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Features

Aug 28, 2018

Vertical Trails: Verbier, Switzerland

A mountain biker, his buddies, and some of the best singletrack trails in Europe.

WRITTEN BY

António Abreu

This story was originally published in print, in the Summer 2016 issue of The Outdoor Journal, you can subscribe here.

Surrounded by the energy of the Alps, and fresh blueberries on the trail, it’s the European adventure of a lifetime.

As a mountain biker I’m always searching for the next big adventure all over the world. Ten years ago I did my first mountain bike trip when I was fourteen to Portes du Soleil and since then my hunger for new trails, countries and cultures has only grown. I define this passion as a personal fascination to break down boundaries and add another country to the bucket list; my bike is just the way I do it.

what could make a guy come back to Verbier for eight years straight?!

When I arrived at Geneva airport with my ‘rides-way-better-than-me-friend’, Rui, I was excited to not cross the border to France like I usually do, and stay for the first time in Switzerland. We’d be sharing a Bike Verbier chalet with other guests, all from the United Kingdom, which I thought directly translated into good times on the trails, lifts and pubs. “Is it your first time here?” I asked Steve, one of the Brits; He smiled back at me, “actually, it’s my eighth time.” I was taken aback by his response, what could make a guy come back to Verbier for eight years straight?! “What keeps you coming back?” I asked him uncertainly. Steve smiled, “let’s talk at the end of the week.”

Rui Sousa riding a section of ‘Vertigo’. Photo: António Abreu

“Shoes off boys, only socks or feet inside the chalet please” says Lucy, the owner of Bike Verbier, welcoming us with three kisses, ‘French style’ as she says. Sixteen years ago Lucy visited the Verbier region during her winter holidays and ended up falling in love with Phil, who is now her boyfriend and business partner. We soon understand that they complement each other. Lucy is a true organizer, and Phil…well, “it’s just like working with a naughty kid at school”, says James, one of the guides. Even so, his childlike personality is what makes the coming week so special; during breakfast, uplifts and when riding some seriously delightful singletrack.

All ways lead to the front yard garden where mountains emerge massively in front of the chalet. I feel small in the middle of these mountains but I feel freedom as well, and it’s a feeling I love. A round just-baked cake is on top of a huge kitchen table, “is that for us Lucy? We have some pedalling tomorrow”, she smiles and cuts a big slice of highly-caloric fluffy blueberry cake for me and Rui, accompanied by a big cup of coffee. I’ve never felt so welcome.

Rui Sousa stops to enjoy the beautiful trail from Emosson to Martigny. Photo: António Abreu

Wine, Cheese and Brake Pads

Cold autumn mornings mix perfectly with the mysterious massive peaks that surround us. As soon as the first rays of sun strike my chest, face and legs, I feel alive, and thankful to be at the beginning of another week of riding, curious about the unknown. Fifteen minutes of warm-up pedalling from Etiez to the first lift, Le Châble, takes us from 800 metres to 1,500 metres, to Verbier city centre. From Verbier we go up again to Croix-des-Ruinettes, at 2,200 metres high, which perfectly places us in the heart of the action. We soon realise that there are many options available for all different tastes and riding styles. During the summer season you can go even higher by lift, but in autumn pedalling is your only option from 2,200 metres upwards.

“Did we bring extra brake pads for this trip?”

After a couple of downhill runs, Phil takes us to one of his favourite trails, Vertigo. A 1,400 metre vertical descent from the top of Croix-des-Ruinettes back to Le Châble, on the edge of steep switchbacks and technical rock sections. As I struggle and focus on making it to the next corner, Phil pops his back wheel side to side. “Did we bring extra brake pads for this trip?” asks Rui while hitting another sharp switchback. “Just one set as we usually do,” I said. He looks at me, “I don’t think that will be enough…”

Rui Sousa rides down one of the steepest sections of Emosson trail. Photo: António Abreu

As we stop to breathe and restore confidence for the next challenging couple hundred metres, Phil reminds us that during this season he has used about forty brake pads in total. “I told you it was steep boys!” says Phil laughing at us. “I knew it was steep but this is just another level of riding”, says Rui. Vertigo keeps us motivated at each new corner, excited, curious and never bored. It keeps us awake and aware of the danger but also keeps us encouraged as we cross another daunting obstacle. It’s like mind-tricking and challenging yourself to keep your eyes on the trail, your fingers on the brakes and your feet on the pedals; well, that’s usually the plan. The right amount of braking will keep you in pace for the next corner. As we arrive to the bottom of Le Châble again, the smell of worn-out brake pads mixes impeccably with the essence of a local cheese and wine festival. “When you’re in Switzerland you always find good reasons to have loads of wine and cheese, while watching cows fighting,” says Phil. The Canton of Valais is famous for its ski slopes but cow fighting is just the next big thing for the Swiss. Unlike bulls, cows do their business in a queenly manner. After mooing a couple of nasty ‘words’ to their opponents the battle is mostly a push and shove with little harm to the animals, where the loser quickly runs away when it realizes that there’s no winning. All of this makes perfect sense if you add a bit of wine, music, good weather, cheese, and more wine to the mix.

“Do you have the power and balance to get to the top of that?”

After finishing a full stock of brake pads, the next few days are a rollercoaster of emotions, especially when we leave our comfort zone near Verbier Bike Park and experience another singletrack adventure near Emosson dam, at 1,970 metres high. “This trail is just like a 50 year old wife, nagging you all the time,” says our guide for the day, James. “Well, that will be a challenge then!” answers Rui, who not being married, can only imagine the struggle and the joy. Riding should be the perfect balance between a bit of pain and a bit of enjoyment. Finding that balance is a constant challenge. The purpose of the Emosson dam is power generation, sending water through a headrace tunnel to a power station down in Martigny at 470 metres altitude. The vertical drop between the dam and the power station is roughly 1,400 metres, which is the same vertical distance for our ride. Singletracks in Switzerland prove once more why you have to be physically and mentally prepared for a ride. “Are you wild enough? Do you have what it takes to ride this whole section blind without stopping? Do you have the power and balance to get to the top of that?” These are the thoughts that cross my mind at each new rock feature. The first part of the trail is mainly a perfect alignment of big rocks, in an up and down maze but always with enough speed to get yourself to the next section. “Change gear, pedal, pedal, pedal. Sit down and relax, pedal more, brake!” My mind gets challenged at each new corner. You kind of get upset with it, giving every bit of yourself to get to the top, finding the perfect gear, playing with your reverb system, changing gears again, swearing a bit, and getting into the flow again. The second part is a pure flow trail, riding through loamy sections and natural features, mostly surrounded by huge pine trees and oaks. Getting to the bottom is a challenge, an epic journey, a path that you have to experience and survive. Isn’t that what marriage is all about too?

The author had ample amounts of time to ride, eat and enjoy Verbier’s beautiful landscape. Photo: António Abreu

Col du Mille

After riding pretty much the whole time in Verbier, my mind couldn’t forget the high mountains on the other side, filled with fresh snow and red bushes. No bike parks, one or two fire roads and a couple of little houses makes it the complete opposite of Verbier surface. “Can we go over to the other side?” I ask Phil during our first day while reaching the top of Verbier Bike Park. “Of course! It’s called Col du Mille and it’s quite epic, if you’re in the mood for an adventure,” says Phil pointing, while trying to explain every bit of the trails in the distance. He clearly knows the area like a dog knows his owner, but I can’t distinguish the singletrack at that distance. I nod positively when he says that it’s better just to go there, so that we can experience it.

“Civilization ends here, adventure starts now boys”

I was definitely feeling the need to get a bit lost in Switzerland and I couldn’t sleep the night before climbing up Col du Mille. A big baguette, extra chocolate bar, two bananas and two liters of water, and a ‘small’ slice of blueberry cake from the day before didn’t leave much space in my backpack. Of course I also had to pack all my photo gear. “Civilization ends here, adventure starts now boys” says Phil putting some rhythm up the fire road, clearly very excited to ride this trail once more. The uphill bit is mostly open fire road, zigzagging old barns with no one in sight. The climb starts around 1,600 metres high and goes up to 2,500 metres, with a perfect mix of pedalling and hike-a-bike, not directly straight to the top. The riding also leaves you breathless at each new step, making your body struggle and desire O2 and H2O.

Mountain bikers and paragliders meet in Verbier’s outdoor playground. Photo: António Abreu

Reaching 2,000 metres altitude we come to an intersection, a transition between large fire road and the singletrack wonderland above Etiez. Up and down it goes in blueberry territory. Right, left, right, left, left. There’s never a 90 degree corner where you need to slow down or almost stop. Instead, there’s enough flow to keep you at a steady pace on the uphill sections and maintain that pace going downhill. Of course, this kind of riding makes your breathing even more dense and your heart beat speed out of its comfort zone. I feel the need to ride this trail without stopping but I also feel the need to slow down and look around. I look up to the next 500 metres of hike-a-bike to the top of Col du Mille cabane. “Is that where we’re going Phil?” I ask. “Yes and I promise you a delicious coffee when we arrive on top,” he answers. With a pocket full of delicious wild blueberries I manage to find the perfect balance on the next hike-a-bike section. One hand on the crank-set and the other hand just doing ‘pocket-to-mouth’ movements. As you may know, blueberries help reduce muscle damage after strenuous exercise and help in improving memory, two things that I surely needed for the next day of riding and for the years to come. Riding this flat singletrack, the epic journey gets even more special when we find a couple of horses trotting beside us at a fast pace. They stop by our side on the edge of the singletrack, smell our clothes, backpacks and bicycles. After two minutes of us petting them, the curious horses proceed on their way, running freely on the same singletrack, not looking back. We lost their tracks in the enormous mountains.

The friendly horses the author encountered on his way to Col du Mille. Photo: António Abreu

“I can’t feel my hands, but I love it”

As we arrive at the very windy and super cold Col du Mille peak, I start pedalling faster and faster to get the much deserved coffee that Phil promised me, soon to realize that the hut closed the day before for winter season maintenance, a week prior to the usual date. I just lie down on the floor in foetal position, smashing the handful of fruits that are still in my pocket. Damn! The wind cuts my skin and my lips, as autumn transitions to the winter season. “I can’t feel my hands, but I love it,” sings Rui in a very low shivering tone, and we all crack up despite the lack of coffee.

My legs are tired. My eyes are crying due to the speed, I don’t want to be too emotional, but my heart is filled with joy.

Warming up our hands became a new mission for everyone before dropping into the 1,800 metre descent to Liddes. When you go for a normal weekend ride, freedom is merely an illusion. You have to get home in time for something; to put the kids in piano lessons or make an appearance at another boring corporate lunch. Starting from there, your ride is already compromised by the day to day scheduling and planning. Freedom is truly an illusion. When I set off pedalling behind Phil and Rui I understand what really frees my mind. I don’t really know where I’m going, how much is uphill or downhill or if my legs will be tired, and I don’t really care. I just lift my head up, breathe in the thin air at 2,500 metres high once again, and follow the only way back to the bottom of the valley: a singletrack. Natural features, huge ridges and the gorgeous landscape makes the ride unique for me, and worth the uphill struggle. My hands are not cold anymore but I have loads of moments when I just can’t handle the bars. My legs are tired. My eyes are crying due to the speed, I don’t want to be too emotional, but my heart is filled with joy. I’m just looking for freedom in these colossal mountains. At the end, I kind of understand why Steve comes back every single year to ride in Verbier, but I’m not entirely sure. Is it for adventure? Friendship? Singletracks? Food? Freedom? You just need to find the right answer and go for it!

To find out more about Bike Verbier, visit their website, www.bikeverbier.com

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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