17/05/2022

BR-Health

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How Sam Anthamatten Is Rewriting Big Mountain Skiing

Imagine dedicating five months of your life for mere seconds of serenity and adrenaline. Imagine a place that pulls you so strongly that you’ll fly halfway across the world, trek for a week with a heavy pack, and sit in a tent waiting for storms to pass. Then imagine your only proof that this dream exists is a single picture. As Sam Anthamatten explains, his most recent film project, La Liste: Everything or Nothing, my jaw rests on the floor.

Four months of training and planning, flying to Pakistan, a burly seven-day hike to base camp, sitting on a glacier waiting for a weather window—all of this just to ski five lines. It didn’t add up.

Sam Anthamatten closeup in a ski jacket and goggles
Sam Anthamatten Courtesy of Red Bull

“Those few turns have a really high importance for me. It’s the quality of skiing that matters, not the quantity,” explains Anthamatten, in a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor. He pauses, then grins. “Those are the moments you never forget. That first turn off the summit is burned into your mind forever.”

Anthamatten grew up and resides in Zermatt, Switzerland, one of skiing’s meccas. He’s a professional big mountain skier for The North Face and Faction Skis and a certified IFMGA mountain guide, the highest standard in the world. He spent seven years competing on the Freeride World Tour, has ski guided around the globe and, in the original La Liste film (2016), he skied 15 of Europe’s steepest faces.

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“It all started when I was very young,” says Anthamatten. “I learned to ski out my back door. You can see the hill from my house. Easy access allowed me to get out every day and ski as much as I wanted. I was just chasing my brothers around and trying to keep up.”

Freeskiers Sam Anthamatten and Jeremie Heitz climbing up a peak in deep snow
Heading up. Big Mountain Skiers Sam Anthamatten and ‘La Liste’ co-star, Jérémie Heitz. Courtesy of Red Bull

Growing up at the base of the Matterhorn, Anthamatten was surrounded by world-class skiers and alpinists from a young age. Over 50 cable cars are spread across the small mountain valley, whisking skiers high into the alpine. After years of using this as his training ground, Anthamatten got curious about possibilities elsewhere. He wanted to explore bigger peaks in faraway ranges, like Karakoram.

In La Liste: Everything or Nothing, Anthamatten is joined by his partner, Jérémie Heitz. Together they push the limits of freeskiing, descending 50-plus degree slopes on 6,000 meter peaks as if these lines are groomed race courses on resorts—something even their professional peers wouldn’t dream of doing. Skiing fast and fluid in the high alpine, Anthamatten and Heitz are rewriting big mountain skiing.

Big Mountain Skiers Sam Anthamatten and Jeremie Heitz at the top of Laila Peak
Summit meeting. Anthamatten and Heitz on Laila Peak. Courtesy of Red Bull

“The skis I use depend on the objective,” says Anthamatten. “For most of the peaks in La Liste, we wanted really big, stiff skis. We didn’t want to scratch our way down but to really free ski these lines. I used the Faction Dictator 3.0 because of its double titanal construction. Sure, it adds a lot of weight, but this project was all about pushing the limits of skiing—and you can’t do that on a light ski.”

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La Liste is the culmination of a decade and a half of training for Anthamatten. He did his first big expeditions in 2007, climbing in Patagonia, ice climbing in Calgary, and mountaineering in Nepal. Then Denali and elsewhere. That year alone he spent 90 days in the tent, pushing his limits. He learned how to approach big expeditions, from fitness to gear to the mental acuity needed to survive.

Sam Anthamatten skiing down a near vertical slope of Laila Peak in the documentary La Liste: Everything or Nothing
Anthamatten picks his (straight) line. “There is no margin for error.” Courtesy of Red Bull

“Training is all about replicating the effort you’ll need on the expedition. In the summer I focus on endurance and mountain running, I’m in the gym a lot in autumn, then I get on skis as early as possible in the winter,” says Anthamatten. “But the biggest focus is training my brain to be prepared for these efforts. You can be as strong in the gym, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not mentally prepared when you’re standing on top of a big line.”

Anthamatten dedicates a large part of his training to visualization leading up to each peak. “It’s a critical part of the process,” he says. “If you can put yourself into that line beforehand, you’ll be ready when you get there. It will feel natural. If I’ve visualized it, I don’t have to think about where I should turn. I just do it.”

Big Mountain Skiers Sam Anthamatten and Jeremie Heitz skiing down steep powder, long aerial view
Courtesy of Red Bull

 

This process starts months before, when he first sees a photo of the peak. At that point, he’ll start thinking about how he’s going to ski it. “For big expeditions I have that photo in my mind the whole time—going over and over the few seconds I’m actually skiing it,” says Anthamatten. “Even as I’m climbing up the face, I’m thinking about where the turns will be.”

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Then when Anthamatten drops in, he stops thinking altogether—while admitting that even if he does everything right (gear, fitness, crew, etc.), the snow can create a risk that’s too high.

“Risk is hyper-subjective,” says Anthamatten. “It’s hard to say where the line is. I have days when I accept higher risks than others. I’ve spent my whole life learning to be comfortable with risk. Some days I feel good and go for it. Other times instinct tells me to turn around.”

Jeremie Heitz and Sam Anthamatten sitting on the mountain in ski wear
Big mountain buds. Anthamatten (right) and Heitz. Courtesy of Red Bull

The key, Anthamatten says, is to trust your gut. Before he drops into a big line, he needs to feel good about it. Despite pushing past this comfort zone in past competitions and getting away with it, his perspective has changed with age. “As you get older,” he says, “you know more about the consequences.”

At home in Zermatt, Anthamatten only skis with people he knows well—usually close friends. “Guiding helped open up the mountains, but it’s also a burden to take people because you’re responsible for them,” he says. “I’m also working with a rescue team here, and that’s shown me the consequences when things go wrong. Seeing these avalanche victims stays in your mind forever.”

Base camp tents set up for crew during filming of La Liste in Pakistan's Karakoram range
Base camp during the filming of La Liste: Everything or Nothing. Courtesy of Red Bull

Anthamatten can also speak from firsthand experience. Ten years ago he was caught in a slide while shooting for a sponsor in Switzerland. Despite having a bad feeling about the line, he dropped in and was caught in a large avalanche. “The whole face went and I was pulled down the mountain with it,” remembers Anthamatten. “I went over three big cliffs and did a double flip on the last one. The whole thing was just a few seconds but it felt like forever in my mind. I told myself ‘not today,’ kept fighting, and managed to stay on top of the snow.”

Looking back, Anthamatten says there were a lot of red flags he ignored—a learning moment in his career. “My personal motivation to get the shot blinded me,” he admits. “I just didn’t see it.”

The night before he skis a big line, Anthamatten says he feels nervous, lying in his tent and thinking about everything that could go wrong. That all changes when he starts moving the next morning, with a clear vision of each turn. On the hike up, he’ll think about the turns and danger of doing something wrong, but as soon as he clicks into his skis all of that fades away.

“The emotion comes out at the bottom of the run, when the slope goes flat and you know you’ve done everything right,” says Anthamatten. “Before I drop in, I go through a routine, put in my mouthguard, and just forget everything else.”

While the La Liste project has shown a new level of freeskiing, Anthamatten feels like people don’t see how hard it is to execute. “I was really excited to bring freeriding and alpinism together in this way, but it’s really challenging to get everything to line up,” he says. “The weather, logistics, and the team. You can’t push it in these mountains. Not in Pakistan. There’s no margin for error.”