The Other Side of Mt. Blanc
Absinthe Films explores Courmayeur
by Ahriel Povich
Mt. Blanc is the tallest mountain in the Alps and when most people think of it, they also think of Chamonix, France. But every time I've been to Chamonix, I've always had the distinct feeling that I was arriving there late — about 20 to 30 years too late. The terrain is amazing, but it's certainly not a secret, so a lot of the backcountry is overrun by tourists. I've even heard rumors that sometimes you need to reserve your spot on the first lift a day in advance if you want to get first tracks. Because of this, most of the major film crews have steered clear of Chamonix in recent years. But there's another side to Mt. Blanc that's still fresh and big… and the best part is that it's not even in France! No offense to our frog eating friends, but I'll take a bowl of fresh pesto over a six-pack of escargot any day; and Courmayeur, Italy has more than it's share of great pasta and powder.
Last season was a tough year for snow in most of Europe and that's part of the reason why long-time Absinthe Filmer David "Vlady" Vladika had been keeping an eye on the snow reports from some higher altitude resorts like Courmayeur. Vlady is a real pro. Over a decade deep into his filming career, he's worked for Absinthe since their third movie, Vivid. At this point, he's got a pretty elaborate system. He tracks the storms and the snowfall around the world and he's not about to waste his time in a spot if good snow is not there.
Dan Brisse waiting for his ride | Photo: Ahriel Povich
More and more frequently in recent years Vlady has had his eyes on Italy. He lives in Switzerland and knows the alps better than most, but he's recently been getting a lot of his shots in the south. Last year it was Cervinia, and this year he mixed it up by heading to Courmayeur. And who better for exploring some big mountains, than a veteran crew including Fredi Kalbermatten, Jules Reymond, and Sylvain Bourbousson. Add to that Dan Brisse from Utah, USA who is one of the best all around riders in the game and the young rookie from Geneva, Mat Schaer, who was getting his try-out for Absinthe, and you've got enough talent to crack a new zone wide open.
But the trip would not have been nearly so smooth without the help of local snowboard icon Manuel Castelnuovo. Manuel is a bit of a legend. He runs his own snowboard school, organizes camps in Les Deux Alpes and knows the best food, wine, women and powder stashes in Courmayeur. Somehow he managed to ride with us nearly every day and still run his business with a smile.
Dan Brisse & Jules Reymond – Rock Paper Scissors | Photo: Ahriel Povich
Manuel showed us some good zones, but as soon as it was time for action, Fredi took a leadership position pioneering some new lines as if he'd been riding in Courmayeur for years. After nearly a decade at the top of the game, Fredi's got a huge amount of experience riding challenging terrain all around the world. From Alaska to New Zealand, he's able to quickly assess the possibilities and risks, and then drop in with a unique mix of power and playfulness. His confidence in the mountains comes from lots of experience and is aided by an impressive pedigree. His father was a guide and nearly everyone in his family has climbed all of the major 4,000 meter mountains in the Alps; so you could say that mastering mountains is in Fredi's blood.
It was really interesting to see the different approaches each rider had for working on their video parts, especially when Manuel presented us with the opportunity to do some Heli laps at high altitude. Fredi and Sylvian did not hesitate to get gnarly in the icy seracs and point it on the steep stuff, but Brisse and Jules preferred to chill and wait to find better snow. The two had just come from Utah and were already sitting on a pile of shots, so they knew exactly what they wanted from Courmayeur. Jules was looking to ride as much as possible and hit natural stuff. Anything that involved taking his shovel out of his backpack was already a waste of time. But Brisse was hoping to build some kickers so that he could get a few more technical tricks in his part.
Fredi Kalbermatten on a glacier line | Photo: Ahriel Povich
It all came to a head on our final days when we finally found a spot to build a kicker. Courmayeur is not the easiest area for backcountry booters, but towards the end of our trip we found a zone that offered a few impressive possibilities. As usual, there's always a catch. How much speed, how much of a gap, how much pop and on and on. Everyone who has ever tried to build a big jump in a new spot knows how difficult it can be. And the last spot we chose was one of the most challenging I've ever encountered. It involved crossing a gap with just enough speed to find a really small hip-style landing. It was clear that if we built the kicker the wrong way, then it would never work, and it seemed like everyone had a different opinion about exactly where and how the kicker should be built.
At some point, Jules dropped the line "Fuck Cheese Wedges," which became his mantra for the rest of the trip. But of course he killed that kicker when it came time to session it, laying down three tricks and what Absinthe Films producer Patrick "Brusti" Armbruster described as, "The sickest switch backside 5 I've ever seen." But Jules also made it totally clear that he would rather be spending his time slashing the fresh powder in the landing than shoveling. And even Dan Brisse, arguably the hardest working snowboarder alive, had to respect that.
Jules Reymond – Switch BS 5 | Photo: Ahriel Povich
Brisse has been coming to Europe regularly for five years now. Early on in his career he was trying to make a name for himself by doing rail comps at ISPO, and more recently he came to try to get shots for The Pirates' and Absinthe's movies. But on only his third day in Courmayeur, he did not hesitate to claim that this trip had already become his most productive Euro-trip ever. Brisse rides hard and rides everything. Some of the street stuff he's done in recent years has changed the way people think about urban snowboarding. Which is to say, he's done things that until recently, most people considered impossible. So it's really cool to see him bringing his drive and creativity more into the backcountry.
Courmayeur is one of the best places on earth to develop those backcountry skills, so I'm really happy to have had time to explore it with such a talented crew! A big thanks to Vlady and Brusti from Absinthe, the Courmayeur Tourist Office and Manuel Castelnuovo for making the trip a real success. Be sure to check this year's movie, NOW/HERE (iTunes Link) to see all of the action from the other side of Mt. Blanc.