With the news that Sascha Hamm has come out of professional snowboarding retirement to compete in the 2014 Freeride World Tour, we thought we'd re-publish this October 2010 interview with him. This is taken from Roots in Whitelines Issue 91.
Snowboarding attracts some interesting characters, and there are few more interesting than the charismatic Sascha Herman Hamm.
With such a teutonic name, it’s surprising to find that though he learned to ride in his native Austria, Sascha actually came up through the British snowboarding scene. “My Dad’s got a Croatian passport and my Mum’s Italian but I was born in Austria," he told us in an interview back in 1999. But the family moved to London, and Sascha rode the dendex dryslope of Hillingdon, graduating to a season in Avoriaz with old time UK pros Rhys Crabtree and Mark Kent.
“That first season was really good fun," says Sascha, skyping me from a skydiving holiday in Spain. “Five guys who didn’t really know each other all in a 22-square metre apartment. Wow. I saw Rhys recently and he made out that I was a right bully at the time, though I don’t remember it that way. I did shoot Kenty with a BB gun through the keyhole when he was taking a shower though. That I do remember."
It was during this season that Whitelines photographer Nick Hamilton photographed the crew, documenting their cliff-drops and freeriding. Nearly 15 years later the shots still look impressive. Nick noted that this lisping Austrian was their ringleader. “He’s always first off things because he doesn’t want to land in anyone else’s bomb holes," said Nick at the time. “And he’s highly competitive in everything he does other than snowboarding."
You have to drop in from the top, land the cliff and then straight-line it as there’s sluff coming straight away, and then turn at the end before the trees. I was screaming the first time I did that.
Ah yes, the anti-competition thing. Back in the mid 90s, there was a lot of chat about whether the sport should shun the contest scene altogether; Sascha and the Avoriaz crew were firm advocates. “I’m on the mountain, I’m trying to progress," said Sascha back in ‘99. “I probably get more coverage than competition riders by going out with Nick, and we have more of a laugh than if we were stressing at a comp or whatever, so it works for me." Throughout Sascha’s short but stellar career, this ‘keeping it real’ outlook never wavered.
In our recent poll of the 20 Most Influential British Riders [Whitelines 83 – Ed] fellow ex-pro and contest organiser Spencer Claridge argued that “had Sascha been driven by media exposure or career climbing, I truly feel that he would have taken the top spot." As it was, he placed number 16, though keener eyes might wonder how an Austrian rider could place in a British poll? “I won the Brits in 2000!" laughs Sascha now - still the only foreign-born rider to have been allowed to take the title. “Though I prefer to think of the memories I have of riding than any titles."
It wouldn’t surprise those who know him. Though talented beyond virtually all of his peers, Sascha never courted the professional scene. “But I did want to get some good shots, and I wanted to be in magazines so I could make people go ‘wow!’" he admits. Intrigued, I wonder which photo burns brightest in his mind’s eye? “The couloir I straight-lined in Les Arcs," he replies without hesitating, “I think it’s called Comboursiere or something. You have to drop in from the top, land the cliff and then straight-line it as there’s sluff coming straight away, and then turn at the end before the trees. I was screaming the first time I did that."
Speed being a constant, Sascha left snowboarding soon after to fulfill a different dream. “I always wanted to be a formula one driver, so I took my money from snowboarding and went to Silverstone Racing School." After acing his class and winning the graduation race, a test drive with Yorkshire-based Formula Ford team JLR followed, their press release describing Sascha as “a very determined and successful young man from snowboarding, absolutely hell bent on making it in motorsport."
Though he trained and beat a 4-times British racing champion - and raced in the same series that Jenson Button had won two years prior - a lack of cash hampered his career trajectory. “I wanted to snowboard in the winter and race in the summer," says Sascha, “but a season racing cost £100,000 so I needed to spend all winter looking for sponsorship." Sascha lasted three years on the circuits. “I won a couple of races, got loads of seconds and by the end, the series owner sponsored me so I only had to pay petrol and entry fees - about £200 a race." But the financial aspect of the sport was still crippling him. “For every crash I had, I’d have to pay for the car and the excess insurance, and the training days cost about £2,000 a day." It proved too costly to keep racing. “I racked up debts on credit cards, banks and then quit."
Today, Sascha is philosophical about the experience. “It’s important to know when to stop. The worst thing is to keep going for something that’s not going to happen. I could have gone down a path that I couldn’t recover from." As it was, he left the tracks with a tonne of experience and £150k in debts. “It taught me loads," he laughs now. “How to deal with debt, how to work under pressure and of course, how to drive fast!"
The racing dream ended in 2003, and soon after Sascha saw a Foxtons estate agent advert in a London window. “It had a skydiver on it and I thought that was cool," he says now, rolling his eyes. “So I became an estate agent, though they fired me after four weeks." During that one month though, Sasha met Julian, who remains his business partner today.
Together they went to another company before setting up their own property agency. “We worked for a guy who had off-plan projects in Spain, and we basically ran his company for him. We made a lot of mistakes and it was a great learning curve but it was his money," laughs Sascha. “We would have stayed but he didn’t pay our commissions, so we sued him, and with the out-of-court settlement we set up Real World International in 2004, selling off-plan property around the world."
Throughout the boom years, he maintains that he still went riding as often as possible. “I never left really," he says. “Every year I went away for one week, two weeks, three weeks. I've got a friend in Italy – Robert; we were always going freeriding, mainly lines and cliffs." In 2008 he was caught in an avalanche and survived an incredible two hours beneath the snow but undeterred he spent the whole of last winter in Chamonix, France.
“Our accountant suggested we become non residents. So we sacked our staff and I went to the Alps." I can hear from the excitement in his voice that he had an absolute blast, and as always, got far more than his fair share of powder. “What do you mean? He giggles. “It’s all my powder. Actually, I rode lots with James Stentiford, and only managed to call out the rescue helicopter twice… Ok, twice in the last two days of the season, but what can you do?"
They say that the harder you work the luckier you become. Well, if that’s true then Sascha Hamm is one of the hardest working people you could ever hope to come across. As I sign off our skype chat, he’s still giggling like a teenager, talking about the skydiving jumps he’ll be doing in the next few days and the water park he’s going to that afternoon. I close the program and sit back, smiling. Nope, Sascha is the exception to the rule. He’s just annoyingly lucky; and still one of the best Austrian riders that Britain has ever produced.