Oblivion- Close Encounters

16 January 2019

In life, one can find vitality and excitement when walking on the edge between euphoria and oblivion. By balancing upon this line between danger and fair of death and the possibility of reaching the limits of human potential. This notion has never been more real, more visceral than with freeriding. 

Freeriding is such a special sport. Away from the patrolled area, away from the crowds; a rider can find peace and solace in the last essence of “wild”. Whether you venture for a 4-hour hike into the unknown or whether you opt for a stretch only a few minutes from the piste, it’s the idea behind freeride that can unite riders into an understanding of the mountain. True freeriders place rules upon themselves and the people they ride with. Some may call them selfish, nerdy? Obsessive maybe? Whatever the lamens may call a dedicated freerider, we know that those words simply mean; safe, calculated, smart, trustworthy.

Victor de Le Rue by Arthur Bertrand
Victor de Le Rue by Arthur Bertrand

It’s important to take all the information you can source and put it to good use in the backcountry; learn from your peers, learn from pro athletes, learn from YouTube videos, from mountain guides, books and courses. Take all the information to can to arm yourself in the battle against the elements.

Every freerider and big mountain shredder aims to work with nature, alongside the mountain, not underestimating its awesome power but also not fearing it’s sheer magnitude. A true freerider can see a mountain face and with a sense of calm and intelligence, that rider can pick a line that will be incredible to shred. However, it's likely that every freerider will have a story or close encounters with danger and avalanches. These stories should help you learn and grow in your knowledge, pass on these stories, share and educate.  

That's why we reached out to our friends at the Freeride World Tour's Cyril Neri, 12 years Pro Snowboarder, 3 times winner of the Verbier Xtreme, Event organizer/Race Director/FWT ACADEMY Advisor/Safety programs initiator. Basically, Cyril is an excellent source of knowledge, we also have our own story, Thrillism's Head Of Content and Former British Freeride champ Angelica Sykes has experiences that are worth sharing. Together we can see oblivion and come out the other side a better and more balanced rider.

Maude Besse Photo by Sébastien Baritussio
Maude Besse Photo by Sébastien Baritussio

Let's dive in and hear from the Freeride World Tour's Cyril Neri. 

  1. Do you have any personal stories of close encounters with avalanches? Where, when, how. . . 

 I did trigger MANY small slabs or big slides. Both luck and knowledge helped me be fine with it. Only once I got stuck in an avalanche. All the red lights were on, but still I did a stupid, absolutely and easily avoidable [thing], bu,t still I got caught.

It was an early morning in 2007. After weeks/months of bad and few snow, it snowed 50cm on top of an ice crust (1st bad parameter). There had been a lot of wind (2nd bad parameter). The run was located right above a slope (3rd bad parameter). We were only 2 on the mountain, no rescue staff, no friend there to help (4th bad parameter).

We got up the lifts of Leysin (Alpes Vaudoises) with the employees in order to shoot accessible lines before the resort was open. Atop of the line my stomach was aching from fear and bad feelings… We had filmed nothing yet that winter and I urgently needed footage. So I forced myself to drop in (the eye of the camera did act just like the “group factor” when a not so good rider forces himself to show his riding mates he can do it).

At the first turn I saw the whole slope starting to slide… I tried to gain speed to escape but it was too wide. The whole run was ending in a bowl, if I got buried there I would be under 5 or 10meters of snow…. (5th bad parameter).

As I was trying to stay balance and keep on riding in the avalanche, I had clear thoughts… Would the cameraman (this 55kg skinny friend) be strong enough to dig me out?? I had taught him how to use a beacon and a probe the previous year…would he remember it?? Fuck! Why didn’t we do a rescue exercise some days ago..??!!

Then I got pushed by the flooding snow and found myself on my belly. I saw I was going to end right in that huge snow roll, looking like a huge beachbreak…

Wadeck Gorak By Matt Viveau
Wadeck Gorak By Matt Viveau

At that moment I remembered some friends guide saying that all you had to do was to group your arms in front of the mouth to create a small breathing-pocket. But you had to do it at the exact instant when the avalanche stops. Which I did. Then it all became silent and still. And I was buried. Fuck me!

With my hands in front of my mouth, I had the chance to be able to move (my hands only) a few centimetres, which I did to help create a breathing pocket. I knew I would be able to survive half an hour or more, then I realized it wasn’t pitch black but there was some blue light going through the snow… I was close to the surface! I kept on digging with my fingers towards the surface and luckily I suddenly felt fresh air in my lungs…

My head was only 25cm under the snow layer, my feet approx. 1meter deep. It took 30minutes to my friend to dig me out completely! The avalanche had gone all the way through a slope and at that exact moment the resort opened and skiers started to pass by…

I called the ski patrol rescue team directly to tell them it was my fault, my avalanche and that no one was buried. Then I got back to my home as I wasn’t going to ride any longer that day. I had been more lucky than one can expect and that would probably not be the same the next time….

 

Anna Orlova
Anna Orlova

 2. What are the top mistakes people make, that you have made and how do you avoid them?

 Wrong ideas: a run already tracked is safe. No! the avalanche can slide after the 50th rider!

Wrong idea: tree runs are safe, as trees retain the snow. NO! Only when the trees are so dense that you cannot ride through it protects the valleys or village bellow. But when you can ride easily through scattered trees, then each tree do act like a walnut in a chocolate plate: the fracture line goes from nut to nut (tree to tree). It is even more dangerous to be caught in an avalanche with trees around, you can be compressed and killed against a tree.  

In case of ANY doubt or bad feeling, just say no. you’ll have the chance to come back the next day or the next year. But…..only if you are still alive… You have the right to kill yourself, but you are not allowed to put other people’s lives in danger!

  

  1. What are the must-pack items that every rider should have with them at all times? 

I do always plan my backpack to be able to survive one night out of bounds. Therefore I do add to the basic trio (Transceiver-probe-shovel) some replacement clothes, spare gloves, spare beanie, a thin down jacket, emergency blanket, lighter, candle, some self-igniting coal, first aid kit, flashlight, food, a thermos with hot tea, whistle, thin rope, knife,…

 

Eva Walkner
Eva Walkner

  1. What advice do you have for riders no matter their ability or level of experience?

 -Listen to your inner voice, deep feelings or more simply to the elder / more experienced riders. 

-Go step by step. It takes a whole lifetime to get only a small bit of understanding of all of the potential dangers out there… be humble.

-Get trained, spend a day per winter with a mountain guide or visit a ski school that offers FWT ACADEMY programs.

Head to the Freeride World Tour website or follow them on Instagram.

What a story. It's a lesson in maturity and sensibility. What's more exciting life than the feeling of heading to the mountain after snowfall, having a full day of big lines ahead. Its tough to be calculated, smart and methodical but there is nothing more important. 

Our very own Angelica, Freeride World Qualifier athlete big mountain rider has her own story. 

I have been riding freeride for most of my adult life. Learning from the people around me, understanding the mountain and using my tools and knowledge to enhance my experience.  However, I can be impulsive, immature and reactive sometimes, these 3 traits are extremely dangerous in the backcountry. 

Erika Vikander & Ed Coyle
Erika Vikander By Ed Coyle

I have been caught in so many sluffs over the years, where the fear and confusion mounted in my chest but thankfully I have avoided ever being buried. BUT I have witnessed a few major avalanches in my time and seeing nature in its most raw and powerful manner was petrifying. 

The most vivid memory I have is back in my home mountain in Cervinia on the Italian-Swiss border. By the Plateau Rosa cable car, there is a wonderfully exciting area to ride. On skiers left, lopping under the cable car it opens out into 2 perfect channels. With enough snow, you can avoid the sharks and also enjoy some of the features with step landings.

We were a group of 4, a great number, smart and knowledgable free riders, people I felt comfortable riding with. I knew this crew, we understood each other, our manner and how we work and handle pressure. However as we arrived at the mouth of the line, I noticed a friend of mine following us. This mate, a very close friend in fact had elected to follow us into the freeride without communicating with us. Not fully understanding the repercussions, not a confident rider or someone who has ANY avalanche safety knowledge. 

Being that this friend had already followed us and arrived at the top, we had no choice but to allow them to follow us down. We tried to communicate as best we could be this person has become our responsibility. You are only as strong as the weakest person in your group. This is dangerous.


So we all descended without an issue and this friend was the last to come down, this, upon reflection was a poor choice on our part as well. We all waited at the bottom looking up, watching and waiting. This friend was a weak freerider, still in the infancy of the ski expertise. They took one slow turn after another, putting pressure on the pack, skiing in a reckless and dangerous manner. As they edged towards the rocks, fortunately, not deliberately, they had inadvertently saved themselves for imminent danger as behind them a full-blown avalanche had been triggered. From the bottom, helpless, we saw this unfold. 

We screamed and screamed to ensure the rider stopped and waited under the safety of a cliff slip only about 5 m from the sliding path. But the rider continued to descend totally unaware of the avalanche sweeping behind. By some act of god, the skier diverted off to the right as the path of debris rushed past them only meters away. 

I felt my heart in my mouth and the sudden urge to yell and scream at this rider for not knowing more, not being smarter, not being better. But its only then I realised this was on me and my crew. We should have insisted we climbed back up to the slopes and skied to safety before descending in the first place. I should have told my friend about the dangers of the off piste, that you cant follow people into the back coutry without the knowledge or equipment. You must educate yourself, practice and build up to bigger adventures. Communication is key and the skier wasnt at fault, I had a duty to teach, share knowledge and help this rider grow. 

My lesson was learnt, my crew learnt the same lesson too, luckily noone was hurt but I am thankful for this and the many other close encounters with oblivion I have experienced. From there I will become a better rider. 

Follow Angelica on Instagram here. 

What have you learned from this article? What lesson will you take away? Have you ever had a close encounter with oblivion? We want to hear from you. Give us your thoughts, share stories, hints, tips, anything and everything to help you, we and other riders grow. Together we can explore the gifts of mother nature knowing that we have done everything we can to ensure the safety of the people around us and ourselves. 

Thanks for reading adventurers, until next time. . . 


PS. Images courtesy of our friends at the Freeride world tour. 

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