At the beginning of 2008, it seemed the Alps were doing their best impression of British Columbia. A weather front, accompanied by significant snowfalls, hit Corsica in the first few days of the New Year, tracking north towards the Southern Alps. All resorts throughout the Southern Alps were on avalanche alert, at last! Weather conditions were finally going to allow us to complete a feature we’d planned for several years now.
The snow was falling so hard, our windscreen wipers were struggling the clear the view of the road ahead even on their highest setting. Drivers (locals, for once) were at the side of the road putting on snow chains, and I’d just had a close call with a fox that had run out into the road right in front of the car. The narrow stretch of asphalt leading to Auron seemed to go on forever.
We’d wanted to explore the spectacular mountain terrain of the Southern Alps, from Serre-Chevalier to Auron, for several years, but the right conditions never seemed to materialise. It got to the point that we'd more or less given up hope. But last season, for once, this big winter depression come up from Corsica guaranteeing we’d be served first. Psyched, I called my mate Julien Bourguigon. “You need to come down from Briançon quick. The weather front is going to hit from the South and Morgan Lefaucheur is waiting for us in Auron." In the evening, Julien met me at Gap and we headed for the Southern Alps and its winding roads, relieved when we finally meet up with the Lefaucheur brothers. Their friendly family-vibe chalet would serve as our base for the days to come. “Welcome to Whistler!" Morgan greeted us in front of the chalet with a big smile on his face and shovel in hand. We were barely 70km from Nice and yet the trees were loaded so heavily with snow it looked like they might snap at any minute. Cars were nothing but big white lumps along the side of the road and the road maintenance dudes had their work cut out for them. Conditions looked epic.
BEAUTY IS FRIEND WITH DANGER
The weather stayed overcast for our first day of shooting at Auron. You couldn’t see much but it didn’t really matter, there was so much snow that access to the neighbouring resort Isola 2000 was blocked for three days. The locals (Yann Lefaucheur, Jérémie Bonnemaison and Régis Isaïa) were kind enough to show our crew around the best areas of the domain. Although Marseille and the Mediterranean Sea were not that far away, there was a good 4 or 5 feet of fresh snow in certain areas. On the advice of Scalp, riders Morgan Lefaucheur, Laurent Haslé and Julien Bourguignon started to shape a small kicker off a cornice with the landing down the back of it.
After a few runs each and a superb flat landing by Laurent, we’d got a few keepers in the bag. It was time to move onto another spot, making sure not to miss any big powder slashes in the trees or snow-covered tree trunk jibs on the way there. We decided to cross over to the other side of the domain, which offers much steeper and more open terrain.
The sun was already starting to set, turning the sky a blazing orange. We spotted a beautiful untracked south-facing face still in the sun. Unable to hold back despite the high avalanche danger, we approached the slope with caution from below and along a ridge. Morgan went first and just as he was unclipping his bindings to take a closer look, we heard an all-too-familiar ‘crack’. In the space of a few seconds, Morgan found himself 50 metres lower down, still on the surface of an avalanche that measured 50 metres long and 70 metres wide. This scared the shit out of everyone. With everything happening so fast, we grabbed our transceivers to check if anyone else might have got caught in the slide. The snow patrol then arrived with dogs and probes to make sure everyone was OK. Helicopters circled for several hours above the area and our little mishap would even find itself onto national TV that evening. A minor mistake could have had severe consequences and we tried to regain our composure after the shock.
AS THE CREW GROWS
After a hearty meal cooked up by Scalp, eight of us found ourselves round a poker table for a game that would go on until 2am, finally making me €50 richer. Thanks guys, it was fun while it lasted!
Our second day of shooting was freezing. The previous day we’d spotted a nice looking east-facing slope scattered with trees just above the village. The chance for the new grom of the crew and local, Robin Reymond, to show off his skills in the backcountry. No doubt still slightly unsettled by his defeat the previous evening, Julien Bourguignon rode the spot out until nightfall, killing it off the kicker built between two trees set above a typical alpine chalet.
This low altitude sesh would be the only one of the day, the fog preventing us from exploring higher up in the resort. That evening, Tonton Holland, tipped off by Morgan, showed up from Zurich accompanied by Daryl (one of the filmers from Yeahh Productions) and his brand new camera and enough flashes to light up the whole resort. A few cliff jumps were on the programme for the following day, as well as a step-down into the powder – enough to get everyone’s motivation up again despite being tired. In fact, that same evening up in the village the guys had a go at a drop that Tonton had shaped. The final day on the Côte d’Azur would be spent hitting a big road gap, which we’d hit for about half an hour before the snow patrol brought the session to an end. We’d get our own back on them in the Hautes-Alpes.
So, headed for the region of the Hautes-Alpes, we once again negotiated the precipitous yet magnificent journey towards Briançon, passing through Digne and Gap. Julien Bourguignon, who’d left us a few days earlier to work in the shop Krakatoa, had managed to blag us free lift tickets and welcomed us into his house with a jib park out the front and a mini ramp in his living room. The conditions had already deteriorated since Auron: the last snowfall was a while ago now. But between all the locals who’d been told about this shoot (Gaby Bessy, Bruno Rivoire, Jean-Jacques Roux, Brynild Builin, Gary Zebrowski, Arnaud Debuze and Mathieu Justafré) each one would be able to hit up their own secret spot. The first day took us up the road leading to the Col du Lautaret. This spot is a kind of Mecca for kite-snowboarders, headed by Guillaume Chastagnol, who never think twice about hitting a freshly shaped kicker and landing 50 metres further down. The spot of the day would turn out to be a sick step-down in a riverbed where Mathieu Justafré and Gaby Bessy rejoined our host Julien. However, it turned out to be a tricky session seeing as the landing was bulletproof and few people managed to stick their tricks, but it was cool nevertheless! Gaby managed to stomp a stylish switch 180 backside but unfortunately hurt his ankle in the process. That evening, Julian took us on our first jib mission to the fortress in Briançon. There’s a monstrous drop from the top of the ramparts that overlook the town. The walls of a fort are designed to stand up to any enemy and we weren’t carrying any ropes or ladders to reach the run-in but Julien was super motivated and after several risky, failed climbing attempts, ended up disappearing through a door closed to the public to finally reappear ten metres above our head. Four huge perfectly landed drops followed, all the more impressive as the spot wasn’t just a straightforward bomb drop. There was a five-metre run-in to negotiate at the top of the wall so it was kind of like hitting a cliff drop.
The next day it was overcast. We spent the day shaping a jib spot that Julien had noticed near his house: an old factory brick chimney about seven or eight metres high and very narrow. These guys were certainly committed! The session kicked off with Julien, Mathieu, neighbouring rider Alex Doumergue, Julien’s girlfriend Lilou, and a friend of hers, Marie, and it turned out to be a sweet jib session amongst friends.
The sun shone bright on this new day, but we decided to finish our jib mission on site. Another neighbouring rider, Arthur Longo, joined us at Julien’s. The transition at this spot was pretty savage and literally hurled you at a near-vertical four-metre high wall, barely a metre wide. On either side of the landing were two deep holes about two metres deep. A pretty gnarly spot! We psyched ourselves up anyway and the session began slowly allowing the guys to get comfortable. A little uncertain about the spot, Mathieu decided to step out before someone got hurt. Just then Arthur gave it his best shot so far, nearly making it to the top with a switch Indy nose tap. Happy to still be in one piece, he threw in the towel too, leaving Julien and his flatmate to continue trying. Unfortunately, the session would end badly with Julien straying too far off to one side on one attempt and landing to the side of the transition with his board in one of the holes, twisting his ankle and damaging ligaments. Understandably, morale was down that evening but Julien tried to encourage everyone to keep shooting without him. That night, 20cm of fresh snow fell so we decided to return to the Col du Lautaret to erect a kicker on a perfectly curved hillside. The two riders of the day were Arthur and Mathieu, stomping one trick after another! However the landing was a little hard packed and despite successfully riding out of one massive backside 720, other 720 attempts came to nothing.
HAPPY ENDING Luckily, it finally dumped for real and after two days of non-stop snow, sessions kicked off again with a new arrival, Gary Zebrowski, although there had been quite a lot of wind too so a lot of areas were left bare. We headed back down to our next spot recommended by Julien, the military camp in Briançon. We unpacked the shovels and the hard work lasted right up until nightfall. We’d return the following day at sunset to ride the spot. Motivated by the shaping from the previous night, Alex landed a sick backside 180 melon, and on his turn Gary hucked a just-as-stylish frontside 540 nosebone, coming to a stop inches in front of the barbed wire fence. Nightfall was upon us, Scalp unpacked his flashes and the session kicked off again. The atmosphere was pretty surreal, it felt like we were having a backcountry session in a park on the outskirts of town where people normally come to walk their dogs and go sledging with their kids. As the light continued to fade and the photos became increasingly surreal, Gary was corking 5s despite barely being able to see the landing…
Our little trip was coming to an end, but there was just one more spot we wanted to check out, a windlip near Lautaret. Zebrowski was boosting frontside off the spine we built into it, getting some serious amplitude at this magical spot, while Alex was countering with backside airs nearly as high, slowly warming up. Impatient, Gary wanted to shoot a sequence of one of his favourite tricks: a 540 rodeo. He nailed one on his second attempt but hit a hidden rock under the snow and fell riding out. It turned out he’d broken his board and there was now a big rock in the middle of the landing, bringing an end to our final session and our trip.
All in the space of a few weeks, we had some awesome moments, scary times, and plenty of snow and friends (a big thank you to all the riders!). We hope Julien will make a quick and full recovery after his operation. And if you ever decide to mix it up and explore the Southern Alps one day, remember to move fast because the snow doesn’t last long down there, and most importantly remember to take care in the backcountry.