A recipe for excitement
Bjorn Heregger of Sweden competes during the Xtreme men’s ski freeride contest on the Bec des Rosses mountain in Verbier March 22, 2009. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud
Take a 3,223m (10,574 ft) high mountain in Switzerland, “Le Bec-des-Rosses”, blessed with a 500m long north face and inclines of up to 55 degrees, sprinkle with sharp rocks, cover with snow for a few months, blast occasionally with strong winds and then add in a jump-friendly 20m escarpment along with narrow passages for descent.
Now throw into the mix 28 of the best skiers and snowboarders in the world, each of them climbing said mountain to reach their start positions. Add a light garnish of helicopter flights for the accompanying mountain guides, TV crews and photographers and you then have the vital ingredients of the recipe for excitement that is the Freeride World Cup Final 2009, or ‘Xtreme’ – an event held at the Swiss Alps resort of Verbier since 1996.
I arrive the evening before the event with stringer Valentin Flauraud and after some negotiations we’re assigned our mountain-side shooting positions.
As usual we have to use our diplomatic skills to gain access to the best spots. Early the next morning I meet my guide Tony. Tony has many responsibilities on this trip but most importantly he is the man who will keep Valentin and me safe and well.
He points towards a sunny area on the “Bec” – half-way to the top – where the women’s competition will begin. He then describes the walk we will have to make towards the left-hand side of the mountain to photograph the men’s event.
Reuters photographer Denis Balibouse watches the transporter helicopter depart after being dropped off on the Bec des Rosses mountain in Verbier March 22, 2009. (Courtesy photomargot.com)
Ten minutes later the helicopter drops us 50m below the start line and what at first seems like an a quick and easy ascent soon becomes a struggle. The combination of high altitude, my heavy backpack containing three cameras and four lenses (including a 400mm f2.8), and my general lack of fitness means I am soon out of breath and struggling in the waist-deep snow. Unsurprisingly, I am the last to reach the ridge.
I soon find myself harnessed and making my way around a pony-size rock before tackling a 15m ascent through a chimney-like cut in a cliff. I suddenly become aware of the 250m drop on both sides of the ridge I’m standing on. I can feel every muscle in my body and my heart is beating like the proverbial drum.
Reuters photographer Valentin Flauraud (2L) shoots a rider on a ridge during the Xtreme men’s ski freeride contest on the Bec des Rosses mountain in Verbier March 22, 2009. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
They have regularly observed the mountain face through binoculars during the season but once at the top the perspective changes. The line can become difficult to negotiate, the snow too hard and there can be more rocks than expected under the snow. Despite some falls nobody gets injured.
The return trip is more direct and comparatively pleasant. I abseil down the ‘chimney’, then slide on my bottom to the first drop zone. From here I am the last one to be picked up by helicopter. Most of the others have chosen to ski from this point, all the way back down to civilisation.
An adrenaline shot like this in the middle of the day is like adding chilli to a nice meal. It gives some extra bite, some extra excitement.