BACKCOUNTRY SNOWBOARDING WORKSHOP IN FRANCE
I used to think I was deliberate, considered and premeditative. But one autumn day in 2016 I saw a Facebook post from Jenny Jones. Jenny is one of the UK’s most successful snowboarders and I’ve been following her on social media since I first read about her in Cooler magazine a decade earlier. After winning bronze at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Jenny turned her focus to creating a workshop to share her knowledge about (and stoke for) snowboarding. The first workshop – a weeklong trip to the French resort of Sainte Foy – was to be held the following March and would include splitboarding, something I’d been keen to try.
Though the trip was expensive, around £2,000 without flights, lift passes and lunches. The reason for the high price, aside from riding with Jenny, was the fact she’d assembled a highly talented entourage comprised of two snowboard guides/instructors, James Sweet and Neil McNair, a yoga instructor, Sian Leigh, and sport psychologist, Louise Jones (no relation). This combination made the trip incredibly unique. I was sold. I booked it right then and there.
Arriving at Geneva airport a few months later I was a little nervous, mostly about the general riding level of the group. I didn’t want everyone to be crap; on the other hand, I didn’t want to be the worst in the group. As it turned out, I ended up being among the best, though we were relatively well matched.
I met Suzie first. Timid on the outside but with a belting laugh full of warmth, we instantly connected over climbing. She was around my age and when she described her experience I thought she’d be around the same snowboarding level as me.
I met the others a little while later as we hauled our board bags to the mini bus. We were a mixed bunch; ages ranged from 27 through to 45-ish. Some had ridden a lot, others not so much. Out of the eight of us, only one was male.
We met Jenny and the coaches that evening. It was quite something to come face-to-face with someone you really admire and look up to. But it was so refreshing just how normal Jenny was. She has a great sense of humour, swears like a trooper and loves to party. But she eats well, works out and loves being outdoors and active, too.
I got a major boost right after the first warm up run when Jenny turned to me quietly and asked where I’d learned to ride. I explained I’d been an instructor and her reply was simply: “it shows. You’ve got great technique.” That’s basically how the week progressed for me. I can’t say I improved leaps and bounds on the snowboarding front, but according to Jenny that was because I was already doing most things right. It was just a matter of tweaking, getting more confident and riding with more control – whatever the speed.
The snow was epic that first day. So instead of doing drills on the piste, we headed into deep freshies. Although my legs were raw, I managed to hold my own, even getting a shriek of “oh yes, my god” from Neil as I did a pro-looking powder turn on the side of a gulley.
The stoke remained high throughout the week. But Louise brought us all down to earth – in a positive way. We discussed fear. The irrational and ration. The personal and shared. The common and the strange. Louise gave us some very practical tips for dealing with fear aimed at when you’re about to drop into something scary, but they translate to most other situations, too.
My fear stems from looking stupid and hurting myself. The former is just ridiculous. I shouldn’t care about what other people think. The latter, conversely, is often a real and present danger. It usually stems from a) doing something that’s above your ability or b) not believing in your own ability. Either way you have a choice. If it’s above you, you can back off. If it’s not, you have to believe in yourself before you go for it. Either way, it’s about managing risk. If it’s above your skill level then the risk of injury can be large. If, on the other hand, it’s within your ability then there is a pretty low failure risk. So it’s better to just go for it.
Fear Fighting Jedi Mind Tricks
Stop, look, listen…and breathe
We all react differently to fear. I usually freeze. But others panic, scream, jump up and down. However, we all have a loss of the here and now in common. We need to get back to the present so we can retake control of the situation. The best way to do this is to start by taking deep breaths and looking around you. Feel the wind in your hair, the sun on your face. Listen to the in and out of your breath. Once you’re back in the here and now you can make a more rational decision about what to do next.
Keep the glass half full
Why do we always think the worst? Why do I think: “If I jump off that kicker I might break my leg?” Why don’t we instead ask ourselves: “If I jump off that kicker I might look like the biggest badass in the park?” The glass should be half full, not empty. If you’ve got the necessary ability you don’t need to be scared. Especially if you practice…
If you see it, you’ll believe it. So start seeing it in your head. I’m not crazy, honestly. The trick is to visualise yourself doing that trick, riding that steep slope, taking that banked turn. Watch yourself do it in your mind’s eye before you do it in reality. Bye-bye stage fright. Adios first-time nerves. You’ve already done the move, one, two, twenty times in your head. Doing it for the 21st time (in reality) is suddenly no big deal.
As for the splitboarding, well, let’s just say it lived up to my expectations. For someone that loves hiking almost as much as riding in powder away from crowds of people, splitboarding is the perfect activity.
A splitboard is snowboard that splits in half length-ways. The bindings slide off easily and are rotated front ways. ‘Skins’ are applied to the base of the two halves for the way up. These allow you to slide forward without slipping backwards. The result is you’re basically ski touring up but snowboarding down. It offers a freedom that for too long has been monopolised by skiers.
I took to it instantly. I’m a strong hiker, so the uphill was well within my capability. I also negotiated the kick turns – a special way of flicking each side of the board to negotiate the tight turns you encounter zigzagging up – with relative ease. I enjoyed the way up. I like pushing myself.
But nothing could compare to the ride down. This was the real back and beyond. I’ve done a lot of off-piste snowboarding, but it was always within the confines of a resort. When we dropped in to that one long run in untouched snow, there were no lifts to be seen. No other people. No signs of human habitation. We were on the back side of the resort. And it showed. It was quiet, peaceful with perfect snow. That ride down will go down as one of my best. Not just because I rode it well. But because it was the first time to really, truly snowboard in the backcountry. And I’d really earned those turns.
And because everyone rode well and the conditions were pretty damn premium, the energy level of the entire group was sky high. Finishing with a pretty icy, gnarly hiking path-cum boardercross at the end did dampen some of those spirits a little, but as soon as we made it back to the resort for après beers, smiles spread broadly across our faces. Splitboarding is my kind of snowboarding.