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After my last blog on the Stupidest Thing I've Ever Seen I thought it would be nice to balance things with a look at the most incredible riding I’ve been lucky enough to witness during my twenty years in the industry. Please don’t mistake this as my opinion on the best things that have ever happened in snowboarding. Far from it, these are purely the most impressive feats of board control and judgement I have witnessed in the flesh and in snowboarding, because so much riding happens in front of no one, it is an important distinction.
All the acts you’re about to read about, have happened in front of less than fifty pairs of eyes and in most cases less than ten. But as the comments for Gumby’s big air proved everyone has a Gumby story and I imagine most of you have one of these, a moment of sublime genius that falls perfectly into place in the snowboarding universe. The digital age has allowed us to better document each others exploits, but there is still no substitute for the joy of a drunk game of "my mate's a better rider than yours". Pub banter is still one of snowboarding’s most rewarding experiences.
There is still no substitute for the joy of a drunk game of "my mate's a better rider than yours".
So before you settle in for this read may I suggest that you go and buy a slab of 33 Export/Steigl/PBR, shoe polish the lower half of your face for that authentic goggle tan look whilst casually letting the drunk eye wander over anyone nearby (that aren’t your parents) imagining they are wanton chalet girls/boys. And then once you’ve scoffed at my tales you can use the comments below as a kind of digital heckling/"that’s nothing" tool.
Finally before we start I want to say that all these moments have stuck with me for the same reason. All of them were spontaneous moments, perfect moments where the subjects were lost in riding, not show boating or contriving a situation, just reacting naturally to what circumstance had thrown at them. To me that is what made them so memorable.
[part title="David Vincent - 1995"]
If you’ve never heard of David Vincent then it is highly unlikely that you will find anything on the internet that will adequately sum him up. So I will try. Imagine taking an international standard gymnast and giving him magic mushrooms for a couple of years and then letting him loose on a snowboard.
David Vincent was Europe’s equivalent of Jamie Lynn, beautiful frontside spins, explosive pop crazy and his mushroom infested A Snowboard graphics made him one of snowboardings beautiful enigmas. Living below the tiny French resort of Sainte Foy in a hut called La Limace (translation: The Slug) he could be spotted floating around the Haute Savoie riding to a completely different beat. One day in early spring I was down in St Foy and a French friend pointed out Le Tit, the biggest natural kicker spot on the hill.
I was stunned. In less than thirty seconds David Vincent had destroyed everything that I thought I knew about snowboarding.
I saw David launch a massive frontside 7 Lien, grabbed and styled from take off to touch down. And the landing was no deck chair, lay back affair (which was completely acceptable back then) instead David rode away clean, threw up a couple of turns and then dropped into a gulley next to us. Finding a natural backside hip he launched into what I thought was a McTwist but somehow he stalled the rotation in mid air, almost like Mueller does with his Japan/Chicken wing mcTwists but then seemed somehow to reverse the rotation of the spin and finished the air like a frontside rodeo.
I was stunned. In less than thirty seconds David Vincent had destroyed everything that I thought I knew about snowboarding. He showed me that amazing riding didn’t happen somewhere else to other people, it could happen right here in front of you and somehow seeing it in the flesh, not on a video made me realize just how insanely good he was and how hard that trick was. I was riding the same snow on the same day and there were no excuses. And so accompanying the elation was the sinking feeling of just how shit I really was at snowboarding.
My friend Thomas told me that David called the trick the Milkshake, I have never seen it anywhere since, all I know is that it was the blueprint for the frontside Rodeo, a trick that David invented and over the next couple of years made his own.
[part title="Terje Haakonsen - 2001"]
How could there not be Terje moment in here? Actually there are two, but who cares? Come on this is Terje he’s earned them.
This first one is the aftermath of the eight-metre air to fakie he pulled at the Arctic Challenge in 2001, the year Heikki Sorsa smashed Ingemar Backman’s quarterpipe world record. The quarter pipe itself was a perfectly sculpted ten-meter leviathan and the run in was a 120-meter ski jump landing. At the time it was the most incredible feat of structural snow engineering anyone had seen.
It was midway through the first proper jam session on the quarter when it happened, after a couple of days practice people were starting to get comfortable and Terje was starting to stretch his legs. The Cat had tucked down the warp speed run in and then floated off the lip. Everything was running smoothly up to the apex of that legendary crossbone poke and then, as the free fall back to the transition began, it became apparent that Terje was in dire trouble.
As the free fall back to the transition began, it became apparent that Terje was in dire trouble.
He later explained he had drifted out over the platform, though how Terje managed to force the board through a backside air with no rotational momentum was what left jaws sagging. But he'd managed it and as he hit the lip of the quarter on the way back down, he was facing the transition. This didn’t change the fact that he had just fallen nearly eight meters onto a razor sharp ice lip, but it did mean that Terje could anticipate the impact, which he did perfectly.
He caught the lip right between the bindings, absorbed as much of the impact's energy as he could and then threw his head down into the transition so he wouldn’t get launched out onto the flat by the inevitable rebound. What this did though was initiate a front flip and Terje amazed even himself when he stomped this survival flip four meters down the transition and rode away unscathed with his head in his hands in disbelief. It was a rare moment where Terje’s ridiculous talent surprised even himself…
[part title="Terje Haakonsen - 2000"]
The second Terje tale is less an account of excellence and more of a yardstick by which you can measure just how good Terje was in his prime. The second Arctic Challenge held on the island of Lofoten in 2000 had refined the format for a world class invitational event to a tee. The contest site was nothing more than a village ski hill, but for a month it had been sculpted into a precious work of frozen art worthy of the Louvre. One massive and immaculate tombstone hip had been added to the top of the superpipe and it demanded that rather than slip into the pipe with a turbo charged pump riders would announce their arrival by soaring in like eagles.
This was the year before the TTR was created, so the invite list was made up of twenty-four riders that Terje considered to be at the top of their game. Even so, you don’t just build a huge hip at the top of a pipe the likes of which had never been seen before without giving everyone a decent amount of practice time.
When he reappeared Terje was easily ten feet up and still climbing.
I was the press officer for the event so my only role for the day was to sit and watch - memorize if you like - everything that went down. That first day's practice is seared into my brain. I watched Bjorn Leines, Keir Dillon, Roman De Marchi, David Benedek, Michi Albin, Ingemar Backman, Gian Simmen, essentially the worlds transition masters at that time slowly trying to figure out the lines and speed for the hips. Airs started at two feet and over the course of a couple of hours made their way up into the five to six foot range.
It’s important to remember though, that unlike a normal hip these guys were having to land into a six-metre pipe transition, so there is no margin for error. If you drift out too far away from the lip of the pipe then you are burning the sweet spot of the landing and you are going to drop at best two meters down into the pipe and land with a thud. If you under estimate it you are going to land flat on the platform like an anvil, and if you’re really unlucky go on to bounce into the pipe.
After mixed success everyone broke for a lunch of whale burgers (seriously) and then got stuck in again. By two o’clock Ingemar and a handful of others were starting to knock on the door of the nine foot barrier, but by that point it had already cost Marius Sommer his collar bone.
Then Terje arrived and as always everyone pretended not to notice, but despite themselves stopped and stared. Rumour had it the big man had spent less than twenty days on the hill that winter and no one had seen him in the pipe so by the time he strapped in every eye on the hill was trained on Terje. He dropped and straight lined it for the hip. Perched on the platform I watched his unmistakable style, head tilted and right arm cocked ready to launch, all the while picking up speed. Then he disappeared behind the tombstone.
When he reappeared Terje was easily ten feet up and still climbing. The master arced a method over our heads and then neatly gathered it up, and it was at this moment he blew me away. He landed perfectly. His board met the transition perfectly at the lip of the pipe in a vertical position. Except for the crisp sound of an edge slicing through snow his entry into the pipe didn’t make sound.
When you have spent five hours watching the worlds best trying to find their feet - only to watch someone do it perfectly first time and half as big again - you know you have witnessed greatness. I ran over to the lip to see Terje’s line into the pipe for myself. It was perfect, I could have marvelled at that line for hours, but I was lifted from my reverie by Bjorn Leines shouting "get out of the way you fucking kook!"
[part title="Johan Olofsson - 2000"]
If I had to pick a favourite of all these moments then I suspect it would be this one. It was during a two day interview with Johan in Whistler for Whitelines. The weather was terrible and everyone had a touch of cabin fever, so one afternoon the whole crew of riders and friends that Johan was living with hit the hill.
To set the scene, Johan had "done a Tom Penny". He'd laid down a couple of mind blowing video parts in '96 and '97 and then all but disappeared. During the interview it became clear that injuries and creative differences were getting in the way of what should have been a glittering career. It was sad and I was struggling to find a good angle with the interview. Then we went snowboarding.
It had been raining and the snow was sloppy but somehow Johan was creating speed where there was none. Obviously he knew the hill well and he belted off down the piste and pretty soon he was a speck in the distance. Arriving late at the bottom of the chair I made a vow to keep up on the next run.
As we set off I tucked up and tried to slipstream Johan, only rising to pump and drain speed from every feature, all the while watching him. His board control was insane. As a Scanner who had once been junior halfpipe world champ, I knew his edge control was going to be good, but watching the precision with which he wielded his board was like watching a surgeon with a scalpel. I was mesmerized. And then it happened. Coming to a wide lip in the trail that appeared to roll away steeply Johan launched up and out into a huge frontside 180.
I threw on the anchors, unwilling to blindly follow a man who had proved numerous times in Alaska his total lack of a self-preservation gene.
Without thinking I threw on the anchors, unwilling to blindly follow a man who had proved numerous times in Alaska his total lack of a self-preservation gene. As I bounced on my heel edge up to the lip I watched Johan sailing into the middle of a vast and steep mogul field. It was the stuff nightmares are made of. But Johan wasn’t freaking, instead he was floating switch into his landing, which he found perfectly, almost magnetically, on the back of a mogul. It was an insanely small target - like throwing a dart at a stamp. But not only did Johan find the landing, somehow he controlled the almost instantaneous transition between the two moguls, using them to pump and wind up simultaneously so that as he took off a split second later he unwound into a cab five.
By the time Johan had landed the cab five he was clear of the mogul field, my interview had written itself and I had realized that great snowboarders are born and not made.
[part title="Gigi Rüf - 2012"]
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.