The Big Mountain Pro Day One.
Day one of The Swatch O’Neill Big Mountain Pro kicked off with a scenic run down the Vallée Blanche, as the best freeride skiers and snowboarders gathered in the mountaineering resort of Chamonix.
The snow might not have fallen here in over three weeks, but flawless blue skies revealing all the spectacle of the Vallée Blanche meant, as American skier, Cody Townsend put it: “this was the best sightseeing run I’ve ever been on. My neck hurt from looking around so much.”
The American from Santa Cruz – the historic surf town and birthplace of O’Neill – is ecstatic to be back for his second year on The Swatch O’Neill Big Mountain Pro. “I came second last year. Hopefully I can do better this year,” he said.
Cod was in some illustrious company up on the Aiguille du Midi. Last year’s snowboarding winner and overall winner of The Big Mountain Pro, Xavier de le Rue was back to have some fun in the mountains. And Jeremy Jones, just recently voted Big Mountain Rider of the year once again, was also back for this second year, simply happy to be amongst friends snowboarding in Europe “It’s cool once a year to meet up with all the guys and spend a week riding in the best conditions in the Alps in this dynamic contest,” he said. “The competition is almost secondary here. It’s about getting everyone together and riding the best mountains in the best conditions.”
The day ended in perfect style – with the guys flying off a kicker through the tress just above the Hotel Montenvers at the bottom of the Vallée Blanche as everyone involved in the event congregated for dinner after the breathtaking run.
An unexpected bonus – considering the lack of recent snowfall and almost tropical temperatures in the Alps – was the announcement that the contest would start on Monday just down the road, on the face of Le Buet.
With that, it was a train ride down the mountain and back to the Gîte la Montagne as the guys looked forward to a 6am start 3,000 meters high in the French Alps, just on the border of Switzerland.
The Big Mountain Pro Day Two
The second day of the Big Mountain Pro and it was already game on. With the weather threatening to close in during the afternoon, the riders started early with a 7am heli ride up to the vantage point next to the 3,000m face of Le Buet.
For some there was excitement, whilst for others slight trepidation as they headed off to what event organizer, Nicolas Hale-Woods, described as “One of the more challenging faces visited by The Big Mountain Pro.”
According to Nicolas, it’s a mix of the height of the face at 3,000m, the steepness, which is on average 45%, and the length of the face which is 500m top to bottom,” which presents a challenge to the riders.
After a short moment viewing the face and possible lines, the 23 skiers and snowboarders started the 75 minute hike up the ridge to the starting point at the top of the face.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the face, spectators witnessing the freeriding display were astounded by what they were seeing.
The weather held off, and the guys put on a show of fluid beautiful riding. The standout runs of the day came from Jeremy Jones, Xavier de le Rue, Flo Orley on their snowboards, and Seb Michaud and Cody Townsend on skis.
Jeremy was stoked with the way the day turned out. Back in the gite, looking back on the run, Jeremy said:
“Today was really cool. We started the day with an amazing hike and ended by riding out and climbing through a river out of the valley. It was like a fun adventure with friends.
The hike up was beautiful. I took my time and walked up with Xavier de le Rue and some others. It was just like having a day in the mountains with my friends
“The face was possibly the best face that I have ridden in a contest. It’s something I would have done for fun with my friends. I was really psyched. Sometimes I go up and look down a face and there is nothing. But with this there were a couple of lines I really wanted to do. I was stoked on a bunch. I took a straightforward clean line that only one other person had been over. It was clean snow, fun and ripable.”
With snow forecast over the next few days, it’s time to pack up and get moving and see where the weather and the mountains will lead The Big Mountain Pro to next.
DAY THREE OF THE BIG MOUNTAIN PRO SEES MORE RIDING IN THE SWISS SUNSHINE
It was touch and go on day three of The Swatch O’Neill Big Mountain Pro in the Val de Bagnes. An early departure from Chamonix meant that all the riders were helied up to check out the north face of Le Rogneux (3000m), just over the border in Switzerland at 7am. At 400m long, it wasn’t as long as yesterday’s face, but at the top the steepness was up to 50%, mellowing out to 30% further down.
The sun was once again out, but there was a slight murmur of concern from the riders. Last year’s winner, Xavier de le Rue was amongst those not convinced that the quality of snow could produce a face that they could compete on.
“We had such a great day yesterday, it spoilt us,” he said. “I worry that these conditions will not give a good image of what we do.”
Skier Phil Meier was also in agreement: “We have a week here on The Big Mountain Pro. This face in these conditions won’t show a display of great skiing.”
But not everyone was in agreement. Among those keen to go up to the top was American Cody Townsend; “The sun is out and I like skiing,” was his motivation to ski down the face.
In true diplomatic style, the matter was taken to the riders to vote, and the result: up to the peak they were taken.
Event organizer Nicolas Hale-Woods was happy to let the riders make the call. “The snow is not as good as yesterday and the lines are not as clear as yesterday. So we let the riders decide if they wanted to compete on the face. I think they made a good decision.”
The order of riders was reversed from yesterday, with the snowboarders heading down the face first.
As at the start of the event, after completing their rides, reactions to the run varied, as did the lines the riders took.
A standout run came from Cody Townsend, who flew down the top of the run at an incredible speed and was buzzing as he reached the bottom.
“I was going about 60km per hour up there,” he said. “I used to ski downhill. I love to go fast. When I got up there, the original line I had chosen didn’t look so good to me, so I just went straight down another I saw. I am glad we had the run today.”
There were plenty other riders who finished the run with a smile on their face. Among them was Flo Orley who said: “I am just here because I love snowboarding. I didn’t care if there was 2 foot of powder, the sun was shining and I was riding with my friends.”
Xavier de le Rue has his premonition of the snow quality proven right; “it was like I thought,” but enjoyed the run nonetheless. “I had fun going down pretty much in a straight line, but I didn’t do anything technical.”
Then skiing out of the valley and straight to the restaurant for lunch, the riders were greeted with the news that the voyage to Andermatt was off the agenda, and instead they will be staying locally in St Bernhard.
Tomorrow sees a new weather system hopefully fill the mountains with some snow, as The Big Mountain Pro makes its next move into the Italian alpine region of Sestriere for more from the best freeriders in the world.