Learning to walk is a momentous developmental feat that we simply don’t remember achieving. Similarly, imagine not being able to remember when or how you learned a discipline, instead growing into awareness in the sport. This is exactly how Jérémie Heitz got his start in skiing at the age of 2 on the mountains of his native Switzerland. Now 29 and sponsored by Red Bull, Heitz is a seasoned big mountain freeskier. As the runner-up in the 2015 Freeride World Tour, Heitz has conquered mountains in another way, putting together La Liste, a collection of 15 dream Alpine peaks to spotlight the challenging athleticism of freeriding. While no stranger to injury, Jérémie insists his is a sport of confidence, terrain-management, and most importantly, fun.
Face the Current presents this chat with Jérémie Heitz, a man who has quite literally seen the most breathtaking peaks and valleys this planet has to offer.
Nik Meuli: What came first for you, the high-altitude mountaineering or skiing, and what has driven you to be a steep wall skier?
Jérémie Heitz: I was born in a small village called Marécottes and we have a small resort there. I started in Alpine skiing with my village’s ski club. I did a lot of alpine skiing and a lot of racing until I turned 16 years old and then I naturally switched to freeriding. My father is also a mountain guide, so it was pretty easy for me to quickly access and learn the techniques for the terrain.
The education we received as children is directly in parallel with my sport. We didn’t do football, we learned about mountaineering.
NM: What drove you to be a steep wall skier?
JH: I wanted to discover a little bit more. I live in the Alps and when I’m in my kitchen, I can see some of the 4,000 meter mountain peaks.
JH: Yeah, I just wanted to try the biggest mountain we have here. And then, also knowing Sam Anthamatten, because we were racing together on the Free Ride World Tour. We just had the same objective, same motivation for that kind of skiing. So we just tried to ski those big walls in the Alps, and we found that to be really fun actually.
NM: I totally understand that; that’s awesome! You said you found your calling as early as the age of two when your skis were strapped to your feet. Do you believe it’s an instant wisdom that leads us to our calling in life, or is it wisdom shared through influence by others?
JH: It’s for sure the influence of my family, because my older brother quickly became a pro snowboarder. After school every Wednesday we’d jump on the bus and go skiing. Every weekend was filled with skiing, too. It was pretty easy to have skis under our feet; it was just the sport everyone does in this little village. If I was born in Lausanne or another city, it would have been a different story. Location and the passions of your family are a big influence.
NM: Exactly, and when you experience it and it feels right, you know it’s your passion.
JH: Yeah and also the education we received as children is directly in parallel with my sport. We didn’t do football, we learned about mountaineering.
NM: “Race the Face,” is touted as “the steepest race the world has ever seen,” where standing at the start gate at 4,000 metres is already an accomplishment! You skied The Hohberghorn, near Zermatt, “an imposing face with an average 50 degrees steepness that can only be skied if the conditions are perfect.” One might say that you were not only up against World Champion, Daron Rahlves, but also Mother Nature herself who “set the rules of the game.”
JH: Yeah, exactly. That was the trickiest part, actually, to have the right conditions in that moment. Daron was super motivated to come, but he lives in the USA with his family. He only had a short window of time that he could come, and the timing was perfect. We watched the weather forecast and set the race. The big plan was to have a snowfall between setting the race and the race day to cover all tracks.
NM: Right, exactly.
JH: Our perfect timing was pure luck.
There is a huge challenge for the cameraman to be able to film this kind of skiing. The next project is going to be in high altitude, and we’re going to ski very fast, so we’ll need aerial shots. For example, we went to Peru and couldn’t have a helicopter with a camera on it, so we used different drone techniques. The cameraman has to climb the mountain with us, and stays around 5,000 meters altitude. It’s a big crew. It’s not just about us skiing; it’s a lot of teamwork.
NM: So, you’ve been challenged with Mother Nature then?
JH: Yeah, of course. It’s something that you cannot control. You stop to wait for snow or wind. Our original plan was to do it a year earlier, but I got injured on the Freeride World Tour. It turned out that the face wasn’t in condition a single day that season, so we just got the perfect timing last season.
NM: For “La Liste,” you challenged yourself to ski the 15 most beautiful and steepest mountains over 4,000 meters in the Alps, in only two years. Would you consider this your biggest project to date?
JH: Yes, but I’m starting on another one already. I already did one year of a three-year project. It’s going to be following “La Liste,” but we ski some mountains over 6,000 meters. You have to travel with a big crew and have perfect timing in a country far from home. The altitude is also quite new for me. So that will be the biggest challenge, for sure.
NM: I see; wow! Can you share what you loved about and what you learned from this experience in preparing for “La Liste?”
JH: We didn’t ski all 15 faces, but I have finished “La Liste” now. It was amazing because I was competing in the Freeride World tour at the same time. In the Alps, there are still good conditions in June for high altitude skiing. So, I had two big projects in a long ski season that were full on. When the summer came, I was super, super happy to put my skis in the garage and have a few months of rest. It was intense.
NM: Did you learn anything from that project that you can use in the future?
JH: There is a huge challenge for the cameraman to be able to film this kind of skiing. The next project is going to be in high altitude, and we’re going to ski very fast, so we’ll need aerial shots. For example, we went to Peru and couldn’t have a helicopter with a camera on it, so we used different drone techniques. The cameraman has to climb the mountain with us, and stays around 5,000 meters altitude. It’s a big crew. It’s not just about us skiing; it’s a lot of teamwork.
NM: Right, it’s not only you. The biggest challenge is the whole crew around you.
JH: Yeah, and to have the timing together.
NM: Do you have any specific mental preparation before you drop in besides being focused and present?
JH: I have a checklist always in my mind. I’ve been doing that for a very long time. The snow conditions and weather have to be super precise. The crew I work with is very professional, and as I said before, my father is a mountain guide, so I know the Alps really well. I have many friends living in different parts of the Alps, so I trust the information they give me. 90% of the project is planning. Sometimes the skiing is less than one minute.
NM: You said, you always have a checklist in your head! What is it about?
JH: It’s about all the “routine” I have concerning materials and daily weather conditions. Questioning myself about things that I can control such as materials, and then plenty of other questions during the climb and before dropping in. If I have the green light and I feel good, I go… if not, I try to understand why to know if I can fix it or if I just have to go back home and try another day… or year.
NM: Does your father join you sometimes?
NM: That’s cool. He’s not too scared to watch you ski?
JH: No, he’s confident. I’m super lucky that my family is confident in me.
My motivation is just to discover. We’re going to try skiing 6,000 meters and be aggressive about it. I don’t need to go further just for the sake of it. At some point you need to stop.
NM: What does your typical mental and physical training routine look like for freeriding?
JH: The physical training is similar to Alpine skiing. Three to four months before the season, we go to the gym and do strength and balance training. During the summer, I also do a lot of mountaineering. Biking is also something to do to train and have fun in the Alps.
NM: Training combined with fun. What do you see as a necessary training component to get to the next level? Do you need to train differently for extreme steep wall skiing?
JH: The most important thing is to spend hours on your skis, even if the conditions are bad. Skiing in the morning and finish your day in the gym. Training only in the gym will not give you the same results. Skiing as much as you can on the mountains gives you confidence in all situations. Bad weather and flat light teach you balance on your skis.
NM: You’ve expressed a desire to progress freeriding one step further. How has that evolved so far and where do you want to take it?
JH: My motivation is just to discover. We’re going to try skiing 6,000 meters and be aggressive about it. People have asked if we’re motivated to go to 8,000 meters, but I don’t think it’s realistic to find the conditions that we’re looking for. I’m super focused on this new project until 2020. I don’t need to go further just for the sake of it. At some point you need to stop.
NM: That might be a next generation thing. How much of what you do is about the sport and how much is about being on the mountain?
JH: A lot is about being on the mountain. Skiing is a beautiful sport; you just put on your skis and you can go really fast and jump big things. I also like this method of transportation through the mountains, but being in the mountains is definitely the highlight. Even in the summer I paraglide and mountain-bike because it’s about living on the mountain.
With some of the mountains I’ve skied, there is no space for falling, but that doesn’t mean I’m risking my life because I’m super confident. We also usually climb up the mountain the way we intend to get down, so we really check the conditions and find where the ice and rocks are. We do that quite carefully. If I ever stand at a summit and feel there’s a 50% chance that I won’t make it home, I won’t do it.
NM: The sports are actually just tools to enjoy the mountain. John Lubbock is quoted saying, “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.” If you were to write a book on the “wisdom of the mountains,” what would you reveal as some of the top lessons we can learn from time spent on the mountains?
JH: That’s a tricky one. You learn to be humble, to not get too excited. You have to take every situation as it comes, so you have to be adaptable. If things don’t work out, you just have to try again.
NM: Too true. Have you ever felt that you were pushing boundaries to the point of risking your life?
JH: No, never.
JH: With some of the mountains I’ve skied, there is no space for falling, but that doesn’t mean I’m risking my life because I’m super confident. We also usually climb up the mountain the way we intend to get down, so we really check the conditions and find where the ice and rocks are. We do that quite carefully. If I ever stand at a summit and feel there’s a 50% chance that I won’t make it home, I won’t do it. You can always go home and try again another day. It’s a lot of mental work and feeling and knowing yourself. That’s the reason Alpine is about the strong, experienced guy; it’s not about youth. You have to have experience and know yourself.
NM: Yeah, true. Being a competitive pro athlete tends to naturally create significant internal and external expectations. How do you handle expectations from yourself, family, friends, sponsors, and media?
JH: As I mentioned, my family is really into it and very confident. My mother was stressed when I was competing because I would get hurt sometimes, but that’s just part of the sport. The sport can be a little selfish because if you get hurt (or worse) it can be hard on the family. But they also know that you need to be happy. The other side of things is the business side. Sponsors pay you to ski, so you need to concentrate and be the best you can. There is no business side if you’re not skiing, so I always like to put the skiing first. There are contractual things that are very clear and that need to be attained, so it’s a balance. Knowing when to stop is also very important.
NM: Exactly. When you say you’re living your dream, is this it or is there something greater that you dream of?
JH: No, I’m definitely living my dream. I get to do what I want every day. I ski and climb mountains and that’s what attracts me most right now, so I’m super glad that I can live that.
NM: What would you recommend as the top ski area to ride in Switzerland?
JH: It’s a huge playground. There is a little resort where I’m living near Marécottes called Little Alaska. It’s small but there are plenty of options to climb around. You’ll have great photos and film-work results there, too.
NM: Good luck with your future project!
JH: Yeah, we already went to Peru and did one 6,000 meter and we’re working on permits for other ones. It’s not going to be 15, for sure, and we don’t know the exact number yet, but it’s all coming.
NM: Nice. Thank you very much for your time.
JH: Yeah, thanks to you!