You know a day is going to be good when it starts off with clear skies. As the bus drove up the mountain this morning to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the sun was beginning to rise over the valley, turning the sky from pink to blue. Everyone seemed excited because today was the first official training for the snowboard slopestyle, which is making its debut at the Winter Olympics this year.
I arrived on site early before the other photographers had arrived. It was quiet, just the sound of the snow cannons topping up the slopestyle course. By 9am, the riders were beginning to trickle down the slopes. First the British team, followed by the Americans, Canadians, Norwegians, Swedes, all hooning down the 30ft drop at breakneck speeds. I saw every snowboarder I’ve been writing about for the past three months ride by. Torstein Horgmo, Shaun White, Torah Bright, Stale Sandbech, the whole British team and so many more. It was unbelievable, like a snowboarding celebrity parade.
After standing there gawping like a starstruck teenager for about ten minutes, it was time to get to work. The best shots are taken from the sides of the slopestyle course. Getting up there, however, is no mean feat. There’s no steps or chair lift, just an icy pathway to climb.
By now the sun had spilt over the mountain peaks and it was starting to get hot. Like t-shirt hot. There were dozens of photographers and camera crews, laden with tripods and heavy bags, clambering up the slope beside me. Slipping back to the bottom was a very definite possibility. By the time I reached the top, I was so sweaty I just want to strip off and stand in my pants, but decided maybe that wasn’t a good idea. Particularly as 95% of photographers seem to be men.
People often say that can’t really believe what’s happening in front of them. It sounds cheesy, but there’s no other way to describe seeing the world’s best snowboarders (obviously a sport that’s very close to my heart) hucking insane tricks off the biggest kicker I’ve ever seen just metres from my face. It’s an amazing sight. I was so distracted by the action, I nearly didn’t notice my water bottle rolling down towards the Olympic course, right into the riders path. I managed to grab it just in time.
Later on I accidentally met Tim Warwood, the BBC commentator for the snowboarding and freestyle skiing, while papping away. He was chatting to James Woods, the UK’s top male skier. They were quickly joined by Anna Willcox-Silverberg, his New Zealand skier girlfriend, and Katie Summerhayes, the UK female skier. They were checking out the snowboarders before their training session on the same course that afternoon.
I heard a few riders talking about how crazy steep the landing was. Some felt the landings were too steep, others weren’t so sure about the state of the transitions. I saw some crazy wipeouts – one epic bail from Spencer O’Brien and plenty of flailing arms. Later on, I heard a rumour that someone had been taken down the slopes on a rescue sled. It turns out that was Torstein Horgmo, one of the main contenders for gold, who had broken his collarbone while tackling the rails up top. So it’s understandable that riders were taking it easy and holding off throwing down triple corks just yet.
I’ve never photographed slopestyle before, but it was a great learning experience. Firstly, it’s hard to get a good angle because the kickers are so huge. I started off standing beneath them to get the shot, but this caused a major problem – you can’t see when the rider is approaching the jump. So it’s a bit of a guessing game, camera poised and focused, waiting in case someone pops over the knuckle of the jump.
Then there’s the sun to contend with because the photo positions are situated directly opposite the sun. However, as the sun moved further over the course, I could position myself further up above the jump and get some nice ski close-ups like these below.
I finished the day heading back down the mountain to grab some food at 4pm before making my way back up for the moguls at 6pm (I’d only had a chance to eat a banana for lunch!). On the way down, I met a cool TV reporter from New Zealand who told me about his catastrophic first day on the mountain – from losing his crew to running out of phone battery and having to get the bus back to Adler. In all, it was just the coolest day. From start to finish, it was twelve-hours long but honestly, it could have been longer and I wouldn’t have noticed.