15 minutes with Melissa Presslaber

Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool
Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

One of the pioneers of female freeride movies is now getting into ski mountaineering.  And going further and further in search of powder. Jonny Richards talks to her about solo ascents, blown knees and racing for 8000m peaks

JR: You’ve filmed and competed all over the world. What’s the most memorable powder experience you’ve had?

ML: Two years ago on one of our home mountains, Venet, a small ski resort close to the Arlberg. It was January, 40cm of fresh fluffy powder, just one chairlift open, shredding with friends, awesome day!

You started out racing, then moved to freeride, now ski mountaineering. It’s a well worn path. Did you always feel you’d end up here?

Actually it’s just experience. As you do more and more, step by step these things open up for you. You get more into freeriding, then do a bit of climbing…

Have you surprised yourself banging up huge mountains, then taking on 45° descents after two days’ climbing?

It’s no surprise as I’ve always calculated what I’m able to do, and what’s possible.

It’s a terrible cliché about earning your turns being better than lift access. Is it true? Even over a season rather than just a day? 

I would say it’s the combination of both. Having lift access is a great possibility, but the more memorable runs are those where you invest more time and take the effort to hike up for skiing down. All of the long hikes and adventures to the big mountains are still in my mind and not forgotten.

Are there top-level women to compare to the likes of Dav, Pep Fujas and Chris Benchetler at the moment?

No, women can’t compare. The best girl is Giulia Monego, who’s been doing her IFMGA guide exams this summer. (She previously won the Verbier Xtreme and competed regularly on the Freeride World Tour.)

I wouldn’t say we were the pioneers, but we’re among the first who are climbing up and then just as focused on the down, with fat skis. There are very few women who are really good skiers and mountaineers. There are plenty of very good mountaineers. And plenty of very good skiers; but few combine the two.

Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool
Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

You mentioned Giulia doing her IFMGA exams. I read there were 6000 qualified guides of which less than 100 are women…

Already the qualifying examination and the apprenticeship is very tough. For example
in Austria there are around 150 aspirants every year to take the qualifying examination, but only around 25 people are taken.

There is no exception to women. They have to go through the same qualifying procedure where you have to be an all-rounder in skiing, rock climbing and ice-climbing. Working as a mountain guide is tough. Also you have to be mentally and physically 100% fit, very flexible,
and if you want a family there are women-friendlier jobs.

You had to quit competitive freeriding in 2008 because of your knee? How hard was that? 

It was actually filming As We Are that was the problem. I jumped a cliff, fell and tore my ACL. And I’d already had three surgeries before on that same knee (my right leg).

Plenty of fantastic skiers have to move away from contests and big drops to protect their bodies, yet others can take the hammer for years. It that down to luck? Technique? Fitness?

Luck is a big part in the world of freeriding. Injuries can happen very quickly, to anyone. And the main challenge is actually coming back. So to be on the Tour a long time you need luck and to be strong in the head. It’s definitely not about technique or fitness. Everyone at this level is an excellent skier and they all train really hard.

We know you best for movies. Sounds glamorous, but again it must be hard work at times. What’s the favourite ski film you’ve been involved with?

Shukran Morocco, whch I made with Sandra (Lahnsteiner, the pioneer of European all-girl ski movies who’s behind the Shades Of Winter series), was a very good time. We had fun and that was very well appreciated when it came out in 2012.

And the favourite ski movie you’ve not appeared in?

Mission Steeps, with Xavier de Le Rue, Andreas Fransson (and Samuel Anthamatten). When you get into all this steeps, and ski mountaineering, you need to see this. It’s very inspiring to see how they handle these situations!

What’s the worst situation you’ve ever filmed in?

Nothing really bad. It’s more when you travel a long way and conditions are not right. I’ve been to Mongolia, desperate to ski some north faces, and it was just ice. And rock. I’d definitely go back but that’s a long way to travel for no skiing.

Surely some God-awful hotel must spring to mind? Or getting marooned in a mountain hut for weeks?

[Laughs.] Oh yes, like no snow in the northern Alps last winter! There is no worst day of filming. The whole idea is to try always for the best, to get something, so you can’t really ever have a bad location.

Surely when you’re sweating, spending hours summiting a mountain, a little part of you thinks: why am I not doing a nice easy heli drop in Alaska?

Sometimes yes! It’s a lot less effort. But the other way I like to see it is if you’re a mountaineer, you get to know the face, and have time to see all the conditions. And make decisions based on this. Whereas in Alaska you’ve maybe just one or two minutes to scope the face before you drop it. It’s very different from a day’s hike, bivvy for the night, then climb up a north face.

Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool
Sebastian Marko/Red Bull Content Pool

What’s the toughest mountain you’ve taken on?

The hardest I’d say is doing it all by myself. The north face of the Hochfeiler in the Zillertal I did solo. At points that’s 50°.

I knew I could do it, but still I was very happy to be back safe as plenty can go wrong when you have no support. When I was climbing up a group came skiing down and sluffed me in. I was trying to get out of the sluff zone but all this snow was hitting me, smashing me and my glasses. Luckily I had a good hold with my ice axes. I was so glad they held me.

Do you get the fear when these things start to happen, or if you’re on a really dangerous part of the mountain?

I try to be aware of what can happen. But I never fear the mountain, it’s more respect. There’s never a time I’m really worried as I’m always focused. You are never 100% secure on any mountain. So prepare in the best way you can. But don’t fear it.

Read the full interview in issue 128 of Fall-Line