One of the best young snowboarders in the world died in an early-morning avalanche in the Swiss Alps yesterday.
Twenty-one-year-old Estelle Balet was snowboarding on Le Portalet, a steep mountain in the Mont Blanc Massif above the village of Orsières in southwestern Switzerland, her home country, when she was caught by the avalanche and carried 3,000 feet down the mountain.
Balet was being filmed for a movie and the film crew immediately called emergency responders. The rescue service Air Glaciers arrived shortly after 8:00 a.m. to find Balet’s companions had freed her from the snow, but efforts to revive her were unsuccessful. Balet was wearing an avalanche beacon, helmet, and airbag at the time, but no safety equipment can help for a fall of this magnitude on a mountain like Le Portalet.
Last year Balet became the Freeride World Tour’s youngest world champion, a title she won again a few weeks ago in Verbier, France. She is the first ski or snowboard luminary to die this year, in contrast to last season when ski stars JP Auclair, Andreas Fransson, and Liz Daley all died within a day of each other in South American accidents. Sponsored by the watchmaker Swatch, Balet was filming the movie Exploring the Known when the avalanche occurred. The avalanche danger in the area Balet was skiing was rated “considerable” at the time, which raises some uncomfortable questions.
“It’s really hard to not let being on camera affect your decision-making,” says Caroline Gleich, a professional skier and close friend of Daley’s. “Getting the film segment is the culmination of all your dreams. You want to ski that once-in-a-lifetime line ‘cause it can make your career. But on those kinds of lines it’s really hard to go out and get it on your first try. But when the camera is rolling and it’s your one shot…”
Gleich keeps a list of all her friends who have died in avalanches. It has almost two dozen names.
“When your skiing in avalanche terrain it’s kind of russian roulette in a way,” says Gleich. “There’s an element of risk that you cannot avoid.”
This is true for all backcountry skiers and snowboarders, whether they’re filming a ski movie or not. With the rise of social media, the judgement-impairing effects of “Kodak courage” now infiltrate everyone’s life. Twelve skiers or snowboarders have died in avalanches in North America so far this season. Add snowmobilers, climbers, and fatbikers, and that number jumps to 41.