As the morning light bathed the top of the 2,830m mountain, Jon DeVore stood near the peak and waited for the breeze. The more wind, the easier it would be to pop the parachute trailing behind him. Below him stretched a line so absurd it had never been attempted before on skis.
It included clearing two 30m gaps, catching massive air to land on a small knoll and then clearing another huge gap after that, before finishing through a narrow ravine with four-storey ice blocks on each side. Called the Rowel, DeVore, an Alaskan, and his fellow speedriders, American Andy Farrington and Italian Filippo Fabbi, had spent several days scouting it.
As a small gust came through, DeVore waited like a surfer scanning for a perfect set. When the next gust arrived, DeVore yanked his ‘wing’ into the air and headed downhill.
The Rowel was the crown jewel of a two-week trip to the southern edge of the Alaska Range, an area known for feats of backcountry skiing and snowboarding. The trip’s purpose was twofold: to ski areas that had never been touched before, and to raise awareness of and set new standards in the nascent sport of speedriding.
Part paragliding, part downhill skiing, speedriding originated at Chamonix, in France, more than a decade ago, through pioneers such as Francois Bon and Antoine Montant. The sport has a high barrier of entry, and the best riders are accomplished skydivers and wingsuit flyers. Instruction is available on European mountains.
DeVore and team spent the one-and-half weeks leading up to the Rowel attempting “smaller stuff” on nearby mountains at lower elevations.
“And by smaller stuff I mean nobody else would’ve gotten on there,” says Scott Serfas, the photographer along for the mission [a documentary on the trip, The Unrideables, is available on iTunes in February]. “Jon was pointing out faces that aren’t skiable.”
“First and foremost we wanted to find something that no one’s ever been down before,” says DeVore. “And nobody has ridden mountains that give four-minute runs.”
The lines they picked were carefully dissected with each pass of the plane and study of the map. The best runs are the ones that go to plan, where the riders have enough speed to clear big gaps and skirt crevasses and where the wing stays inflated the entire way.
“Most of the speedriding I’ve done is in a controlled environment. If you don’t have enough speed by that tree, you stop,” says DeVore. “Here, if you don’t have the speed, you’re going to fall into a big ice cave. There was a little more at stake.”
DeVore had a close call when his canopy collapsed trying to clear a large gap on an earlier run, and Farrington crash-landed a few times. But the Rowel went smoothly. “When the parachute is over your head, you feel like a superhero skier, and you’re doing stuff that’s just not normally possible,” says DeVore. “The feeling – I wish I had the words – it’s complete freedom on a mountain.”