Interview Luca Pandolfi

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If there’s anything that defines Luca –Jones Snowboards  team rider- is the passion that drives his riding to the limits. His blog is a must, not only for every snowboard fan but also for those who love high mountain activity. His words will take you to gnarly steep terrain at the most extreme spots in the Alps, leaving you heart thumping and breathless. Are you ready?

In Chamonix I have had the possibility to join my passion for mountaineering with my passion for boarding. Chamonix (if you quickly learn and have the luck to survive) brings you to another level. I love classic freeriding with fast, fluid runs, dropping cliffs, but I also love to look at a big mountain, spot my line and start to dream.

1- How did it all start? How has your riding evolved to the spot where you find yourself right now?

I began snowboarding twenty years ago and I was a freestyler for the early part. Soon my unconquerable need for freedom and adventure pushed me to explore the backcountry and I quickly fell in love with the wild side of the mountain. I started to pursue my dream of spending at least one season in the four main European freeriding Meccas ; Alagna/Gressoney, Verbier, Chamonix and La Grave. I have lived my dream, having spent one season in Verbier, three years in Gressoney and Chamonix for the last six years. When I arrived here I knew it was special and I’ve been having a blast since. In Chamonix I have had the possibility to join my passion for mountaineering with my passion for boarding. Chamonix (if you quickly learn and have the luck to survive) brings you to another level. I love classic freeriding with fast, fluid runs, dropping cliffs, but I also love to look at a big mountain, spot my line and start to dream.

Cedric Bernardini

“For big mountain riding, you need to learn how to climb to earn your run and this adds a greater commitment  to the game. For this, Chamonix is the best in the world with the steepest accessible terrain.”

Chamonix nowadays has more adopted Chamoniards than official natives ones!I t feels good to be here. I feel part of a family in Chamonix, with people sharing the same passions as me; we belong to something special. It is here where the history of climbing and skiing has been written and is being added to everyday. I feel I’m giving my little contribution to this phenomenon. Chamonix is a laboratory for new disciplines (like speedriding or skibase for example) and people are free to fulfil their dreams and face their fears. You also feel a lot of pressure here and it requires  a lot of mental effort to find yourself and a comfortable balance in this big vortex of action.

2-Big mountain riding is actually quite different from the classic freeriding idea of fluent lines on powder. Ascents play a major role and are crucial to accomplish safe descents. Being physically fit is essential, but the mental side is also crucial. In your opinion, what kind of preparation/training does a rider need to get started in this discipline and how do you prepare yourself mentally to face an exposed line?

“What I like about steep riding is the mental state you enter into. Most of the time there is no room for error and this takes you to a much higher level of concentration”

Cedric Bernardini

It is like a form of meditation; you are in a bubble where your mind, your body and the element you are moving in are the same thing. It truly is a superfeeling. I like to ride steep lines in good snow conditions, for me snowboarding has to be fluid and dynamic even on steep terrains. For me, the most dangerous factor in steep riding is sluff, because it can wipe you out. I love riding whilst being aware of the sluff around me and playing with it. Sometimes you find hard snow and the game changes. The most important element in this game is played in your mind. Of course, physical preparation. is important but your mind controls everything. For me, this is my way of life, I just train myself simply being up there as much as I can, climbing a lot, ice and especially rock in the summer and also meditating. Managing your breathing is also really important as it increases the levels of oxygen in the blood and clears the mind, helping you relax and have “cold blood”. It is important to expand the “space – time” concept to give my mind some “free space” that allows me to manage stressful situations.

3- Splitboarding has opened up a huge  playground out there. Where do you see  the limit?

Yes Splitboarding opened a door to a new world for  snowboarders, the backcountry. There is a growing  interest around it and all the most important brands  are developing new and more useful equipment –  which is obviously a good thing. I like to think that limits exist only in the heads of men – who knows what will happen from here? For sure, now splitboarding allows us to see the mountains from a different angle and a new point of view. Overall it has made backcountry riding more accessible and enjoyable.

4- We read about your accident at the mallory couloir with our heart in our throats ¿what was going on in your mind at a moment like that?

It was a miracle, I am so grateful to whom or what made it go the right way for me… I believe it is just a chance of fate and it was just not my time. It doesn’t happen too often that you tomahawk in a place like that and survive; I was extremely lucky. After the first crux of the line I was pretty stressed with all the sluff coming down from the people skiing above us so when I arrived on the “pan de rideau” I felt a bit of a release. The slope there is a little bit less steep even though it’s really exposed. I had a lot of space to ride and I rode it in my usual style with big turns. After four turns there was a rock in front of me, I passed it on the right with a straight line followed by a massive backside turn. At that point I clearly saw a big crack in front of me and within two seconds I found myself lying on my back without any control.It is such an indescribable feeling, one second you are sliding down on the mountain and the next the mountain is moving and taking you, and you cannot do anything.

Cedric Bernardini

“Big blocks of snow were blocking my board on the nose and the tail, I couldn’t move, I was just so aware about where I was and seeing the cliffs coming towards me really fast I realised I was fucked.”

It was the first time in my life I experienced a feeling of acceptance of this terrible impending circumstance.I have been caught in avalanches a few times (once I have been in the washing machine for 600m) and I have been in the “panic zone” on a number of occasions but this time I crossed the line. As soon I had this feeling the snow coming from behind hit me on my back and made me start to tomahawk. The cart wheeling actually saved my life, now that I was tumbling my board was not blocked anymore under the snow. After landing in the soft snow from the first flip I felt some friction so I told myself I should try harder to stop after the second one. I don t know how but it worked and I stopped twenty metres from the big cliffs seeing all the snow dropping in the void with a horrible and scary sound. I felt so sick, like vomiting, but had to quickly retake the control of the situation because the second crux was still to be faced.

5- We are going through a freeriding boom these days, with brands trying to provide proper backcountry equipment, including splitboards in their catalogs. What’s your take on this?

I think its good, more and more people every day are now more in touch with the backcountry and the wild side of the mountains. Especially nowadays, when our lives are getting hysterical and we live compressed with lack of space, where everything is predetermined. Lack of adventure is the biggest illness of our society, so I’m all for it!. Splitboarding and exploring the backcountry is a good way to travel on the mountains, discovering new places, giving us a new taste of life and bringing us back in contact with our ancestral roots: nature.

6- How are the relationships with your sponsors?

This is one of that questions that I’d like to keep in reserve. Jones snowboarding supports me a lot in enjoying what I am doing. Mysticfreeride, Vertical Attitude and my friends of Promosport and wave distribution have helped me a lot.I have some problems with clothing sponsors, Mammut Italy doesn’t seem to realize what I am doing or they simply don’t care much.It is quite difficult to cater for us because steep riding doesn’t “sell” too much gear on the market – in comparison to freestyle – and so there is not so much money and focus on it, unfortunately.

7- Tell us about your equipment for this season

I use The Jones Flagship and  Hovercraft with Union Force bindings (+15°, -6°) and the Jones Solution (Splitboard) with Spark Blaze bindings. I use CAMP ice axes, crampons and mountaineering devices, and a light Kevlar rope for abseiling.

8- The trend in splitboard construction is to follow the evolution of snowboards, including rocker on board shapes, combined with traditional camber shapes. This tends to be quite helpful when riding powder, but it can be inconvenient in more demanding conditions where more board contact is required. Is stiffness splitboarding’s achilles’ heel/weak point?

I think that is the problem of most of the splitboards on the market because they are designed for normal backcountry. Unfortunately compromises work quite well in most situations but not very well in specific contexts. Aluflex and Voilè make stiff ones but then once again, according to what friends have told me (I haven’t had the possibility of trying them yet) they are not really nice to ride in powder. I feel quite good with the Jones boards and from next year they will have some carbon fibres that will make them stiffer in torsion. The problem of the rocker in steep and narrow couloirs is that, being softer than the rest of the structure; they have a tendency of hopping a bit, making me loose grip and precision. Overall, splitboarding has really changed my life on the approaches, especially in deep snow. It doesn’t work really well in spring in the morning when the snow is really hard, because the two skis are wide and pretty soft, they have a tendency to slide, even with crampons (I am talking about the Mont Blanc range where the approaches are sometimes pretty steep, and I think this is an unusual exception to take in consideration). On relatively steep slopes, where skiers normally go diagonally, I can go straight up thanks to the wide surface of the skis and skins.

9-The last time i visited chamonix i saw quite a few local splitboarders wearing hard boots and bindings. I also read on many international online forums about their advantages. Is it a logical evolution or should we try to keep developing soft boots and bindings to improve their performance

It is inevitable that lately there are few points of contact between the different mountain disciplines like ski and snowboard, and it is good that people try to take elements and join the best parts of both. We are living in an experimental time, due to the fact that backcountry snowboarding was historically much more penalised compared to skiing.

“I don’t think that the hard equipment is so important concerning the normal backcountry and it wont make so much of a difference. The big difference is when you climb steep icy slopes with crampons.”

Cedric Bernardini

I have got few friends that adopted that kind of equipment, but honestly I am still a bit suspicious. I think it is an entirely different sport and snowboarding for me means wearing soft boots. It is about freedom of movement, feeling and style. For sure, a stiff soft boot helps and this is what I like. I am using the spark – de luxe at the moment and even if they are too big and fat I think we are going in the right direction. Some Italian friends are developing a new prototype of boots that in my opinion will change a lot and will make our days out there much comfortable on every kind of terrain www.livebackcountry.com

10- It looks like last season was an intense one for you, even though snow conditions in europe were far from being ideal. What are your plans for the 2011-2012 season?

Yeah, last season wasn’t a good one in general, but it allowed me to move around and visit new places, like the Dolomites, Grindelwald, some locations in Switzerland, Monviso etc. Travelling and going on the mountain is pretty much the same for me and I love when I can join both together. I don’t like to talk too much about my future plans (for me, talking about them is like breakingthe magic surrounding the idea) but for sure I am going to visit new places and try to ride new different mountains. I hope I will be successful and able to talk about them to you in the next interview !

PHOTO: Eduard Blanchard Wrigglesworth