There are some spectator seats in sports that just aren’t for sale. Getting barrel spit all over your face because you’re sitting in the camera boat in front of heaving 12-foot Teahupoo slabs while Bruce Irons gives a lesson in back hand tube riding is one. Or watching from the touch line as Liverpool fight their way back from 3-0 down to end up winning the Champions League final on penalties, and then getting into the changing rooms to celebrate with the team after the match. These are truly “money can’t buy” experiences.
I have two friends, both cameramen, who own the above stories and until last year I have to be honest, I was extremely jealous of both of them. Don’t get me wrong I make each of them tell the stories in the pub because they are so good and because I can live them vicariously over and over. But what has changed for me now is that, in my own mind at least, I have a moment that can match those for privilege and occasion.
In late spring of 2012 I went up to Alaska to film some features for Ski Sunday – a Travis Rice interview, a Tom Burt feature and a fly on the wall film with Absinthe Films. Both the Travis and Tom features were relatively straight forward, but the Absinthe film was up in the air until the last minute.
Film crews are never keen on wasting time or money on bad conditions, so gambling on snow and weather windows is not something they enjoy. Being followed around day and night by two dead weights of a doco crew is even less appealing. But Justin Hostynek at Absinthe decided to let us tag along for some reason and despite the obvious burden of extra bodies to worry about, the four days we spent with the crew gave me a fresh perspective on snowboarding.
As it transpired we only got a half a day on the hill with Justin, Andy Wright the photographer, Blair Habernicht (the freeriding equivalent of a heat seeking missile) and the Austrian snowboarding illusionist Gigi Rüf. Conditions were marginal but powder was out there, you just had to know where to look. As the spring equinox approached the Alaskan sun had been climbing higher and higher, which meant conditions were changing very quickly. Despite a decent dump, the snow was starting to rot on exposed faces so the crew were targeting steep north facing slopes that would still be holding good quality powder.
We arrived at Six Pack before nine, the light was perfect and everyone started to get busy. Six Pack is a peak with, ironically three distinct chutes but its most defining feature is the consistent fifty-degree pitch down a face that stretches out for three hundred metres. At the bottom of the slope waiting to swallow anyone who has the audacity to fall is a bergschrund the size of an ogre’s under bite. In short this is a short but really critical peak that has to be given a healthy amount of respect.
With no room for error, he would be landing to set his line for what looked like a solid 30foot cliff drop. Gigi was calling a method and by this stage I was nearly wetting my pants with excitement.
I sat down almost trembling with excitement at the prospect of getting to watch Gigi Rüf, a man with (in my opinion) something approaching super powers on a snowboard, tackle this mountain.
As he talked through the set-up, I knew the spectacle wouldn’t disappoint. The first line Gigi was attacking would see him enter the face under a cornice before he set up on his heel edge for a transfer over a chute with a Frontside three. Then with no room for error, he would be landing to set his line for what looked like a solid 30foot cliff drop. Gigi was calling a method for the cliff, and by this stage I was nearly wetting my pants with excitement.
The entry was steeper than Gigi expected and he wasn’t able to hold as much edge as he wanted on the take off of the frontside three. As a consequence he drifted down the falline and while he cleared the chute he sketched the landing and lost a lot of vertical. Instead of letting the cliff go, tenacity got the better of Gigi and on a split second decision he dug in his toe edge and committed to it. Now though, instead of following the fall line down over the cliff he was cutting across the face towards a spine that was leading into the cliff turning it into a massive natural kicker.
It was clear even from where I was sat almost half a kilometre away at the bottom of the hill that instead of dropping Gigi had popped up and out off the cliff. At this point I think most people would have been reaching for the ripcord, but not Gigi. Instead he got a hold of his heel edge and farmed out a huge method that he held for as long as he dared… and then he dropped like a stone. On the day I called 60 feet, but I’m willing to give ten feet to the excitement of the moment. Still he stomped a solid fifty-foot cliff, and then less than a second later managed to pop an ollie high enough to carry him over the gaping Bergschrund.
Afterwards, Gigi explained to me that very few lines down mountains this steep go to plan, and that what makes a great freerider in this environment is someone who can improvise with the hand that the mountain deals them. It was a wonderful insight into what I had just witnessed and while Gigi himself was disappointed I was in awe of the line he had just improvised.
The line never made Gigi’s part in Resonance. He obviously didn’t deem it worthy, but for me it was an inspiration. It illustrated perfectly 1) just how committed you have to be to ride big lines in Alaska and 2) how much is at stake that will never translate on screen. I have devoted most of my snowboarding life to freeriding and yet seeing this level of riding in the flesh made me rethink everything. I have since gone back and re-watched all of my favourite Alaska sections with fresh eyes, just to give all of those riders the credit they deserve for their lines.
One final thing – and this is a suggestion for the pros and filmers out there. In an area of the industry that is struggling to find viable revenue streams, maybe selling front row seats for big Alaskan line days could be a great little earner… at the very least it may cover the heli budget. And I for one would happily pay to watch that all day.