Xavier De Le Rue recently hosted a live Webinar from his home in Verbier with the goal of passing on his unique set of backcountry knowledge and experience to others. We got him on the phone shortly afterwards to talk about the experience, what he hoped to achieve with it and where he hopes it will go in the future. The timing of the webinar and the interview were especially poignant because the day after it was shot, Xavier and the crew were the first on the scene of an avalanche in Verbier that tragically took the life of one of his friends. You can check the full Webinar below, and read on for the full interview.
Interview: Theo Acworth
Hey Xavier, how are you doing?
Doing good thanks, just got to get my headphones….. Ok, ready.
So how was the Webinar as an experience for you, having lights and cameras and stuff in your house?
It was nice, not easy, though. It puts a lot more pressure on you. I've done a few live Q&A sessions before where you have a bit more of a chance to prepare yourself. Having cameras and tv production was amazing but a completely different game. It was nice that we could really get into detail by showing the faces and things like that. This Webinar was quite general, but I think it gave a good first impression.
Are you going to do more of them in the future?
Yeah, I hope that we can do more of them. It's a really good tool, and in future, we plan to get really deep into more specific subjects for the hardcore riders.
What was your motivation to do this Webinar? Did you see this an extension of your 'XV' YouTube series?
The response to the Youtube series showed me that people were really keen to get more information and learn about this sort of thing, freeriding, touring and mountain safety. And I think coming back to when I started the series, it was putting myself in the perspective of a father and seeing how my daughter was consuming social media and general content. This really made me question what I was doing and what my real goal was, and in a way, what my responsibility was. I had young kids and was doing crazy stuff and showing that on my networks, but not necessarily really sharing what it takes to do it. I saw access to freeriding getting much easier in the last decade for people on the ground, but them not necessarily having the knowledge for it. So I was seeing accidents happening which could have easily been avoided. So all of those elements were really encouraging me to put more energy into things like the series and now this Webinar, to share my experience instead of just going out and riding cool lines.
So the day after the Webinar, you were out riding, and you were the first on the scene of an avalanche that tragically took the life of a friend of yours. Can you take us through it?
Yeah for sure. I tried not to be too dramatic when talking about some of my avalanche stories and mentioning death during the Webinar, and then the next day the one thing that we thought would never happen, happened. It was a perfect day, perfect conditions, everything great, and then boom, all of a sudden things go completely to shit. I was first on the scene of the avalanche, I'd witnessed it not far from a colouir that we were riding. I started to look and search, and I saw an airbag sticking out. It was a friend of mine, and he was already dead, he'd gone over rocks and his neck had already been broken. It was really nasty. I've never witnessed death in my life, it was brutal, and I was shocked by how hard it was to think rationally in the moment and organise the rescue. Especially doing all the first aid stuff. One of the Youtube episodes coming out this season is exactly about that and what you need to do when it happens, doing CPR and first aid and stuff. I filmed that in May last year. But when this happened it felt like my brain stopped working and I was really struggling to think in a logical way. Everyone was sharing the same feeling, but I was so surprised, and annoyed by myself. I was supposed to be the guy giving the lecture on how to do it, but I really struggled to be really pragmatic in my actions in the moment as I was so overwhelmed by the emotions. It felt so unnatural.
I've never been in a situation like that before, I can't imagine what that must have been like to go through.
It made me realise how important it is that people know how quickly a good situation can turn into something like this. It doesn't take much. I think a lot of people just don't realise that this could happen and how suddenly your life can change when they're riding.
It used to be the case that you'd only see epic lines being ridden by pros in the handful of videos that were made each winter, but now we see our friends doing the same thing all day, every day, on Instagram. Do you think social media plays a psychological role in the 'powder madness'?
I'm definitely not a big fan of social media, but I see it in different ways. It's given pro riders the opportunity to really share what they're doing, so in a way that can make it more understandable and accessible for people thinking they can do the same. So there's that side, which isn't bad, but it can encourage people to go out there and get their own trophy photo or video that they can post. That's definitely unhealthy, especially with freeriding, because you don't focus on the moment. By focussing on filming you might miss some subtle signs which could lead to you making a fatally wrong decision, you know what I mean?
I think we all feel like that sometimes. We feel we need to shoot something for social media. And we do it professionally, but it's similar for everyone now. And you can see how much it removes you from the moment. You're enjoying it, but for safety reasons in the mountains you need to be listening and feeling what's happening around you, so you can gather all the information you can and take the right decisions. You can see danger coming, but the signs are so little and subtle. If your mind is too diverted by something else then these are going to be much harder to see, and social media definitely plays a part in distracting you from that.
Definitely, and I think seeing how much fun your friends had in their videos from the day before, when you were stuck at work, makes you stress about getting out and finding fresh pow yourself as soon as you can. Do you think there are benefits to social media as well? I see a lot of people sharing stories and clips of avalanches, which I guess helps to make people more aware of them?
Yeah, that's a very good side of it. That's the hardest part for people to realise - What can actually happen. Last year a friend of mine got taken into an avalanche in Verbier, and another guy had a GoPro on his helmet and turned it on the whole time he was searching and finding her. You were with him the whole time and seeing everything. She was all good, but wow. It was super powerful. If there were more videos like this going out, that would be amazing. But the problem with social media is that very often it shows the best of the best, it makes people think that that's normal. But we as professional riders don't show enough of this other side. You only get these perfect lines a few times each season. And for each perfect line, you might have turned back 5 times before you were able to ride it. I think it's our responsibility to speak more about that side on social media. And accidents like the one I witnessed just make me want to do that more.
Hopefully others will also feel the same. A colleague of my wife recently rode a line that he'd been waiting 10 years for. The conditions took that long to line up, but of course, the first thing you see is the clip, not all the planning behind it. Am I right in thinking that you were in a pretty severe avalanche in 2008, and since then you've been restrained with your approach to powder?
Yeah. It was actually a miracle that I survived this avalanche but at the same time the best lesson I could ever get. That was a mega big slap in the face that made me realise what can happen. I've done great stuff since then, but I've been really picky on the days and the conditions. That was the price for me to continue riding after what happened, because it was so brutal. The avalanche took me over two kilometres. It was nasty, but luckily not my time.
I read that on fresh days in Verbier you don't really go out until 10 or 11am?
Yeah, on the first bluebird day after a big storm, and in the last four-five years, I started doing that. Because before that it was rare that I'd be riding the same resort, I was more into riding chutes and things like that, instead of being in the same ski resort and having the battle of getting the first fresh line. I've been here in Verbier a lot more recently, witnessing the madness that happens with fresh snow, and all the accidents. I always ride together with my wife, we usually let everyone go crazy at the top for a few runs while we ride the bottom of the resort where there's usually no-one, and then, later on, we have a better perspective on what's going on with the snow higher up. For sure there are tracks, and it's harder to find fresh lines, but whatever. I learned a long time ago to put that ego away about getting first tracks. And I'm very happy to ride something with a few tracks, and a clear mind, instead of gambling over and over.
Restraint definitely lies at the key of this, but that's what's so hard when you've seen the clips and the tracks and you just know how much fun it could be.
That's the hardest thing. It's impossible when you're there. I go later and then go on the lower mountain or in the woods for a while until I get a better feeling and as long as it doesn't get too warm. That's why I just don't go up. I don't trust myself. If I wasn't riding with the webinar crew but I was up on the mountain at the same time, I would probably have gone to the same colouir that took Jamie. It had slid already a few days before, the avalanche danger had dropped down from 4 to 3 and I could see tracks in there. That day it broke in a crazy huge way that I'd never seen before, it had been so dry for so long and there was a really bad layer at the base of the snowpack. It was crazy to see how hard it is to resist when everyone is there. It's just bam bam bam, charging, riding everything. Normally on their first runs, people are on hold a bit, just seeing how the snow moves, but I often find that the moment of the second run of the day, that's when it starts sliding a lot because more people get more confident. It's like this so often here.
A really good point that you made in the Webinar was that you should always be prepared for the worst to happen. Be prepared for it to slide.
It was something that really stuck to my mind. I was told that in a lecture about snow stability from this snow scientist, one of the best in Europe. He'd studied snow safety and avalanches for his whole life. So we got the full two-hour lecture on different layers and temperatures and gradients, and then at the end, he told us "You know what, you can forget everything I've just told you, it's not important. The one lesson that's important and you should keep in your mind is the fact that it's gonna slide". This is maybe the best lesson on avalanches that I've had in my life. I think it really summarises the dilemma of snow stability. You cannot know what will happen. You can be as experienced as you want, but you cannot always view it in a logical way. You need to see it as something that's not controllable. It just struck me that a scientist would say something like this. It's the most un-scientific sentence. It's practical thinking, not logical. That made it even more powerful to hear.
It's a great piece of advice and one that I've been trying to implement myself. So recently I gather that you've been focussing a lot on the terrain that's immediately around you and not travelling so much? Has the pandemic had an impact on this too?
I'm just at that point in my life that fits with that approach. But Covid for sure doesn't make me want to travel. I've been travelling my whole life and have been really looking forward to being able to enjoy things more locally with all the sports that I do. I'm very happy in that sense. Even more so this year, because you don't feel the guilt or the pressure about going away on big expeditions. I've got a second kid now and am in my 40s, and I'm very happy to discover what's around us instead of always going to famous places like Alaska. We have such jewels around us in places that are not known, so it's a blessing to be able to enjoy them.
I have the same thing in Austria, there's so much here. You could live ten lifetimes and not even touch the surface. I heard you've been testing out greener forms of transport when making your local trips?
Yeah the Audi electric car. Before when I would take the normal car I would try to make it a really worthwhile journey, otherwise I would use public transport. But in the last few years I was just getting a bad feeling about driving around and burning fuel, not that I didn't do it though. But I've noticed that I'm really enjoying being able to take the e-tron and just drive around and look at lines and check things out without feeling that bit of guilt. It's hard to explain. It's not something I expected, but I can just go to the end of the valley, check the conditions and come back, and it doesn't matter. It's not a game-changer, but that's one of the first nice impressions I've had from an electric car.
Ok I think we can leave things there. Any last words?
I guess I just want to encourage people to learn more about the mountains, take their time and really have an open mind and not rush into it. They will always be there.
Keep your eyes on Xavier's Instagram for announcements of future Webinars, where you could have the chance to join live and ask him questions directly. For now, make sure to check out his Youtube channel for in-depth tips and tricks on anything and everything to do with backcountry riding and exploring.