FWQ 3* Verbier 2016: Whiteout

When my 6 ½ week surfing vacation to Thailand and Indonesia turned into a 6 ½ week vacation on crutches in Phuket because I fractured my ankle severely playing soccer on the beach with a bunch of guys from Myanmar, I didn’t realize it would be such a long road to recovery. It wasn’t the first time I had broken it and generally I was back up and running within a few months. Breaking it early September in 2014 seemed like it wouldn’t be a big deal or really effect my winter season. I was wrong. 2 months of misdiagnosis, treatments, physical therapy and on and off of crutches for months was not the recipe for success. Going back into the hospital for a week long IV-treatment and another month of crutches in December was fatal for the competition season 2014-15. I had to block my points and hope for the best next season. By the time sign ups for the 2015-16 season came around, I was still in physical therapy and still didn’t have much range of motion back. But the FWQ only gives you 52 weeks to recover before the seeding points expire, so its either compete at less than 100% or its the end of competitions for me. The winter was not shaping up to be very helpful in training and getting back into form either: hardly any snowfall at all during the final months of 2015 meant sticking to the trails on the local glacier. Mid January had rolled around and I had not had even one run off piste… not good!

My first competition (which wasn’t canceled due to lack of snow!) was scheduled for January 16th in Verbier Switzerland. I had never competed at that venue before but heard good things about it and was excited to finally get to see the infamous Verbier! A small group of riders got together and rented a camper bus to help make it affordable in Switzerland: an Austrian skier, Claudia Klobasa, Slovakian snowboarder, Marek Gazda, his friend Adam and I ventured off a few days of freeriding before the comp.

We drove to Les Maricottes Switzerland, a magical tiny village basically between Chamonix and Verbier. We really lucked out here, riding for 2 days in some of the deepest powder I have ever had the pleasure to shred. This quaint resort offered some amazing discounts on lift tickets making the whole experience that much better: Thursday was a 2 for 1 ticket offer and Friday was a half priced ticket essentially and included a beverage up on the mountain even! Thursday we ventured up the little gondola and found ourselves surrounded by epic fluffy powder but no visibility. Heavy fog restricted visibility down to almost nothing, but we were able to play around with some jumps/drops and slashes thanks to the deep snow. Friday was bluebird… the conditions were the best I have ever seen them I think. We were giddy like children in the snow and wide open crazy looks in our eyes like cats on catnip. We tried to get as many runs in as possible without wasting time. The 2nd part of the resort was also open and we were treated to some of the best runs with the least number of tourists around that I had ever had. Les Maricottes… I love you!
Friday evening we had to leave to Verbier for the riders meeting before the competition. It was great to see everyone again finally, missing the last season due to my ankle made me miss out on seeing many awesome people. I was especially happy to see my Italian pal Valeria Apostolo, who I met back in the I-FREE competition days. The meeting was short and sweet and had the usual info. We finally got to see a picture of the competition face for the first time although the picture quality wasn’t enough for really doing a face check. Saturday was reserved for the face check but heavy fog and snow made that impossible. A few times during the day, there was a portion of the face visible when the clouds parted for a few minutes, but I never actually got a look at the whole think, nor did I have any idea of where to ride since I couldn’t see it. It was a bit challenging. I took a few runs to warm up with Valeria but ended up breaking my binding (again) taking one short run through the “powder” in between trails. I raced off to the shop to try to get it repaired but no one had the necessary parts to help me out. I ended up borrowing a binding from some of the demo guys while another took my bindings to repair them overnight. Since the women’s snowboard category would start the competition off, it would be no problem to use the bindings and return them after my run. The guys at the stands and on the mountain were very friendly and helpful. The snow in general in Verbier didn’t seem too good actually… the portions of terrain between the trails were heavily tracked out and crusted over: I had no idea whether or not that would be an indication of the conditions of the face. By the end of the day, we weren’t much more informed as the fog remained tenacious.

Competition day on Sunday was not at all what I would have expected. It was in fact, pretty horrible. Shortly after arriving at the meeting point in the morning, I found out 4 riders were caught in an avalanche and 2 of them didn’t make it… it was sobering to find out that the guy you were just sitting next to and joking with at the meeting, was gone. Any concentration or even desire to compete was pretty much gone.

It had snowed all throughout the night and the conditions were not any better as far as visibility went. I actually expected the competition to be canceled in light of everything: but it wasn’t. We rode up the gondola and ended up sitting around waiting for hours and hours. There wasn’t much information for us and I was shocked that by the afternoon, they still hadn’t canceled. I was even more surprised to find out that the other women had already left to hike to the peak and had to try to somehow catch up to them. Arriving at the bottom of the face, there was still basically no visibility. Every now and then there was a small opening in the clouds where a little bit of light would come through. They ended up sending the first female down, she had some good light for the top section of the face before it clouded back over. She just traversed all the way to the lookers right and basically rode straight down from there. She fell a few times but there wasn’t really much to see other than little flashes of color from her jacket through the snow. She got to the bottom and said that the snow was suffocating her it was so deep, and that she basically couldn’t see anything. It turns out that the judges didn’t see her run, so she would get to go again. They got a couple of the riders down before another long phase of clouds made it impossible. The problem was that if they sent at least half of the women down, the contest would count for everyone, even if you yourself didn’t get to ride. I raced as fast as I could to the top of the mountain since it looked like they really were going to force the race rather than just postponing. I wasn’t very happy with the decision but that didn’t matter. There were no signs or markings for how to get to the starting point of the competition… since it was foggy, I ended up going the wrong way a few times which sucked. At one point, I nearly hiked over the edge of a cornice before realizing that I was in the wrong area. Totally flustered, tired, stressed out and fully unprepared to actually compete, I reached the summit. We waited up there for a few more hours before we all got to take our run. Ice cold and with no visibility. I actually dropped in after 4pm meaning it was getting pretty dark and all of the lifts had stopped running. Only the Women’s snowboard category was held that day, everything else was canceled.

My run was not particularly good overall but had some positive moments. I had never seen the top of the face so when I started to ride towards the chute I wanted to take, I ran full speed into a wall of snow which had been created by the wind. I only even noticed it about a second before hitting it, which gave me time to tuck my head in. The problem with the snow drift was that it was very deep and impossible to get loose. I had to actually roll backwards down the mountain and flip my board up over my head to get it free. That felt so insanely embarrassing and frustrating that I was almost happy no one was around to see it. I found the line I wanted to take, but someone before me had peeled all the snow off the entrance to it and loads of rocks were exposed. Deepest snow conditions of my life, and I hit about 5 rocks in the upper section. Getting into some better snow below the rocks, I tried to get some speed going but it was so deep that it was impossible to go faster. My body’s drag in the fresh snow acted like a break from the friction. I also couldn’t see anything as the chest deep powder flew up into my face and over head. I had to stop for a second before the drop I wanted to take to be able to see if I was even lined up for it or not. Without much hesitation I was able to jump the last small section of rocks and land effortlessly in the soft snow. I sent it straight down the mountain from there on in but was slow and struggling in all that snow. My mouth was quickly full of snow and when I tried to breathe through my nose, snow plugged both nostrils and I just started chocking and gagging on the snow. The bottom third of the face was just a straight run to the finish line and it was essentially anaerobic since I couldn’t get any air. Crossing the finish line, I was still gagging and coughing and almost throwing up from chocking on the snow. It was a very strange sensation. There was no one really left on the mountain when I crossed the finish line and I started to figure out how to get back to the village from there without any lifts.
Arriving down in the valley, I still had to return the bindings and find mine. It wasn’t easy since the lifts were closed and I was supposed to meet the guys at the top of the gondola. After managing all that, I just rushed to get back to the camper since everyone was only waiting on me (all other categories were canceled) and we started our long journey home.
It was a very disappointing contest after all… the tragic loss of some friends, no chance to make the most of good snow conditions and an extremely anti-climatic finish. I found out days later that I was ranked next to last which seemed a bit harsh considering many of the other girls had lost control just riding the face and chose the easiest line. I did have that huge embarrassing crash due to lack of visibility, but at least it wasn’t any kind of loss of control which should be judged more critically. The advice from the judge: just take the easy line… we don’t really want to see girls riding other lines unless you can drop cliffs like XYZ (enter the name of an 18 year old girl who has been coached all her life!). It didn’t seem like very helpful feedback and felt like it had a twinge of disdain lathered on top of it: not sure if its the general dislike of the female snowboard category or if it was personal considering I’m the oldest competitor in the whole series and possibly the only one who never had even an hour of instruction ( = I suck! ). Either way, it was a rough start to the season and it has me questioning whether or not I should even bother competing again. At least we had a few amazing days at Les Maricottes to make the trip worthwhile! Next stop: Morgins Switzerland since Engadinsnow was canceled also.

My run in Verbier:


One Comment Add yours

  1. Patricia Roberson says:

    Enjoyed reading your post, but so very sorry for the loss of your friends.


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