Weekend Warm-Up: Skiers Try a Mind-Bending Descent

That triangular sheet of snow and ice in the picture above is the north face of the Obergabelhorn in the Pennine Alps of Switzerland.

In the ski documentary “Nevia”, Jeremie Heitz posits the following (with acute accuracy): “If you ask any kid to draw a mountain, it’s going to be a portrait of the Obergabelhorn.”

I’m not sure anyone at any talent level could draw a more self-evident landscape.

But to ski one, you’d need a very deeply cultivated talent indeed. Enter Heitz and Sam Anthamatten, the main protagonists of The North Face’s short film documenting the effort to make it down the steep face in one piece.

sam anthamatten obergabelhorn

The face. Photo: Screenshot


The film begins by concerning itself with Anthamatten, who’s never found a mountain sport he doesn’t like. The mountaineer, freeskier, and paraglider competed and explored all over the world during a career that seems to contain more than his 36 years allow.


No mountain off limits

It’s almost silly to try to keep up with Anthamatten’s list of accomplishments. As early as 2010-11, he worked as a lead guide on the Freeride World Tour. That was right after he’d achieved Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagnes (UIAGM) mountain guide status at age 24.

“The way he picks his lines is different from even the best skiers [in the world],” James Heim, a Whistler, B.C.-based big-mountain skier and film veteran who has skied with Anthamatten in Alaska, South America, and Peru, told Freeskier.com. “Where the entrance [to a ski run] might look sketchy or technical, he has no issue at all. He has a unique mountaineering approach to getting to a line that might seem off-limits to most. Then he’ll ski it as well as anyone could.”

But to hear him tell it in “Nevia”, he’s just there to support his friends in what they want to do.

That’s why he agreed to go to the Obergabelhorn with Heitz, even though he was injured at the time.

Anthamatten explains the trip methodology — in an ice cave. Photo: Screenshot


Crazy at best

From most skiers’ perspectives, it would seem crazy at best to drop into the north face. You can see the ice below the snow flutes. And where the crust does cover the windblown ice, it doesn’t look thick.

Add an angle easily steeper than 75 degrees (80 in parts!?), and the vast majority of us are looking at ragdolling our lives away.

But Anthamatten and Heitz were up to the challenge. And even decided to map out a linkage of ridgelines and thermal wind currents to paraglide to the summit from Anthamatten’s place in Zermatt.

anthamatten paragliding

Photo: Screenshot


Teamwork is everything. And it’s prescient in this film. The camaraderie that performance athletes must tap into to survive in the mountains runs through Anthamatten’s blood and earliest memories. I mean it: the film opens on his first turns ever, when Sam’s dad swung him under his arm as an infant, then skied a trail.

Watch the Swiss adventure buddies do what they do best here, in multiple arenas. It’s impossible to ignore the looming scintillation of a steep, dangerous descent — but freeriding’s also supposed to be fun, and segments of “Nevia” draw that part of this high-stakes world decisively into the foreground.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.