Backcountry Snowboarding

Backcountry Snowboarding

Interested in off-piste snowboarding but want to know a little bit more about what equipment to take with you? Snowboard Review teamed up with the Freeride World Tour to quiz five of the world’s best freeriders on what makes it into their daypacks and what boards and bindings they’re lugging up the hill.

Backcountry snowboarding is probably the most rewarding riding a snowboarder can do. The promise of riding incredible steeps in untracked knee deep powder on lines that incorporate wave-like wind-lips and 30ft cliffs is enough to get even the grumpiest of snowboarders beaming. One of the most attractive elements of learning to snowboard is the ease at which riding powder can be picked up, inexperienced riders can quite happily hike a ridge and drop a 30 degree powder field, a feat that would take a skier a number of years to master… or so they say!  Here lies the danger, snowboarding off-piste is extremely dangerous, spend any time in a resort and you’ll hear rumours propagating through the resort of inexperienced skiers and boarders being buried. Snowboard Review teamed up with the Freeride World Tour to find out more about backcountry snowboarding equipment and five of the riders competing on the tour.

James Stentiford

James Stentiford

Nationality - British
Sponsors - Quiksilver, Lib Technologies, DC and The Snowboard Asylum
Stats - 80kg, 180cm
Website - SoulSports.co.uk

At the age of 38 you might think that James is in the autumn of his professional snowboard career. Fortunately when it comes to big mountain riding maturity is an advantage, fool hardy-ness and the ability to bounce of tabletop knuckles is replaced by knowledge of the mountains, board control and patience. James has all of these qualities in bucket loads, which is why he’s been able to extend his pro career into its third decade. 14 seasons spent in the mountains (particularly the freeride mecha of Chamonix) and summers spent catching waves in North Devon, England, mean it’s not surprising that James able to ride at the highest level, but to be the only British rider invited to take part in the tour is a fantastic achievement. James will be riding at the Nissan Russian Adventure in Krasnaya Polyana which takes place at the end of January.

Aline Bock

Aline Bock

Nationality – German
Sponsors – Roxy, Völkl Snowboards, Level Gloves and Deeluxe
Stats – 52kg, 172cm
Website - AlineBock.de

Aline has taken the FWT by storm! Aline first strapped on to a board in 1996 and by the age of 15 was competing in the halfpipe. However, it wasn’t until 2008 that Aline turned her hand to competing on the Freeride World Tour. Now based in Innsbruck, Aline is perfectly positioned to ride some of the best freeride terrain on the planet. With training grounds like Nordpark and St Anton in the much revered Arlberg region on her doorstep, it’s not surprising that Aline’s first season saw podium places at Squaw Valley and Sochi (Russia). At the relatively young age of 27, Aline has a long future in top flight freeriding ahead of her.

Géraldine Fasnacht

Géraldine Fasnacht

Nationality – Swiss
Sponsors – Nissan, F2 Snowboards, Columbia Freeride, Bula SA, WA International, Julbo and Dakine
Website - Lineprod.ch (French)

The Swiss have an affinity with the mountains, Geraldine is no exception. A professional snowboarder since 2002, Geraldine has ridden more exotic locations than you’ve ridden chairlifts and with trips to Gulmarg in the Indian Himalayas and Antarctica bagged in 2009, it’s obvious that Geraldine’s passion for new mountains and different cultures isn’t dwindling. When Geraldine isn’t riding the tightest shoots and the steepest faces she likes nothing more than to jack up her adrenaline even more with a bit of base jumping! Geraldine will be competing at the Verbier Extreme in 2010, and after taking the gold in 2006 she has to be a favourite with the bookies to take the title in 2010.

Cyril Neri

Cyril Neri

Nationality – Swiss
Sponsors – Nissan, Dakine, Flow, Fluidity.ch, Leysin Ski Resort and Youmood.net
Stats – 74kg, 181cm
Website – Cyrilneri.ch

Cyril has spent a lifetime on a snowboard and although his first years of riding were spent dedicated to freestyle, it’s obvious to anybody that sees him ride that freeriding is in his blood. Effortless lines through every type of terrain from tightly packed trees in Leysin to the harsh rock laden extremes of the Bec des Rosses are Cyril’s signature, but you have to see Cyril tweaking a Stalefish in the middle of an impossible transfer to appreciate the magnitude of his ability. Competing on the Freeride World Tour has enabled Cyril to follow his dreams all over the world and his ability hasn’t gone unnoticed in fact Cyril has placed on the podium at the Verbier Xtreme a total of 7 times since 1998, 3 of those podiums were wins! When Cyril isn’t snowboarding you’ll find him piloting his remote control gliders around the peaks of the Swiss Alps or supporting one of the many charities he’s an ambassador for. Anyone else feel inadequate?

Xavier de le Rue

Xavier de le Rue

Nationality – French
Sponsors - Rossignol, The North Face, Swatch, Nissan, Relentless Energy Drink, dee luxe, da kine, SNCF, Saint Lary
Stats – 88kg, 176cm
Website - XavierDeLeRue.com

A legend in his own lifetime. Xavier is the ultimate boardercross rider turned freerider. Bored of winning countless boardercross titles, including the FIS world title, X-Games and Gravity games Xavier turned his hand to Freeriding in search of bottomless powder and a new challenge. Now overall FWT winner for two consecutive years, it’s safe to say that Xavier is the most consistently mind blowing freerider on the planet. To believe Xavier’s skills you only have to watch a couple of his latest video parts, this season alone Xavier is featuring in Relentless Energy’s Lives of the Artist and Standard Films’ Black Winter. With so little left to win, will Xavier be attempting to add an Olympic medal to his trophy cabinet… with a 1st place in Telluride at the 1st FIS boardercross event of the season, I know who I’d put my money on.

1. What’s you favourite stop on the world freeride tour and what makes it so epic?

Geraldine – “My favourite is the Verbier X-treme. It’s the best mountain. The Bec Des Rosses is a real challenge.”

Aline - “My favourite spot on the Freeride World Tour was Sochi last year, as it was not just a fun contest where I could express myself in my riding style being creative with choosing a line, but more a whole adventure. I met all these amazing people from the Tour for the first time, we had plenty of snow at the mountain and Russia is just a place where you never know what is going to happen next. I love that! Its just different from where I have ever been before. I also enjoyed Verbier, my parents surprised me at the final World Tour Stop. I had tears in my eyes when I saw them… It was a great feeling to get their support!”

James - “Well I’ve only been to a couple of events but my favorite spot is the Russian event. The mountain has everything from steep spines to perfectly spaced trees and pillows. Krasnya Poliana is a welcome relief from your typical European or American resort. A bit old and dilapidated but full of character and Russian vodka!”

Cyril - “I love Verbier as it means so much to me. I had my first victory in 1998 which opened a world of snowboarding to me, and fortunately I’ve had many podiums in between 1998 and 2008.”

Xavier - “Verbier is definitely the scariest and the most demanding, but in the end amazing things can come out of this nasty face. I also have high hopes for Sochi in Russia this year, let’s see how I get on…”

2. You get to go to some seriously exotic snowboard locations on the tour, but of all the places you have visited, where’s your favourite place to freeride on the planet?

Geraldine - “Switzerland and Russia thanks to the snow and the mountains. We’re really lucky here!”

Aline - “I have discovered a lot of places up to now, but my favourite place is still my home mountain in Innsbruck (Seegrube, Nordpark) or the Arlberg. It’s not all about the resort itself, it’s about who you are riding with and how much you know the resort. It can be awesome everywhere when you got lots of powder, but there is nothing better than riding with your best friends at home when everybody knows exactly where to go and what is going to be safe (if you jump off cliffs or ride down some lines).”

James - “My adopted home Chamonix is obviously up there, it’s such a unique valley with a life time and more of challenges. The most amazing place I’ve snowboarded is Greenland, riding endless massive glaciers down to the sea with no one else around for miles. But I think my favorite place is the New Zealand club fields, it just feels right no big resort just a community of like minded people enjoying the mountains.”

Cyril - “Home. Switzerland has the highest number of resorts, mountain roads and mountain huts per square km. There’s tons to do and snow coming from all directions, meaning there’s always good snow somewhere!”

Xavier - “My last trip to Antarctica definitely blew my mind! We were extremely lucky there with the conditions, it was by far the most intensely beautiful and powerful place.”

3. What board do you ride and what makes a great backcountry snowboard?

Geraldine – “My board of choice is the F2 Respect 164. It’s made for backcountry riding—it never breaks, the nose is wide and the tail is super strong.”

Aline - “I am riding the Völkl Cashew. It´s an innovative backcountry freestyle board, it also represents an important step towards sustainable and ecological manufacturing. Instead of a plastic topsheet, the Cashew features a tear-proof hemp/linen topsheet. 80% of the sintered base is made of recycled material while flexible wooden sidewalls replace the conventional ABS plastic ones. Völkl used recyclable steel for the Cashew’s edges and as little resin and other toxicological materials as possible, which means that it has a cut down on the use of resources but not of technology and know-how! A unique combination of a directional sidecut, Rocker Shape and Convex Powder Base provides incredibly playful riding behaviors as well as maximum flotation in powder snow. An integrated Shock Absorber makes the board super stable for huge jumps too. The ultimate package for backcountry and park ventures and at the same time, for a better future! I love it!!!”

James - “I ride Lib Tech snowboards. I generally ride the Travis Rice 161.5. It’s got reverse camber between the feet and then camber at the nose and tail. It’s very forgiving in powder as the nose is always trying to float.”

Cyril - “I ride the Hammer Stream, it’s a fish which means the board has a long wide nose, a deep sidecut and a narrow tail. It is very responsive, powerful and fun; it’s a perfect all-round board.”

Xavier - “For big lines I ride the Rossignol Experience 66, and then to play around, I’m riding the Experience 163.”

4. Do you ride a stock snowboard or are your snowboards customised versions of the boards available in the stores? Do you ride the same board for all conditions and terrain, or do you use a number of different shapes and sizes?

Geraldine - “It’s a stock snowboard! I ride the F2 Respect 164 for steep mountains and the 168 for easy mountains when there is a lot of powder snow.”

Aline - “To be honest, I ride the Cashew for all terrain, I even ride it in the park. I always get a softer version because I just love to jib around with it a bit on the slopes, in the park and powder as well….
So for me it is a board to have fun with just everywhere.”

James - “I just ride a stock board, Lib-Tech make the best boards so I don’t need to have anything special done to them! I use the Travis Rice 161.5 for Powder and general riding and the 164 Dark Series for big powder days and a 159 Skate Banana for jibbing.”

Cyril - “I once had the chance to ride for a brand that made a few custom boards for me. Now I am even luckier as I get to ride a stock board which fits perfectly to my riding style. I do everything with the same board! Backcountry, extreme, freestyle, carving…”

Xavier - “For big lines I ride the Rossignol Experience 66, and then to play around, I’m riding the Experience 163.”

5. What characteristics make a good freeride binding?

Geraldine - “Choose bindings that are comfortable and firm with solid construction.”

Aline - “I am also riding Völkl bindings (The Fastec Prime Alu). It has an asymmetric and adjustable highback with a fully dampened aluminium base-plate and a multi-adjustable aluminium disc that makes it a top performance freestyle binding. A large base-buffer avoids possible pressure and breaking points enabling the board to flex freely under the binding. These features combine into bulletproof foothold and maximum power transmission. Comfort and mobility for optimum freestyle potential in any terrain!”

James - “I haven’t got a clue, everyone is different! I like bindings that are really close to the board and light-weight. But riding in powder you generally need less support than for park riding. I ride Burton bindings and reckon they are the best you can get.”

Cyril - “It is not the same for all riders, some like it soft. I love bindings which are solid, and transmit all of your reactions straight to the edges of your board! I ride the top of the range Flow freeride bindings.”

6. Do you have any tuning tips for people taking their boards into the backcountry?

Geraldine - “Yeah set-back your bindings on your board a little.”

Aline - “Make sure you take a longer and wider board, not too stiff but not too soft as well. Just take the Cashew, its perfect ;) I promise!”

James - “I’m rubbish at tuning, I generally avoid waxing, fortunately riding a Lib-Tech with Magnatraction means good edge hold regardless so I rarely edge my board.”

Cyril - “Be sure to sharpen your edges every time it’s needed. It could save your life while riding steep lines that happen to be covered with ice…”

Xavier - “I used not to care to much about tuning my board for freeriding, but the older (experienced) I get, the more I find it benefits my freeriding, especially if you ride with skiers who love traverses and long flat sections. Tuning also helps with the general feeling of the board.”

7. What pieces of equipment should you never go off-piste without?

Geraldine - “My DVA (avalanche transceivers) shovel and probe.”

Aline - “Never go out backcountry without a Transceiver which you are familiar with, a mobile phone, a shovel, a probe and I would recommend a helmet, as there are a lot of rocks out there! Be safe!!!”

James - “The basics are a transceiver and a backpack with shovel and probe. A transceiver on its own is useless; even if you locate the person you won’t be able to dig them out.”

Cyril - “An ARVA (Transceiver) on your body, shovel and a probe in your back pack! As of this winter I’ll be wearing an airbag backpack made by Snowpulse.”

Xavier - “A transceiver, shovel and a probe are essential. Personally, I almost never go out without my ABS.”

8. Does anything random make its way into your daypack?

Aline – “Chocolate.”

James - “No not really, obviously I’m trying to keep it as light as possible. It’s mostly full of snacks for on the mountain. I occasionally find a manky dried banana that has found itself into a random pocket a few months back.”

Cyril - “I pack my daypack thinking; “if I have to stay overnight out in the mountains, I have to survive” so I load my backpack with: an emergency blanket, candle, lighter, a thermos filled with hot tea, energy bars, a knife, a medical kit, spare gloves and goggles, a repair kit for my bindings and finally an edge tuner.”

9. Should our readers look for anything when choosing a shovel. Are aluminium blades better than plastic?

Geraldine - “Aluminium for sure! Plastic breaks!”

Aline - “I would not recommend a plastic shovel as it is very hard to dig through icy or hard snow. Remember that after an avalanche the snow can be like concrete. I am using the Ortovox Compact Alu! It has a good size, very compact and the 29 x 21 x 6 cm large Aluminium shovel blade is stiff and robust. The shaft attachment is riveted rather than welded. Pre-determined breaking points are thus avoided and shovel precision is increased!”

James - “I used to have a plastic blade but swapped it for an aluminium blade after some friends had to dig someone out and struggled in the compact snow with a plastic blade.”

Cyril - “Go for aluminium, it’s stronger and useful; I’ve even used mine as a BBQ once, while cooking on a log fire.”

Xavier - “I think aluminium is better, a good shovel is really important in case of an avalanche.”

10. Safety is obviously the most important consideration for travelling and riding in the backcountry, have you had any experiences where despite being cautious and taking every possible opportunity to assess the conditions, it has gone wrong and you’ve been avalanched?

Geraldine - “Yes, one day somebody I did not know followed me to the top of a freeride couloir. As I was riding he didn’t have the patience to wait until I was out of it and cut the snow on top of the couloir. A big avalanche followed me down, luckily I could go straight down and escape from it.”

Aline - “No, and I’m extremely happy and thankful about that. Actually I released a little slide last week on my first proper powder day here in Austria, I was pretty scared… It reminded me how much I have to take care when I am riding off piste.”

James – “I think every avalanche situation I’ve been in has been avoidable. When you are in the mountains shooting and filming sometimes there is a lot of pressure or you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get good footage which can sometimes cloud your judgment. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an avalanche situation where I haven’t thought there was a possibility it might avalanche.”

Cyril - “Never after checking the risks and saying “it’s all right”. The only time I got caught I knew it was dangerous (40cm of fresh snow atop an old icy crust, wind) but I wanted to drop because we were shooting. I dropped in and the whole slope started to avalanche. I made the mistake because I forced myself to drop for the video camera (pride). Peer pressure can occur anytime, even when you’re riding with friends and you don’t want to be the one who has fear…Always listen to your feelings!!”

Xavier - “Avalanches happen all the time. The best way is to expect things to go wrong all the time, especially with avalanches.”

11. With the massive rise in popularity of backcountry snowboarding there’s been a boom in off-piste specific equipment like digital transceivers, abs backpacks, split boards and the avalung breathing apparatus for those unfortunate enough to buried in a slide. In your opinion what’s the most significant development in backcountry equipment over the last decade?

Gerladine - “People getting responsible and buying all of the equipment does not replace the experience.”

Aline - “I have just got the new transceiver from Ortovox and I am really stoked and surprised about how much easier and faster it is nowadays to locate people under the snow. The electromagnetic sensors map victims’ locations and depths in relation to the searcher on the LCD screen. The display information is adjusted in real time according to the movement of the transceiver. The transceiver even provides information for up to four transmitters, including search direction and distance from the searcher. Switching from transmitting mode to search mode is as simple as pushing a button to open the clamshell device. Upon reaching a victim, the searcher can mark the found victim and immediately set out for other burials by simply following the visual data. Marking victims forces the transceiver to stop receiving the marked signal and focus on any remaining signals. Selectable functions include temperature, slope angle, digital compass and burial depth. As a freerider I have to trust the reliability of my equipment 100%. Being equipped with high quality, easy to use products gives me assurance in the mountains. Knowing that I can put 100% trust in my kit means that I can focus fully on my free riding. That’s just amazing!”

James - “I think transceivers have become much easier to use which can lead to a false sense of security. You still need to practice a lot to make sure you get it right in a real life situation. The ABS packs seem to work as does the Avalung, but all the technology in the world won’t save you in a lot of avalanche situations.”

Cyril - “AIRBAGS (Snowpulse or ABS)”.

Xavier - “By far ABS. All of the other pieces of equipment require experienced people to find you and dig you out where as the ABS prevents you from being buried! Be warned though, it is key to make sure you’re riding the right terrain because in many terrain situations, all that gear in the world won’t help you.”

The Freeride World Tour is the only platform on the planet that allows the world’s best freeride snowboarders to compete head-to-head. The tour consists of two tears of invitation only competition, the Tour and the Qualifiers. The Tour takes in 4 resorts over the winter, from the wilds of Sochi in Russia to the infamous badlands of Chamonix, the terrifying and pretty much un-ridden Tramface in Squaw Valley and finally stopping at the now legendary Bec des Rosses in Verbier. If you’d like to find out more about the Freeride World Tour, the riders or competition results check freerideworldtour.com.

Snowboard Review would like to thank Nadine Carle-Edgar @ the FWT, Aline Bock, Geraldine Fasnacht, James Stentiford, Cyril Neri and Xavier de le Rue for all of their help putting this article together.

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