Protect Our Winters UK in collaboration with POW Switzerland present an interview with Freeride professional snowboarder Mathieu Schaer.
Mat is a ambassador for POW Switzerland. He is a professional snowboarder and holds a Masters in Environmental Protection and Sustainability. He knows better than most the impacts of climate change on winters in the Alps.
When Serge Lambert was a child, his father could remember seeing the Rhone Glacier stretching down into the valley below, the river of ice reaching to where the rising road divides to form the Grimsel and the Furka mountain passes. By the time Lambert grew up and was working regularly in the mountains as a guide, the glacier had significantly receded.
“By that time, the glacier was up to the big bend at the hotel. And today, there’s just a waterfall there, and a lake behind it.”
Since 1847, the Rhone Glacier has retreated 1.6 kilometres. During fourteen days of heatwave last summer, Alpine glaciers lost around 800 million tonnes of snow and ice. Scientists are warning that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, Europe could have lost all its glaciers by the end of this century.
Shelter, the new production from Picture Organic Clothing and Almo Films, showcases stunning drone footage of mountain summits swept by cloud, a winding black river slicing through a white valley, an avalanche thundering past snow clad trees, and jagged glaciers gleaming turquoise.
In stark juxtaposition the drone rises to reveal a glacier shrouded in sheets, the dingy discolouring of the protective cladding. The narrator’s gravelly tones continue the voiceover:
“Humanity recognises the fragile balance that surrounds it. But the economy has other considerations…”
Mathieu Schaer is a twenty-nine year old Swiss professional freeride snowboarder who has been an ambassador for the Swiss branch of Protect Our Winters since it was founded by Nicholas Bornstein in 2017.
Schaer does not own a car, so he rocks up from the train station still in his snowboard boots and carrying his Jones board. Enroute from filming, he tells me it was sabotaged by the lack of fresh snow and considerable avalanche risk.
Much of what Schaer does truly belongs in the realm of the extreme sports athlete. But Schaer wants Shelter, his brainchild to be relatable.
He stresses that just as all the locations in the movie are accessible by anyone with a train timetable, all the routes that they take are accessible to any proficient splitboarder or ski tourer with backcountry knowledge and skills.
Sitting on the sofa drinking tea, talking about his love of nature and the need to protect it, whether through career choices or gear-laden train trips, Schaer is eminently relatable. He goes everywhere by public transport, to keep his carbon footprint down, hoping to inspire others to think of how they can do the same.
In the movie, Jeremy Jones is packing to come to Europe for the ISPO in Munich. We hear Schaer invite him to be part of a special film project – a snowboard movie with a difference – Shelter will not be using helicopters or snowmobiles for either rider transportation or filming. Instead the riders will be travelling to the different ski areas they intend to explore using the local public transport.
Schaer’s purpose in Shelter is to show that not only is it possible to make a snowboard movie with a minimal carbon footprint, but to illuminate that sometimes the greatest discoveries lie in our very own backyards. “I can’t wait to show you our local playground!” he exclaims to Jones.
So where does that conviction, and the passion to drive it, come from?
For Mat Schaer, it started in the resort of La Clusaz, in south-eastern France, less than an hour from his hometown, Geneva. He learned to ski at three. As a teenager, following the lead of his oldest brother, he tried snowboarding and never turned back.
Schaer speaks of the adrenaline of freestyle and freeriding, but what he loves most is
“to be in nature, in the mountains; it’s a sport that you do with friends, all of you trying to improve and sharing the common passion of skiing and snowboarding.”
Schaer describes splitboarding as a revolution:
“I love it, even more than normal snowboarding – the possibility to access so much; and, not just that, but now I enjoy the uphill too: it’s part of the process – to be outdoors, to have a goal of the point you are trying to reach, walking and talking with friends… The downhill just becomes the reward; you appreciate the single or few rides you have a day even more, and that’s something I love.”
We gain so much from our relationship with nature. So how do we give back?
This is something that Mat Schaer has devoted much time considering. When he was eighteen, he turned professional, signing his first contract with sponsors DC Shoes. Balancing his studies with attending competitions, under the caveat:
“I could only go snowboarding if I got good grades, so it was kind of the reward.”
On finishing High School, Schaer spent three months in Whistler, B.C. snowboarding and learning English. He credits his rapid improvement in boarding to being able to ride every day for the first time in his life.
For the next three years he focused on snowboarding, shooting with productions such as Absinthe films. “I did what all the pros do: chasing good powder all around the world to have, like, three to four minutes of action footage in a movie. As soon as there is no more snow in one place, you move on, always taking a plane to where the snow conditions are better, and so the carbon footprint just explodes.”(Picture: 7-passionforoutdoorskm)
During this time, Schaer started to reflect on what he wanted to do with his life once his professional career was over. He had been reading up on social and environmental issues. He hung out with his brother and his brother’s uni mates. They talked about the environment and climate change. This motivated him to study these issues.
From the beginning of his snowboarding career he had met people that finished their pro career and then began their studies afterwards. Thinking that transition would be difficult he decided he was going to try to do both and “find a balance between studies and doing what I love.”
At twenty-two, Schaer was accepted onto a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering at EPFL University in Lausanne, Switzerland. This was when he really began to think about how he could use his position as a professional athlete to raise awareness.
“The climate crisis is a process for many people: a process of understanding. I didn’t wake up one day and think, oh wow, climate change is a big issue! Instead, you hear about climate change, and you read about it, you ‘zoom in’ and learn about different aspects – scientific, social, economic – and gain knowledge, and when you have more knowledge, you can ‘zoom out’ and see better the big picture.”
It is clear to Schaer that climate change is connected to many other issues, especially social issues. These problems are global and should be treated as part of a system, in the same way as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals do.
After successfully completing his Bachelor’s degree, Schaer started a Master’s. The conclusion of his Bachelor’s coincided with his contract with DC coming to an end. Schaer felt that this was the point that would mark the transition in his career from pro snowboarder to scientist.
“It was not really possible to put in line how I wanted to blend my career and environmental convictions while staying with this brand,”
Schaer explains, hesitantly, with a tempered diplomacy. He used his Masters as a transition to shredding for fun, giving up the life of a pro.
His Masters in ‘Protecting the environment for a sustainable future’ epitomises Schaer’s own approach. Throughout his Bachelor’s degree, Schaer began to adapt his approach to pro riding, adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. Climate change was not part of the mainstream agenda then so having a good reason (uni and exams) to stay local, meant he didn’t have to travel halfway around the world for a three day film shoot. It also allowed him to make a different sort of film.
He feels that these days, with the help of POW, this type of attitude is more accepted and that he can talk about it comfortably. “It is not just accepted, but more and more riders are aware of the problem, and feel the need to be active and spread awareness.”
After his Master’s, Schaer rode without a sponsor for a year. Realising that he still wanted to ride pro he set out to find a sponsor that shared his environmental values. He found Picture.
Anyone interested in the power of business to be used to implement environmentally friendly practice and lifestyle should take a look at Picture Organic Clothing, the sustainable clothing brand created in 2008. They treat the fight against climate change as more than just a point of view. To them it is an obligation. Outdoor-lovers, solution-focused, and consistently true to the ideals their brand was built upon, the company is striving towards fully achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals 12 and 13: Responsible Consumption & Production and Climate Action.
Picture are trying to get away from fossil fuels in how they make outdoor gear and by 2021 all Picture buildings will be 100% eco-responsible. Schaer sees this as a good parallel with what he is trying to do in his snowboarding career. He was really happy when they got their B Corp Certification (the highest distinction for companies making environmental and social responsibility a core part of their business operation) because it was proof that there is a systemic approach to evolving their business in an environmentally friendly way.
Committed to the Picture family, Schaer’s Master’s degree took him to a job at Météo Suisse. Where he continues to learn about climate change, both the science and the solutions. Surrounded by data at Météo Suisse he has no doubts. It confirms what he already knew as a snowboarder, “it’s just more convincing when you see the data as a scientist.”
So what are the changes that Schaer has experienced himself?
When he was young, his family used to go to La Clusaz every year at Christmas. he remembers playing in the snow in front of the chalet, which is at 1300 metres. Now, there is almost never snow at that level. “With climate change, you need to understand it over longer periods of time: temperature changes from year to year is climate variability, not climate change, so you have to watch it over ten or twenty years.
What we see now is the snowfall limit is rising; tomorrow it will be raining at 2600 metres, and this is something that we see more and more. We’ve just had one of the warmest Januarys ever; yesterday was like Spring. Last year, making Shelter, there was a big anticyclone and for four weeks it was super warm: it was 10 degrees Celsius at 2000 metres and we saw wet slide avalanches – this is typically something that happens in April.”
A few days after my interview with Schaer, I meet up with Serge Lambert to speak to him about his involvement in Shelter, his own experiences over fifty years of guiding in the Alps, and his impressions of the riders themselves.
Lambert tells me about the first day when the riders reached the shelter in Nax.
“Late afternoon, the riders came up, and the first thing they did was to go out a little bit further. They rode small lines, jumps, had fun, and when they came back, this was really interesting – they knew; they had already studied the consistency of the snow, checking: is it good snow, is it dangerous? So many riders just go out and ski and snowboard without doing that first, but with these guys, you could see that they were a bit older and very professional: the first thing they did was analyse the snow and the conditions so they could plan what they could do, which is what I do too as a guide. The first thing you do in a new place is you analyse the situation. And these riders, I was happy to have this experience with them, because they really think about what they are doing.”
The wise and experienced rider allows the conditions to shape what they do, and does not impose their own desires on adverse conditions. Always remembering
“Tomorrow is good too. Ride for tomorrow.”
This philosophy – of riding with intelligence, awareness and temperance; of considering the dangers in an environment on the forefront of the climate emergency and ‘riding for tomorrow’, is one that Schaer embodies, not just in terms of snow safety, but in terms of preserving snow for future generations.
When POW Switzerland was founded in 2017, Schaer became one if its first athlete ambassadors, recognising the power that his platform as a professional athlete gave him as a role model to raise awareness.
“When I joined POW, it was the perfect way for me to communicate more about environmental issues, and to show how I have tried to reconcile my passion with my environmental convictions.”
If you look at the carbon footprint of a pro snowboarder, a huge proportion come from travel. Schaer made reducing his transport emissions his priority and shares this with us in his films. He is asked quite often during his POW’s Hot Planet / Cool Athletes presentations why he doesn’t showcase the other lifestyle changes he has made in order to lower his carbon footprint.
He explains that he focuses on illustrating how he can approach his career with a more sustainable mindset.
“Eating mainly vegetarian, buying less, having green electricity…this is more about choices in my personal life; as a pro, what is most relevant is to focus on what is related to snowboarding – transportation is directly linked to what I do, and so I want to show that I can keep doing what I love with a reduced carbon footprint.”
He demonstrates this with the aid of one slide, with two magazine covers. The first image, Schaer sending a cliff in Nelson, Canada, in 2011. When he did the sums it showed that shot had a footprint of 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
In the second, an incredible photograph of Schaer jumping a glacial crevasse in Arolla, Switzerland, the same calculation shows a carbon footprint of 0.005 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
“It’s almost a factor of 500.”
This demonstrates that changing the approach does not mean sacrificing the end result. Schaer likes this idea as there are so many parallels and often the results are better in ways you did not imagine before.
We discuss the ‘grass is greener’ mentality that we all have a tendency to fall victim to. Since Schaer stopped flying, he’s found that some of the best and most memorable places he’s ever ridden are right here in his own backyard – the Glacier de Moiry and a couloir in the spectacular Dents du Midi.
He sums up the contradiction – when he was a kid he had always wanted to go to Whistler. Kids in the US and Canada want to go to the European Alps.
“It is possible to fulfil our desires much closer to home.”
One of the aspects that Schaer has most valued about his work as a POW ambassador is the opportunity it has given to him to have conversations about the climate crisis with many different people. He delights at how solution-focused the discussions are.
He has tried to do this with the movie. He wanted to make people think ‘how can I approach my sport in a more climate friendly way’ and not just raise awareness. The movie starts a conversation about something people love.
Schaer feels that this is how he can connect with people on climate action.
“It’s such a global problem that we need to touch everyone, and it’s easiest to touch people when it’s through something that they love.”
So what does Schaer feel about what Jeremy Jones has achieved by creating POW?
He is unequivocal.
“If you were to ask me today who my idol is, it would be Jeremy Jones. What he has done by creating POW is so important for me. And the fact he created it in 2007 is even more impressive…today, it’s almost become trendy to be talking about it, but this was not the case back then.”
Schaer credits Jones with having the courage to stand up to an industry with a big carbon footprint and not just raise awareness but act to protect the climate so that we can all enjoy snow in the future.
Schaer also talks about how he admires Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, whose strikes sparked the Fridays for Future movement. Schaer himself has participated in several Youth Strike for Climate marches, literally walking the sustainability talk. A protester from a young age, his mother brought him to a G8 march when he was 10, he understands the need “to raise our voices if we want to affect politics and big companies.”
We talk about Lambert’s involvement in Shelter –
“We wanted to have a testimony from somebody who has been in the mountain for a long time, and as he’s been guiding for fifty years, he was the best witness of the changing mountains. His involvement also highlighted the intergenerational nature of the problem. He is a guide and we’re professional freeriders, but we share the same kind of love for the mountain, and the same will to protect it.”
From his experiences as a snowboarder and training as a scientist Schaer understands better than most what is at stake and the solutions required to make a difference. The science is clear.
“We have a good idea of what the future will be regarding which IPCC scenario we take.”
Missing the Paris target is going to be catastrophic, things will only get worse and worse.
We have already had a taste of what is to come – the wildfires, this year in Australia, last year in California and Siberia, more tropical cyclones, more extreme events that have a big cost on infrastructures and on life.
If we don’t take action now the impact of climate change on winter sports will be the death of the industry. Fifty years from now the skiing industry, as we know it, is not going to be viable. It’ll just be a few resorts, a few rich people skiing on man made snow. Schaer is sad at the thought that he might not be able to teach his own children how to snowboard, about the uncertainty of sharing with them what is so important to him.
And so, together with his friends, Picture, Almo, POW and Jones, Schaer turned his passion and conviction into Shelter. He hopes the film will play a part in heightening consciousness and inspiring change – not just within the world of winter sports, but universally.
“If I can just turn on a light inside of people and push them to think about what they care about in their life, whether it’s a job or a passion, their home or their lifestyle, and to then question this in regard to what has to be done to fight climate change – that is my best wish. This problem is not going to be solved by just some people – we need everyone involved. And I just want to do my part to help.”
I end the interview by asking Schaer what his three most treasured memories are from his life as a snowboarder thus far. It’s a struggle. After some soul searching he comes up with his first backflip – “It was such a big achievement – my brother, my best friend and me, we all did it the same day. We were so happy.” Then jumping that crevasse gap in Shelter, which was such an intense and incredible day, rounded out with a three hour hike to 3000 metres where after a long and tiring day he was rewarded by the “the best dinner of my life.” And finally riding that couloir in the Dents du Midi with his friends.
It’s eight degrees and raining in Champéry where Schaer is headed. I think of the little kid playing in the snow outside at Christmas time and the young man wondering if winter will be around long enough to share his love of the snowy Alps with his own children…
I hope there is a future of adventure, discovery, fun and friendship in snowy mountains and on ancient glaciers for all of us and those yet to come. #winterneedsus
Shelter, by Picture Organic Clothing and Almo Films, is available now on YouTube at and will be showing at the following UK and Swiss locations:
March 1st: Jones weekend in partnership with Neige Adventure, Haute Nendaz, Switzerland
March 20th: Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, Sheffield, UK
Thanks to Kate MacLeod a POW UK volunteer for her in-depth interview. You can read more here. Original article edited for POW UK by Róisín Moriarty.