It’s that time of year again! It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Thanks to ReHall Outerwear, the era of the Dirty Banana is over. I have chosen the one-piece called Blaze to tackle the mountains and got to debut the suit at Kappl!
Bright and early on Saturday morning, January 21, 2017 after only 3 hours of sleep, I rolled of the couch and silently began getting ready. I stayed overnight at a friend’s in Innsbruck and after all the catching up, there wasn’t a whole lot of time left for sleeping. But I surprised myself by getting up on the first go of the alarm and leaving on time for a change. It was an enjoyable hour and a half ride along the dark empty roads with the music turned up. I was essentially alone on the road until I turned off the highway into the Paznaun valley. There were a shocking number of cars on the way out of the valley and it wasn’t even 7 am yet! Everything was still dark in Kappl when I arrived at the bottom of the station. I stepped out of my car into the blustery cold air. The accreditation office was just opening up but still much warmer to wait in than outside. The daybreak promised a bluebird sky and the forecast predicted warming temperatures. As always at the first competition of the season, it is great to see the familiar faces and friendly smiles, especially when its Ouch-O’Clock in the morning. As fast as daybreak lit the sky up, so began the onslaught of riders collecting their starting shirts and filling out the liability forms. It was nice to get to share the tiny egg-shaped gondola ride up with Finnish rider Mikaela Hollsten, one of the girls I originally met when I started out back in the day, who has since gone on to qualify for the Tour so we don’t get to see her as much in the Qualifier series.
We had a few minutes to get some food before the riders meeting began and we quickly headed to try to get a face check in. I had the starting number 3 which meant I didn’t have the opportunity to ride to the bottom of the face and look at it from below. I only got to see it from the side which provides a fantastic view of the steeper rocky section, but essentially no view of the right handed side where there was very easy terrain. I competed here once before in 2013 and had really wanted to take a technical line rather than an easy one but opted for something totally different once I was standing at the top. After years of judging feedback saying “take an easy line and go fast” as well as massively bad scores anytime I ever tried a technical line… I thought, yeah why not. Just enjoy the run and try to have the most fun! The other advantage to that, I thought to myself, was that the run down the easy line would be much longer at least… the short, yet attractive gully, down the center of the face would be over before you knew you were in it, I thought. As the face check was futile from the side, I decided to just start hiking up and try to make sense of it from the top as well as have enough time to tighten my boots and get prepared at the top. I packed my board onto my backpack, turned my avalanche beacon on and passed the safety checks to start the hike to the top. Its a relatively easy 30 minute hike to the top of the Quellspitze, but there are a few sections which feel a little exposed. A slippery sugary snow on the top of the decent boot track heightened my sense of concentration but I still made good time getting up there. The snow conditions proved to be relatively tricky. The face had been exposed to the elements and taken a beating. Wind and UV changed the snow structure in different places from soft to hard, smooth to bumpy as well as working like a thin layer just covering up all of the rocks lurking below the surface. It would be both a blessing and a curse to be number 3! I had the chance to hike a little further down the ridge to get a view back at the starting gate and just below it as it was pretty steep and not possible to see from the top. The guides had already dropped in earlier that week and set a track which provided a kind of cross-sectional view of the snow quality. What it looked like was a thin eggshell layer of crusty snow being held up by the pointy rocks below it. The snow under the crust had crystallized and disintegrated into the cracks. They were offering riders the possibility to start further down the ridge at the Junior’s starting gate if so desired, but I actually kind of like the steeps.
As is usually the case, everything starts moving quite quickly once you’re at the top, especially when you are the third to go! I got my boots tightened, took a sip of water and tried to get into race mode. That didn’t really work out: I should have taken some more time to concentrate on the actual snowboarding. I filled my brain up with warnings and orientation markers to try to go fast, that I didn’t really stop to think about physically warming up. There would be one section of the line where I would have to improvise as it wasn’t on the pictures or visible from the side view where I had the chance to face check, but I had managed to get down that part in 2013 without a plan so I figured it shouldn’t be a problem. Before I knew it, I was standing in the starting gate, strapped in and trying to get the GoPro to work (it did not). After stashing it back in my backpack, I heard the countdown and dropped into the face. Remembering the eggshell-sharky snow profile, I tried to stay light on my feet and was prepared to feel the jerky motion of a rock at any moment. I navigated the top without incident but at the end of the steep section I hit some crusty snow and had to throw the brakes on heel edge style to keep it together… that worked out alright until I got some snow behind my goggles, hit a hard spot and lost my back foot from under me face planting in a pretty flat section for no apparent reason. I tried to get some speed back up as well as clear my goggles somehow as I entered the middle section where I had to find a line through. I thought I picked a ridge which would be visible to the judging (although I had no idea of where they were set up this year) but it turns out that there were a few gullies and all of them were blocked from view. (This also explains why the filmer lost me in the rocks, I had come out pretty quickly and gone straight over to a wind lip on the other side of the slope). I wanted to ride fast still, and ended up going to the first wind lip with more speed than it needed. I basically felt like I was chasing my board down the mountain rather than being on top of it, and that has to be what the first air looked like as well: arms flapping and likely a quite outstretched body position. I think I was a little surprised when I landed it on my feet! I hit the second one much better and was more stable in the air, but I cant remember if I grabbed or shiftied or anything. Unfortunately, the cameraman didn’t pick me back up until I was past the jumps so I will have to wait for the replay at the Pearly Gates some day to find out! I headed over to the viewers area where I could see the rest of the riders competing from the luxurious comfort of a big beanbag as well as chat with others. The beautiful weather made it easy to enjoy. The day went smoothly until a Junior rider launched over a rock cliff and (luckily, only) broke his arm and had to get heli-lifted out of the face. Poor guy!
I stayed for the flower ceremony about an hour or two later, to cheer on friends that had good days before climbing back into the car and starting my trip back home.
I definitely have a lot of room for improvement following the first contest of the season, but it has been a difficult start to freeriding as we have only had one snowfall (early January) so far this season and essentially no base layer off the trails. Luckily for me, my next two competitions (Engadinsnow and Courmayeur) have been postponed til March due to the snow. That should give me enough time to find my legs again! Pray for snow!!
A special thanks to Andreas Vigl and Mia Maria Knoll for the vibrent pictures!
Here is the video of the run: