WORDS • Julian Carr | PHOTOS • Iz La Motte
In February 2020, for the second year in a row, Icelantic gathered up ten team members and close friends, packed bags and headed to Europe. But this year was special: Looking back, it was void of COVID-19 awareness. None of us had heard of the “novel coronavirus” and the day we got back to the States, the news hit the media. Thankfully, we were able to explore the Alps without widespread concern—just a focus on conditions and community in some of the most pristine mountains accessible to skiers.
The premise of the trip was to have as much fun as possible and to not be exclusive to Icelantic’s inner circle—rather, just a bunch of friends from all corners of the industry getting together to have fun. But we were also testing prototypes, brand new skis hand-designed by myself and other athletes on Icelantic’s roster. Back in Fall 2019, Icelantic brought us together to produce a custom Pro Model—the Saba and the Nia—which feature just the right rocker profiles and are designed for conquering big mountains and deep snow. In Europe, it was our first time really, really giving these skis a test run.
Our crew ran deep and spanned athletes, photographers, videographers and friends. We had a few repeat faces from our first trip: Ben Anderson (Founder of Icelantic), Owen Leeper (Colorado-born Icelantic athlete), Mark Morris (Colorado-based Icelantic big-mountain athlete and musician), Anne Wangler (Blizzard Skis athlete living close by in Austria), Xaver Kroll (another close friend in Austria, Dynastar athlete and cinematographer) and myself. And new to the program this year: Amy David (Colorado-based Icelantic athlete), Scotty Vermerris (Icelantic Athlete & Team Manager), Hanna Whirty (Icelantic Marketing Manager and photographer), Iz La Motte (Alta-based photographer), Katrina Devore (Aspen-based Icelantic athlete) and Annaliese Eichelberger (Scotty’s fiancé, who just happens to be a ripping skier).
But that’s enough context, back to the story…
I landed in Zurich, Switzerland, immediately hopped on a train, made a pit stop in Luzern for a beer on a cobblestone alleyway and ran back to the train in time for its next departure. Then, I realize I’m looking out the window watching the Alps emerge from the landscape. The anticipation is intense: The Alps are a skier’s ultimate playground with dramatic peaks shooting up from the Earth in all directions, connected valley-to-valley by hundreds and hundreds of years of generational stewardship. Classy, tiny ski villages, cafés, après spots, chairlifts, gondolas and trams are nestled everywhere in these ranges, providing access to seemingly endless high-alpine terrain.
The crew converged at Ski Lodge in Engelberg, Switzerland, my favorite hotel in Europe. The first time I stayed there was back in 2008, on during my first trip to the region—the trip I safely sent a 210-foot cliff which prompted the folks at the Ski Lodge etch my name in the topographic carpet that covers the floor of the hotel lobby. But this year would be different. Right away, our group was enlightened to the fact that it wasn’t exactly the best snow year in Europe. In the morning, we headed up the mountain to inspect conditions anyway.
The on-piste skiing in Europe is fast and fun, and you can cover a lot of ground. It seems that every far-off peak you can see is, somehow, accessible to skiers—everything is so interconnected that you can ski to a peak “over there,” have a quick espresso then head back the direction you came.
Our group looked like a well-oiled and turbocharged pack of racecars carving up the manicured terrain. We also hiked a few short bootpacks, accessing soft turns with up to 3,000 feet of vertical. But our eyes were collectively fixed on features and cliff drops that would be incredible, if the snow had been just a little deeper.
Our frothing for big drops was to be expected. We had Owen Leeper aka “The Cyborg” in the crew; you know it’s about to get serious when you hear Owen say, “GoPro Start Recording,” because he has a knack for sending the biggest drops possible and recording his immense airtime.
And Mark Morris—he’s ready at the drop of the hat to air anything in his path. Last year, he sent it off an après bar roof, about a 40-foot air, we found mid-mountain. When we asked the owner of the bar if he’d let us climb on his roof to jump it, he said: “Sure, follow me. I’ll unlock the stairs so you can climb out this window to get on the roof. Have fun!”
Scotty Vermerris loves to air it out and Amy David was projecting little sideways smiles every time we inspected a cliff; she seemed genuinely curious about the airs, too. After a few days of hiking, skiing, taking down all the beautiful lines we could muster, the forecast was projecting up to two feet of snow. We crossed our fingers.
We slept through the night of howling wind, snow covering the streets of Engelberg like a mini-snow globe and, miraculously, we awoke to news of 20 inches of fresh snow. That morning, we raced up the mountain. We couldn’t wait to ski fresh powder—not enough to air cliffs—but definitely deep enough to thoroughly enjoy after four days of scratching around less than ideal conditions. What we didn’t expect were all the wind-loaded spots, where snow had accumulated over six feet deep in some landings.
All the while, we’d been eyeing this corner of a 200-foot cliff; it had a cushy snow deposit in its landing from all the snow blowing off the cliff. I hiked down to the landing below a 40-foot side hit and it was saturated with over six feet deep of perfect, jumpable snow. We couldn’t believe it.
Mark was watching me probe the landing for snow depth. Once he saw how deep it was, and hearing me give the 100-percent “green light,” he immediately clicked out of his skis, put them on his shoulder and started a bootpack to get up on top of the cliff. Everyone in our crew fell in line behind Mark, but he was keen to open up the jump session. Given the shoddy start to our trip, it was uncanny to have a beautiful bluebird day in Switzerland with a perfect 40-foot cliff ripe with plenty of landings for the crew—someone pinch me. We simply didn’t think the conditions on this trip would allow for jumping any cliffs.
As we setup atop the cliff, Izzy was working out her angles near the landing. We could hear her laughing to herself. She had mentioned that a dream of hers was to travel to Europe to shoot photos of cliffs in the Alps—now, that dream was coming true.
Back at the top, Mark assessed his approach while the rest of the crew kept our composure and allowed him to focus. Once Izzy said she was ready, Mark gave a few deep breaths, pointed his skis and…. off he went, with mass hoots and hollers coming from the Icelantic crew and the audience of passersby that had formed at the side of the cliff. The peanut gallery was in disbelief we were actually lining up this cliff due to the uncharacteristically low-tide conditions, but like I said, we found a honey hole.
Mark landed, unscathed and smiling. Up next was Scotty, who took a few approaches to the edge before yelling, “Ready to give’r!” Soaring off the precipice, he dropped away out of sight, followed by thunderous laughs as he skied away. “Oh, it’s good, it’s goooood!” he kept yelling. Owen was third, his Cyborg tendencies quickly calculated precisely how to hit the cliff at the perfect speed, with the perfect form and how to find the perfect landing. The Perfect Cyborg.
Next, it was my turn. I looked over the edge. To hit my landing—which avoided the bomb holes from the other guys—all I needed was a little more speed and to aim just a touch to the right. Skiing in… three, two, one… dropping! I love cliffs, but this particular one was special: it took immense energy to assess the landing and diagnose that it was alright to send, all the while being super aware that it wasn’t the deepest snow year. Plus, I wan’t just assessing the cliff for me to ski—I was assessing for the crew. Big time consequences, if I got it wrong. With cliffs, I’m 100-percent or no-go.
Once I landed, it was so soft, so perfect, I just laughed. Katrina was hooting and hollering from the side of the cliff, where she was helping Izzy with her photo angles and taking iPhone shots. But up on top still was Amy David. She loves cliffs and this was definitely the biggest one she’d ever eyed-up. In my head, I was almost expecting her to check it out and ski around to the landing to think it over. But, no—she looked over the ledge a few times, asked us a few questions, silently deliberated and finally announced, “Okay, I’m going to do it. I’ll be ready in 30 seconds.”
We all held our breath. I was excited for Amy—I knew she’d be okay, but I also knew it was a very dramatic cliff with a lot of reasons to be scared. She focused like a Jedi, called down her countdown, pointed her skis off the cliff and aired it out in style. She landed to hearty screams and was greeted by the group with one big, collective bear hug. What a day… and it was only about 10AM at that point. Onward!
By the end of the day we found another cliff band with perfect conditions, we each hit it twice, including Amy—who uncontestedly took home MVP. It seemed like she was unstoppable. Scotty, however, had the stomp of the trip: He stuck a 30-footer so cleanly, it looked fake. And Cyborg opened up a few, super technical blind couloirs, cleanly aired everything in sight and sprinkled in some inverts. Just another day for Leeper.
Mark put in all the bootpacks, plus he was the main act at the Ski Lodge bar the evening after our air-fest. Word spread quickly across town about our cliff onslaught, and everyone wanted to see Mark play his guitar and sing. Live music is very appreciated in Europe, especially in rad little ski town après bars like the Ski Lodge. The group was high-tide vibing, everyone in town was stoked on fresh snow and we ended our Engelberg trip with one hell of a night celebrating with the vibrant Engelberg ski community.
Next stop. Zillertal, Austria—which happens to be the home resort for both Anne and Xavier, or “Xav,” as we’ve come to know him. “Welcome to Zillertal! Say Hello!” he likes to say in a ridiculous, over-pronounced Austrian accent. In plain terms, Xav is The Man, plus he’s the most skilled drone pilot I’ve ever worked with.
Our crew of 10-plus rented out a big farm house tucked up a side canyon away from the main drags in Zillertal. It was really quiet and huge peaks loomed above us around every corner. More importantly, we experienced incredible skiing—many thanks to Xav and Anne who seemed to know every bootpack in the area, accessing 2,000 to 4,000 feet of vertical with each run. They’d lead us up and over ridgelines and down, deep into mountain drainages. Where we ended up after each run felt far away from where we started, but, with our local knowledge, we’d always (fantastically) encounter a gondola next to some farmhouses that whisked us back up to the alpine. No big deal, putting in miles and miles and mountain range after mountain range; it felt like “Groundhog Day” in the most fabulous fashion.
Zillertal is less well-known in the endless European valleys of resorts, but if it was located back home in the States, it would be the crown jewel of North American skiing, easily besting Jackson Hole and Whistler. But, in Europe, it’s just another valley of miraculously skiable mountains.
This was how we ended our trip: We cooked feasts in the farmhouse, woke up early and skied wild lines in the Alps for six straight days. More than the skiing, I have to point out the friendships that were strengthened between us, magical moments in the high-alpine bonding us like crystalline structures transcending international borders. Already looking ahead to next year, Say Hello!