Most alpinists approach the frozen ridges and vertical ice sheets of the Alps with serious minds and grim determination. But snowboarder Victor de Le Rue takes a more playful approach to riding potentially fatal lines out in the backcountry. He says that his latest project, with childhood friend and skier Pierre Hourticq, is just the logical extension of those fun, ‘bullshit’ escapades that only the oldest of friends get stuck into together.
‘Frozen Mind’, out now, documents the two and a half months that the pair spent filming some of the Alps gnarliest ever lines, on the Mont Blanc Massif. They climbed up ice fields in the dark, swinging ice axes with their board and skis strapped to their backs, in order to catch the foreboding faces of 3,000m plus peaks before the snow was blown off the almost vertical sheets of frozen blue water.
De Le Rue is better known as a freestyle snowboarder, but that hasn’t stopped him from bossing the backcountry too. And he had spent the previous year learning how to paraglide so that he could take the adventure one step further by climbing up, then then snowboarding part of the way down with one on his back, before launching off into bluebird skies and flying home. RSNG caught up with him at the premiere to find out how he breaks into new ground…
RSNG Why did you decide to film Frozen Mind in Chamonix? VICTOR DE LE RUE, SNOWBOARDER ‘One of my best friends from high school, in the Pyrenees, he moved to Chamonix to become a guide, so we decided to team up together for a winter and try to ride some big, gnarly lines. In Chamonix you have the Aiguille du Midi that brings you to 3,800 meters. You just come off from the gondola, basically, and you are on top of the gnarliest runs you could ever dream of. It's a crazy, crazy place!’
RSNG Were you combining your freestyle, playful approach with the gnarly lines and trying to create something new? VR ‘Yes. Many people do freestyle and so I wanted to push it a bit further, bringing that freestyle into remote areas. Like doing freestyle in glaciers, over seracs, or crevasses – that environment, I'm so attracted by it, you have pieces of ice everywhere and it's so beautiful, along with the dangers and is way much more intense. Riding steep lines is pretty new for me and this time we were riding stuff that was way more gnarly than I usually do.’
‘I wanted to push it and to go to some big, steep, gnarly lines, and maybe try to do a bit of freestyle. All of these lines are pretty technical and super-scary but we were watching the mountains for a couple of months, checking the weather forecast every day to see the evolution of the mountain; the ice getting covered with snow and then boom there is that one day when you decide to go. We don’t just go out there randomly.’
RSNG You must be very aware of change in the mountains – are you seeing the effect that global warming is having? VR ‘If you look at the lines year after year then for sure you see the glaciers shrinking, and the big seracs at the bottom breaking, and the limits getting higher and higher – it’s pretty crazy.’
RSNG You also paraglide off from the bottom of one of the lines – why was that? VR ‘I rode a line which gets ridden, really, really rarely, and the only exit is to do some rappels, but it's really sketchy and dangerous because you have a bunch of seracs above. Or, you can climb up for two hours and ride down for another two hours; super sketchy. Or, I can try to fly off – I was down in five minutes! I think I was the first person to do that in Chamonix. It was super cool. With these new super light paragliding packs, you can pack it up at the bottom of your bag and take it out when there’s no wind.’
I could hear him bounce off the walls like a pinball, going super-deep into the crevasse
RSNG In Frozen Mind you’re riding these super-steep lines with an ice axe in each hand – why was that? VR ‘I was riding with my ice axes in my hands because it’s a mix between mountaineering and snowboarding. So you are riding steep lines, which are not rideable most of the time – it’s basically just ice – so you wait for April or May when the snow is warm and sticks better to the mountain. You’re riding through snow but you know that just underneath it’s ice, so you need to be ready in case you slide at any time, and to anchor yourself with the ice axe.’
RSNG It’s harder and riskier to do what you do while trying to film it as well – what has been your sketchiest moment in a filming? VR ‘We went and filmed in the glaciers in Saas-Fee, with Freddie Kalbermatten, a local from there. He fell in a crevasse one and a half metres from me. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I was looking at him and, in a split second, he just disappeared. He didn't have time to move a single finger. He was just whoosh, gone – disappeared in front of me. I could hear him bounce off the walls like a pinball, going super deep into the crevasse.’
‘Luckily, I had all the equipment to take him out and I trained with it beforehand. Fortunately, he was fine. I took him out, then we hit the jump we were supposed to hit, and we had a great session. That was a pretty crazy day!’
The Aiguille du Plan, in Chamonix is a hanging glacier – it was the gnarliest line I've done
RSNG What was the best day for you during filming for Frozen Mind? VR ‘Probably the day when we looked at one line we wanted to ride since the beginning called Aiguille du Plan, in Chamonix. It's a hanging glacier. You can see it from the village – It’s always there, even in summer. Some people have done it, including Xavier my brother, but you're like: “How the hell is that possible to go down from there?”
‘We looked at it, we studied it. All the winter we kept looking at it, looking for the forecast every day. Then, one day we had one opportunity to do it. We did it. Then, my friends hiked up to the classic exit. I flew out with my paraglide. That was one of the coolest moments of the season. It's the kind of line you do once in your life and that's it. It was pretty much the gnarliest stuff I've done, for sure.’
RSNG How does it feel when you actually pull something like that off, after planning and building up to it? VR ‘It’s super satisfying. Every time you do a line, you're like, okay, this is possible. It means if I've done that I can do the bigger one next week. This is how you improve. To arrive to this point and to be able to ride this line, it means that before that I already pushed my limits many times to be able to ride this one.’
RSNG How do you know where the limit is? How do you know what you can take on and still get to the bottom? VR ‘It depends about skills. For example, for this line, Aiguille du plan, it's a different technique to go down. You ride, then, at some point you can't any more because there's a huge glacier, a huge serac. The way to go down is to make an Abalakov ice anchor. So, you make two holes in the ice, and you thread a little rope through them, a V-thread, it's called in English. Then you attach your big rope onto it, to rappel down on. Then you pull your rope. If you don't know how to do this technique, you cannot do this run.’
RSNG You build an anchor with the ice? Sounds kind of sketchy! VR ‘Yes, super sketchy, and you do that again and again, because you need to do a couple of them to get down all the way.’
RSNG The riding technique, does that change in that kind of terrain, when it gets that steep? Do you ever change the way that you ride? VR 'Well, when you ride steep lines in high altitude, like on the north face there is usually ice under the snow. Then it snows over; it looks white, but sometimes the ice is just right underneath. This could be very dangerous, so you need to have abilities. Sometimes if you stop and actually there's ice five centimetres under the snow you can just slip down. You need to stop into some safe spot. For example, if you find a spine, it should be better snow.’
RSNG How long is an average day in the mountains when you're trying to do these lines? How many hours do you have to put in to actually get that shot? VR 'It depends, for example, there's one line in the movie where we sleep in a refuge. We leave at 3am from the refuge, and we climb up. We arrive at the summit for the sunrise at 7am. We ride the line down and, then, it's 7:15am. We were like, it's 7:15am the day is over! That was a funny moment.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the full version of Frozen Mind right now…
Victor de Le Rue is is a member of The North Face Athlete team. Follow @thenorthfaceuk to keep up to date with their expeditions.
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