Snowboarding: Helicopter leaps keep fans from frostbite

The Quiksilver Air and Style event is the Olympics of extreme freestyle snowboarding
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The Independent Online

A full-on bar-room brawl; dancing in the snow-covered streets; free condoms being given away like Christmas presents; general madness, mischief and mayhem: the rigorous training routine for the Quiksilver Air and Style snowboard event in Seefeld, Austria, at the weekend, was in full swing. Quiksilver-sponsored riders, I discovered, are – it is actually stipulated in their contracts – required to party.

"We're not contractually obliged to get drunk though," pointed out Tina Birbaum, a flame-haired Quiksilver pin-up girl who moonlights as a boxer. At the advanced age (for a snowboarder) of 27, she insists on leaving by 4am at the latest, with most of her faculties intact. Spending all winter in the Alps, with excursions to the Rockies, and then the summer down in Chile or Argentina, may not sound like too tough an option. But, as I found out in Seefeld, it can be a hard life. Very hard.

Birbaum, from Switzerland, had already had most of the non-lethal injuries you can imagine – to back, neck, shoulders, legs – several times over. Swiss doctors had done a remarkably fine job of sticking her back together again. But, like a choirboy's voice, the snowboarder is always on the verge of breaking.

"I love the risk," Birbaum said in one of the brief intervals between young men in improbably baggy clothing embracing her. There was only one injury she was desperate to avoid. "I can't fall on my head any more – the last time I was blind for a while and the doctors say next time you lose your sight."

The Air and Style arena was half ski-jump, half outsize skateboard park with snow. And half rave, with a massive stage and live groups rapping into the night. I think the idea was to keep the 15,000-strong crowd alive. Because if you stopped moving you died. The Air and Style was beyond cool: it was freezing. Think of a large double-digit number than add "below".

It is heaven up in the mountains. At one point I even thought I saw angels, although it turned out to be the Swedish women's synchronised ice-skating team in action. But sometimes it is also hell. There is a Baron Munchhausen story about a winter so cold that the note freezes in a hunting horn and doesn't come out till spring. I'd always thought that was far-fetched – until Saturday night, when mobile phones froze and only spat out their messages back in the hotel, in front of the fire, when they had thawed out. Even the ink froze in my pen. The only thing that stopped the blood freezing in my veins was regularly dashing off (saying, "I may be some time") in search of scalding hot gluhwein.

Whatever the band was playing, I think "hip hop" – style-conscious acrobatics – may well describe the actual discipline. Snowboarding has evolved since the days when a couple of Californians ripped the fins off their surfboards and used them instead of skis, splitting into freeriding (communing with avalanches) and freestyle, which is more urban, with tricks. Air and Style is the Olympics of extreme freestyle. But the key to all snowboarding is that it is utterly useless. There will never be a snowboard regiment in the Swiss army, hiking about with rifles slung over their shoulders. Nordic grannies will not go shopping on snowboards. There is no such thing as an old snowboarder.

"It is pure pleasure," as Martin Cernik, a blond Zen hedonist from the Czech Republic, told me. The only thing tougher than standing there and watching on Saturday night was actually doing it. But Cernik made haring helter-skelter down a roller-coaster ramp and leaping into the void while whirling around like a helicopter and then landing in one piece seem like the most natural, effortless thing in the world.

I was concerned for Mathieu Crepel. A crop-haired 16-year-old from France, he was the youngest competitor and, despite an alarming resemblance to Jean-Claude van Damme, looked so young I was doubtful about him being allowed out on his own at night. His dad taught him to snowboard when he was nine, and Crepel now divides his time between snowboarding, surfing, and skateboarding. And – I nearly forgot – school. But he goes to a special sports school in the Alps where you don't in fact go to school for long periods. Even when he is at school he studies trampoline and "musculation". But his English is terrific, mainly because "to snowboard" in French is snowboarder (a regular verb), and "a backside flip" is un backside flip.

The Austrian Stefan Gimpel edged out Cernik and Crepel in the falling-with-style main event and took away $100,000 (£69,000) and a Honda snowcat. But at least all the men were still walking afterwards. It was otherwise in the women's event. The "Corner Challenge" – throwing yourself off the edge of an immense icebox – was more like the Grand National where the last one left standing wins.

Birbaum flew into the air with the greatest of ease. It was only landing again that was a problem. In this temperature the snow is like rock and your bones are not. You could see her struggling to correct her trajectory, but when she hit she was at the wrong angle and went over backwards. And then her head thudded into the ice. When the stretcher bearers come dashing over she didn't move too much, except to throw a poignant, despairing arm around the neck of one of them.

I know that she spent the night in the hospital at Innsbruck. They said she had concussion. I wanted to speak to her on the phone (now the mobile had thawed out), but she wasn't taking calls. I hope at least she can see even if she can't talk.

Snowboarding is probably the most aesthetically beautiful way young people have yet invented to do harm to themselves. It tests the body to a supreme degree. But it tests it to destruction.