As far as extreme sports goes, it doesn’t get much more hardcore than speedriding. The sport is a cross between backcountry skiing and paragliding, propelled by athletes like Red Bull Air Force Team Captain Jon DeVore. Though it’s been around since the mid-2000s, pioneered by former professional snowboarder Ueli Kestenholz and his friend Mathias Roten in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, it’s now gaining popularity in the rest of the mountain sports world.
This winter, Red Bull released a speedriding documentary called The Unrideables starring DeVore. We caught up with him to talk about the sport and the film.
Speedriding is one of the most high-risk and high-intensity sports out there. How do you prepare yourself?
For myself, just like every skier, it’s about getting those ski legs back on, because I definitely am an air sports guy. I’m not travelling the world skiing year-round, so the biggest thing for me to prepare is to switch my mindset from air sports to the mountain world.
And then, more specifically, it’s all about just knowing whether I’m going to high altitude or big ski terrain, and what the conditions are going to be like—making sure I’m showing up with the proper gear.
What equipment and avalanche gear do you bring with you? And what do you wear for protection and warmth when you’re out speedriding?
It’s kind of all over the map to be honest. If we’re going to a place that we’ve been a lot, or it’s very predictable—like no avalanche danger—say if I go to Crystal Mountain Ski Resort up in Washington, we’re not too worried about avalanches or anything up there. So then you dress for skiing, have your speedriding harness and wing with you, and it’s just a little backpack you wear.
But for The Unrideables adventure, it’s completely different than that. We’re not necessarily nervous, but still aware of avalanche danger and things that could happen.
One of the guys in the movie, Andy Farrington, he designed a special harness that combined an ABS avalanche backpack with a speedriding harness, so that we had kind of the best of both worlds: the harness that we’re used to, and the technology of an airbag for avalanche, just in case we got into it. And then yeah, just the normal big mountain ski stuff: Shovel, probes, all the normal stuff you’d wear if you were going in the backcountry.
What are the greatest risks in speedriding, and what are the greatest rewards?
Well the greatest risk really comes from— and this kind of sounds funny—the doors that the parachute opens on the mountain that will allow you to get places on the mountain that no one has a right to be. There’s no way to get there from the top, and no way to get out from the bottom. You can really get yourself into a situation on the mountain where you have no room for air. Something that can happen pretty easily with speed riding is that you catch big air, you come down and land, and you’re skiing, and when you land hard, you tend to unload your parachute, which means that you’ve landed so hard your lines get slack, and so then your canopy is not pressurized. It can spin out behind you and collapse.
If something like that happens on a mountain that wasn’t going to give you a place to reset and restart, you could really be in a world of hurt. That’s probably the most dangerous: having something go wrong with your canopy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And the most rewarding part has kind of the same explanation where you’re almost being able to be a place on a mountain where you know you cannot just get to with normal skills. To be able to go shred a part of a mountain that’s “unrideable” to most people. To be able to come down and look up and see, “Look at those tracks I just laid in that section.” If anybody sees those tracks, they’re not going to have any clue how you got there.
Talk about the process of making The Unrideables. Were you part of the visionary process?
The idea from day one was my brainchild. I proposed the idea, although it changed a little bit from the original proposal. But about ten years ago when speedriding first started coming onto the scene, I was one of the early people doing it, and pitching around to my sponsors, specifically Red Bull, to try to see the vision and the future of the sport. It didn’t get attention for a little while, and then luckily, Steve Reska, an athlete manager at Red Bull, who has a big background in ski filmmaking, saw this proposal. He got back in touch with me, asked me if I was still interested in doing something like this. It was a lot more his vision to make it into such a big feature film. The mission in the project and what we wanted to accomplish definitely started with me, probably two years ago.
Does the sport seem to bond speedriders together as friends?
It’s definitely a very bonding-filled, friendship-oriented sport. It’s a passion sport, so there aren’t big events, prize money, or big sponsors throwing dollars at people. It’s much more: people have a passion and love for skiing and air sports, and you feel great when you go out
to Valfréjus in France, when at any moment, there’s ten to 30 people from all over the world out there, and everybody’s just feeding off each other, running off each other. It’s not the ego sport where everybody’s out there claiming they’re the best or something.
Do you think this film will bring attention to the sport and progress it?
Yeah. I’m a true believer that if you don’t educate the public on your sport, a new sport that is, if they don’t understand it, there’s never going to be any growth. And so that was a big mission with The Unrideables, to make a film that was much more of a story-telling of the history and what goes into it, and how it can be done, much more than a sports porn ski video.
And it was just high-action, like today’s ski movies. People wouldn’t quite get what they were seeing, so we had to tell a lot more of a history to hopefully start opening people’s eyesto realize that it’s a legitimate sport.
What, in your opinion, is the future of the sport? Where do you see it going?
I really think it’s going to change big mountain skiing. I’m really good friends with JP Holmes, he’s a pro skier, and I’ve talking with him a bunch, and hearing the feedback he’s been getting from his pro ski friends—everybody’s trying to get into it, everybody sees mass value in it, so I’m really hoping everywhere from ski resorts all around the nation start to realize that it’s something that can be done very safely, anywhere from young people to old people, you don’t have to be on little fast Ferraris and rip around the sky or something. You could be on slower parachutes that give you more control, and it’s just an amazing feeling, and I think it’s starting to catch on a lot. We’ve watched the sport grow leaps and bounds already, so kind of hoping The Unrideables does to speedriding what Point Break did to skydiving 20 years ago.
Photos: Courtesy of Red Bull