On a mountaintop, high above the Swiss resort of Verbier, 4,000 people are holding their breath. Their heads are all turned towards a spot on the shoulder of the Bec des Rosses, a 3,222m-high peak across the valley from their observation point; their eyes all focused on one, motionless, snowboarder.
Setting off from the summit seconds earlier, he had swept down the face, launching into the air from ripples in the snow and speeding through the vertical maze of rock bands and snowy couloirs. But then, he seemed to take a wrong turn, rushing towards a dead end, surrounded by rock walls and with only cliffs dropping away beneath. He slashed his board across the fall-line, coming to a shuddering halt, and now peers downwards as if unsure what to do next, a torrent of loose snow pouring over the rocks all around. Across the valley, the silent crowd feels a swell of tension, the thrill of the unfolding drama mixed with horror at the possibility of witnessing serious injury.
This is sport at its most immediate and visceral, a competition that brings the excitement of ski movies to a live audience. And while the Olympics are winding up this weekend, this event – the Freeride World Tour – is just hotting up. Competitors earn points through the winter at a series of events in Europe and North America. The next is at Snowbird, Utah, on March 1, followed by Revelstoke, Canada, on March 10, then the annual climax, in Verbier on March 22.
The format is simple: competitors (who can be men or women, skiers or snowboarders) climb to the top of a peak, then descend, one by one, being marked by a panel of judges on the difficulty of their line, speed, size of their jumps, fluidity, technical ability and style. Some are invited (former winners, or the stars of ski and snowboard movies), others earn a place by working their way up through the series of 50 qualifying events, from New Zealand to Scotland. Some are mountain guides, former downhill racers or ski jumpers, but this year one, Sascha Hamm, is a British property investment consultant who works four days a week in London then flies to the mountains every Thursday night.
“With Olympic events like slopestyle and half-pipe, the riders have a routine that they’ve practised for four years so they have it absolutely nailed,” Hamm told me last week. “With the FWT there are no practice runs – you can look at photographs of the peak, and examine it with binoculars, but then you just get one run. It’s spontaneous, a real expression of how you ride.”
The competition traces its roots to the Swiss surfing team – “Rather like the Jamaican bobsleigh team!” Nicolas Hale-Woods, the tour’s European manager, tells me when we meet at last year’s Verbier event. Victorinox had sponsored the team (whose surfboards were painted to look like the red Swiss Army knives) and paid for them to make a movie about the links between surfing and snowboarding. The crew had begun filming on the Bec des Rosses when they noticed a crowd of spectators spontaneously gathering around the camera position to watch. “We realised then that we were on to something,” says Hale-Woods. Individual events grew into a tour, the advent of live internet streaming allowed it to reach an international home audience, and in 2012 European and US competitions were linked into one world series.
Verbier is a natural setting for the finale, with topography ideal for a large audience to watch the action and a reputation for steep off-piste terrain. But Verbier has been changing, rapidly moving upmarket so that its new designer boutiques, £100,000-a-week chalets and celebrity-backed restaurants feel at odds with the hardcore mountain above. In Courchevel, by comparison, the oligarchs can enjoy wide, flattering and immaculately groomed pistes.
This winter’s big news is the opening of a 123-room five-star, the W, the first ski property from the Starwood group’s youthful sub-brand and the clearest sign of Verbier’s shift from chalet accommodation to luxury hotels. “We’re at a turning point,” says Marcus Bratter, an Australian who came to Verbier in 1974 to work as a dishwasher, then stayed to become, first a ski instructor, then one of the resort’s leading restaurateurs and hoteliers. He predicts that Starwood’s global marketing reach will accelerate the resort’s move away from a mainly British to a more international clientele. “The big change is that we’ve been discovered by the jet set,” he says.
The W is an impressive development, including a complete remodelling of the once-scruffy area where the pistes arrive in town, but some will find it too big, glitzy and self-consciously modern. Bratter’s latest project, the 34-room hotel Cordée des Alpes, is more sophisticated and understated. A 1980s apartment block has been gutted and rebuilt, taking inspiration from the alpine hotels of a century ago. So the walls are a tactile natural mix of chalk and wax, the wooden shutters are larch, light switches are vintage Bakelite and bathrooms have handmade Zellige tiles. The heritage theme is worn lightly, though, and there’s a spa, swimming pool and a glamorous restaurant reminiscent of a Parisian bistro. “Sometimes I get sentimental about the old days but, at its core, Verbier remains the same,” says Bratter. “The most important person in the resort is still the best skier, not the guy with the biggest chalet.”
Back on the mountain, the snowboarder – a French former champion called Jonathan Charlet – shuffles forward, helicopter camera crews relaying every movement to big screens far below. Then, just as I start to suspect the helicopter will have to perform a rescue, Charlet lifts his feet and points his board defiantly downhill. He hops from rock to rock, scrubbing off speed on patches of snow then makes a huge jump to clear the final cliff, sending up a plume of white smoke. The crowd roars.