No shortcuts to the top- by Nikolai Schirmer

Combining breathable Gore-Tex materials with the technical details for the freeride skier and snowboarder was, in hindsight kind of absurdly (why had no one thought of this before?), a stroke of genius. The lofoten collection ushered in a revolution when it was launched 15 years ago.

Words by: Nikolai Schirmer Photo:Kristin Folsland

My mom had a hard time believing I edited the footage to look scarier than it was in reality. How do you make it look scarier than it really is, your son hanging above a cliff from one hand, grasping on the slippery grip of a touring ice axe, his other hand desperately trying to punch his ski poles through the icy, near vertical, slope he’s hanging on?

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She did have a point. The sound effects, music and pace of editing didn’t add all that much to the simple fact that I was hanging above a cliff, trying desperately not to fall off it. I never aspired to be in that kind of situation obviously, I think no sane person would. When I got into
backcountry skiing it took me years to even bring an ice axe and crampons into the mountains, on the rationale that if I needed that gear to get up a slope, I wouldn’t want to ski down it. My first experience with the lofoten collection had been in that spirit. Clad in the bright colors of the early 2010s, we casually hiked up easy slopes around the Lofoten archipelago and rode lines where you could fall at any point and be fine. We ate dried cod, cruised mellow fjordside powder snow and had an all around awesome time.

A decade later I found myself hanging off that cliff my mom wasn’t too fond of, the cold steel blade of my ice axe slowly biting into the palm of my hand. What had happened?

- NIkolai Schirmer

I think there’s something deeply human about progression.

The lofoten collection ushered in a revolution when it was launched 15 years ago. Combining breathable Gore-Tex materials with the technical details for the freeride skier and snowboarder was, in hindsight kind of absurdly (why had no one thought of this before?), a stroke of genius. I still remember the awe I felt at being warm and dry throughout a full day of skiing, no matter the weather conditions.

The designers at HQ didn’t stop at that though.

Every other year we’d get new prototypes, where they had solved some design problem that made our days in the mountain just a tad more enjoyable.

- Nikolai Schirmer

From its birth in a revolution, the collection saw a steady evolution. My skiing adventures had the same minute progression. Jump a little bit higher, ski a little bit faster. Small increments. Higher, steeper, deeper, further. Crampons were like a gateway drug to wilder
adventures. Combine it with a pair of ice axes, a rope, some basic gear and all of a sudden I could reach parts of the mountain I hadn’t even dared dream of.

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That dream had now turned into a nightmare above the cliff. My right hand feebly punching the solid ice with the rubber handle of my ski pole, my left hand slowly going numb with pain. I had
missed a key point about progression: as your sole motivation it will take you places you don’t
want to go.

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The designers at HQ realized this early on.

Creating the best outerwear actually meant creating the best outerwear that was also mindful of the environment in which it would be used, and the people designing, manufacturing and selling it.

I remember the lengths they went to, searching for recycled material that performed, or how in the years after they made the call to stop using waterproofing with PFC chemicals the garments actually performed worse for a while, until they came up with an earth friendly solution. Having a waterproof jacket didn’t mean much if you
killed the earth in the process of making it.

Skiing a line doesn’t mean much if you kill yourself in the process of skiing it either.

- Nikolai Schirmer

Risk was that auxiliary goal I hadn’t paid enough attention to, and here I was.

Dangling. The slope beneath my skis being concave, only the tips and tails of my skis were scratching against the ice, so that even if my steel edges hadn’t been dulled by two full seasons without tuning them, I still wouldn’t have been able to make them bite.The problem was that ice of course. I had skied the neighbouring couloir with Merrick Mordal and Emma Sunnefeldt Nyberg just a few days earlier. In prime conditions. What I hadn’t paid sufficient mind to was the fact that this couloir was a tiny bit more east facing, with a smaller rock wall protecting it from the elements, so the wind had worn the snow away leaving only a thick ice crust with a deceiving dusting of fresh snow. Even more deceiving as the flat peak we dropped in from had a thick blanket of good snow.

 

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As I put my edges on the slope of the couloir they slid out against the ice below. I fell on my back, but managed to self arrest, pulled the ice axe from my backpack, lodged it in the ice and took a few steps down to see if there was any chance of managing this crux.

- Nikolai Schirmer

That’s where my skis lost all grip against the concave slope and I ended up dangling. Which was, as I described earlier, quite an uncomfortable spot to be in. Now the reason I ended up dangling for a little while, before I kicked off my ski and managed to get a foothold with the hard toe of my boot,
was the same reason that I was dangling there in the first place. I was blindly focused on
progressing my skiing to ride this couloir top to bottom (which I still do think is possible in the
right conditions), but I hadn’t taken the necessary safety precautions to do so with acceptable
risk.

I could’ve roped up and lowered myself onto the slope, to check that the snow was good. I could’ve stopped and climbed back up once I had my ice axe in hand, or at that point asked for a rope from my partner. And I could’ve kicked off both skis immediately after I lost my grip on them.

It’s a tough tightrope to walk sometimes, knowing when you’re being foolhardy or just pushing your limits in the mountains. As long as you live you learn though, and I think the only way forward is to pair my ambition to ski the funnest lines more closely with the ambition to do so in the safest way possible. Zooming out to take inn all the variables before taking a step forward.

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