This friendly freerider from the Pyrenees needs little or no introduction at all, he’s a global snowboard mountaineering star. We caught up with Xavier in his home valley, in St Lary-Soulan, French Pyrenees, before the season started. He is outgoing, mellow, humble, all smiles, and has loads of interesting things to say. We have summarized our 40 minute interview in a few minutes of video and the following Q&A, we think his words and experience are really valuable for anyone who enjoys riding mountains.
What do the Pyrenees mean for XDLR, what do they represent…what kind of memories do you have from these mountains and your first years of snowboarding?
The Pyrenees…that’s home to me. That’s where I grew up, that’s where I learned snowboarding, where I went to school, where I learned skiing –first. It’s where I come all the time when I’m not travelling the world, to rest, to be in peace, to feel happy… just to get away from everything.
Do you think it is realistic to dream of a FWT stop in the Pyrenees?
I think the Pyrenees have the perfect size for freeriding competitions, and for day to day freeriding. There’s verticals that are not too big, not huge, you can access everything in a few hours and that’s really perfect to do a contest, to have fun, to do whatever you want…to go touring. If you compare them to the Alps, they’re way more human size and that’s what I really like about them. When you go to Chamonix, everything is so big, so scary. Ok, it’s beautiful but it’s always a mission to do stuff, while here, it’s way more playful. I think, for sure there’s potential to do a FWT stop. Finding a good place for a competition is pretty difficult ; it’s not a matter of being Verbier or being whatever…it’s about having he good angle, with good snow, a good place for spectators, with good access for people. It’s a combination of things that we don’t really see when we just go freeriding like this. If someone finds the right face for it, for sure it could be in the world tour, and I’ll be pushing for it too!
Speaking of competition, you’ve been World Champ, X-Games Boardercross Champion , Freeride World Tour Champion three times…What has competition or rather your competitive spirit brought you in your career?
Sometimes, and specially now when I tell myself: « Ok, I got all these titles. Why do I keep competing? » I have the feeling that the fact of going once in a while to a competition… you go there, you see everybody charging and you see stuff that you never even imagined, so I think it’s always like a good slap in the face, a reminder : « Hey guy ! wake up ! » Because you go and shoot stuff on your own, it’s cool, it’s great, it’s inspirational, but at some point…I actually need that. A slap in the face to wake up and push myself; and I kind of like it, because then, when I go filming it feels easier, it feels more relaxed, as I’ve been pushing my limits somewhere else. I think that without competition, I would never have been pushing it the way I have for the last few years. I remember a few years ago watching all the skiers ; we had the same face, the same possibilities and I would see them go down in some places I’d never even imagine and I wanted to do the same. That’s what I did afterwards. Some people don’t like competition; a lot of people say freeriding doesn’t fit into competition, but if it’s just like four days in one season it’s cool. It’s the best option to show people what the best guys do, to share with everybody what we do, and it’s a great experience for us. Of course, when it comes to competitiveness “I’m better than you”, this I hate, I’ve always hated it, but I think there’s way greater stuff that you can find in competition.
Also it must be in your genes, right?
I think so, yeah! It must be in my genes for sure. If you see my brothers, when we’re together…for anything, like drinking…we’ll be: “I can drink faster then you” “I can be more stupid than you”
Le Bec des Roses is perfect to represent our sport, because even after ten years riding it, you always look at it and you think: “Wow, do we seriously go down there?” It’s very impressive. It’s very steep at the top and then it mellows down
Not having the pressure that you feel in competitions makes you feel more relaxed while filming; that’s odd, considering the stuff we see on your episodes…
Yes, for sure. When you’re in a competition, you have one face and three days to look at it. You study every angle; you go to the bottom, test the snow a bit. You go on the side, you go to the top, you take a look at it from the top. You look at many photos, for hours and hours, and that gives you the chance to go really deep into what you do. Then at the end of the day, you can push it, go into finer limits. Personally, I think that for instance, these big lines I’ve been doing in the FWT, I would not do them while I’m filming. When we’re filming we have a lot going on; either we’re with the heli, or we’re splitboarding, but it’s always a huge mission to get these few shots, so you cannot spend two days looking at your lines. Maybe it will be like that in the future, but until now, that’s not the way it’s been.
So you’re not thinking about stopping competition…
No, I’m thinking about lowering the number of competitions I do. The fact of doing the whole World Tour, I find it quite annoying. Spending the whole seasonthinking about the title, that doesn’t necessarily mean too much either. I really like to compete when it’s the right face, and it’s well organized, but when we have to go to the States, or Russia and spend a week or two there to -at the end- ride something bad, badly filmed…I don’t think it brings anything to the sport; it doesn’t bring anything to me. I’d rather be doing some cool project with Timeline, or come here in the Pyrenees and film; why not!
We’ve followed your episodes on Timeline and number 5 “Sluff and Ice” seems to reflect pretty well the conditions in Europe the season before last 2011-12. Did snow conditions in Europe make you change your preset plans?
Last year there was not much snow in Europe and we thought about going to Canada, but in the end it was great, because instead of doing the same old things, we had the chance to try new stuff. A few years ago I found a piece of ice with Henrik, and I thought I had to do this more often. Then I found this and it was just perfect. The first time it didn’t work that well, but I went back up and as you can see in the film it worked out really well. It was really fun, a different way of seeing stuff. Normally, on a place like this you go up and put a rappel, but that was just a different way of making it happen and I liked it. A lot of people thing this is stupid, so dangerous, but it is way less dangerous than any avalanche danger. It’s really straight- forward, the end was really clean, with soft snow, so basically nothing can happen.
I think, once again, snowboarding is going to add its own touch to mountaineering and that’s cool
How do you manage to keep stoked with so many projects in one season: Timeline, Further, Standard Films, contests…
I have it all really well organized now; I take part in different projects but I found this really cool crew with Timeline: filmer Guido Perrini, photographer Tero Repo and then Matthieu Giraud, who is basically managing everything. We work super well together, we like to travel together, they are the best crew I’ve ever worked with. It’s perfect. Instead of bringing an outside crew, we enjoy the comfort of knowing each other, and a lot of the quality comes from that fact. I’ve been doing this for a while now and it would be easy to lose motivation, but with this crew it’s like travelling with friends, looking for new stuff.
We got really good moments and really sketchy ones, but I think it’s important to show all of them because movies where everything is perfect all the time are pretty boring
It must be crucial to totally trust your crew when you work on such exposed conditions…
Totally. When you’re up there, it’s so hard to know if what you think is right, if you’re taking the right decisions. If you don’t know each other well, you can’t rely on one another, so you’re on your own. Maybe one day you push it too much and get hurt, or it could be the other way around: you don’t push yourself enough. So it’s a matter of balance. When you always work with the same crew, you have the confidence and the inspiration, then something good comes out of it, for sure.
The teaser from “This Is My Winter” totally blew our minds, it seems like freeriding is being reinvented and rewritten, coming closer to true mountaineering…What did you want to transmit with it?
I’ve been watching it in different premières, in different stages… sometimes partying, other times more serious, and sometimes when I watch it, it looks really dangerous. Last year, there were a couple of pretty hairy sessions, but it came with the flow. We felt attracted by these icy spots in Chamonix and Switzerland, we kind of went for that. We got really good moments and really sketchy ones, but I think it’s important to show all of them because movies where everything is perfect all the time are pretty boring. This said, I know people when they see the trailer and the film, they think …gling, gling gling!!! (taps with his finger on his head repeatedly)
Big Mountain freeriding is getting bigger, with more and more snowboarders looking for hairy lines, like the Mallory Couloir, or the north face of Tour Ronde, Gervasutti or Couturier…Alpine mountaineering and snowboarding blend together. Do you think it’s a sign of snowboarding’s maturity?
Yes! Only five years ago I looked at skiers and saw how they were able to set a bridge between mountaineering and skiing, two sports that happen in the same environment. But for snowboarders there was a wall. What was happening?…I was climbing, I was doing stuff on the mountain and I realized I could use that for
snowboarding, to access everywhere. It made sense! I’m glad that lately I’ve been into projects that have changed people’s mind.Now it’s a boom; people are waking up and trying to catch up after having missed it for so long! I think, once again, snowboarding is going to add its own touch to mountaineering and that’s
cool. Sometimes in mountaineering, it feels like everything has been done, but that’s bullshit. You just need to watch The Art Of Flight, their riding… Things are evolving and there’s gonna be some great stuff on the mountains in the future.
Hiking up using your own means –splitboarding- gives you a better chance to gouge the snow conditions and stability, but at the same time, you’re exposed for longer periods of time. So how do you feel when you’re surrounded by lots of snow after a big dump…let’s say in Alaska. How do you deal with that?
Every time, either hiking up or going down, when it’s hairy or when there’s lot of snow, it’s about trying to be logical, see what’s happening, seewhat could happen, imagine the worse and take a big margin. That’s how we always act. Take the ice wall…I think: “Ok, 50 meters of ice, there’s a clean out-run, the snow is soft, if I go to the right place, nothing can go wrong”. So I try to, pick, pick pick! (gestures & smiles) take a hammer and try to put that into my head! (laughs) because at the top, it pretty easy to forget it! I think mountaineering is a lot about that: take as much information as you can, see what you can do, take a big margin and go for it….or not. It is important to keep the “ or not” as an option.
There’s no rules in the mountains. You can learn many techniques, the more tools you have, the more possibilities you
Crampons, ice axes, harness, ropes are part of your equipment now, they require a bit of formation and learning how to use them. What kind of education or formation does a snowboarder need to go out on big mountains safely?
It depends where you go, but glaciers are the top level of danger. The avalanche program is already difficult to get, but the you consider also crevasses, seracs, bergschrum falling… so many more risks! it multiplies everything. But using ropes and the whole alpine equipment, it doesn’t take that long to learn, you do somemountaineering, go climbing in the summer and you quickly understand how it works. Then of course, it takes long to get it into your system, until you can make your own decisions. Of course, you can go through some mistakes and even do really stupid things; it’s part of the process. It depends where you go, who you are, who you like to take with you, if you learn fast..it’s about how far you wanna push it, where and when…I think, there’s no rules in the mountains. You can learn many techniques, the more tools you have, the more possibilities you have to reach terrain to express yourself, and that’s where you wanna go!
After many years of being kind of stuck, it’s been through projects such as Deeper or This Is my Winter that splitboarding has had the push it had been lacking, and the brands have started to invest in developing equipment, new binding system, new technology to improve splitboarding…what do you think the future is awaiting us in splitboarding?
Big mountain snowboarding has been suffering a lot from lack of good equipment. In Europe, when people want to go touring, they chose skiing because the equipment is so much more elaborate. Now It’s cool to see the industry finally investing again. That’s completely changed the whole culture of the sport. It’s a
matter of having the right tools to go out without suffering too much, or seeing the skiers 500m ahead. And it’s happening now, that’s cool. It’s great that people are backing that up and are getting educated about it. They’re not just comparing skiing and snowboarding one day, and then deciding to go for skiing. The ultimate tool for powder is a snowboard, even if fat skis are great, they can say what they want. There’s pluses and minuses of course, but I’ve skied a lot and to me it’s pretty clear. Snowboarding in steeps is super comfortable. You can even go on steeper stuff than on skis.
The ultimate tool for powder is a snowboard, even if fat skis are great, they can say what they want. I’ve skied a lot and to me it’s pretty clear
It’s been over three years since that mean avalanche accident you suffered in Orcières. How did you deal with that afterwards? How did you get over this?
It doesn’t really go away. I was surprised at the moment because in a way, I could have decided to change my life completely. But straight away, at the hospital, I remember looking out the window and feeling attracted by those peaks. The season after, the first time I was on the top of a line, remember feeling scared, thinking the whole thing was gonna break everywhere. So I had to go over that, and it worked. I still feel that I have it in me; being scared doesn’t give you a good feeling, but in the mountains, it’s a good thing, it gives you security. Doing what I do, and the risks that I take, I rather be too scared than not enough. It’s cool. I get to the top of lines, I get shit scared; sometimes I don’t go and it’s great like this.
Being scared doesn’t give you a good feeling, but in the mountains, it’s a good thing, it gives you security. Doing what I do, and the risks that I take, I rather be too scared than not enough
So what are you scared of, anything specific?
I’m not scared about jumping something big or going really fast, because it’s me controlling that risk. When there’s lots of snow, I feel so insecure…I see everything breaking all the time. Even before Orcières. I’ve never really trusted the snow. When you’re freeriding, you see things that you didn’t expect and sometimes it happens in a way bigger scale. I’ve seen it once …wow! I don’t want to try it again. Now I’m super strict. When I choose a line, I see where it could break, I analyse the terrain and if it doesn’t work I don’t go.
This last season it was the first time we’ve seen a snowboard mountaineering boots by Deeluxe & Spark Randd. You’ve been involved in their creation. What are they like?
The first time I tried them it was in a snow park. I was here (in St Lary) and I wanted to go ride with my brother Victor. It felt like a normal boot. I was stoked: I had the boots I dreamed of. You feel the difference when you walk in mixed terrain, a bit of rock, a bit of ice…
Do you think a home cut splitboard performs just as well as a factory made one?
It doesn’t make a huge difference, it depends, but I really like not feeling the edge in the middle. It depends how you go up; what I do, I usually approach the bottom of the run on the splitboard and then I use crampons and ice axes to climb up, carrying the board in my back. Unless there’s really deep snow..so it doesn’t really matter. But in the long run, a factory-made splitboard holds better.
Splitboarding has evolved a bit lately but what are in your opinion splitboarding’s weak points that need to be improved?
The fact of getting to the point where your splitboard feels more like a regular board. I think there could be something interesting coming from approach skis. I’ve seen some developments and there could be something good coming in that sense. Splitboards are perfect on glacier terrain: flat valleys and then huge steeps, but also in forest terrain, like in California. It depends on where you are, the shape of the valley. The Pyrenees have the perfect shape for splitboarding, but I think it is another option to access stuff on the mountains. Again it represents snowboarding’s mentality really well, but it should be part of a quiver.
Will we ever see you riding on the other side of the border?
I spend my time travelling around the world, leaving a big CO2 footprint behind, and there’s so much potential around my home, both on the Spanish and the French side and I don’t know anything…it’s pretty frustrating. Last year we planned a session in the Pyrenees but we had to cancel it. So yeah, yeah, yeah…I’ll come!
Your new clothing sponsor is The North Face, is that part of your evolution, now that you need more technical and specialized mountaineering gear?
Yes, sure, The North Face is really specialized in expeditions, the best gear you can get. It’s the perfect brand for me. We’re not just athletes doing stuff that they use. Every year we all get together: people who go to Everest or climbers who spend ten days on huge walls…we share a lot of things, we propose expedition. From the gear side, but also from a logistic side, it gives me the chance to keep going higher.