When skiing becomes more like snow-flying

The American satirist PJ O’Rourke had little time for snow sports. As he put it: “Skiing consists of wearing $3,000 worth of clothes and equipment and driving 200 miles in the snow in order to stand around at a bar and drink.” That might not have been so bad for O’Rourke – he is famous for his love of bars.

But for a band of explosively enthusiastic lunatics, it was not enough. Thanks to them, freeride skiing is now a sport, it is much more thrilling than the spandex-clad ice-skating of alpine racing, and it is about to make you think differently about ski holidays.

Let me explain: Freeride skiing is to ordinary skiing what cocaine and hookers are to a glass of sherry in front of Question Time. The premise is simple – instead of taking a chairlift you take a helicopter. It drops you on the top of a mountain face so steep the uninitiated would forgive you for packing a parachute.

Then you ski down it – as quickly, smoothly and originally as you can. Ideally leaping off a few cliffs on the way. Back-flips help. A panel of grizzled looking men in their 30s then ranks you, while crowds whoop and the helicopter carries up the next batch of competitors.

The event is the Freeride World Tour, and it has now been going for 16 years. This year, it will start in Revelstoke, Canada’s most exciting new freeride resort, before moving through older terrain of the Swiss and French Alps. I joined some of the riders at the final of last year’s event in Verbier, Switzerland.

The atmosphere was electric. After two wet, cloudy days, and a great deal of handwringing by the organisers, the spring weather had delivered a solid foot of fresh snow. Out of the mist, the sun had emerged and the spectators were massed at the bottom of the world-famous Bec des Rosses (pictured), munching on croissants and waiting out the action.

Before it begins, Aurélien Ducroz, a 29 year old skier originally from Chamonix – the original freeride resort – explains the appeal of freeride competitions over conventional professional skiing: “I was on a ski-jumping team for five years. You have to train, do everything, according to a system. As a freerider, you have total freedom. You can be very creative. I like that.”

The key to success, he says, is primarily planning: “It’s actually very mental, you have to focus on your line. When I’m skiing, all I’m thinking about is the next thing – the next turn, or where the next big cliff is. “

The competitors spend much of the morning of the competition planning. While guides check the snow conditions for avalanche risk, riders look at photos of the mountain from different angles, working out the obstacles they have to overcome and how to recognise them from above.

Turns are planned long before they are made, as are the bigger drops. But Ducroz insist he doesn’t let the technical side suck out the fun: “Mostly I like to go fast,” he enthuses, “I don’t do a lot of jumps – I want to be as smooth as I can”.

Later Ducroz won the men’s ski event, not least thanks to an outrageous and brilliantly smooth cliff drop. From my perch I watched him punch the air as he landed before smoothly ducking into the next turn, still travelling at a gobsmacking clip. His verdict afterwards neatly sums up the entire sport: “Everything went perfect for me today… I jumped two big cliffs!”

The sport is the invention of Nicolas Hale-Woods, a Swiss snowboarder and entrepreneur. In 1994, Hale-Woods was filming snowboard movies in Verbier and looking for an interesting new project. “We were riding the Bec des Rosses” he says, “And suddenly we noticed about 150 people were just sitting around and watching”.

“We had heard about some skiers in Alaska judging each other, and we realised that there was potential there.” Spotting his opportunity, Hale-Woods decided to start a competition. The idea was to bring the most outrageous, off-piste skiing back into resorts where ordinary skiers could watch it.

But hosting a ski tournament is not exactly cheap. How did Hale-Woods get financing? “We were lucky enough to send one of our partnership proposals to the agency that was launching Red Bull in Switzerland,” he says, “And they said, do you want 100,000 Swiss Francs? We’ll give you two-thirds, and you’ll get the rest by selling Red Bull. So we were lucky.”

“The first tournament, there was good snow, sunny weather, and it just worked”.

Now the tournament is heavily sponsored by Swatch, Nissan and others, as well as by the resorts hosting the tournament such as Verbier. “Verbier will always want to be associated with free-ride skiing” says Hale-Woods. The tournament has now expanded much further: last summer, they even hosted a competition in Chile.

The real key to its success has been the explosion of freeride skiing among ordinary skiers. Back in the 1990s, off-piste skiing meant learning to use fiddly, analogue avalanche transceivers and two-metre long skis and walking a lot. Now, thanks to banana shaped “fat” skis, designed specifically to make it easier to ski in deep powder snow, it is much easier to get off the marked runs.

And the riders are determined to make the Freeride World Tour something that even the ordinary 2-weeks-a-year skier can enjoy. While most people might not be up for the Bec des Rosses, punters can, for a fee, ski with the pros and a guide on their training. Verbier is one the greatest ski resorts in the world and there’s plenty of powder to be had; this winter there has been lots of fresh now fall. If you’re not up for walking, check out the Tortan and the Gentianes, but the real fun it at the 3,330m peak of Mont Fort, where Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn dominate the horizon.

So even if you’ve never thought to leave the piste, now is maybe the time. Gloriously (though not for those who compete for fresh snow) freeride has gone mainstream.

The sort of runs once only professionals could ski – try Googling “The Blizzard of Aahs” to get a sense of where this sport started – are now available to anyone able to ski a black run competently.

And there is nothing more satisfying than cutting your own line down the mountain while children stare, goggled eyed, from the lifts: that’s what skiing is about. As one competitor, puts it: “It might be no longer than 15 seconds from top to bottom, but you’ve just got to be on it, feel it, let her buck. It’s like flying. It’s the best feeling in the world”.

But if you still think PJ O’Rourke’s version was more accurate, well, at least thanks to the men and women on the tour, there’s a hell of a view from the bar.

The Freeride World Tour 2012 will be at Verbier from 24 March-1 April. For all event details and locations, see freerideworldtour.com.

1) Stay: Chalet Bella Coola, named for the famously snowy valley in British Columbia Canada, is one of the most chic places you can stay in Verbier.
As well as all the usual amenities of a luxury chalet (a personal driver, mouth-watering food, the softest sheets), it’s worth staying here just for the swimming pool. Hidden behind enormous Indian doors, the panoramic views of the mountains cannot be bettered.
www.ckverbier.com/bella- coola-accommodation.htm

2) Eat: Le Table d’Adrian, the Michelin starred restaurant of the luxury Chalet d’Adrian, is not easily bettered, in Verbier or anywhere. The Italian inspired food, served up by head chef Marco Bassi, looks as exotic as you would expect of a restaurant with such credentials – think steak mounted artfully on the bone. But these are not pointless dainties – you will come away well fed and satisfied. Just ready to hit the bars.

3) Drink: Though no St Anton, Verbier doesn’t lack for decent watering holes. For the best après, try Le Carrefore, hidden away on skiers right on the way back to the resort, catches the late sun and is a decent place for a pint. Later, the compulsory Irish bar Murphy’s is a popular hangout for British season workers – find one to buy your drinks and you’ll save a packet. Then finish up at the Casbah for classically European dance music and people jumping about in their ski jackets.