Free Fall

Jérémie Heitz

Interview

  • TEXT LASLO SEYDA
  • PHOTOS MIKA MERIKANTO, TERO REPO

Climbing the steepest mountains in the Alps in order to hurtle down them at high speeds: What to some may look like pure folly is central to professional skier Jérémie Heitz’s life. We talk to him about risk, the right preparation and the attraction of going to the limit.

Sometimes, when he is on skis, Jérémie Heitz seems to have totally lost the connection to solid ground. The young man speeds down the steepest mountains towards the valley – no holds barred. He doesn’t just jump over rocky outcrops, he literally sails over them. Heitz flouts the laws of physics and plays with gravity. The 27-year-old was born in the Swiss canton of Valais and is – by any measure – the world’s fastest freerider. For his documentary La Liste, Heitz hurtled down the fifteen most stunning 4,000-meter peaks in the Alps at speeds of more than 100 kilometers per hour: the Matterhorn, the Lenzspitze, the Ober Gabelhorn, the Hohberghorn, the Zinalrothorn and roughly a dozen others. All of them boast gradients of more than 50 degrees. Extremes are his domain.

Monsieur Heitz, you ski down the world’s steepest mountains at incredible speeds. Why?

Some skiers execute cool jumps, others zigzag around plastic flags. I was never interested in that. I prefer skiing off-piste, without any prescribed runs or finish lines, and on mountains that interest and challenge me. There just isn’t anything more amazing than standing on a mountaintop and looking down into a valley you will arrive in a few seconds later.

That sounds beautiful, but also terribly dangerous …

It isn’t more dangerous than being in traffic in Paris – just look at how people drive there! I’ve been skiing since I was able to walk and know how to read the mountains. I would never try to ski down steep slopes in the same laidback way as on a blue run. That would be suicidal. Even if it doesn’t look like it: I’m always in control.

Is that even possible, given your speed?

I leave nothing to chance and surround myself only with professionals; people I know and trust, and with whom I can discuss everything. We analyze weather and temperature developments throughout the year. We fly around the peaks in a plane looking for the best mountainsides for my runs with the aid of binoculars and zoom lenses. After that, I climb the mountain with my skis in order to get to know its peculiarities and ensure that there aren’t any ice sheets below the snow. Preparation is everything.

Jérémie Heitz climbing a mountain

Before his descent ...

© Mika Merikanto
Heitz has to climb a mountain

... Heitz has to first climb the mountain

© Tero Repo
he north face of the Zinalrothorn

Eight-hundred meters high with a 55-degree slope: The north face of the Zinalrothorn is one of the spectacular settings for the documentary La Liste

© Tero Repo

Cameraman Samuel Anthamatten during the shooting for the film La Liste

The Aiguille de l’Amône

Only when Heitz is familiar with every inch of the run does he start planning his descent down the steep slope – like here at the Aiguille de l’Amône

© Tero Repo

But a certain risk always remains. Aren’t you ever afraid?

I am and that’s a good thing. Fear focuses you and makes you more alert. Those who feel too confident are more prone to making mistakes. Slipping, edging over or falling can be lethal on the mountains I go down. However, you mustn’t give fear too much room. So before a run, I block out negative thoughts and try to only let positive feelings flow through me: the joy of finally having made it to the peak, the rush of happiness that sweeps through you after the run, the pride I give my friends and family. Those are stronger than the fear of falling.

What do your family and girlfriend think of these breakneck maneuvers?

My grandpa was a skiing instructor, my dad a base jumper, my mother a ski racer and my stepfather works as a mountain guide. They all know about the dangers of the mountains. But they also know what I can do, and that I’m not a madman.

Your film La Liste is a tribute to freeriding down steep slopes. What inspired you?

I was born in the same town as Sylvain Saudan, who was the first to ski down the northwestern flank of the Eiger Mountain in 1970. At the time, he still bounced around on the edges of his skis, and danced with the mountain. Saudan paved the way for us freeriders. With La Liste I wanted to pay homage to Saudan and the other pioneers and to show what is possible today.

Jérémie Heitz at the mountain

A dot in the white – Jérémie Heitz

© Tero Repo

What was the greatest challenge?

The timing – on some mountains you only get a very small window of opportunity. The weather and snow have to be right and the crew has to be ready. Only when all the conditions are spot-on can you calculate and take the risks associated with such a descent.

What do you do when, despite all the preparations, things go awry?

I turn around and climb back down the mountain. The Matterhorn, for example, took three attempts. In the first two, the wind got in the way. There really are more pleasant things than spending the night on a mountaintop in temperatures below freezing, just to get up at three or four in the morning to call the whole thing off. After all, it is not just about me, the whole crew is involved.

“I am curious about the things I may be able to do with my skis“

That sounds frustrating …

It definitely is, but safety has to come first. Being able to say no is important. If you don’t feel your best or if you only have the slightest doubts, just drop it and try again another time. The mountain will still be there.

Free skier Jérémie Heitz
© Mika Merikanto
Extreme skier Jérémie Heitz in the snow
© Tero Repo

Is there a key event that stands out among the other extreme experiences for you?

I will never forget the Ober Gabelhorn Mountain. It is a stunning, pyramid-shaped rock formation and the last peak we targeted for La Liste. Conditions there are only perfect for a few hours in the year: fresh, deep snow, which is still a little wet. I don’t think anyone has ever skied down that mountain the way I did, which is something I am very proud of.

You are always one of the favorites on the Freeride World Tour, and are usually among the highest ranked. What do titles mean to you?

I have been dreaming of becoming world champion for a long time. Pride, fame and the prize money are not that important to me. That competition is an incentive for me to keep improving.

Is there a limit to your quest for new records?

My ambition is alive and kicking. And I am curious about the things I may be able to do with my skis and about all the places they may take me. One of my next destinations will be the Himalayas. A friend and I have already scouted out Annapurna, one of the least climbed and most dangerous 8,000-meter peaks. The snow conditions there are completely different from those in Europe. The monsoons are unpredictable and the air at that altitude makes things exhausting. I am curious to see whether I will be able to achieve the same feats as in Europe. That would take me to the next level.


 

This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.

 

Lufthansa Exclusive Magazine Cover