The long road to recovery from traumatic brain injury

New documentary on snowboarder Charlie Elmore’s recovery from traumatic brain injury resonated with me strongly, for a number of reasons.

Nearly 19 years ago I was in a car accident in which one of my friends suffered a brain injury that left her in a coma. Unlike my friend, I still remember the moments after the crash vividly. Miraculously no one else was seriously hurt, but J, who’d been sitting in the middle of that backseat, had been thrown to one side and was unconscious. There had been no impact and were no visible signs of injury, but her brain had been shaken enough to cause severe brain injury that would change her life forever.

Charlie Elmore snowboarder

Snowboarder Charlie Elmore

For many years that accident made me a very nervous passenger and fastidious about wearing seatbelts (although I must point out that my friend was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident) but my caution did not necessarily carry over to the ski slopes.

As a snowboarder, I’ve taken many a tumble, hitting my head on countless occasions. It’s a horrible feeling. Not so much the pain, but rather the dull thud, and realisation that it could have been so much worse. Hearing that thud means that, on that occasion, you are one of the lucky ones, but it always makes you take stock and reflect on the fragility of your brain.

When Charlie Elmore hit her head while riding the Penken Park in Mayrhofen, she knew nothing about it until she woke up in hospital ten days later, and even then, had no recollection of the incident.

Charlie Elmore snowboarder

Charlie in the park before the accident

BBC Three’s excellent documentary “Me and My New Brain” charts Charlie’s journey through rehabilitation and beyond, as she tries to rebuild her life. While, four years later, she appears to have fully recovered, the documentary focuses on the more subtle psychological effects that can endure after such trauma to the brain, and which often go unaddressed or even unnoticed.

Incredibly Charlie was back on her snowboard after just a year, determined to resume her career as a snowboard instructor in Verbier. However, she soon discovered that, despite her remarkable progress, she still had a long battle ahead. After realising that fitting back into her previous life was not going to be as easy as she’s envisioned, Charlie decided to train to be an adaptive snowboard instructor so that she could help others with disabilities to enjoy the ski slopes. However, even that has proven to be a struggle. She also runs the GBOT2018 Campaign to help fund Paralympian and Invictus athletes.

Charlie Elmore rehab

Charlie in rehab

The effects of my friend’s injuries were much more severe than Charlie’s and it was a very long time before she was able to lead any semblance of a normal adult life. However, like Charlie, she’s an extremely determined individual, and against all the odds she eventually returned to university to continue the law degree that she’d only just begun before the accident, with a view to eventually helping others with brain injuries. She’s also an active political campaigner. It took a lot of persistance, but she’s now living a relatively normal, independent life. However, like so many other people who’ve suffered from traumatic brain injury, the obstacles that I’ve seen her overcome will only have been the tip of the iceberg.

For me, one of the most poignant moments in the documentary is when Charlie talks of a lack of ongoing support, and how, despite receiving messages, cards and visits from over 200 friends at the time of her accident, she could now count on two hands the number of friends who continue to offer support four years down the line. Her revelation sent a pang of remorse through me, as I know that I probably haven’t offered my friend enough in the way of continued support over the years.

It’s impossible not to be inspired by people like my friend and Charlie, who’ve not only overcome traumatic brain injuries, but have used their experience to help others. It’s a position no one would want to be in themselves, but you can only hope that you would be as strong and altruistic, but the brain is such a complicated thing that anything could happen.

Charlie Elmore adaptive snowboard coach

Charlie training to be an adaptive snowboard coach

The fact that I could just as easily have come off worse in that car accident, or in any of my many snowboarding and mountain biking crashes, is not something I reflect on often. If I did, maybe I would have been more sensitive to the need for ongoing support and understanding for people who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries. It’s undoubtedly one of the documentary’s overriding messages, and if it makes as much of an impact on everyone else watching it as it did me, it will hopefully go some way towards helping those recovering from TBI to reintegrate more easily into society.

As a snowboarder and mountain biker, another message I took away from it was the importance of wearing a helmet. The fear of it happening to me is not enough to stop me doing the things I love, but I always do what I can to minimise the risk of injury by wearing a helmet. After all, as the consultant who treated Charlie in intensive care told her, it was the helmet she was wearing that saved her life.

The BBC Three documentary “Me and My New Brain” is available to watch on iPlayer and is well worth a watch.

Sexist Snowboards

Using sex, and more specifically, the female form, to sell products is one of the oldest marketing tricks in the book, but you’d think in these times of supposed equality and respect for women, that it might have dwindled somewhat. But not in snowboarding it would appear.

sexist snowboards It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given the way that women tend to be portrayed in the snowboarding media – predominantly as eye candy – but I’m always amazed at the number of new boards that emerge each year sporting graphics that quite blatantly objectify women.

What’s even more surprising is that it’s totally at odds with apparent efforts by the snowboarding media and certain brands over the past few years to recognise, represent and cater to the industry’s female contingent better.These companies seem to reach out to women with one hand, offering female specific products, media channels, and even the odd female team rider, and then slap them in the face with the other, with sexist advertising and degrading graphics on their boards.

Here are some of the worst culprits…

Sims Fader 2003

Sims Fader 2003

Back in the dark ages of 2003 Sims managed to get away with putting a topless image of porn star Jenna Jameson on their Fader snowboard, along with a series of other glamour models posing seductively. Classy eh?

Burton Love 2009

Burton Love snowboard 2009Six years later Burton featured Playboy centrefolds on its, equally tacky, Love series. While they stopped short of showing any full on boob-age, they were still the kind of images that belong on the top shelf rather than the top of the mountain. Needless to say the boards didn’t go down very well (not like that) and there were protests to have them banned.

Burton Custom Restricted 2014 

Burton Custom Restricted 2014Undeterred by the offence caused by the Love series five years previously, Burton decided to roll out the scantily clad ladies again for the 2014 restricted version of their ever-popular Burton Custom, which featured blurred images of swimwear models posing seductively on the beach. Admittedly not quite as risqué, but still pretty disrespectful nonetheless.

They must have decided that female objectification had become more acceptable in our increasingly liberal and “progressive” society, or perhaps they’d just run out of ideas? As Burton is hardly renowned for its creative graphics, let’s assume it’s the latter.

The fact that the boards were only available in certain shops just made them seem all the more seedy, as if they were some kind of illicit porn or sex toy. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the blurred design looks like it’s being viewed through the opaque plastic cover of a top shelf magazine?

Rome Artifact 2009

Rome Artifact 2009

It may not picture the slightest trace of naked female flesh but the 2009 Rome Artifact manages to be even more offensive than the ones that do with its neon light strip club graphics and “LIVE NUDE GIRLS” or “BENT OVER BABES” emblazoned on the base. Seriously? 

Reprobate Tap Her 

Reprobate Tap Her

I had to do a double take when I saw this board in the window of a snowboard shop in Morzine. Not so much because of the graphic, as it’s hardly unusual to see a semi clad woman gracing the topsheet of a snowboard, but more because of the name. Personally, as a woman, I find the expression “I’m going to tap her” pretty offensive, but given the brand name, I guess that’s their objective. Fortunately their puerile attempt to appeal to snowboarding’s laddish contingent appeared to fail, as I’ve never seen or heard of them since.

Lib Tech Jamie Lynn Phoenix

Lib Tech Phoenix Jamie Lynn series

I have to confess that I feel a little conflicted with this one, as I actually really like the graphics on the Jamie Lynn series of Lib Tech boards. The images are more abstract and arty than the gratuitous lads mag style “artwork” seen on some other boards and I think they can legitimately be considered works of art as opposed to mindless sexism.

Lib Tech Deflower 2014/15

Lib Tech Deflower 2014/15

Jamie Lynn has a real thing for the voluptuous blue nude, and here she is again on his 2014/15 signature board, except this time with no head, super-sized nipples and a flower not quite covering her lady bits. I’m sure Germaine Greer would have a lot to say about this image, and the fact that it’s called the Deflower makes it hard to refute any allegations of sexism. As I said before, I like Jamie Lynn and his designs for Lib Tech, but I think I’d probably have to side with Germaine on this one.

Bataleon Camel Toe 2013/14 (limited edition)

Bataleon Camel Toe 2013/14

Well done Bataleon, we see what you did there. You’ve got to admire their audacity, but the graphics on this board are wrong on so many levels. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, but that doesn’t stop it being pretty degrading to women, and er, transgenders.

Yes Great Boobs

Yes Great Boobs

Yes managed to justify decorating this snowboard with nothing but, pretty fake looking, tits by donating the proceeds to help breast cancer survivors “experience the life-changing effects of snowboarding through Retreat Yourself camps in Colorado”. While I commend cause, it seems like a pretty tasteless way of going about it.

Gnu Pickle Stallion 13/14

Gnu Pickle Stallion 2013/14A couple of years ago Gnu eventually hit back at all this flagrant sexism on behalf of the ladies with the delightfully tongue-in-cheek Pickle Stallion that features naked male models in ludicrous poses, on skis no less. Their modesty is protected by pixelated strips, along with their faces, which are obviously of no interest to us girls when there’s a naked torso on display.

It’s a great parody that manages to subvert the notion of sexual objectification and ridicule the offenders. The strategically positioned banana logo is a particularly nice touch.

Lobster Jib Board STD

Lobster Jib Board STD 2011/12

The Helgasons are hardly renowned for being saintly and subtle so it’s no surprise that their range of Lobster snowboards feature some pretty controversial graphics. However, last year’s special edition Jib Board STD was offensive even by their standards. Apparently the board carried a safe sex message to the kids that “STDs will fuck you up”, but that wasn’t enough to prevent it from being banned in several shops. I’m not sure it’s been proven that you can catch genital teeth from sleeping around…

Union Danny Kass bindings – 12/13

Union Danny Kass bindings 2012/13Snowboards aren’t the only culprits. Boobs have even made it onto bindings thanks to Union and Danny Kass. At least the modesty of one of the pair, of bindings, is protected by a little T-shirt, although, as it bears the logo “We Make Party” I’m not sure whether that makes it any less chauvinistic…

Flux RK Visuals bindings 2015/16

Flux RK Visual bindings 2015/16

And it looks like Flux have gone one step further by featuring a close up of a woman’s crotch and thighs on their RK Visual bindings for next season. Awesome.

DC Ply 2012/13, Nitro Addict 2014/15, Capita DOA (most of them), Salomon Man’s Board (all of them) … The list of sexist snowboards goes on and on…

sexist snowboards

However, none are as bad as the Anti Hero Allen Before & After skateboard deck…

Anti Hero Allen Before & After skateboard deck

I guess they do say that snowboarding borrows a lot from skateboarding. Perhaps sexist graphics are just another example?

I’m not a raving feminist or feel personally affronted by any of these designs, (ok, maybe some) but what does make me uncomfortable is the fact that they are representative of this male dominated industry and the issues associated with that. How will women ever attain equal recognition in snowboarding, be that with prize money, funding or sponsorship, when we’re still being presented as nothing more than boobs on boards.

At the end of the day, the market is driven by consumers, and these kind of graphics wouldn’t continue to emerge year after year if people weren’t buying them. So come on guys, show us some respect. Female shredders want to be taken seriously as riders, and not as eye candy to decorate your snowboards and the pages of magazines. There are loads of rad graphics out there that display a lot more depth and imagination, so why not leave the pictures of boobs and bums on the bedroom walls of teenage boys and get yourself a grown up snowboard. And besides, if you want to impress a girl on the slopes, riding around with sexist images on your snowboard is probably the worst way to go about it.

What do you think of these boards, and the representation of women in snowboarding generally?

 

Powder chasing

“Have you seen the snow forecast?” said Dan, grinning from ear to ear.

“Yeah, at last eh?” I replied, relieved that it was starting to look like the season wasn’t going to be a write off after all. It was the end of January, usually one of the best months for snow, and this was the first prolonged forecast of snow there St Gervais powderhad been all season.

“Shall we go this weekend?”

“I thought you were working?”

“I’ll sort it, let’s go”

And before I knew it, my powder hungry boyfriend had booked flights, arranged to stay with friends and even bought us both new avalanche safety gear. It was the best travel service I’d ever had, except for the fact he’d booked us flights at 6.30 in the morning. Surely he knows I’m not a morning person, sheesh.

Snow in St GervaisHowever, there was method to his apparent madness and, having arrived in Geneva at 9.30 am, we were on the slopes of St Gervais by lunchtime, relieved not to have encountered any of the travel chaos that usually accompanies heavy snowfall. In fact, we’d had no problems whatsoever until we arrived at our friends’ chalet and had to put snow chains on to get up the drive!

As we looked down from the chairlift at the trees practically collapsing under the weight of all the snow, there was absolutely no question that the 3am alarm call had been worth it. Off piste the snow was at least knee deep and still coming View from chairliftdown hard. It couldn’t have been more different to when we were here just before Christmas and the slopes and buildings were completely free of snow. In fact, in all the years I’ve been visiting St Gervais, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so snowy.

The next morning we awoke to the beautiful sight of the Aravis mountain range bathed in a pink hue, with the town below covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow. It was going to be a blue sky powder day!

Sunrise St GervaisThe only thing getting between us and the powder covered slopes was the small issue of a foot of snow that was blocking the road up to the chalet, and we weren’t going anywhere until it had been cleared. It took two strapping lads (yes, I am talking about Dan and Chris) close to an hour to clear it, which is probably enough to take the edge off a powder day, especially if, like Chris, you have to do it every time there’s a big dump of snow. Talk about earning your turns!

Clearing snowAs it turned out, we were actually quite happy not to have been up there first. St Gervais is relatively low so the powder can be slightly heavier than it would be at higher altitudes, and as its slopes don’t have the steepest gradient, if you get stuck it’s pretty hard work to get going again. There were still plenty of fresh tracks to be had but we made sure we kept an existing track within easy reach in case we needed a get out! At one point I bailed and was totally engulfed by snow, which was actually a little scary.

Avalanche transceiverIt seemed like quite an opportune time to do some avalanche safety and transceiver training so we took some time out to practice tracking buried transceivers under the guidance of experienced mountain man, Chris.

After half a day of blue skies the snow returned, and it kept dumping for the next few days, which meant lots more road clearing but also plenty more powder turns! In addition to St Gervais, we also took in the neighbouring resorts of Megève and Combleux, all of which have loads of great runs through the trees that were perfect for the snowy conditions. The combination of steeper gradient and lighter snow there also made it a dream to ride, and as the resorts were quiet, there were always freshies to be had.

Megève tree runs For the last couple of days of our trip we’d planned to head somewhere a bit further afield and opted for La Clusaz on the other side of the Aravis, which is a resort I’d never been to before. It’s also pretty easy to get to from St Gervais, in theory, and normally just requires an hour-long drive up and over the Col d’Aravis. As the snow had eased and the roads seemed fine we set off, hoping to get to La Clusaz for an afternoon shred. The road that winds up to the Col d’Aravis had been well cleared, however, just as we approached the top, we came round a bend to find an abandoned snow plough in the middle of the road, which ended abruptly by its enormous blade. It was pretty apparent that we weren’t getting any further.

Les SaisiesWe could hardly believe it – we were practically there, but were going to have to go all the way back down, do a massive detour to Annecy and approach from there. If we hadn’t already booked and paid for accommodation in La Clusaz we’d have sacked it off and gone somewhere else instead, but we were committed now. However, rather than write off the day completely we decided to spend the afternoon in one of the nearby ski areas before embarking on the tedious detour. On the way up I’d noticed signs to Les Saisies, a little resort that I’d visited briefly when I worked for ski tour operator Ski Independence, so we headed there.

Fresh tracks, La ClusazMuch of the terrain in Les Saisies is fairly gentle but we managed to find an area with some great blacks and reds, and fantastic snow. On our way up there we passed over some very enticing expanses of untouched snow but when dipping into them on the way back down it was easy to see why no one had ventured in too far as the lack of gradient meant you’d soon grind to a halt.

When we finally made it to La Clusaz that evening we were pleasantly surprised by what a cool town it is and both agreed that it was worth the ball ache of a journey to get there.

Col de Balme, La ClusazThe next day we discovered that the ski area was equally good. We spent most of the day up in the Col de Balme area of the resort which had wide open bowls, challenging terrain and loads of great snow. Despite the fact that it hadn’t snowed for two days, the snow was in great nick and there were still fresh tracks to be claimed. Word had quite clearly got out that the Col de Balme was the place to be and there were quite a few people heading up the lift to get a piece of the action. It was a massive bowl though so everyone dispersed pretty quickly at the top. Next time round we decided to take the other, decidedly quieter, chairlift, which linked to a drag lift that Col de Balme, La Clusaztook you up to a practically deserted bowl that was far less tracked out and had some awesome lines to take, as well as stunning views. We ended up lapping that drag lift for the rest of the afternoon doing “one more run” after another until the light went and we decided we’d really better head back.

If we weren’t already feeling smug enough at having found such a sweet spot to shred, it was intensified further still when, on riding down, we realised that the rest of the mountain had been sitting in thick cloud while we’d been enjoying the sunshine higher up.

It was a fantastic end to what had been an amazing impromptu trip. We’re now back in the UK recovering from a serious powder come down, counting the days until our next trip and praying that we’ll be blessed with similar conditions. That’s the only problem with powder – it’s pretty addictive!

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

Snowboarding in Scotland: When it’s good, it’s very, very good…

GlensheeWhenever I go snowboarding in the Scottish mountains, I’m reminded of a nursery rhyme that my Grandad used to recite about a little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead, that went: “When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid.”

I’m quite sure it was never intended to be an analogy for skiing and snowboarding in Scotland, but it pretty much sums it up perfectly!

Glenshee ski areaUntil a couple of weeks ago, conditions had been frustratingly horrid, with storms and hurricane force winds that not only made winter sports impossible but blew away the snow and caused loads of damage. However, things eventually took a turn for the better mid January when a band of high pressure moved in and the weather calmed down enough to allow the ski areas to repair the damage, clear the roads and groom the runs. By the weekend of 17th January all five Scottish ski areas were open and people flocked there in their masses to enjoy fantastic snow and clear blue skies.

Glenshee cafeHaving been unable to go that weekend, and taken to the snow on my mountain bike instead, I was desperate to get up there before conditions deteriorated again. We had a small window of availability on Tuesday and Wednesday, and after checking the forecast, Wednesday seemed to be the better option.

snowboarding Glenshee

Photo: Philly Waygood

It was a lovely morning when we left Edinburgh and it stayed that way all the way to Glenshee. The journey up is usually fraught with anxiety over just what you’ll find when you get there. Will the road be open? Will it be too windy for the lifts to operate? Will there be enough snow? Will we be able to see anything?! Even if it’s forecast to be good when you leave Edinburgh, it can have changed completely by the time you get there, which, on occasion, has resulted in an about turn at the Spittal of Glenshee, or sooner.

Fortunately the road was completely clear and the metre high wall of snow lining it was an indication that we ought to be ok on the snow front. The weather was also unusually calm with patches of blue sky visible, so all in all things were looking good. This was confirmed when the ski area came into view, and not only did most of the lifts seem to be operating, but the slopes were bathed in sunlight. Phew.

Butchart's Coire GlensheeAlthough the weather was good, except for a bit of a fresh breeze, which was nothing compared to how it can be, we soon discovered that we were unable to get over the back to Meall Odhar, Coire Fionn and Glas Maol, presumably because there wasn’t enough snow cover. It didn’t matter though as the snow was so good everywhere else, and the slopes were nice and quiet. We spent most of our time over at Butchart’s Coire, and in a way it was a bit of a blessing in disguise as I’d normally just do a couple of runs on that side before heading over the back. It was great to explore Butchart’s properly and discovered Butchart’s Gully, an awesome natural boardercross, Glensheewhich I didn’t even know was there!

We rode all afternoon, loving every minute, until the descending sun started to turn the mountains a glorious shade of pink. On the way back, we stopped off at the Bridge of Cally Hotel for a wee après drink and reflected on what a great day it had been. There’s no doubt that skiing and snowboarding in Scotland can be a little hit or miss, but like the girl with the little curl, when it’s good, it’s very, very good.

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

Searching for snow

IMG_9838

Morzine

“Maybe we should take our mountain bikes instead”, I said to Dan as we packed our snowboard bag, only half joking. It was mid December and there was worryingly little snow in the Alps. And with only a few centimetres forecast before the return of more mild temperatures, it certainly didn’t look like we were going to get much snowboarding on our first trip of the season. Fortunately we weren’t just going for the snow and were visiting friends who live in St Gervais, but I’d be lying if I said that the chance to get in some early season turns wasn’t a major motivation.

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Avoriaz

It’s always a gamble booking a ski or snowboarding trip before Christmas. Sometimes it pays off, like the year before last, where we experienced some of the best powder we’d ever ridden, and sometimes it doesn’t, as was almost certainly going to be the case this time. Arriving in Geneva it felt like it could easily have been spring, and the temperature didn’t change dramatically as we climbed towards St Gervais. The next day our spirits were lifted when it started to snow, but sadly it soon turned to rain. Our only comfort was that it ought to be falling as snow higher up, but even that wasn’t a certainty.

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The Stash, Avoriaz

With neither St Gervais, Les Contamines nor Chamonix open, the next again day we decided to head to Avoriaz where we hoped the previous night’s precipitation might have fallen as snow. By the time we reached Les Gets and Morzine it became glaringly apparent just how bad the snow shortage was. The slopes were almost completely bare, and a discarded umbrella by the otherwise deserted mountain base was a poetically depressing sight that seemed to sum up the situation perfectly.

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Lower slopes at Les Contamines

It was raining lightly as we climbed up to Avoriaz, and the higher we got, the more desperately we willed it to turn to snow. Sadly it didn’t and on arrival we were disheartened to find almost as many people carrying umbrellas as skis and snowboards. There has to be only one thing more depressing than a lack of snow in a ski resort and that’s rain. However, encouraged by the fact that there seemed to be plenty of people on the slopes, we jumped on the lift, optimistic that it might be snowing at the top. But it wasn’t.

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Upper slopes at Les Contamines

Wiping the drizzle from our goggles and congratulating ourselves for having invested in GoreTex outerwear last season, we strapped on our boards and prepared to make the most of it. Amazingly, other than being a little heavy in places, the snow was actually pretty good and we managed to get some great runs in the limited area that was open. The snow cover was good, however, a chairlift ride over The Stash with its features looking ridiculously unridable, revealed just how much snow was still needed for the resort to open fully. Unfortunately my GoreTex indulgence hadn’t stretched to gloves, and after a couple of hours my usually trusty Hestras were like saturated sponges, and my hands resembled anaemic prunes.

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Freshies at Les Contamines

While it certainly wasn’t the first day of the season we’d dreamed of when we booked the flights back in October, full of hope for a stellar start to the season, we left feeling pretty happy with the day we’d had given the way things had panned out. Unexpectedly ok as it was, we weren’t exactly desperate to head back the next day, especially as conditions weren’t forecast to be any different. There was, however, a decent dump of snow forecast in a couple of day’s time, which coincided with Les Contamines’ (rescheduled) opening date of Saturday 20 December.

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Powder butters

Fortunately the forecast came good and we headed up to Les Contamines for first lifts on the Saturday morning. The snow was pretty average lower down so we went right up to the top as soon as the upper lifts opened. As we rode up the top lift we could barely contain our excitement at the sight of an open bowl full of fresh, untouched snow. As we climbed higher, the people who’d been ahead of us on the lift started to descend, leaving deep tracks in the snow and us even more desperate to get up there. By the time we got to the top there was still plenty of untouched pow for us to get freshies too, which we took great pleasure in doing. We lapped that lift until the entire bowl was tracked out, and then some more. It was better than we could ever have hoped for and we left feeling totally elated. When we got back down to the town it felt like spring again and was hard to believe that we’d been blasting through fresh powder less than an hour beforehand.

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Happy!

We left a few days before the massive storm that caused travel chaos on the busiest weekend of the season but saved the resorts from a disastrous New Year’s week. Unfortunately the turnaround in conditions didn’t last long and the slopes are once again in dire need of replenishment. Hopefully things will pick up in the Alps soon but until they do I’ll be sticking to the slopes of Scotland, on my mountain bike!

Have you been riding yet this season? How was it?

Penmachno Preview

IMG_8847“Fancy doing this?” read the message, followed by a link to a mountain biking Facebook page. “Places are going fast, so we’ll have to make a decision quickly”. I clicked on the link and had barely read the first paragraph when my phone rang. It was Dan. “So, are you up for it?” By making a quick decision, I thought he’d meant sometime in the next few days, but apparently it meant straight away.

“Umm, yeeeeah… maybe”, I replied trying to be as non-committal as possible, without sounding too unenthusiastic. From what I’d managed to deduce from the Facebook page, the event was an enduro in Penmachno,Wales, mid-November.

IMG_8856We’d been talking about entering an enduro (a mountain bike race that tests endurance and bike handling skills with a series of timed downhill stages within an otherwise untimed circuit) all summer, but now that the season was over I thought I’d now have until spring to hone my skills a bit more before entering something so scary sounding.

“Well, what do you reckon” he urged as I desperately tried to find out a bit more about what I might be letting myself in for. Last time I said yes to something like this, I found myself riding in a sportive incorporating the toughest road climb in the UK.

IMG_8860Well?”

“Umm, okay then…” I heard myself reply, not entirely convincingly. And that was it. Within ten minutes I was signed up to do my first mountain biking race.

Entries for the event closed minutes after Dan signed us up and there was a moment when I thought we hadn’t got places after all. But rather than feeling relieved, I was disappointed, which made me realise that deep down I obviously did really want to do it. I love organised events and am intrigued to see how I fare against other female mountain bikers. I’ve been doing a fair bit of riding over the past year and feel like I’ve improved loads, but other than through Strava results, I haven’t really been able to see how I compare to anyone other than Dan (who’s much better than me) and a handful of other guys who we’ve ridden with.

IMG_9039However, as the race approaches, I’ve been feeling an increasingly nervous. I’m worried that everyone else will have been riding for way longer than me and be loads better; worried that everyone else will have been competing in enduros for ages; worried that everyone else will be familiar with the trails; worried that I’ll mess it up and not do very well; and most of all, worried that my competitive nature overrides my sense of self preservation and I injure myself, again.

In order to eliminate one of the unknown entities that was giving me the fear, we decided to pay a visit to Penmachno to check out the trails. We’d already planned to tag a bit of mountain biking in Wales onto a trip to Liverpool so we figured we might as well go there.

IMG_8872Penmachno is a little village near Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia, and around one and a half hours drive from Liverpool. The mountain biking trails are independently run and refreshingly non-commercialised. As you drive out of Penmachno, an unpretentious handwritten sign directs you up a fire road to an information board and space for dozen or so cars to park. There are no ticket machines, just a slot on the board in which to post a small donation towards the upkeep of the trails.

The contents of the donation box must have stretched a long way, as the local trail fairies have been extremely busy lately building two whole new sections of singletrack to add to an already extensive network of trails.

IMG_9037The trails are split into two red-graded loops, which can either be ridden separately or as a complete 30km circuit. From the car park you join the 19km ‘Dolen Machno’ trail, or ‘loop 1’ which, after a fairly grueling stretch of fire road, takes you into the forest for some enjoyably technical stretches of singletrack. Unfortunately the first proper descent was closed due to felling so we had to continue up the fire road until the end of the diversion.

About half way round the loop, you meet the start of ‘Dolen Eryri’ or ‘loop 2’, which takes you deeper into the forest for a further 11km. It’s a great trail that leads you through thick wooded areas and open stretches of younger forest, over exposed rock and deep water-filled troughs. The scenery is stunning and other than the wildlife, we felt totally alone, and most probably were.

IMG_8877Eventually you pop out onto the fire road again and rejoin ‘loop 1’ to climb up to the top of a rocky ridge. From here it’s pretty much down hill all the way, although the first stretch still requires a fair bit of pedaling and negotiating rocky outcrops. However, when the downhill proper starts, it’s a fast, flowing, fun ride that will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

Unfortunately by this point the sun was starting to descend as rapidly as we were, something we hadn’t fully appreciated until we plunged into the darkness of the forest and had to rely on blind faith to get us down. The challenge was intensified by fact that the heavens had opened and heavy rain was penetrating the thick canopy and turning the trail into even more of a mud chute. It was still IMG_8987great fun though, and I felt reassured by the fact that conditions were unlikely to be any worse than this on the day of the enduro! As we got further down, we hit one of the new sections, which swooped through the trees in a series of impeccably manicured berms.

By now, the rain had intensified and the combination of low sun and rain clouds had made the sky even darker. We were soaked through and getting pretty cold so decided to skip the last section and head straight back to the car via the fire road. On the way we caught a glimpse of more of the new trails that we were missing out on and cursed ourselves for not getting there earlier.

IMG_8995The next day, we had planned to head to Coed-y-Brenin, but after having had to cut short our ride at Penmachno, we decided to go back and do loop 1 again. It was a really fun ride that was definitely enhanced by being able to see this time! The end of the loop consisted of a nice mix of smooth new trails and rougher, more technical sections, and while I tend to prefer the latter, it was definitely fun to blast down the rollercoaster-esque new bits.

It was great to be able to check out the trails at Penmachno before the enduro, and although we won’t know the exact route until the day of the race, I at least feel reassured that there’s nothing there I can’t handle. I still feel slightly apprehensive about how I’ll do on the day, and the butterflies will no doubt be fluttering frantically as the event draws ever closer, but more than anything I’m just excited to ride those trails again!

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Higher Calling

UK premiere of Higher, the final installment of Jeremy Jones’s backcountry trilogy.

Looking around at the grand pulpit, rows of pews, and ornate stone features of London’s Union Chapel it seemed fitting that we were here to see the god of backcountry snowboarding. This divine setting played host to the UK premiere of Higher, the final part of Jeremy Jones’ epic trilogy, and the great man was there in person for us to worship.

WP_20141028_025Unsurprisingly the event was a sell out and when we rocked up ten minutes after the doors opened, there was already a massive queue running right the way along the street. We headed up to the balcony and chose a pew that was ideally situated to take in the beautiful surroundings and get a perfect view of the big screen and spot in front of the pulpit where His High(er)ness would be speaking.

Jez, as I feel I can call him that now that we’ve ‘met’, introduced the film and made an instant connection with the audience by reminding us that he too came from somewhere low and flat before climbing, quite literally, higher.

The film begins by touching on Jones’s upbringing on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the early 80s and his progression from professional slalom racer to ten-time ‘Big Mountain Rider of the Year’.

jeremy_drops_in_HigherJeremy Jones isn’t a man who does things by halves. Like the previous two films in the trilogy, Deeper and Further, Higher follows him as he seeks out new and ever more challenging locations in which to test his riding skills and endurance. As the title of the film suggests, the focus of this installment is his assault on a series of previously uncharted vertiginous peaks.

Higher focuses on three separate expeditions, to Grand Teton in Wyoming, Alaska and the Himalayas, and follows Jones and his carefully selected riding partners (Bryan Iguchi, Ryland Bell and Luca Pandolfi) as they experience everything from the ultimate highs to most crushing lows in remote parts of some of the most inhospitable mountain ranges on the planet.

Not one for heli drops, Jones is a true mountaineer for whom a big part of the challenge is accessing his chosen lines under his own steam, even if that means being stuck for days in massive storms with nothing but a tent for shelter, which it invariably does.

over_the_edge_HigherThey target seriously impressive terrain with near vertical spine walls that look impossible to climb, let alone ride. At one point we see Jones and Pandolfi scale a 2,000ft near-vertical face, one energy sapping step after another, only for the weather to close in as they reach the top and thwart their descent. Over the course of the film it becomes apparent that these type of set backs are commonplace, and that for every few minutes of exhilarating descent, there are invariably hours, days or even weeks spent at the mercy of mother nature at her most brutal.

The film culminates with Jones embarking on his biggest challenge yet when he heads to Nepal to take on the Shangri La spines in the Himalayas – the biggest he’s ever seen. After weeks of preparation involving acclimatisation, trial ascents and descents, he finally attempts the line he’s been aiming for. Conditions are sketchy, to say the least, and he describes it as: “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”. It may not have turned out to be the dream line that he’d hoped for but in getting down that spine on the Shangri La, he certainly fulfilled his brief. After all, short of riding down Everest, you can’t really get much ‘higher’ than that.

Higher isn’t your average snowboarding movie. At 1 hour 40 minutes long, it’s a feature length documentary on the incredible feats of a true backcountry snowboarder and mountaineer. Unlike many freeride snowboarding films, which edit together footage of perfect descents, deep powder, backcountry kickers and pillow lines, this is a realistic, warts and all account of backcountry riding in its rawest form. Jeremy epitomses the notion of “earning your turns” and the ascents he takes on are equally as impressive as the descents.

Although there’s inevitably a certain amount of aerial footage, much of the action jeremy_climbs_ridge_in_ak_Higheris filmed using head cams, which make you feel like you’re there with them on every precarious ridge and heart stopping turn. Almost.

There’s also a refreshing absence of lingering shots of logos on boots or boards, or energy drinks being consumed. This is not a vehicle to promote Jones’ range of snowboards, or at least not directly. We know they’re riding Jones boards but other than the odd uncontrived glimpse of the logo, you wouldn’t know. There are obviously nods to his handful of sponsors but these are at least subtle.

The film by no means glamourises Jones’s adventures and doesn’t necessarily leave you longing to get yourself a splitboard and transceiver and hit the backcountry. Instead I was left reflecting on the hostile nature of the mountains, and the skill and expertise required to tackle them – something that was confounded further still by the end credits which dedicate the film to several of Jones’s close friends and mentors who’ve lost their lives in this perilous jeremy_climbs_in_nepal_Higherplayground. And although I’m not a particularly religious person, our situation in this place of prayer and worship made it seem all the more poignant.

I obviously wasn’t alone as the subject was raised in the Q&A session after the film, where Jones spoke of how hard he’s been hit by the deaths of his friends and heroes. He also touched on the inner conflict he now faces as a dad, continuing to put himself in potentially life threatening situations and risking leaving his kids without a father. It’s certainly not something that he takes lightly and acknowledges that “taking stupid risks is definitely irresponsible”. Ultimately though, he just can’t imagine living his life in any other way and feels it’s important for his kids to “see people living life and drinking life up as much as possible”.

Amen to that.

Higher is available to download on iTunes now.

Have you seen the film? What did you think?