I’m the German editor of Cooler and based in the Onboard office in Munich, who sent me to go on the so far best trip of my life: the O’Neill Swatch Big Mountain Pro.
But I’ll start with a short explanation of the event: the Big Mountain Pro tour bus is loaded with 6 freeride skiers, 6 snowboarders, media and some organisers to carry them to the best locations with the best snow throughout the Alps to hold several days of freeride contests. In the end the riders themselves vote for the best freerider during this week.
This year’s event saw a couple of innovations in comparison with last year. First of all it wasn’t part of the Freeride World Tour this year, which made the event with less then half the amount of riders a lot more intimate – unfortunately that also meant that no femal rippers were invited. According to O’Neill’s Global Events Manager Bernhard Ritzer “It’s a shame to have to leave out any part, but we had to make the decision to keep it only open to men to keep the numbers low so everyone involved could get the very most out of the experience." Secondly the event wasn’t supposed to be a pure freeride event anymore but have more freestyle elements, therefore next to big mountain legends like Jeremy Jones, Xavier de le Rue, Mitch Toelderer and Eric Themel they also invited freestylers like Thomas “Beckna" Eberharter and youngster Fredrik Evensen. The skiers division also had a few young faces such as Jeremie Heitz and Arnaud Rougier next to experienced riders like Cody Townsend, Thomas “Bichon" Diet, Richard Permin and Loris Falquet.
The biggest alteration of all must have been though that they reduced the carbon footprint of this event of, according to Jeremy Jones, at least 50 if not 70 %. And it wasn’t even that big of a deal – well, at least not for us spectators. The biggest ecological alteration was that the riders hiked every mountain they rode instead of being flown up there by a heli.
Some of you (like myself) might find that quite hard, surprisingly though I found out that the riders see it quite differently. Especially the experienced freeriders Mitch Toelderer and Jeremy Jones really enjoy hiking up the mountain, and not only for ecological reasons. One advantage of hiking is that you get to get a way closer and more detailed look at the face of the mountain. Instead of choosing your line just by looking at some digi cam pics and peeking down from the heli, you can identify features more clearly, study them intently while your hiking up and judge steepness and landing area much better. You also know more about the condition and texture of the snow, from the foot of the mountain until the very top, which is also vital for a perfect line and your safety.
But there is another reason why big mountain experts such as Mitch and Jeremy prefer the hike before the heli: they cherish the experience itself. According to Jeremy, “it is the purest experience you can have". Mitch also added, that you almost have some kind of a jetlag when you’re flown up to the mountain: “One minute you’re on the ground and a couple of minutes later you’re 3000 meters high, looking down from the top. That’s not really what the body was build for." Even the Norwegian Fredrik Evensen, who has so far done mainly freestyle events and some filming, enjoyed the experience of hiking in a group with the other riders.
They all agreed, that it does make sense to use helis for movie productions as you just get to do more lines in a day and have more power to rip them because you're not exhausted fom the ascent. But especially Jeremy was almost a bit pissed about how lazy many snowboarders have become. “If you think about surfing, you spend so much time and energy to travel to a spot that has perfect waves, then you paddle out and wait for hours until you might catch the perfect barrel - surfers are more than willing to do that. They also have no problem meeting on the beach at 6am . When I ask someone to meet me on the hill at 6am they think I’m crazy. But what is an hour more sleep or a three hours hike if you can get a perfect line for that?"
And the guys did hike a lot in this week – there were three contest days with four competition faces. One of them was the gnarly Brandjoch face towering over Innsbruck that not only requested a 2 hours hike but also a one hour traverse to get to the outer ridge. Some of them (like Jeremy Jones for example) seemed not to get enough of the hiking at all and voluntarily hiked half an hour up the mountain at the TopSpot in the Defereggen valley, where we spent an amzing down day in waist high powder.
That day was probably one of the best snowboard days I’ve had in my life – tree run after pillow line after tree run. At the bottom we were picked up with a huge tractor that carried us up the hill again just to start another run. In the evening Eric Themel and Xavier de le Rue even had the terrific idea of doing a 10metre bomp drop of the TopSpot chalet – this idea might have been born of an explosive mixture of booze and slight boredome…
After a whole week touring through Austria, the riders’ judging session, award ceremony and final party were going down in Saalbach-Hinterglemm. Cody Townsend was voted as best skier and Xavier de le Rue was crowned best snowboarder as well as best overall freerider for the second time now. The deserved end to such a fantastic week was of course a mental party bash which everyone indulged to as fully as they could. Within an hour every male person in the club had followed the French skiers’ example and taken off their shirt - willingly or unwillingly, not many were as lucky to take intact t-shirts home. A lot later that night we stumbled or slided on our bums down the hill to crawl into our hotels, filled with memories of a great trip and sad we had to leave in the morning.
A week in the office later I'm still dreaming of those tree runs with the most fun crew ever... I'll be back there next year - for sure!!