Midnight in Zermatt. Somewhere off in the darkness, the Matterhorn looms. I’m at a glitzy Swatch party with slope skiers Rory Bushfield and Sven Kueenle, who have invited me to join their gang. Right now they’re pondering my initiation.
“What do you want me to do?” I ask.
It's a stupid question to ask of two men who, like most professional backcountry skiers, make a living by courting death. It feels flirtatious and dumb, like trying to make out with an avalanche or an open flame. Still, I feel like I should risk something, or at least gesture toward my utter willingness to do dumb shit. Taking risks seems a matter of course when you’re hanging out with guys who regularly launch themselves off cliffs and pull the kind of huge, heart-jittering tricks that could easily kill them.
I'm in Zermatt to observe the Swatch Skier’s Cup, a backcountry slope style competition now in it's fifth year. Slope style skiing means getting points for grabs, huge air, and gravity-defying flips. Backcountry means slope style gone rogue: going off piste and away from man-made jumps, to unknown mountain faces that could harbor anything—cliffs, rocks, avalanches. The first day of the competition takes place on the marked slopes of the Matterhorn; on the second day, the riders tempt fate and take on an entirely unseen “Big Mountain” face.
The competition pits a European team against North Americans. Team Europe is headed byJulien Regnier, whom I’ve already accosted at the bar with questions, while Team America (featuring a great deal of Canadians) is lead by Seth Morrison, a stomper of huge backflips.
Over the last two days, the teams have competed in runs down the slopes of the Matterhorn, which in the daylight juts up against the sky like some kind of Euclidean fever-dream. It’s huge and visible no matter where you are in Zermatt, immediately identifiable by its iconic hooked peak. It's the backdrop to a sport that is always skirting the thin line between triumph and tragedy. This year’s competition is dedicated in part to the memory of J.P. Auclair, last year’s North America team captain, who—alongside fellow skier Andreas Fransson—died free skiing in Chile this past October.
I ask Julien Regnier about the backcountry Big Mountain challenge. "As team captains,” he tells me, “we were allowed to fly over and look at it first. Everyone else got a picture to study. That was it.” And then they were off, backflipping into the unknown.
Rory ponders my initiation. Sven is holding a Heineken with a broken arm from a crash on the first day of competition.
There’s a distinctly masculine energy that suffuses this party like low-grade radiation. I can only presume it comes from being in a room full of men who care so little about their sperm count or gene pool that they happily launch themselves off cliffs and mountains. You could rescue their genetic lineage, my ovaries scream. I quiet them with a gin and tonic.
“Okay,” Rory says, like he’s declaring some great verdict. “Jump from here to the DJ booth.”
To give you an impression of such an undertaking, imagine a balcony with a bar on it. Standard. Then imagine a sunken dance floor a fair distance beneath it. Then imagine a tiny triangle of a DJ booth jutting out from the wall, a good two meters from the balcony. To these men, such a fall is nothing. Maybe a broken bone or two, but they won't be buried by snow or suffocate to death after taking a rock to the jugular.
Reading my hesitation, Rory graciously offers to go first. He gives me his beer for safekeeping and Sven and I watch, wide-eyed, as he lopes around the railing of the balcony and hurls himself across the heads of a dozen dancing tourists, stomping the jump with just a wobble over the DJ’s setup. The music cuts out. Sven roars. Rory high-fives the DJ. The music starts up again. He climbs down the booth’s ladder and ascends back up to us, triumphant as a prince taking his throne. That was the easiest stunt he pulled all day.
I turn down my own opportunity to make the jump and Rory and I do a lap around the party, cradling our mixed drinks. J.P.’s name comes up in conversation, as do the names of a few other fallen friends. “I guess you’re hearing about all our dead heroes tonight,” Rory explains to me with a shrug. It’s hard to talk about extreme sports without talking about the injuries and deaths that inevitably follow.
I ask him if it scares him. I’ve been asking everyone this question tonight. He looks at me like I’m an idiot. “Of course it’s scary.”
“But dying while skiing—that’s dying doing something you love. You know what, I hope I die skiing. I wanna be eighty and go out that way," Rory told me. "And everyone will say, he died doing something awesome.”
Photos by Swatch