Taking the ski path less traveled
By Dominic Ebenbichler
The tragedy of Dutch Prince Johan Friso, who was buried in an avalanche while skiing in Austria last February and who has since been in a coma, generated the idea to shoot a story about freeride skiing and how ski professionals are trying to minimize any possible risks.
I’m lucky to have easy access to some of the best European freeride skiers as they are either part of my family or good friends with whom I go skiing with. I asked one of my cousins, Christoph Ebenbichler, who is a professional skier, if he would like to be part of this story. We discussed the riders who we wanted to work with on the story and the basic topics we wanted to cover, and decided to focus on showing the beauty of skiing in the back country combined with showing the professional approach everybody should have when skiing off piste. I contacted the skiers and they were all happy to work with me on the project.
Shooting freeride skiing requires a lot of preparation, organization and flexibility, especially in terms of getting up really early. We had to decide what time, which day and where we would go and of course we had to check the snow conditions and look at all possible avalanche risk reports.
Risk management is a term that becomes very familiar when going to ski or to shoot with these professionals. Although what they are doing seems quite insane at some points, they are always aware of any possible risks. I remember a sentence my cousin Christoph once said to me, “You never can be 100% sure that there won’t be an avalanche, but you have to reach at least 95%, otherwise you are dead”. And being dead is definitely not an option.
Initially, I was lucky and had a couple of great days shooting at Sonnenkopf mountain. Then, unfortunately, during December the weather in Austria changed completely. Unusually high temperatures and lots of rain made it impossible to continue with the story. The day before New Year’s Eve conditions changed again so Christoph and I decided to give it a go and went to Seegrube mountain which is part of the famous Nordkette mountains.
The Nordkette mountains are located just on the north side of Innsbruck. They are typically extremely steep and therefore something of a Mecca for freeride skiers. From up there we had an amazing view above the city of Innsbruck and we managed to get some great action pictures. However, we had to quit at noon because of the increase in risk from avalanches due to the warm temperatures and sunshine.
I was happy to have shot a lot of images in December, but I was still missing pictures of female freeride skiers. So I called Karin Huttary, a former skiercross world champion and Christiane Bauer, a former alpine skiing world cup racer, and asked if they wanted to be part of my story. Luckily for me, as I know that you can’t get better professional skiers than these two women, they said yes.
Our efforts were made difficult though as good snow at the beginning of January this year was rare, so we had to go high. Really high! So we headed to the biggest Austrian glacier in Stubai and another professional skier Patrick Koller, who was part of the Austrian Olympic team in 2012, joined us. The conditions were incredibly tough. The snow was totally wind packed and we had a high alert for avalanches on the day. We had to be extremely careful to find some safe spots to shoot.
It’s also important to remember that freeride skiing is not just going up with a chairlift or a gondola and then skiing down again. This kind of skiing requires more leg work. To show this we had to go back and shoot on Nordkette mountains again. You can go up with the gondola, but in order to reach the secret spots you have to climb and hike.
Karin Huttary and Swedish pro Jon Örarbäck came with me. They are totally familiar with this mountain and they know every single rock on it. It was a pleasure to ski with them and shoot some pictures with the beautiful Innsbruck scenery in the background.
Even so when we checked the avalanche risk reports again, as these mountains are very well known for big avalanches, we decided to be cautious and not to ski down the better run. Simply because we all thought we are not more than 95% sure that there won’t be an avalanche.
Freeride skiing is cool. But it is only cool if you manage to stay alive.