Interview with Skier Jean-yves Michellod

, March 6, 2015

Jean-yves Michellod became one of the most famous skiers in the Val de Bagnes area after winning the Verbier Xtreme back in 2004. However whilst descending the back side of Mont Fort a year later, an avalanche threw him off a 40 meter cliff and he broke two vertebrate in his back. After being confined to a hospital bed for 5 months, not knowing whether or not he could walk again, he was able to start rehabilitation and began to ski again using a custom ski bob. I caught up with him at the the Xtreme Verbier, the final event in the Freeride World Tour 2011.

What does Freeriding mean to you?

Freeriding for me is just about being free to ski; There are no gates and nobody is telling you where you have to go. There is a lot of fresh snow and you just do your line. When I was young I skied a lot on the piste and it got quite boring after a while, afterwards Freeriding was just natural.

This is your fifth year judging the Xtreme in Verbier. Do you think the competition has changed a lot since last year? Are you excited for the final tomorrow?

I think last year the level was really high and the competition was really good. The conditions are harder this year – recently we have had 20cm of new snow that just covers the rocks, which can be very dangerous. The base is not good and one part of the face is closed, I’m sure the lines will be different from last year. Last year I thought the level was very, very high; all the skiers took steep lines and skied very fast, but with these conditions I think it will be a bit different. But I am excited to see what all the competitors can do with these conditions because it is really hard to ski with this kind of snow. Everybody knows that it is only 20cm of fresh snow on top of the base so it’s pretty sharky (hidden rocks).

If you had 100CHF to bet on a winner tomorrow, who would it be?

I think (Aurélien) Ducroz maybe; He has been involved in the competition since I was competing (2004). He has skied the face (Bec des Rosses) 6 times already, maybe 7 times, so he knows that face quite well. After him there are a lot of younger skiers from around here like Sam Anthamatten, he’s a really good skier and I think this will be a good face for him. But it’s really hard to say because anything can happen, someone might try a big jump and then lose a ski so you never know. If Ducroz finishes his run he will be on the podium because he is a really good skier.

[eventual winner of Verbier FWT Aurélien Ducroz, overall winner of the Freeride World Tour 2011]

So would you say Aurélien Ducroz is the best freerider in the world right now?

It’s really hard to say! Because everyone has different styles, for example Henrik (Windstedt); he has a really nice style and is fantastic at freestyle and freeriding – so yeah I like his skiing. I like Kaj (Zackrisson), he’s very fast, but his style is different; it’s faster and bigger… The swedes are good eh! There are also a lot of good French, Swiss, and Austrian freeriders. It’s hard to say who is the best one because of their different styles. Its not like downhill skiing where you can say ‘he’s the best one’, there are probably 5 really good riders at the moment.

What do you think about FWT?

I think it’s very good because before the FWT, the freeride scene was very small. There were only 3 competitions in America and then one in Europe and it wasn’t really practical. Now with the FWT the sport is really growing and all the best riders are competing. For me I think its good; now they’re organizing a qualifiers so its starting to become really professional and good for the sport. There will always be some riders who say that Freeriding is not made for competition and only want to freeride for filming but for everyone else who wants to compete I think the World tour is great!

What inspired you to start freeskiing? Do you have any idols?

Not really. I started when I was really young here in Verbier back when nobody was doing this and we only started because we wanted to try it. But of course we watched some video; Dominique Perret was one of the first skiers to make a movie here. Freeskiing is a beautiful thing but I never had an idol like some of the younger skiers have now because it wasn’t so famous back then. It’s changed now; a young guy could come here to Verbier and have a hero like Kaj because they can watch all his movies but when I started 15 years ago it was still a small thing.

Are you nervous to judge tomorrow?

No. It’s not an easy job but I have done it many times both here and in Chamonix and I know the face really well as I’ve skied it 3 times. For me I think Verbier is one of the less difficult faces to judge because it’s very long and very steep so its difficult to ski. If you go to Sochi (Russia), it is really small, maybe only 200 or 300 meters in length so its really hard to see the difference between one competitor and the other. Here in Verbier, it is easier to see if you’re not fit enough or you don’t know the face.

How difficult was it to overcome your injury and start Freeriding again?

There was no decision for me. Just after my accident I said I will do everything to start skiing again and when I left the hospital I went on the internet and looked for everything to see how I could ski with my handicap. Then I found something and for me there was no hesitation, I just called them up and bought all the stuff I needed. I never questioned myself as to whether I should start again or not, it was natural; I had skied for 25 years and skiing is my life.

What’s been most difficult?

I have had lots of challenging times because when I started again it is like you are a beginner. The first time I went up on the mountain it was a challenge. The first time I went on the piste it was a challenge, and then afterwards the first time off-piste it was a challenge, then the back of Mont Fort was a big challenge as it’s a famous part of Verbier and then the challenge was the north face of Le Petit Combine. I kept going like this and I still have more challenges but I think everytime I go out it’s a challenge.

What does Verbier mean to you?

I’ve skied a lot all over the world but for me, Verbier is one of the resorts which has the most possibilities when you go skiing. The only problem is the snow; we don’t get a lot of snowfall like you would if you were next to the sea or in Alaska, but if we get a good snow the possibilities are just endless! If you like hiking you can ski everywhere, you can do everything here. It’s close to Chamonix and a lot of smaller resorts so for me it’s perfect.

Do you have a favourite ski movie?

Pfft no… My ski movies are the best! I do watch a lot of ski movies, but I don’t really have a favourite…

What would be your perfect ski day?

Well like anybody; 50cm of new snow, a helicopter for me and a nice place to ski! I’ve had a lot of days like that!

Jean-Yves now resides in Verbier where he guides for  Les Guides de Verbier.