going so far out of my comfort zone but i'm really enjoying my riding now because of it.
New Zealand are stepping up their game in freeride competitions now with the newly rebranded "The North Face Frontier' which allows Skiers and Snowboarders to compete in a 2 star and 4 star FWTQ event. I had qualifier for the 2 Star but missed out on 4 Star qualification by one space (4 star places are allocated by your world ranking number)
The 2 star was on the same face as last year, The Shadow Basin at 'The Remarkables' . NZ is different in the fact the face can be skied even up to the day before the event, which means if you want then you can practise.
I couldn't get over there to do this, and looking back i wished i had made the effort to do so. On the day the weather was perfect although the snow was pretty firm, but that's why these events are so great....you normally have to ride in far from perfect conditions.
Snowboarders were running towards the end this time around so that conditions could soften a little bit, this meant i had a lot of time to pick my line....sometimes a good thing and sometimes bad. I always find a line but then change my mind a few times, which is super stressful. This time i was pretty confident with my choice, one big drop at the top of the venue, followed by a smaller one, then on the second half of the face i had another big drop followed by a final one. It looked like a nice flowy line with not much traversing and i could put some powerful turns in.
Nerves play a big part before dropping in, everyone deals with it in their own way. I tend to go quiet and think my line through, but as soon as my name is called i get excited and seem to calm down.
The first drop went perfectly and i sent it a lot further then i realised i would, landing further than some of the skiers, annoyingly i couldn't shut down enough speed to hit my next drop. I tried to put in some nice turns but found the snowy pretty bumpy and my technique let me down a bit, i lined up my next big drop but i didn't hit it fall line like i wanted to, instead i came off to the side meaning i landed heavily on my toe edge sending me into a mini ragdoll and missing the final drop.
Without that fall it would have been a great run, the MC even saying i had been sending it, but it doesnt matter if you can't land it. I was pretty disappointed with myself for a while, but now i'm looking forward to the next one. It's a learning process with freeride and the only way you learn is by getting it wrong!
The competition was incredible and watching all the other competitors was so inspiring. I cant believe how high the level was.
Hats off to The North Face and Freeride World Tour for such a great comp and The Remarkables for giving us such a fun venue.
Winter is a special time of year, i think everything looks more impressive with a layer of snow on it and the sun breaking the morning frosty air is something you can never get bored of.
Its a fact that winters are changing though, i don't believe they are getting shorter but i do think the dates are changing. The snow now seems to arrive later and finishes later, in Europe it always used to be christmas time that the snow fell, that has now moved to January and it still snows in June in the French alps.
So what does this mean for people who chase the snow or who work within the industry. Well, not much is the answer, Christmas will never get moved so the chalets companies will still sell this time as peak season. Which means people will have to start work earlier and wait for the snow to come...which brings me to my point of this blog........DOWNDAYS.
Downdays are a snow sport lovers worst nightmare. Maybe theres no snow, maybe its raining, maybe the wind isn't on your side.....whatever the reason its when the weather isn't playing ball.
These are days when the mundane shit gets done, emails get sent, catch up on work, binge watch the Walking dead....drink.
Down days are manageable for a max of two days in a row, in my opinion. Any more than this and it gets dark, theres nothing worse than boredom when in the mountains as usually there isn't a whole lot else to do. It's a tease to be sat looking at the mountains and imagining yourself riding those lines or hitting that drop. This is when other hobbies are a must, lucky for me i have my first passion, basketball, to keep me busy. Its a good way to stay fit and social. Im not what i used to be, but it keeps my competitive nature satisfied and it's a good laugh.
And this brings me to right now in New Zealand. So far it's been a few weeks of down days...but not because the weather has been bad, in fact it has been scorching hot and blue skies....sounds nice right? not if you here for the pow. The weather systems haven't been on our side as a recent storm bypassed us and smashed OZ with a 50cm dump much to the annoyance of the ozzies that have come here.
One resort has managed to open and has been on point for spring like conditions. The other is struggling, theres just no snow and none forecast, but there is a saying around these parts "snow in June comes too soon". The locals aren't worried, and they are the guys to trust.
A few things that are always in my backpack when i'm riding. You'd be surprised how much they get used......if your a splitboarder then you know what i'm talking about...
Something i can never do without. Its in my bag everyday. Being a snowboarder, there is the inevitable moment when you need a screwdriver.....Gerber has you covered. Always a good to have a multitool for emergencies....there are many brands. Not going to lie, i bought a Gerber because Bear Grylls has it.......thats it.....
The three most important items in your kit. Transceiver, shovel and probe. Always have them in your bag, and make sure the rest of your crew has them too and that everyone knows how to use them.
Camera is a must.....how else are you going to get that classic mountain top 'selfie'
Nothing worse then a sweaty goggle face when hiking, pack your sunnies and have a dry face.
Snacks and Water
I always carry some kind of snack with me, usually nut bars just for the energy. Especially when your day involves a lot of boot packing and hard riding. That little treat is going to come in very handy.
Water is essential on big days, usually 1 Litre is sufficient. Dehydration is the worst thing, especially on those blue bird day hikes.
Medical Tape/Duct Tape
This may just be me, but i alway have medical tape in my bag. You can literally fix anything with this stuff. From cuts to broken equipment, its saved me more then a few times.
This winter i have worked hard and managed to get a few amazing sponsors supporting me. I am lucky in the sense that each one is a brand i have either loved from the start or share the same ethos as me.
The latest is an exciting new portable device app called FATMAP, the idea is simple.....to put mountains at your fingertips.
FATMAP is an incredible step forward for the industry and in particular my part of the sport, backcountry.
I recently wrote an article for Splitboard.com about the app and how i think its a game changer.
Click THIS link to read the review...
Below is the FATMAP promo video which sum up nicely what they are all about....
If you want to get the app for your device then download it from my instagram page
So i haven't written anything for a while,but there is more to come....
In the meantime here is my winter season summed up in a short video..
Last Saturday was probably my last comp of winter. A blend of missing a few comps at the start and then other commitments have meant the Quallifer season hans't quite gone to plan for me this winter, but it just means i can get read for next year.
St Foy - Probably one of my favourite places to ride. Stunningly beautiful, incredible freeride terrain and barely anyone around....its the perfect place. The main face, Folliet, is where the FWTQ is held each year and it never disapoints. Its such a fun face loaded with features and a good gradient, last year we have a fresh 20cm before comp day.....this year we wern't quite that lucky but it was a blue bird day, albeit the snow was very very firm. It had been upgraded to a 3* event this year which meant more terrain was open and a higher class of competitor.
I had a really solid line picked out with 2 smaller drops and one large one, mixed with a few technical sections. There's always a good atmosphere at St Foy, Evolution 2 do a great job of organising it and there was more going on then at the Les Arcs comps.
Start time was 11am to let the snow soften a little bit, i was bib 62, which actually meant i was the 100th person to drop in. The hike up from the chair takes around 35 mins and it gives you a great view of the top section of the face...meaning any last minute changes to your line can happen. I stuck with my choice and began the long wait until my number was called, which turned out to be around 2 hours of chatting to to other riders and sun bathing.
All of a suddenly my number is called and i am not ready, i think the order had changed slightly so i rushed up to my start point at got myself setup. I then get the 3 second countdown and drop, its always a good feeling when other riders are cheering you on.
I stomped my first drop and made my way over to the steep rocky section where my second drop was, i missed the entry into it but managed to find an untracked couloir. I carried way to much speed out and approached my big drop a little out of control, i sent it off the rock but knew it wasn't going to end well. I had gone big but landed on my back, the force smashed my knees into my face and disintegrated my goggles lens. I bounced up and carried on riding, i knew i had messed it up so just tried to claw some points back by finding a smaller drop to finish my line.
It wasn't until getting to the bottom i realised my eyes were watering due to having no lens left. Feeling bruised, battered and a bit concussed i lay down at the finish line to watch the rest of the riders. I felt i had let myself down a little as i knew i could have done a lot better. But thats all part of freeride, you get on chance to impress......and it doesn't always work out.
Its been a while since my last post, mainly due to working so much, but lately its because the snow has been so damn good. We had the Feburary half term which pretty much wrote off any real riding for two weeks and then we were hit by some of the most perfect snow storms ive ever seen. The past 3 days have been the real highlights though, we revisited some of the classic lines that ive done in the past and also some new lines.
First off was a line under the Aguille Rouge gondola called Les Cables. Although its in resort it has the feel of high mountain backcountry, its a very steep and rocky couloir where falling isn't an option. We decided to take the more risky route of jumping the fence and starting at the very top of the couloir instead of traversing in from lower down, this meant the run was alot longer but had more risk involved. The clouds were coming in fast so there wasn't much hanging around, we picked out route and then let it rip down the face. The snow was incredible dry, deep, blower powder and was so much fun to ride......albeit with some 'sluff management' to take into account. This was the first time this winter i felt scared, mostly due to the sheer exposure i felt, it has an invisible presence and pressure that puts fear into you and keeps you on your toes.
The run was spectacular, we were the first people to ski it after the fresh snow and so both of us were pretty happy to say the least.
We didnt wait around and jumped onto the gondola again and headed to the next big line, 'Les Cascades'. This is another fairly exposed line but maybe not as much as Les Cables but there is a huge cliff band that you really dont want to be falling off.
Again there was a fence to jump and then we were greeted with some of the deepest snow of this winter, each turn was a face shot. This run was alot of fun, and once we navigated around the cliff band we lucked out and found a completely untracked face.......i felt like i needed a snorkle!
We finished the day while the stoke was high. A Perfect day with alot of satisfaction and achievement, its one of the reasons freeriding is great......that exhaustion you feel at the end of the day which is a product of pushing your limits, feeling scared and getting out of your comfort zone all melts into an overwhelming feeling of being alive.
The next day brought about another adventure, it didnt go quite to plan but we still got alot out of it and had another great day. The goal was to go touring off the back of Aguille St Espirit and head towards the Mont Pourri refuge. The first challenge was to reach a ridge line where we could drop down, this involved boot packing a 400 metre col that was loaded with 2 foot of fresh pow in places and windblown crust in others. I had massively misjudged the steepness and the amount of snow, thinking it would only take us an hour to hike....wrong! After about a third of the way up i realised we were going to get to the ridge line in time, the sun was strong and would be affecting the planed route down the other side making it dangerous. The plan changed and we deciede to hike as far up the col as possible and then score some fresh lines back down said col, this was a good choice...it took us over an hour and a half to hike over two thirds of the col before it became too steep to set a good boot pack. I made a ledge below some rocks so we could sit and get our breath back and soak up the views before working out the next challenge, getting my feet into the snowboard on such a steep angle........a challenge overcome in the least gracefull and stylish way. Alot of respect goes to my Swedish friend who made it up the boot pack with true scandinavien grit and viking determination, they are made of tough stuff over there, must be all the tinned fish.
There isnt much to say about snowboarding this face, it was stunning. A very steep face loaded with dry pow, what more can a snowboarder want. It was a super long decent to the valley floor and after some high fives and admiring our lines we got the skins on and toured towards the chairlifts, but not before we had one more face to ride. short and sweet but with a small cornice drop to enter the line. It was North facing so had no been affect by the sun, meaning more fresh snow and high fives.
Another great day, it makes such a difference knowing you have used your own steam and determination to get what you want. It can make something which at the start didnt look to promising into something to be proud of.
Another Best Day
One app that helped alot with these past few days was FATMAP. And their latest development is even more exciting. You can now access your favourite ski areas on your desktop or laptop. This means bigger maps making that planning phase even easier. Especially when looking at routes with exposure or when i was unsure about certain parts that i could not see in person, it was great to be able to look at FATMAP and feel more comfortable with line choices.
Check out the Les Arcs map below
This past week has been the Les Arcs Freeride week, which is made up of two 2* competitions and one 4*. I had signed up for the 2*.
The first comp was just above Arc 1950, the annoying thing was that the changed the face twice and then once more the night before the even which meant that any prep and line choices had to be changed last minute.
Conditions wernt great, the snow was very crusty in some places and icy in others, but this is all part of freeride.....its not all powder. You have to take all this into account when choosing your line, it forces you to make good decisions. I love freeride for this reason, using binoculars to scope the fact, trying to work out hobbit that drop is, where are the technical sections and looking for landmarks so you don't get lost when the moment matters.
My line wasn't very risky, i just wanted to get down without falling and out a solid run in. The day of the comp was nice, the sun came out and by the time i dropped in the snow had softened up a bit. I got a few small drops in at the top, and found some fresh snow in a couloir and that was the end of my run. Me and some of the other freeriders then went out for a ride for the afternoon. This is probably the best thing about Freeride comps....the friends you make so quickly.
I ended up in 25th place which i wasn't too happy about, i felt my run was a lot better then that but for my first comp of the season i can't really complain.
We had a day in before the next comp in which we could go and spot our lines again. The venue was now on the Malgovets face above Arc 1600, its a super short face but is loaded with big cliffs and creative lines.
The snow gods looked down on us that day and delivered over 30cm of fresh snow, meaning people were going to go big.
Thursday started well and the weather was good, my bib number had changed from 112 to 88.....so i was stoked. I had picked my line and stuck to it, no last minute changes. Two big drops, one of which was a double that i wanted to gap. Overall i was happy with my run, apart from i had a small fall at the end of the last drop.
Everyone was buzzing thanks to the new snow, a lot of the skiers were picking ridiculous lines and the snowboarders were getting really creative with theirs.
I finished in 12th place, which I'm really happy with......without that fall i would have finished a lot higher....something to build on before the next one!
The freeride tour has become a lot more then just a competition to me now. Its definitely a way of life. I have met some amazing people this week, who i hope to stay in contact with and hopefully get to ride their home mountains.
There is o much to take away from these events, I think freeride brings about a special kind of person. The dedication, the hard work and the spirit are all embraced by the competitors, although competitor is not the right work, its more like a Freeride family. Theres is a unique spirit amongst them, like an understanding that everyone is there to push themselves and inspire the person next to them. Its the attitude of "lets just ski" and have fun.
To me, this is living.
Thanks to Neversummer snowbaords and Fitwell
Winter in Europe has arrived big time,but its this time of year that a part of my mind always turn towards one of my closest friends and my reason for wanting to be in the mountains. These thoughts happen every time winter rolls around and I will mention it a lot, but its something that has not only affected my life greatly but is also something that everyone who has a passion for the mountains should take the time to think about. Its only in the last year that I have reached the point where I can talk about it. It still devastates me and it always will, but I feel strongly that it should be spoken about.
Tom Chesters, a person hard to put into words. I met him on my first winter season and we were close ever since, I still remember the random phone calls I would get from Tom which would undoubtedly contain high levels of banter. He was a person that had an appetite for adventure and for pushing his physical and mental limits further then anyone else. Whether it be running the La Plagne 6000D with no training or studying for his PHD, he never sat still......unless it was to watch Tottenham loose......sorry Tom
At a time when I felt a bit lost, Tom(and everyone I have met on my winters) had a profound effect on me. He(and they) showed me there is nothing wrong in doing what makes you happy......it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks as long as you are still pushing yourself and living to the fullest. The worst thing we can do as people is to become stagnant.
Tom was my hero and someone I looked up to.
On the 20th January 2013 I got a phone call saying Tom and 3 others had been killed in an avalanche in Glencoe, Scotland. My world suddenly got smaller.
I cant really remember what that day felt like, its a blur, but I do remember being angry at everything and anything. The realisation that I would never get that random phone call from him again was heartbreaking and was met with years of uncontrolable emotions.
Tom was an experienced mountaineer with many ascents around the alps and that is the backbone of this blog post. Im not going to get into the details of that day, there is a BBC documentary called 'Wild winter, Surviving Avalanches' which details that and other incidents that year in Scotland.
We are in an age now where technology is taking over. There are many innovations in mountain safety but knowledge is still key. ABS bags are fantastic, but there are too many people who use them to justify doing something stupid, they think that because they are wearing the bag that no harm can come to them.This is wrong!
The key to mountain safety is your judgement, to have the balls to not do something as it doest feel right. To take in your surroundings and process that into risk analysis.
As with Toms accident though, sometimes there is nothing you can do..........unfortunately an element of luck does come into play.
So as the winter is now in full force, remember to learn and soak up as much information as you can about your surroundings and take inspiration from the amazing people in this industry as they are some of the most interesting and motivational people you are likely to meet.