Queen of the mountains

Alan Hubbard sees the steep slopes of Verbier become paradise valley for lovers of board games
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The Independent Online

Jerome Ruby perched himself on the summit of the Bec des Rosses and peered down at the almost sheer, glacier- like face of the Swiss mountain which looms 3,222 metres above the tiny Swiss village of Verbier. It is the moment the world's top snow- boarders know as The Fear. He took a breath, launched himself into the void beneath his toes and moments later was threading his way through that part of the terrain called The Rock Garden, a jagged clutch of granite thinly covered with snow, then whoosh, he was away, shimmying, swerving and jumping on his single ski, the powder bursting upwards into his goggles.

Suddenly he was flying - literally - through the air, then tumbling, bouncing, skidding, arms and legs flailing helplessly like a rag doll, falling, falling for what seemed an eternity until, as the mountain sloped into the valley, his limp, ant- like figure lay motionless on a vast white canvas.

Across the valley we were hushed, focusing our binoculars, as within seconds, a rescue helicopter swooped from the skies, lowering a medical team. In the commentators' box behind us a radio crackled, followed by a strangely matter-of-fact announcement in French, German then English: "Jerome's OK. He's shook up and a bit scared and he's got a possible fracture to the face. But don't worry, he's not going to die on us."

Victoria Jamieson was among the small knot of spectators watching as the 29-year-old Frenchman was strapped to a stretcher and whisked away to hospital in Sion. She, too, has known The Fear and she too, has been on similar hospital runs. She's fractured vertebrae and broken an ankle and has only just recovered from knee surgery. But like Ruby she has been lucky. Several have died and others have been crippled, or buried in avalanches.

But the snowboard show goes on. Earlier that morning Jamieson had herself successfully traversed the same treacherous course, one of only four female snowboarders invited to compete in last week's Red Bull Xtreme Event, together with the 16 leading men. It is claimed to be the world's premier free-riding competition, the ultimate challenge on snow.

Held on what the Swiss call "the mother of all slopes", it is breathtakingly dangerous, demanding not only skill and dexterity but a dare- devilment which requires the nerve to perform 360-degree leaps over rock ledges and 30-metre cliffs,finishing at speeds of up to 100kph.

It is an unusual sport and even more unusual that a British woman should be among the world's élite. Born and brought up in Reading, Jamieson has lived in Abu Dhabi and Canada and actually learned to snowboard in Australia. Now throughout the season she stays in Verbier, which is to European snowboarding what Twickenham is to rugby. Although she has represented Britain she gets no funding ("It bugs me when I see what some people are getting in other sports") but earns enough to live on by looking after local children and doing promotional and marketing work for her sponsors, Swatch.

"I do what I do because I love it," she says. "I am not a pushy type of person. For me the most important thing is to live in the mountains. I don't regret growing up in Reading but all my life I've wanted to be outside doing things, and snowboarding was something I was able to pick up really quickly and do well." Just how well is reflected in her status as something of a snow queen. She didn't win last week - the girls from Sweden, Finland and the United States finished above her - but for Jamieson the thrill was just being there. "I consider being invited is one of my greatest achievements."

They say snowboarding is skiing made easy, but at this level it is certainly not a piece of piste. Only the most professional are allowed to leave their imprint on the snow at Verbier, where the course is completed (or sometimes not) in five to eight minutes, depending on the individual's proficiency. The event, which carries five-figure prize money, is judged by a unique system, with three panels of adjudicators. One comprises the technical observers, another fellow snowboarders and a third jury is picked at random from the audience. Choice of line, fluidity, originality and jumping on the 140cm by 40cm board are the main criteria.

There are, of course, other forms of snowboarding, two of which, the half-pipe and slalom, are now included in the Olympics. There is also board-cross, where the competitors, rather like in moto-cross, come down the mountain together, bumping, boring and frequently crashing. But free-riding, they say, is the ultimate experience on snow. It is the stuff of would-be Bonds and Milk Tray men.

"Some orthodox skiers have a problem with what we stand for and what we do," says the 24-year-old Jamieson. "We have a way of life that many people envy, the freedom to go up the mountains and test our skills in mother nature's back yard. You can understand their jealousy, I suppose. We spend years getting to a level that looks good on camera and people come up here and shoot riders for their ad campaigns because it looks cool, but you just don't learn that in one afternoon. Sure, the beauty of the sport is that people can grasp the basics in a few days, but to get to this standard you must practise, practise, practise. Everyone can do it, but to do it really well means a lot of hard work, physical strength and concentration." Not to mention guts.

Snowboarders like to have fun too. They were being very Red Bullish in town after the event, but Jamieson prefers to keep her cool. At 5ft 2in she's tiny and tomboyish - a diminutive dynamo who clearly has an independent streak. It is this which takes her off snowboarding in the oddest of places. Last month she was in the Lebanon, next month she will be doing her thing in Kamchatka, a Russian outpost which juts into the Sea of Okhotsk.

"What I really look forward to is just being in the mountains, wherever they may be with no one else around. It is so quiet and peaceful. I am lucky. I do what I do because I want to. I make enough to live and eat. Sure, I don't have a fancy car. I don't actually own anything. But that's not important. I have the snow and I have the mountains."