The dream of heli-boarding was a motivating factor in my decision to begin competing freeride. Actually, I didn’t really decide to start competing as such… I just figured that 35€ starting fees for a shot at heli-boarding, was totally worth it: Never try, never know!
The I-FREE Freeride Circuit boasted a once in a lifetime trip to ride the longest gully in the Alps, Canalone Marinelli, running down the western face of Monte Rosa, Europe’s second highest mountain. In the I-FREE circuit, the women’s ski, telemark and snowboard categories are grouped together with only one champion at the end of the season. In light of the fact that there is virtually no chance for a snowboarder to ever really be stronger than a skier, I didn’t have hopes or expectations to ever see the Marinelli up close and personal. Then the 2012 season final came along and I realized that none of the other snowboarders showed up! On top of that, there were only 2 girls on skis there as well… well… that’s a podium for all of us! Still not actually intending to have a shot at first place (or second for that matter: the 2 girls are phenomenal skiers!), I had a little bit of mental freedom to pick a line which would be interesting, maybe a little challenging even. I basically figured that regardless of what happened, I would be 3rd so absolutely no pressure to perform! It turns out that I had a clean run, even found my line without too much uncertainty. It was a slushy snow which is actually a little enjoyable for a snowboarder. I always say that slush is like powder with a little imagination… So it turns out that both of the skiers lost a ski somewhere in the face and crashed… I became the Italian Freeride winner by default! I cant even begin to describe the surprise, no, shock!! that overcame me when they called my name. Something of a pipe dream becoming a reality on accident… I think I never even really thought about what it would mean to win this contest! The canalone Marinelli was a very intimidating route, once you started legitimately looking at it! Sections with 50° opening into a long couloir below… catching an edge there could mean falling for a long time… crevasses in the glacier were another issue as well as avalanche danger and exposure in general. Sometimes I find it difficult to discern between excitement, anxiety and straight up fear… that cocktail is what hit me when I realized that I would be riding that face at some point!
After several months of problems and demonstrations against helicopters on Monte Rosa, I finally got a message that we would have the trip the following weekend. The difficulty for me was the fact that I was in Portugal for surfing when I got news about the trip! I had to spend quite a few days at the internet cafe trying to make the necessary arrangements to be able to join on the trip. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and there was no way I was going to let anything get in my way. Yeah, it would mean paying a lot for flights and short notice arrangements, but I had a decent job and could afford to be a little frivolous for a special occasion. I booked a flight from Lisbon to Milan and would be picked up by Gazza and Armin, winners of the men’s snowboard and ski categories respectively, on their way to Macugnaga Italy. Armin offered to drive to Innsbruck to pick my snowboard and gear up for 50€ which was a Godsend. I had left all my gear at my ex-boyfriends house there, in case the call for the trip came while I was traveling.
I had the idea to try to get surfing-boarding-surfing within 48 hours, so took a final surfing session in on May 29th before heading to Lisbon to catch my evening flight to Milan. The anticipation mixed with a bit of lingering disbelief accompanied me on the flight over the mountains on route for Milan. The mountains were beautiful to watch from the window of the airplane… I tried (and failed) to recognize Monte Rosa before the sun set beautifully over the mountains and we slowly descended into Milan. It was dark by the time I arrived and I scrambled to find the guys as fast as possible. I looked around but they were no where to be seen. After about an hour waiting, they rolled up in Gazza’s little car, packed to the brim with gear and smiling big. I jumped in and we sped off towards the line of our dreams.
It’s a long twisty-turny road that leads deep into the Anzasca Valley in northern Piedmont. The road leads all the way to the foot of the eastern face of Monte Rosa, nicknamed the Himalayan Face of the Alps, boasting the tallest wall in the Alps at 2600 meters high and 4km wide. We had had an impressive view of this colossal face during a few of the qualifying contests as well as the final this year. I never believed I would ever actually win the ticket to ride it so I never had to really wonder whether or not I was even capable of riding it! But here I was, on my way in the middle of the night getting closer and closer with each tight hairpin turn. Gazza and Armin are 2 phenomenal riders in their own accord. I had met Armin the first time at the Punta Nera Challenge in Cortina and was impressed with his skiing. Gazza was a freestylish freerider who had a work ethic unparalleled to the rest of the competitors. Either way, I was no where near the caliber of these guys and my own inexperience made me apprehensive. We reached the quaint 50’s style village of Macugnaga: the last town nestled at the foot of Monte Rosa’s dramatic face. Ettore was waiting for us in the bar and greeted us with a big smile and hug. The man in charge of the circuit and driving force for freeriding in Italy. This kind somewhat timid guy is a wild one! We didn’t stay too long at the bar since it was already approaching midnight. We found out that our helicopter would start at Lago Maggiore the next morning and we would have about a 30 mn flight to the top of the mountain. We said goodnight and checked into our hotel in Staffa jumping straight into bed.
My alarm started ringing 5 minutes later, or so it seemed. I got out of bed with a bit of a nervous feeling and forced some breakfast down even though I didn’t really feel hungry yet. We soon left for Lago Maggiore where we met up with Ettore again. It was getting exciting… we brought our gear over to the heli and started loading it before jumping in and beginning the thrilling ride over lush green hills and rocky mountain peaks. We could see mountain goats and beautiful scenery. I dont think the view from a helicopter could ever get boring! We got a fantastic look at the Eastern Face as well as the Marinelli and it was majestic! I was pretty much a bundle of nerves but at the same time, so excited and so in awe of this mountain! Our pilot dropped us off in an open field near the Capanna Margherita, the highest hut (or building for that matter!) in Europe. Just over 4.500 meters up there! The Monte Rosa itself reached 4.634 meters (15.203ft) and was something I always thought I would hike after seeing beautiful pictures of it from Dr. Ulf Künzel, a former colleague at UPM-Kymmene in Germany. We jumped out of the heli and stayed ducked down while our gear was unpacked and the bird lifted off and flew away. The heli creates a massive wind that will knock you over, which is one of the reasons to crouch down… I always kind of thought it was because you didn’t want to get your head near the rotor! Once the snow settled back down and the sexy roar of the heli faded off into the distance, we were overcome with a very peaceful quite and an unparalleled view. We still had a bit of a hike to the summit which we would cross to descend into the Marinelli. After just a few steps, I could feel how high up we were! The altitude change was from just under 200m at the lake, to over 4.500 here near the summit! I felt a little dizzy and my heart was definitely working overtime as we climbed the steep ridge. By the time we reached the top I wasn’t able to tell if my heart was going so fast due to altitude or respect of the endeavor! The view was magnificent. We took a few moments to take some pictures before gearing up to drop in. As if the entire experience wasn’t enough alone, the way the light was diffracted across the valleys and peaks below made it feel surreal. There was only a moment of time to enjoy the views before getting down to business and down the mountain. It was extremely late in the season already and the sun was out strongly, so we were in a race against nature to avoid potential avalanches. We had to traverse along the beginning of the route to an exposed blank ice patch which the guides set up a rappel for. I had done a large amount of rappelling in rock climbing so didn’t really feel concerned about that. In fact, being roped in would be the last legitimately safe feeling I would have until getting back off the snow! Rappelling with a snowboard on is a bit of a different ball game than having your feet free I found out. On top of that, I had to rappel to the left and didn’t actually have a chance to tune my edges of my LibTech Skate Banana… so I was having a bit of difficulty getting an edge to hold against the extremely hard glacier ice so I could ride switch down the rappel. It was awkward either way and Fabio, the guide at the bottom of the rappel, commented that he had thought I had done this before! I guess he hadn’t had to try it switch with dull edges before either. There was a long thin crevasse at the bottom of the rappel we had to get over as well, but being roped in made it no problem for me. The snow was not all I had hoped it might be… it was a bit hard and thin in places, no powder at all unfortunately. It would have been glorious to ride that line in powder! Since the late spring conditions were not fantastic and the crevasses were beginning to open up, we could only take short runs between meeting up and had to follow the guides tracks closely to avoid crevasses. I think that was my personal biggest concern about the whole experience… my utter lack of experience with crevasses. We did have to kind of ollie over one in the upper section of the face, it wasn’t a large one by any means but still required overcoming the hesitation in my muscles and bones. I did actually feel some kind of pride and satisfaction that I did it in the end. There was an amazing ice palace of blocks, cracks and intricately balancing chunks of glacier to gaze upon. It was captivating and chilling at the same time. We hurried down the mountain which seemed to finish just when I started getting really comfortable. We would have to climb down back to town from here on in. The route was far from over and carried my board while climbing down the rest of the mountain. After a few hours, my boots were completely soaked and causing irritating blisters. The heat was intense by the time we reached the end of the face and the flatter stretch of the terrain leading back to Macugnaga. Another few hours later, we met up with Ettore who had hiked in from the village to meet up with us. We chatted and had a short break before continuing on. I had to catch my flight back to Lisbon that night and it wasn’t getting any earlier! I was the slowest hiking down, suffering from the blisters and the weight of my gear taking its toll, the guys had to wait up for me every few hours til I caught up. I felt pretty bad about that but am admittedly the worlds slowest down-hiker to ever live. I think I might actually be faster going up hill! But after a grueling effort we reached the bar at Macugnaga and set our packs down. I gulped 2 juices down before sinking into a chair as the guys ordered some food. I was growing concerned about making my flight now that the sun was setting and night was taking over. Luckily we left with just the perfect amount of time to make my flight back to Portugal. Landing super late at night made it difficult to get up for a morning session of surfing to get the surf-board-surf sandwich within 48 hours checked off the bucket list, but I went for it! What an amazing couple of days! An experience of a lifetime, thank you I-FREE and Ettore!
Pictures by Armin Holzer, Tommaso Gazzini and me