A healthy dose of fear in the mountains?
It’s an almost indescribable dichotomy unless you’ve felt it. Although the mountains inspire me with awe, they inspire me with fear too. I’ve always viewed the mountains as a surreal space of wonder and allure. But I’ve also come to fear them more over the years. This has been an interesting process. It starts with preparation. High mountain environments are a place to be respected. A space where there is absolute truth. Things get really real really quickly. Being as prepared as possible helps. Some say nothing is 100 percent sure in life – others disagree. Whatever your view, I find the mountains are a place to be particularly skeptical. Conditions can vary and change fast. Skepticism means constant assessment and reassement. Skepticism can be viewed as staying concerned and in tune with these shifting variables. Is being concerned the same as being afraid? If so, let’s call it a healthy fear. Skepticism pushes you towards the meticulous. It pushes you towards effective preparation. With skepticism in mind, you’ll be more prepared to deal with situations – so that these circumstances don’t become a problem for which you have no answer. Of course all of this requires a certain skillset and knowledge base. This knowledge requires constant development. But no matter one’s knowledge and understanding, a freerider’s skillset must be paired with a certain mindset. They call it ‘system two’ thinking – very logical, ordered, and unemotional.
Lots of amazing lines on the Gemmsstock mountain.
I took a little fall this year in a couloir in Switzerland. I say little because I got lucky, I guess. It had been a great day of runs and this was one of my final descents. It wasn’t a gigantic couloir by any means – say about 300 meters deep before opening up into a wonderful long valley descent. I had certainly ridden bigger things before with more consequences. But it was a pretty windblown entry at the top, and I didn’t enter it right, given what the snow conditions were like. In retrospect, the maps said the entrance to the couloir was 50 degrees steep. I wouldn’t say it looked that bad at first glance, but these are what they say are ideally no fall zones for a reason. After dropping in, I lost my heelside edge but stopped on the wall of the chute a little way down, without going for too much of a ride. No problem in the end. I even did it properly the next day – mandatory jump turns and all. It could have been a problem though.
This situation reminded me of what I would label a healthy dose of fear. It’s an essential ingredient when riding off piste in the big mountains.
Yes, you should think exactly about your first turns before you drop into something. You should also be thinking about this while you drop into something. You need to think in that level of detail. And it can’t hurt to reflect a little bit after too. Staying switched on and present is an essential mindset when riding. The trick is to be consistent and calculated. I was too comfortable. I’d say be positive and embrace preparation, but keep that healthy fear as a driver. A driver towards creating more confidence and being more locked in. And no, things are not always as good as they appear. Conditions in the chute were excellent but I was lazy on my read of the entry. Always think what lies beneath the surface. There is a myriad of other safety factors to consider when riding in the backcountry, but for me, this experience was a reminder that effective preparation requires constant follow through and engagement – before, during, and after the mission. No matter how good things are going or appear to be, be prepared.
On that note, does anyone want to go to Argentina this summer? : ) .
Andermatt, Switzerland - at the bottom of the couloir before the long valley descent.
More views on the Gemmsstock. It's a truly amazing place to ride!