I don’t want a debate on safety. If you don’t like reading about people pushing their limits, or if you want to have an argument about doing things that are safe, that is fine; this is not about that. Secondly, this isn’t about bragging. I don’t care whether people think what I do is hardcore or crazy, I ride for myself, and for where it takes me. Lastly, if you don’t like reading about consequence, don’t read this.
I ride for a lot of reasons, and for the most part people understand them. I adore being out in the mountains, being in a place so awe inspiring that you can’t help but be humbled by it. The feeling of carving and connection turns on untouched slopes borders on the mystic for me. However, it goes beyond that. I love falling off rails and boxes, and taking big air on park jumps. The camaraderie of pounding out laps in the resort with friends. In all of this, there is so much to learn, so many ways to push my limits and find challenges that push me to engage that more deeply in that ever present moment. All of these elements make riding something that fills me with joy. These are the things that I find people relate to. However, there is something else that it holds for me. When I was recently asked what my favourite type of riding is, I didn’t hesitate: “I love the lines that scare me, the sense of the unknown”.
That obsession is what often has me peering over the roll over at the top of a line, either on the end of a rope, or hanging onto what remains of a tree. I lean out over the abyss, looking at the unknown. Trying to determine whether I can connect the mandatory air below me, to the spine, and so on down a face that is steep enough that you have to be hanging off of it to see where it goes. Yet it has been a long time since any of my riding actually scared me. Now, this is not to say that I don’t respect the mountains, or that I think of myself as some hotshot pro rider who is invincible. I really don’t even see myself as much of a rider when I think of all the things I need to keep working on. No, I ride with good riders, people who flow down the landscape. I am not there yet. However, I just don’t get scared easily. To put this in context: this year I have surfed out a host of avalanches ranging from my mild sluff movement on steeps, to riding out large size slab releases. The awful unspoken secret is that it doesn’t bother me. I know the feeling of the slope releasing beneath me… and with abandon I throw myself into it. You flow down on a moving slope, no pauses, no speed checks, no hesitation. I have had size 3s rip right past me within a matter of meters and my heart rate doesn’t even change. You spend time in snow, you watch it, you move with it, you expect it to move. No hoping that it won’t, no bullshit dreams about being okay as long as nothing goes wrong. I have no respect for luck and hope getting you home safe. You have to do what you can to control the slopes you are on, and aim to have them move when you want them to, beyond that, you move fast and take responsibility.
Yet Tuesday was entirely different.
There is a popular back country area close to the road that sees a lot of traffic all year. Host of options, fun lines, good angles, and regularly good snow. Paradise for a fast day and fun turns. I love the spot. Yet there is a line back there that can even be spotted from the road, a strange slope that always draws my eye, just around the corner. This prow of snow that looks unrealistically sleep, almost surreal in the way it just hangs there. In the back of my mind I have always wondered where it goes, whether there is some couloir back there that might see barely any traffic. Some secret line sitting right next to one of the most popular zones in the area. So Tuesday, I went to find out. One of the great things about solo days is that you get to move at your own pace, stopping when you want to, setting tracks where you want them to be, and then when the time comes, having only yourself to answer to about whether or not you will turn back. This was a good day for that.
The approach was quick, simple, an easy pace quickly had me in a place where I could look up at the line properly and see what became of it. In truth I was in luck, the line didn’t actually reach the top of the face, but it narrowed and a thin track of a couloir vanished around a higher corner. There we had it. My birthday present to myself. Something new. On the whole it looked relatively mellow. A steep fan and then maybe a 45-50 degree slope that banked upwards. Nothing as crazy as I had hoped for, but with the little couloir leading down onto the face it would make for some fun turns and a great day of playing. So the crampons went on, and up I went. The bottom third of the bizarre face almost had me turn around, debris and refreeze had left the snow hard and unyielding. It made for fast steps, but it was going to be bullet-proof bouncy riding on the way down, perhaps not even worth continuing. Yet, I paused, and remembered that today was mine and I had nowhere to be. I might as well keep going, the face was steeper than I expected, and it would be far easier to change over in a spot where the angle mellowed a bit. So I continued up, enjoying the boot pack, and as I ascended, the snow began to change. Waste deep powder on April 29th on a new line; I was thrilled. Then, just as I was to branch into the couloir the snow changed again, again a bit of a slab layer on the surface. So I made a decision, I wasn’t here for my ego, or to prove anything. I didn’t “have” to ride the couloir. I could just enjoy the day. I would leave the couloir and the slab layer and head right, to the top of this amazing prow. I wouldn’t get to the top of the line, but I would get this untouched prow. That would be enough to leave my tracings down its bizarre face.
Within another ten minutes I had reached the top of this strange surreal prow to look over the lip. I had boot packed to the top of a spine, which at its zenith rolled over and onto a hidden face around the corner. I stood there in a shocked awe. The slope above me extended up and away, a bizarre winter wonderland of strange rollovers and rocky monoliths, steeper even than what I had just climbed, and again, vanishing up to a roll a couple hundred meters away. Yet there was an issue. This face started just below my spine. I had looked at the bowl around the corner. This precarious gorgeous, mythical space hovered above three to five hundred meters of airy empty space. Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. The obsession eats at me like that. I had easily let go of the little couloir, yet this was one of those lines that one barely is able to imagine. The tally kept going in my head, calculating, risk assessments, trying to determine what this new aspect would hold for snow pack issues, whether the hazards of the rock face that soared above me would make this a fools errand doomed to failure, with consequences far beyond a few broken bones and bruises.
Then I moved. Kick. Kick. Move the board. Kick. Kick. Move the board. Upwards, ever upwards. This is the compulsion for that unknown, for that knife edge of existence, for being pulled into that space where there is nothing but breath and movement. I have a friend, an amazing alpinist and climber, someone people call a daredevil, who thrives on this same thing. He gets this space. He has found the same thing though, tell people about the view, about the spacious glory, people will resonate with you. Tell them about the fear and the consequence and people begin to blank, they start to argue about whether or not what we do is safe.
It should seem obvious; this isn’t safe, if it was, we wouldn’t be there.
Yet, for all the commercials about adrenaline junkies, and dumb stunts, we get a label that doesn’t fit. This has nothing to do with the adrenaline, or the fear. Or at least for me it doesn’t, it has to do with that space that you can enter that lies on the other side of terror. That serene calm where thoughts vanish and there exists just the present moment. Movement and breath. You don’t climb 200m of fifty plus degree snow slope over an abyss just to get scared or get a kick of adrenaline. Pop off a 30ft cliff and you’ll get a good shot of adrenaline, good snow and a decent landing, and you risk almost nothing. The space that is getting called flow these days, the new “quantum” which is bandied about. It is a space that is seemingly being popped into by everything from skiers to CEOs all the time. Yet for me, the space on the other side of terror, it requires the consequence for me to fully be submerged. I can settle into a pleasant state of happy carefree movement shredding FGP with the best of them. The space I hunger for, the one that can leave me borderline melancholic for weeks, that space is found with consequence. Flow state, if that is what it is, is not something I slip into. I climb into it with every boot kicked in, and with every step taken, terror is screaming in my mind, until I am far enough into the abyss that all I can hear is my own breathing. That is what this is about.
When I stopped the view below me was breath taking, it was staggering. Steep and airy and then vanishing into nothing. I would have to ride this slope, make zero mistakes, and then at the end of it, ride onto the top of a spine with only a meter of space to spare. So I strapped in, that strange calm space where you can no longer hear a part of your mind screaming. Ice axe in hand I edged over, setting myself up to drop down the face. That is when the unspeakable happened. Shotgun blast sound, I glance up, and one of the cornices, another 300m above me was falling ever so slowly towards my slope. The slope didn’t connect with the face itself, it was its own ridge, a space existed between the slope and the face, some kind of depression back there. I had done that math, if something were to fall, the odds were that it would fall behind my slope. Arguably, I should be safe from overhead hazard. I had not actually expected to be standing there and having to test my math. Yet there, way back in that hidden space there wasn’t any fear. Just watching it fall. Then it hits, back, behind where I can’t see it. Snow clouds billow out and over the slope, sluff running down the rocks, and I start to ride.
Now I would love to say that I tore that slope up with graceful arcing turns, and then threw down a little 3 over the spine before landing delicately balanced and ready to plunge down the slope that I had come out here chasing. Yet that wasn’t the case. I rode the face cautiously, far from my best riding, the snow pack was variable, mix of powder and crust, and I rode as one would in account of that. Ice axe in hand, an eternity of riding before I was finally dropping down onto the spine, and onto the eerie prow. More powder, good turns, and then a couple traverses, hoping that the crust might have softened somewhere before being forced to make short edgy traverses down through the harder lower slope that had almost made me turn back. Then the angle mellowed out, the snow softened enough to hold an edge, and I got to open it up, legs cramped from the riding, flowing from the shadows and back into the sunshine. Powder turns to crust turns to soft spring slush and I am rocketing away and into the trees.
And then that was it. The gear comes off, I get changed over, snap a picture, and stand there and just stare back at the line. You can’t see the good part from below. It is a secret. You have to go up and glance over the edge, you have to go exploring to see it. Yet the space softens me up, it makes me enjoy the sunshine more, and laugh all the more, and feel more for my friends. That ghostly space makes me better at being a human. It pulls me up. Is it worth it? For me, yes. Is snowboarding worth dying for? No. I think that would be stupid. Life is too amazing, people are too great, love to precious. No silly sport is worth dying for. Yet, and there it is, that space, on the knife edge of existence. I know I will go there again. Not for anyone else, not for any sponsor, but rather because I have to.
‘He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life.’