*Originally published in our Vol 13. January Issue. Words & Photos by Nate Abbott / PBP
Like many good travel stories, this one starts without a plan. It begins with some skiers stuck in a hotel room in a foreign country talking about taking an epic trip in March, that transitional season when the snow is deep, the powder is still falling, the sun shines most days, everyone’s tricks are dialed and you run a significant risk of the weather going warm and turning your epic session into a total clusterfuck. That’s especially true in the relatively low-lying Alps, where villages are often only 4,000 feet above sea level, and spring arrives early.
But when it’s good in Europe in spring, it’s truly epic: Six-thousand-vertical-foot valleys where the snow stays soft for weeks on hidden exposures, picturesque alpine villages, cozy chalets where buxom women serve giant mugs of beer and schnapps that’s homemade from a hundred-year-old family recipe. Kids in lederhosen playing alpenhorns. An alpine postcard. Or at least that’s what we’re hoping for.
Jossi Wells and Nate turning a plain ol' avy tunnel into a work of art.
So as European Winter X Games 2010 wraps up in Tignes, France, Jossi Wells and I hijack a minivan from Atomic, grab TJ Schiller and Simon Dumont and drive east across grand old Europe with every intention finding huge jumps and lines in deep snow. Somewhere.
PBP has already been filming German wünderkind Bene Mayr, so we decide to use him as a guide, and meet up with some PBP filmers to solidify his segment. Luckily, Bene has a lot of experience in one of our potential destinations, Austria’s legendary Arlberg region. Simon has filmed there for multiple movies, including Session 1242 and Transitions, and it has always bordered on all-time epic for him. I, however, have been dealt mostly springtime rain in the Arlberg, which means shooting portraits, bridge jumping and snowboard jibbing — not exactly a successful ski trip.
After a 10-hour epic minivan adventure across Switzerland, through blink-and-you-miss-it Lichenstein, and over Arlberg pass, we find ourselves in St. Anton, the heart of the Arlberg region, staring up at the sun blazing on week-old snow.
Despite that, the crew is eager to get going, and we end up back on the pass near the town of St. Cristoph, a zone that’s littered with avalanche terrain and huge electric transmission lines, the combination of which necessitates protective concrete avalanche barriers that are perfect for all manner of jibbing. I needn’t remind you that our crew, being some of the most accomplished competition skiers on the planet, are used to skiing on perfectly maintained skis. But with little regard, Jossi Wells uses his perfectly tuned halfpipe skis, worked on by his sponsor side-by-side with the skis of the über-important Austrian Alpine World Cup team, (which, incidentally, trains in St. Christoph,) and tears them to shreds 12 feet off the ground on the coarse wall of an avalanche barrier. Then TJ uses the same wall to ensure his newly mounted backcountry sticks won’t go too fast on the in-run of any jump we hit for the rest of the trip. Whatever, as the kids say. We have a great time away from the crowds, surrounded by enormous mountains, snow and sun.
As the sun sets on our first day, we descend back to St. Anton in search of food and perhaps some piece of “authentic” Alpine culture. But instead of classic old Austrians wearing lederhosen and schussing around on wooden skis, the town center is overrun with European city dwellers, revelers in an après-ski scene that puts America's greatest, or most frightening, frat parties to shame. Just like every other world-class tourist destination, St. Anton is a hustling, international party destination. There are sausages and shops selling Austrian kitsch, to be sure, but also Indian food and stumbling, slurring tourists with skis cradled in their arms (or simply left outside a bar to be found in the morning).
Which is not to say everything is a loss. We also find a true group of locals who moved to the Arlberg to ski (some of whom find the time to come picnic and watch a couple of our jump sessions.) And the keeper of our lodging and her small children, obviously lifelong skiers, are ever intrigued by what we are doing. Their attention reminds me that every jump, every jib, every moment that seems so typical of any ski movie from Degenerates to Session 2542 (that one is way in the future, you haven’t heard about it yet) is still special, because of the bond shared by people who live in mountains anywhere there’s skiing.
The reader who has made it this far likely has two questions: What about real skiing? And, what about the tricks — all the stuff they did?
Jossi Wells, Simon Dumont, TJ Schiller and Bene Mayr
If we only cared for real skiing, we would have renounced all sponsors, and if you cared about the tricks, you, dearest reader, would have looked at the photos and agreed that PBP’s video would allow you to much more accurately talk shit about what did or did not actually happen on every feature.
But here is what does happen. We do some tricks. We go to a historical display about St. Anton and the Arlberg region (including triple house-gap roof jibs, no joke!). We build jumps one hundred yards from the road, and Jossi gets REAL crazy on a curved ledge directly over that road (see above). On a ventilation building serving the 8.7-mile Arlberg Road Tunnel, we build a wall ride that in America would have warranted a full Homeland Security response. We struggle with weather. We relish the weather. Perhaps we don’t explore enough, learn enough about the local culture or venture far enough into the mountains, but we are privileged enough to see a piece of our ski world that is special and warrants more exploration.