We talk to the UK’s best backcountry snowboarder about what it takes to compete with the world’s best riders on the planet’s most terrifying mountain faces
For a country with scarce few snowboardable mountains, it’s surprising that the UK has managed to produce riders that can compete on the world stage. But it has, and in rather impressive numbers. In 2014, British snowboarder Jenny Jones won a bronze medal in women’s Slopestyle at the Sochi Winter Olympics, while British men Jamie Nicholls and Billy Morgan came sixth and tenth in the men’s category respectively. And, since 2010, Britain has also had considerable success in competitive freeriding – where snowboarders ride down challenging off-piste faces.
James Stentiford from Devon became the first Briton to podium at a Freeride World Tour event – the world’s biggest competitive backcountry series where, during each stage, riders are scored for speed, style and trickery as they take a run of their choice down a huge mountain face – all in front of hundreds of spectators. Shortly after earning a 3rd place at the 2011 Verbier Extreme, Stentiford retired from the Tour. It wasn’t long, however, before another British freerider, 38-year-old Sascha Hamm, started making his presence felt.
Unlike Stentiford, who’d got onto the Tour through a wild card entry system, from 2012 Hamm spent two years riding on the Freeride World Qualifier Series, the Tour’s feeder competition. In his second year he accrued enough points – even winning one stage in Nendaz, Switzerland – to qualify for the main tour and once on it, maintained his blistering form, placing in the top five at a number of stage events during the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
PART-TIMER What all of these riders have achieved is remarkable, but what makes Hamm possibly the most impressive of the bunch is that he’s not even a full-time snowboarder – just a weekend warrior who runs a London-based real estate company four days a week. “Every Thursday night I get the tube to City Airport, jump on the plane and end up in mountains,” says Hamm. “After three days of riding, I get up early on Monday morning, fly back and go straight to the office.”
There are a number of reasons why Hamm is able to compete as a world-class snowboarder without training like one. First off, he’s been riding since his early teens so is super comfortable on snow. “When I was 13 I saw an advert of a snowboarder in a skateboard magazine and hassled my parents to get me a board,” says Hamm. “They said no, but my auntie gave in so I got a board and started riding in the Italian Dolomites, where we’d go on family holidays.” As he hit his twenties he started spending entire seasons in French resorts. “I rode in Avoriaz and Les Arcs and quickly developed a love for throwing myself off big jumps that we’d build away from the pistes.”
But he hadn’t just developed a taste for air, he also had flair for doing good things while up in it – enough to be win the 2000 British Snowboard Championships. As important as the time he’s spent on the snow, and his natural talent for snowboarding, is the fact that he has a magnum’s worth of bottle. This is evidenced by the fact that if he doesn’t get on the podium during a FreerideWorld Tour stop, it’s normally because he’s hit a turn or cliff drop too fast and crashed. “I didn’t do so good on the 2015 tour,” says Hamm. “I fell on my butt twice and crashed twice. I only did well at one of the events, Chamonix – where I came second.”
LEAVE OF ABSENCE Given how well he’s now doing on the Freeride World Tour it’s hard to believe that from 2000 to 2010 he disappeared from the scene completely. “After the British Championships in 2000 I ploughed all my snowboarding prize money into a race driving course and drove in Formula Ford,” says Hamm. “But after a couple of years I maxed out a load of credit cards paying for car repairs and had to stop. I then launched my real estate company, RW Invest, which took up all of my time – so from 2000 to 2010, I was lucky to get away snowboarding once a year.” While a ten-year break would be too long for most people to get back to an elite level in a sport, Hamm is not most people. “Snowboarding is a bit like riding a bike,” he explains. “Once you are on the snow instinct kicks in,”
It probably helped that one of the men he spent most time riding following his 2010 return to the sport was fellow British freeride sensation Stentiford. “At that point he was competing on the Freeride World Tour and really enjoying it,” says Hamm. “It suited my riding style so I really wanted to have a go.”
As it turned out, having a go quickly meant turning into one of the Tour’s star performers – he was going faster and jumping off cliffs bigger than pretty much all the other snowboarders he was competing against. Riding at this level, and in this way, comes with a cost. “I’ve had a lot of injuries,” says Hamm. “Somehow I always hurt myself in the same place twice. It started with my left arm where I now have a pin with eight screws. I’ve
also had two ACL reconstructions in my right knee and two meniscus operations on my left knee.” “I’m in reasonably good nick at the moment but as I’ve got on in age, my body doesn’t recuperate that well anymore so stretching and training is very important. For the last two seasons I’ve been doing a lot of post-riding stretches (of which more later) and loads of leg work – squats, wall sits, jumping squats and lunges – which have improved my power and strength on the snow and increased my resistance to injury by making my body more stable and mobile.”
Hamm puts even more planning into his competition runs than he does his off-board training. “You don’t get to ride a face before the event,” says Hamm. “So you study an image of it on a laptop prior to the comp and pick out the line you’re going to ride. Once you actually ride the face, however it often feels very different to how it looked on a screen so having years and years of experience of different types of snow-based terrain can help you be ready for any surprises.”
Big things are expected of Hamm on tour this season – he’s a serious contender to not only finally win a stage, but the whole thing. “I’m not quite sure what tack to take this year,” he says adding, “Whether to go hell for leather – as I’ve done in previous seasons – or play it safe and focus on getting down the mountain without risking a fall that could cost me points.”
Despite his cautious talk, slowing down just isn’t in the make-up of a man who’s spent his whole life looking for ways to go bigger and faster – on a board or in a car – and that means we can expect more high-speed carving, powder spraying and cliff drops from Haam on the tour which resumed in Andorra on the 23rd of January.
More info, freerideworldtour.com