"Rather than just inspiring people by action and by winning titles, I think in film you can bring values and it's much more complete and powerful." — Xavier de La Rue
The last time I was in Verbier, Switzerland, I watched pro snowboarder Xavier De Le Rue take the top of the podium at the prestigious Freeride World Tour after nailing a never-before-ridden line on the Bec des Rosses, a 10,000-plus-foot peak in the Swiss canton of Valais. That was 2010.
Fast forward five years and I’m smoking a cigarette outside a Verbier bar having just interviewed the man himself, wondering what just happened. In de Le Rue’s adopted town of big wallets and big egos—and abundant riding skills to match—I’d just enjoyed a simple friendly chat with the man who could be king. No bravado, no attitude. De Le Rue sauntered out to join me, and my wonder got the better of me. I involuntarily blurted out: “Are you shy?” Not the best question I’d ever put to an interviewee. I think he blushed.
The answer should have been obvious an hour earlier when de Le Rue and his young daughter picked me up in the family man’s grey sedan or when he told me he’d spent the last three weeks behind a desk planning his next expedition to Alaska. (Almost) like an ordinary guy. Nothing ostentatious. No drama. Even his clothes—bearing in mind The North Face warehouse must be all but his personal wardrobe—were understated.
Xavier de le Rue is more than a freerider. Once upon a time he was a snowboard cross champion, represented France at the Olympics, and won the X Games. He has won countless freeride accolades including three Freeride World Tours. He is a founding member of Timeline Missions, producing films of his own expeditions and also serving commercial clients around the world. And he is now a tech-entrepreneur, getting ready to launch the Hexo+, an autonomous GoPro drone in the fall of 2015.
De Le Rue has helped to develop the camera drone that can fly and film it’s owner autonomously, with settings for circling the subject, following a subjects’ trajectory, panning/dolly shots, and more. Given the current popularity of drone filming, this huge simplification has real potential, particularly as the price point is accessible to the general public.
Having searched for years for a way to capture some of his best snowboarding lines from the air, de Le Rue is thrilled with the new technology. But not just for himself.
“I love the idea that it’s going to give chances to people to film themselves and I feel really proud to be involved in bringing this to people,” he said.
Although emerging as a tech entrepreneur might seem a less than obvious path for a pro athlete, in some ways for de Le Rue, it’s a natural next step.
“I’ve never been good at doing the same thing over and over. I’ve always hated that,” de Le Rue told me. “I need new challenges where I feel like I’m learning and progressing. I think that’s why I’m still here doing stuff.”
I’m not sure the snowboarding community would agree on the last point. De Le Rue could have continued competing at the highest level and remained comfortably in the world’s elite. He could still be here “doing stuff”, but maybe it would have been too easy for him to get complacent. It’s why he left the Freeride World Tour three years ago.
“Once you’ve won a few times, OK maybe you’re going to win one more time, and then one more time. Seriously, what does it bring?” he said. “In 2010 I rode this one line on the Bec des Rosses that was freaking mental, and that I could never out-do. The competitions I’ve done were never about winning, my goal was to do something that I would be proud of.
“I never wanted to play with the judges and do the minimum to win,” he continued. “I always wanted to push the sport, and since that day on Bec des Rosses, I reached my limit.”
This reminded me of the Olympic slopestyle judging at Sochi, Russia, and how execution seemed to be valued above all else, resulting in clean but basic runs earning the highest scores. “I hate that,” was all de Le Rue had to say.
I had really wanted to avoid the ubiquitous ‘future of the sport’ question. But as de Le Rue was implying that competition isn’t pushing things forward, at least not for him, I had to ask.
“There’s been a huge gap in bringing through young riders in freeriding,” he said, “but now it’s trendy again it’s going to be really exciting to see the current generation. They have to come with a better level than what we have.”
For what it’s worth, my own feeling is that the future of freeriding is in expeditions and in pushing the limits of documenting those journeys, in film, photography and other media. I put that thought to de Le Rue.
“For so many years I just focused on the action in the films I made and then, probably through growing up, you realize that there is a lot more to tell and to share with people,” he said. “Rather than just inspiring people by action and by winning titles, I think in film you can bring values and it’s much more complete and powerful.”
Telling stories of the wider culture of freeride, rather than just the adrenalin, must have mellowed de Le Rue. His nervous, darting, eyes paused with some serenity before he said, “and right now I’m happy. I’m not pushing right on the edge to the point where I might not come home every night. It’s nice.”
But de Le Rue has been right on the edge, and one could argue that is how he got to this privileged position of being in control of his own expeditions and projects. Considering the rise of backcountry snowboarding and skiing, the push to sell more freeride gear, and the record number of avalanche deaths in the Alps this season, is the whole industry over-eager to promote something so manifestly dangerous? I’m part of the same industry, wanting to inspire others to get into the hills, and I’m not clear on how I would answer that question. It felt unfair to ask de Le Rue but I did.
“I’m sure you try as much as I do to show that for this immense privilege there is a price, and that price could be your life if you’re unlucky or if you’re stupid or cocky,” he said.
He agreed there is a chance people will take that privilege for granted, but questioned whether the mountains should be elitist or secretive. How can we not talk about what is, as de Le Rue put it, “one of the most beautiful things, riding down a mountain on something fluffy that flies. It’s just magical”?
De Le Rue then told me a story about how he and the late Andreas Fransson, who died in an avalanche in the Patagonian Andes in September, hiked out of a potential line in Chamonix because they weren’t happy with the conditions. When an unknown Frenchman promptly skied the line un-roped, the pair came in for some ridicule from their peers and from certain sections of the media.
Fransson, a Swedish ski mountaineer, was as cautious as he was experienced, and still came to a tragic end. That anyone would deride the choice he and de Le Rue made that day is alarming. Tales of near-misses with avalanches should not be a badge of honor in my view, but I worry they are becoming the must-have après ski accessory. While neither de Le Rue nor I have definitive answers, I think we both see a similar problem. I’m more inspired by the man that can walk away.
So for someone of so many talents, I wanted to know where did his greatest satisfaction lie. De Le Rue has won awards, titles, medals and accolades across sports, media and business. Which ‘trophy’ meant the most?
“I think that line in Verbier,” he said, referring again to the win at the 2010 Freeride World Tour. “I spotted the line about a month earlier when I was skiing with my daughter. You have to see it from a certain angle to see that there is a ledge to land on. It was like an artist being inspired by what they see, and in my whole life it’s been really rare that I’ve felt like that.”
Today, de Le Rue said he’d no longer ride such an extreme line, so the moment holds special significance for him. It was a snapshot in time when he felt so strong and powerful.
If he sounds a bit like he’s looking back on his prime with nostalgia, rest assured that there is more to come from de Le Rue. He told me he had thought he was over the hill at the age of 26, nine years ago. Yet later this winter de Le Rue is heading to Alaska with some unique plans to explore the coastline for a new movie with Timeline Missions, and by September he will have revolutionized the video-selfie with the launch of the Hexo+.
Sounds like I’ll have to come back to Verbier in another five years to discuss what other industries he has conquered.