From Whitelines Issue 87 - December 2009
It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill
- Wilbur Wright, Aviation Pioneer
History is made up of people, deeds and places. An endless stream of names and dates which some folk (usually teachers in tweed jackets with elbow patches) get a hard on for, and others (such as the kid chewing gum in Ferris Bueller’s classroom) find boring as hell.
It’s all in the subject matter though isn’t it? Take sporting history. Way cooler. Roger Bannister collapsing after completing the first four minute mile (“Doctors and scientists said that breaking four-minutes was impossible," he recalls, “that one would die in the attempt. Thus, when I got up from the track, I figured I was dead."); Mohammed Ali vs George Foreman and the famous Rumble in the Jungle; or Usain Bolt crossing the Beijing finishing line at a canter having smashed the 100m record.
Moments like these live on because they show the rest of us mere mortals what’s possible. Surfers have appreciated this fact for ages, which is why they celebrate the old legends and make films like Riding Giants which are all about their pioneering exploits on do-or-die walls of water. Names like Waimea, Pipeline and Teahupoo echo through the surfing community, such is the power of these waves and the reputation of the men who first paddled out to tame them.
When it comes to marking our own historical sites, snowboarding is a little different. Certain kicker spots, like a great wave, remain fixed on the map as holy places – monuments to past feats and a rite of passage for the next generation of elite riders. Other important jumps were sculpted as one-offs – weather conditions, riders and manpower coming together for a short window before melting back into the landscape. Whatever the kind, snowboarding history is punctuated by a handful of special transitions which provided the stage for intense trick and/or amplitude progression. And the images these sessions left behind have captured the imagination of you and me. The following is a list of a few of these legendary kickers. As a topic to swat up on, it beats the Battle of Hastings doesn’t it?
The Baker Gap
Snowboarding Ground Zero
As the two lanes of tarmac unfold corner by corner, the infamous take-off suddenly appears at the top of a rock outcrop. To the first-timer, it seems ludicrously high.
Arguably the most iconic and photographed kicker spot in the world, the Baker road gap also happens to be located in snowboarding holy land. Mt Baker, a remote resort in the Cascade mountains of the Pacific Northwest, was one of the first in the US to allow snowboarders onto its lifts, and has attracted a hardcore crowd ever since. It boasts some of the steepest, gnarliest terrain on the continent, giant evergreen forests and incredible snowfall – including a world record 29m in 1998/99. Best of all, strict park laws and a down-to-earth management team mean it has retained its undeveloped charm.
The Gap itself is located on the road that runs between Baker’s main lodge and the upper lodge. As the two lanes of tarmac unfold corner by corner, the infamous take-off suddenly appears at the top of a rock outcrop. To the first-timer, it seems ludicrously high. Things often appear smaller in real life than TV; the Baker gap does not! From lip to road, it averages out at around 40 ft, though the Gap increases in size with each new snowfall (during the record-breaking winter of ’99 it topped out at a whopping 60ft). The landing, on the far side of the snow bank, benefits from road clearing machines which carve out the wall and chuck fresh snow over the edge.
First to take on the Gap was Baker local and all-round hell man Shawn Farmer, during filming for the first of Standard’s TB movies, Totally Board, in 1990. It was springtime, and in classic Farmer fashion he braved the deep snow topless, making his historic method air even more memorable. “By today’s standards the jump [they’d built] was really small – just a little pile of snow," recalls filmer Mike Hatchet. “Shawn jumped it once, then took his shirt off and jumped it again. That same day, another rider named Jeff Toluch aired it as well."
Thanks to Baker’s quasi-mythical reputation, and the enduring attraction of the Legendary Banked Slalom event, the Gap has since been sessioned by a who’s who of snowboarding, from Devun Walsh to Josh Dirksen to Iikka Backstrom. For local riders, the Gap is a rite of passage that will earn you the respect of your peers, while for visiting pros it is a spot to tick off ‘classic jumps to hit before I die’ the list. Pretty much every trick you can imagine has been thrown down over the yawning chasm, including 720s and underflips. Perhaps the gnarliest crossing, though, was that of soul surfer Mike Basich, who did a straight air in the middle of the night, lit only by the headlights of his camper van, a couple of flashes and a headlamp. He even took the photograph himself – using a remote hand-held shutter.
The Baker Road Gap is usually tackled early to mid season, when the Washington snowstorms are at their most frequent. The takeoff isn’t too much of a build, and the foundations are usually in place from whoever built it first that winter. During Whitelines’ last trip to Baker in 2008, the kicker was there but conditions on the landing weren’t right for a fresh assault – meaning James Stentiford remains as one of the first British riders to have taken it on, during a Quiksilver team trip.
“The run-in is pretty long – maybe 50m – but it’s changed a bit since I did it. I think they’ve cut away a few of the trees," explains Stentiford. “Back then you literally had to dodge through trees to get to the take-off, it was quite hairy. The last bit is quite flat, so you’ve gotta make sure that you’ve got a lot of momentum – you’re pumping along going, ‘Oh god I hope I’ve got enough speed!’ You can see the lip, then you just pop out of the trees and find yourself over the road. The landing is actually perfect. Although it’s quite a big drop and a short landing, if you catch the sweet spot you don’t even have to bends your knees."
How did he feel afterwards?
“I was just happy to be in one piece. I was one of the old freeriders on that trip, and I probably wouldn’t have done it if Gumby and Tommy Brunner hadn’t done it! I was glad I did though."
The Air & Style Kicker
From Innsbruck to Munich… And back again
Without doubt the most progressive competition jump in the history of snowboarding.
By the early 1990s, ‘Big Air’ events had become the most popular format at contests. It’s not hard to see the appeal – a dozen or so riders hurl themselves off a giant jump at impossible angles for the entertainment of a baying crowd, and occasionally smash themselves in the process. While the skill of most of the competitors is unquestionable, there will always be one maverick who is two sandwiches short of a picnic, and who’s do-or-die approach (usually involving going bigger than everyone else, and upside down) makes him a firm crowd favourite. This is pure, adrenaline-fuelled excitement – way cooler than skiing ever looked – and when it burst onto the scene in snowboarding’s boom years it seemed made for TV.
In 1993, a little-known Austrian energy drink company called Red Bull agreed to sponsor a new big air competition in the mountain town of Innsbruck. The so-called ‘Red Bull’s Flying High Air & Style Contest’ would be held at the Bergisel Stadium – a cauldron-like ski jumping arena set on a hillside overlooking the city. 17 of the world’s best freestyle riders were invited to compete, and to the organisers’ surprise several thousand turned up to cheer them on. For the record, the inaugural event was won by Swiss big cheese Reto Lamm, who just pipped American superstar Shaun Palmer.
Over the next few years, the Air & Style grew and grew, becoming Europe’s (and probably the world’s) most prestigious Big Air competition. It was, essentially, a forerunner to the X-Games, attracting the snowboarding elite and an audience numbering in the tens of thousands – not to mention millions more on TV. Headline sponsors came and went – Quiksilver, G-shock – but the progressive riding over the main kicker was a constant. There was Ingemar’s super smooth and styled spins that claimed victory twice (1994/1998), Terje Haakonsen’s cat-like stomps in ’95, and Jim Rippey’s signature ‘Rippey Flips’ that saw him beat Jamie Lynn in 1997.
Then, in 1999, tragedy struck when everyone piled towards the exits at the end of the show and six people were killed in the ensuing crush. It was a reality check for an event that had snowballed in scale, perhaps beyond the limits of its organizers at the time and the intimate venue. For the next five years the Air & Style was forced to take place in Seefeld instead (where local hero Stefan Gimpl completed his remarkable three-in-a-row) before moving to a third venue in Munich’s Olympic Stadium – former home to Bayern Munich FC. It was bigger, safer and suitably impressive – though a little lacking in atmosphere. The kicker itself, however, remained a platform for mind-blowing riding. It was here that Kevin Pearce pulled a flawless cab 1260 to beat Mikkel Bang, David Benedek attempted the first double corks in competition, and Travis Rice pulled off a double backflip late backside 180 – on a snapped board! – to claim the win in 2006. It was the stuff of legends.
Meanwhile, back in Innsbruck, Billabong introduced a second version of the Air & Style – a quarterpipe event – in 2008. It was an exciting return to the Bergisel stadium, and with the lessons of 1999 learned, it went off without a hitch. So… when Nokia pulled out of the Munich event last year, Billabong wasted no time switching their Innsbruck QP contest to a crowd-pleasing big air format. In short, the Air & Style kicker – without doubt the most progressive competition jump in the history of snowboarding – returns to its rightful home this very month. Long may it remain.
The Riksgransen Quarterpipe
The most famous air of all time?
Ingemar’s flight over Riksgransen completely revised the boundaries of what was possible on a snowboard.
It’s the spring of 1996, and a small crew of snowboarders are enjoying an impromptu quarterpipe session in the far north of Sweden, in a resort called Riksgransen. As the tinny sound system pumps out the chorus of ‘Lump’ by the Presidents of the USA, a 20 year old Swedish rider called Ingemar Backman drops into the patchy run-in, casually tailslides an exposed rock and comes hurtling through the compression in a low crouch. He then launches out of the lip into a perfect method grab some 25ft above the coping - seeming to hang for an eternity as the crowd sighs in disbelief - before clipping the flat-top on the way back into the ramp and riding out with his hands on his head – stunned by his own achievement.
Ingemar’s flight over Riksgransen was the highest ‘re-entry’ air ever performed to date, completely revising the boundaries of what was possible on a snowboard. Within months the iconic image of his feat was splashed on the cover of snowboard magazines across the globe, as well as featuring in both the Mack Dawg and Standard movies, sending Ingemar’s reputation into the stratosphere. “That jump changed everything," says Ingemar now. “It was a big step. People who were riding back then sometimes know me from my movie parts, but mostly it’s the backside air."
What makes this jump even more remarkable is the actual size of the transition. Unlike the Baker Gap, for instance – which looks as impressive in real life as it does on film - the famous Riksgransen ‘quarterpipe’ is really just a forgettable little snow bank not far from the piste. Sure, a handful of riders have gone bigger since (Terje Haakonsen and Heikki Sorsa at the Arctic Challenge, Mads Jonsson in Hemsedal) but these were all over massive, perfectly sculpted transitions; Ingemar squeezed an impossible amount of airtime from a rutted and slushy hit that had been knocked together with shovels in a matter of hours. Without doubt it was a moment that changed the course of snowboarding – and you have to wonder if it could even be topped today.
'Perfect Jump’ makes this list because it was a marriage between the most progressive powder booter yet seen and the most progressive snowboard team ever assembled
If you grew up riding in the late 90s, chances are you will have fond memories of the Forum movies The Resistance and True Life, which featured the original ‘Forum 8’ – a team of the world’s best freestyle riders hand-picked by the brand’s founder Peter Line. There was Devun Walsh’s legendary part in The Resistance, filmed in just six days, or Jeremy Jones’ corked spins over giant cornices. Much of the footage seemed to be filmed in Whistler’s powder-laden backcountry, and it was here that the crew showcased perhaps the most impressive kicker-spot yet discovered – the so-called ‘Perfect Jump.’
“I didn’t christen it myself," reveals Devun Walsh. “I believe it was Kale Stephens, Trevor Andrew and maybe Chris Brown. They found that spot while filming for one of the early Mack Dawg films. We saw the footage and could not believe it! I went nuts and couldn't wait to hit it myself. Well, let me tell you, when I first arrived there it wasn't what I had pictured. I had in mind this absolutely perfect run-in with a beautiful kicker, lots of air, the smoothest knuckle and the longest, sweetest landing. Ahhhh! So good! Well, almost every aspect of it is true, except for the near vertical run-in and the giant dip just before the take-off, which has caused some serious bails in the past. I’ve built it a few times (it takes a good half day) and it is really important to try and keep the G-force of the compression to a minimum in order to be able to do tricks with control. This means you have to make it a little less poppy, but it tosses you so good anyways it still works great. It’s one of the best hands-down floater jumps I’ve ever hit. "
‘Perfect Jump’ makes this list because it was a marriage between the most progressive powder booter yet seen and the most progressive snowboard team ever assembled. Footage of various Forum riders hitting the giant kicker can be seen in several Mack Dawg films, though perhaps the stand-out trick over it was thrown by Chris Dufficy, who opens his come-back section in True Life with an absolutely giant cab 9 (made even more memorable by the Souls of Mischief soundtrack).
“It is located in an area which is now closed off to sledding so it is really difficult - not to mention illegal - to hit," says Walsh. “You will see less and less of it because of this. For those few who risk it.. it is totally worth it!"
The Halifax Snowflex Jump
Putting dryslope on the map
The Halifax jump kick-started a new golden era in dryslope riding
It might seem perverse to stick a modest plastic cheese wedge in a list of monumental jumps such as this - and maybe it is - but to British riders there can be no denying the influence of Halifax’s sole kicker.
To understand its inclusion, we need to put the slope into the context of dryslope history. Artificial slopes have been a feature of the UK landscape since a Welsh wartime brush manufacturer – inspired by an old cartoon strip in which two boys skid across a kitchen floor with brushes tied to their feet – invented the first viable ski surface. The new diamond shaped matting was named ‘Dendix’ after the company’s founder, Dennis Dixon. First installed in a disused cinema in London in 1961, Dendix gained a reputation for inflicting painful scars on those unfortunate enough to fall on it – including many a broken thumb from catching your hands in the gaps. Despite this limitation, pioneering UK snowboarders such as Danny Wheeler and Steve Bailey landed some impressive spins over dendix kickers.
In 1996, however, another UK firm called Briton Engineering invented an alternative plastic ski surface, ‘Snowflex’, that was softer and better suited to jumps. While a doff of the cap must go to Sheffield Ski Village for being the first slope to apply the new material to a kicker, it was the Halifax jump that really kick-started a new golden era in dryslope riding. Thanks to its steep, soft landing and smooth transition, a new world of tricks was open to our snow-starved brethren, and today 900s, 1080s and even double backflips have all been thrown down over the green hills of West Yorkshire.
Halifax dryslope is the cradle of some of the UK’s finest talent, including Andy Nudds, Colum Mytton and Jamie Nicholls. It is also the only carpet to have featured in an international snowboard film, having been selected for a part in David Benedek’s documentary-style production In Short. Thanks to the obvious quality of this transition, Briton Engineering secured contracts to build similar Snowflex jumps as far afield as Noeux-Les-Mines in France and, most recently, Liberty University in Virginia – paving the way for dryslope to go global.
The Arctic Challenge Quarterpipe
Terje’s Gift to Snowboarding
As a legendary transition rider, Terje knows a thing or two about shaping walls of snow, and the Arctic Challenge quarter has consistently offered up a platform for next level airtime
No history of snowboarding would be complete without mention of Terje Haakonsen. Having won pretty much everything there is to win in the sport, and then taken the decision to boycott the Olympic Games on the basis of the way it is run, Terje –along with fellow Norwegian Daniel Franck - organized an event of his own. Taking place in the far north of his homeland, it was called The Arctic Challenge, and its sole premise was to be a competition run by snowboarders for snowboarders.
Invitations to the Arctic Challenge were like Golden Tickets to the Willy Wonka factory: rare and special. In fact, so much kudos was attached to receiving an invite that when a new world snowboard tour was launched, winners at local events were presented with a ‘Ticket To Ride’ at Terje’s season-ending contest (despite evolving into a global mega series, the name ‘TTR’ is still attached to the world tour).
The competition’s appeal lay in the chance to ride amongst the very best riders on the planet, in a relaxed, progressive atmosphere, on a park that was shaped to perfection. Although the slopestyle kickers and halfpipe at TAC have always been special, the single obstacle which has made the biggest mark on snowboarding has been the quarterpipe. As a legendary transition rider, Terje knows a thing or two about shaping walls of snow, and the Arctic Challenge quarter has consistently offered up a platform for next level airtime.
First came Heikki Sorsa, an unheralded Finnish kid with a giant mohawk, who in 2001 launched a stylish 9.3m (29 feet) method out of the top. It was a new world record that finally surpassed that of Ingemar Backman in Riksgransen and lit the fuse on Heikki’s career. That same year, Terje sealed his cat-like reputation by landing on the coping, bouncing into an unplanned frontflip and landing perfectly on his feet. Then, at the Oslo event in 2007, this same improvisational talent saw Terje break Heikki’s record with a 9.8m (32 feet) air that was meant as a method but drifted into backside 360 – landing switch! While it wasn’t quite enough to claim Oakley’s Gold Time Bomb watch – a bling timepiece worth £20,000 and offered to any rider who can top 10m – it still stands as the highest ever jump on a snowboard and a fitting reminder of Terje’s singular talent and vision.
Hemsedal Part 1
Absinthe Films Up the Ante
Everyone was given a glass of the local mushroom tea, effectively expanding our minds and the parameters of what was attainable in the next realm
It’s hard to believe now, but Absinthe Films were once a small, underdog outfit. Through knowing a few riders and a sheer passion for filmmaking, Patrick ‘Brusti’ Armbruster and his buddy Justin Hostynek managed to get two low budget movies off the ground which, with their fresh tunes and innovative camerawork, shook up the video market. Their third film, Vivid, sent Absinthe into the major league… and it was largely down to one special park kicker.
At the end of the 2002 season, the crew rolled into an obscure Norwegian resort called Hemsedal. “Part of the mission was to film a commercial for Burton," recalls photographer Scott Sullivan. “And there was an amazing group of riders present: names like Gigi Rüf, Romain DeMarchi, JP Solberg, Tristan Picot, DCP, Terje and Mads Jonsson." With the entire resort at their disposal, Burton’s ambitious team manager Rene Hansen had arranged for two giant jumps to be built – a lofty hip, which would be mostly dominated by Romain DeMarchi (and which ended up on the cover of Vivid) and a straight cheese wedge bigger than any man-made jump seen before. Miles from civilisation, and sleeping in mountain huts, it all made for an intensely focused atmosphere.
“The night we arrived we were all invited to a ceremony of sorts," says Sullivan. “Everyone was given a glass of the local mushroom tea, effectively expanding our minds to the true definition of reality - and the parameters of what was attainable in the next realm."
With the mammoth kicker for a stage, the riders certainly succeeded in breaking new ground during a memorable session that lasted the best part of a week. It was also documented on cinefilm like never before. Thanks to Mads Jonsson’s uncle - a part time helicopter enthusiast – filmer Justin Hostynek was lowered beneath a chopper and flown alongside the riders as they bombed down the massive run-in, pulling up as they launched into thin air. His tracking shots provided some of the most famous snowboarding footage of all time – particularly the climax of Romain DeMarchi’s section (set to Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’) and Tristan Picot’s backside 180s. This 19-year-old French rider floated effortlessly over the 30m plus deck in a perfect marriage of airtime and style. Sadly, it was to be the defining image of his career, as was tragically killed in an avalanche the following season.
“One of the most surreal aspects of the sessions was the local legend named Tommen," recalls Scott Sullivan, “a surreal being full of stories and mysticism. Tommen would sit atop the run-in, shoulder to shoulder with the riders, chiming away upon his magical flute. casting a mystical melody that we later all agreed had cast an enchanted spell of protection over the week. It seemed that maybe the tea we’d drunk at the beginning was still working its magic."
Whether it was down to Tommen, the mushrooms or plain old passion, Absinthe’s visit raised the bar for snowboarding and turned an obscure Scandinavian resort into a freestyle mecca.
The Avoriaz Gap
Europe’s Answer to Mt.Baker
I usually have a hard time sleeping the night before, even if it’s the fifth season I’ve jumped it. – Nico Droz
In autumn 2003, the annual Burton catalogue dropped on shopfloors worldwide, featuring Romain DeMarchi on the cover launching over an enormous cat track gap. The jump was exciting not just because of its epic scale, but because the skiers trundling along on the piste below – and the space station style buildings in the background – clearly placed it in Europe rather than America.
In fact, this Baker-style road gap was located in the French resort of Avoriaz, within Romain’s backyard ski area known as the Portes du Soleil. It had been known to local shredders for some time, but until the Burton catalogue appeared – and Romain’s section in the subsequent Absinthe film Saturation - it had remained largely under wraps.
“We tried it for the first time in 2000 with Tero Ainonen and Romain," reveals Ride pro and Avoriaz local Nico Droz. “Tero went first with a backside air - so sick! Mad respect for Tero for going first! Then Romain and I both hit it with backside 3s."
By 2005, the Avoriaz Gap had attracted the attention of the large British contingent living in nearby Morzine, with Scotland’s Gary Greenshields claiming the honours as the first UK rider to clear it during a solo session with photographer Andrew ‘Ribbo’ Hingston. He returned a month later with filmers Adam Gendle and Tim Warwood, who filmed his backside 3 for the Lockdown movie Bad Ass Big Airs. Since it needed perfect snow conditions to be doable, Gary incurred the wrath of Nico Droz by having the audacity to turn up first on a particularly good powder day.
“Yeah, I had a small run in with Nico but it was all good," says Gary. “He was just super pumped to ride it but we’d already hit it - and it’s his local spot you know? So I can understand how he felt when he saw us there."
In 2006, the Gap was well and truly smashed by a UK crew consisting of Greenshields, Tyler Chorlton and Danny Wheeler, who threw down a variety of tricks including a backside 720, cab underflip and corked 540 – immortalized in Lockdown’s Show Offs and Wheeler’s own flick Skyrocket.
So what’s it like to hit the thing?
“It’s a fun jump - quite big - but nice to ride as long as you get the speed right!" says Gary.
“The run-in is not bad at all," adds Nico Droz. “It’s not too long and pretty straight to the jump. Every time we do it, we shape the kicker the day before so it’s is solid the next morning. It’s always a weird atmosphere during the build - everybody is joking around but at the same time our stomachs feel tight! I usually have a hard time sleeping the night before, even if it’s the fifth season I’ve jumped it - probably because of the high consequences if anything goes wrong on the run-in or take off. And then there’s the skiers on the cat track! We have to make sure they don’t stray too close to the lip of the landing, which takes some serious organization."
If you’re in Avoriaz after a fresh dump and thinking of taking a look, Nico suggests you get your game on:
“Every year new tricks are done on the gap, so these days if you step up to the plate you better have some good trick in mind!"
The DCP Cliff
The Ultimate Step-Down Kicker
Does a cliff drop count as a ‘kicker’? Well, it does when DCP goes and builds a cheese wedge on the top!
Most of the jumps covered in this article are about boosting high out of the lip, or travelling crazy distances. So far, only the Baker and Avoriaz road gaps have featured a raised take-off - using gravity rather than fighting it. That is, until this one.
The cover of the 2003 Kingpin movie Shakedown pictured French-Canadian ripper David Carrier-Porcheron (DCP) launching off an impossibly high cliff. Does a cliff drop count as a ‘kicker’, I hear you ask? Well, it does when DCP goes and builds a cheese wedge on the top! And it most certainly changed what was deemed possible on a snowboard. It wasn’t just the height of the thing, either (though at a solid 80 feet, that is impressive enough). No, what was even more special about the jump was that unlike your average balls-out cliff jumps, DCP was throwing technical spins off it.
The cliff is located in Sonora Pass, Tahoe, and despite the name it wasn’t actually DCP who hit it first.
“Alex Auchu lost ro-sham-bo [scissors-paper-stone] and he had to go first," explains DCP. “He straight aired, kinda nose dove and said ‘I’m done with it.’ So that made it even scarier! It’s just really big, and actually not so steep – plus the snow was a bit wind-blown. But it was quite an adrenaline rush."
After that first attempt, DCP returned with Andreas Wiig and added the gnarly kicker to the take-off. Wiig arguably claimed the cliff for his own with, amongst other tricks, an insane inverted rodeo.
“Every time you have to step it up and do something better," says DCP. “Andreas killed it and shut it down for sure. It’s still crazy to be standing on top of it waiting for the sun to rise."
The Travis and Romain Show
For a long time, it was believed Chad’s Gap could not physically be cleared on a snowboard. The sheer length of the jump requires run-in speeds of over 50mph.
“Who is Chad?" is the obvious question. Well, Chad Zurinskas (to give him his full name) is a Utah chef and keen skier who found himself exploring the back gulleys of Alta, a resort which still bans snowboarders to this day. In a zone called ‘Grizzly Gulch’, Chad came across an abandoned mine featuring two massive tailing piles. He looked at the gap between the hillocks and thought, “That would be a bad-ass jump!" (as you do). Interestingly, the snowboard community gives a slightly different version of events. According to photographer Brent Benson, it was local rider Andy Brewer who first scoped out the location and mentioned it to him and Chad. They, along with French freeskier Candide Thovex and filmmaker Kris Ostness, then headed up to try it.
Either way, it was Chad who guinea-pigged the thing on skis, twice slamming into the far wall. Candide then stepped up to the plate, crashing once before sailing over the gap with a 100 ft mute grab that would send shockwaves through the skiing world. Despite Benson’s preference for the name ‘The Nipple’, the moniker of Chad’s Gap stuck, and it was soon the name on everybody’s lips.
For a long time, it was believed Chad’s Gap could not physically be cleared on a snowboard. The sheer length of the jump requires run-in speeds of over 50mph, which is tough to reach without two planks. Undeterred, two snowboarders arrived in 2004, during filming for the Absinthe film Pop, and with proceeded to crew construct a 14 ft high behemoth. Those snowboarders were Swiss maverick Romain DeMarchi and rising star Travis Rice. What happened next is documented in one of snowboarding’s seminal movie sections: between them Romain and Travis nailed a backside 540, switch backside 540, cab 720, backside rodeo 720 and a backside 180 – each of them 120 foot plus. As Rice’s sponsors at DC declared in a celebratory advertising campaign, Chad’s Gap had been well and truly “shut down".
“The run-in was around 300 metres," remembers Travis, “so we were using a helicopter to get to the top. The build took around three days, and I hit it first. That was part of Romain and I’s agreement: if we built it then I had to hit it first!"
What is less well known is that Travis’s first hit nearly ended in disaster. “As he was strapping in at the top of the run-in, some skiers that had hit it before pointed out to him that they started quite a bit lower than he was about to," recalls photographer Scott Sullivan, “So he went 45 feet lower before he began. Nevertheless, he sailed over and beyond the landing and only managed to catch the very last tiny bit of tranny before the gully bottom. Had he gone another 15 feet he would have hit the uphill wall on the other side of the gully, and there is a good chance that the session would have ended right there. Someone came and measured his first attempt at 205 feet. Maybe speed is not always your friend." This whopercock slam can be seen at the very start of the final movie Pop – overlaid with some inspired golf commentary.
As well as providing a new water mark for progression, explains Sullivan, “this session seemed to inspire a whole different movement as well: mini shred. I think this jump scared the shit out of so many riders, who were possibly worried that they would have to do this on their boards to maintain pro credibility, that collectively we started to see a movement that got back to the small, but fun, creative stuff that we see in a lot of movies today."
These days Chad’s Gap is mentioned in the same awed tones as big wave spots like Jaws and Mavericks – a freak of nature that, when conditions are right, provides a stage for truly next level riding. And like many of the best surf spots, its exact location remains a secret – though not so secret that you couldn’t find it through a few questions in the right ears. After all, there seems little danger that Chad’s will ever be overrun with crowds. Are you actually going to hit it?
Hemsedal Part 2
Into the History Books
When the dust settled, it was revealed Mads’ leap had measured a full 187 feet from take-off to landing, setting a new world record.
With Hemsedal’s reputation for monster park kickers now secured, the question was: how could things get any bigger? The answer was provided by the aptly-named Norwegian rider Mads ‘Big Nads’ Jonsson. As a local to Hemsedal, Mads was good friends with its legendary cat driver/park shaper Lars Eriksen, and in May 2005 the pair concocted a plan to construct the biggest straight jump yet. Burton’s staff photographer Jeff Curtes was invited to document the event.
“I hadn't seen the table before going up that evening when the conditions seemed right, so upon arrival it was shock," recalls Curtes. The table-top that so surprised him measured a solid 130 feet from the take-off to the knuckle – or the equivalent of four double-decker buses. Although the whole ‘world record’ headline would later be shouted throughout the snowboard media, Curtes insists that the atmosphere was low key: “There was no hype, no expectations - nothing to detract from Mads' personal focus to jump the thing."
With everything in place, Mads made his way to the top of the phenomenally long run-in and strapped in. “Things happened fast," says Curtes. “I stood where I stood, without really any planning or visualization of the shot, but I knew that Mads' would waste no time. Two speed checks, one shaky backside 180 and then BAM! This beauty of a massive frontside 360, landed perfectly. Over the following few jumps Mads banged his hand really hard on the landing, so just like that it was over. We went down for dinner quietly, everyone stoked on what they had just been a part of, but no one really claiming anything. It was simple, quiet – only the riding spoke."
When the dust settled, it was revealed Mads’ leap had measured a full 187 feet from take-off to landing, setting a new world record. Somewhere in the inevitable hype which followed, the humble atmosphere of the event was lost, and a few of Mads’ fellow riders suggested it was a somewhat pointless and dangerous jump which, in trick terms, had done little to progress freestyle. This is a little unfair on Mads, who had put his body on the line to show just how far a snowboarder could travel, but in one sense the critics were right. Until now, park booter progression had been all about going bigger, higher, further. Perhaps this kicker’s ultimate legacy is that it provided a full stop for this branch of snowboarding evolution. In a nutshell, Mads took conventional jumps as far they could go.
Hemsedal Part 3
Mads Goes Into Orbit
To generate extra speed, Mads was even getting a towed by snowmobile down the run-in.
If the snowboard world was in agreement that Mads’ World Record had hit the limits of jump length, no one was quite so sure about where the ceiling lay in terms of height. After all, Ingemar Backman’s iconic air, which stood in the record books for so long, had been pulled over a decidedly average quarterpipe. Surely a better-constructed transition would open up new levels of airtime?
That is exactly what Mads Jonsson – already well known for going massive on hip-style jumps - set out to find out in the spring of 2006, again collaborating with shaper Lars Eriksen in his Norwegian backyard. This time, despite Mads’ attempts to downplay everything, expectations were higher. Burton were filming for a feature-length film, For Right or Wrong, and there were microphones, cameramen, snowmobiles – even a helicopter circling the enormous jump. “Instant chaos," describes Jeff Curtes. “It was like Hollywood," comments fellow photographer Eric Bergeri. “The filmers were quite stressed - they told us to stay away for a while to let the heli film some follow cams and panoramic shots. And we [the photographers] were all dressed up in black so we didn’t stand out."
To make matters worse, Mads was less than 100% fit. He’d hurt his ankle and, having tested the hip with some mellow airs, spent the evening before D-Day icing it up. Nevertheless, when the lights went up on the main event he got straight down to work. “Mads went quite high on the very first jump," recalls Bergeri, “Then went higher and higher. Sometimes super high but without perfect style, sometimes less high but with a perfect style. And all the time the heli was circling closer and closer to him." To generate extra speed, he was even getting a towed by snowmobile down the run-in. It was an intense solo session with the simple aim of raising the bar - the snowboarding equivalent of Danny Way jumping the Great Wall of China on a skateboard, or Laird Hamilton surfing monsters in Tahiti. What with the stunning frozen lake backdrop, it made for some memorable shots.
“Shooting Mads in Hemsedal is just about as cool as it gets," sums up Jeff Curtes. “On a par with heli riding with Terje in New Zealand, or Shaun White at a private pipe. It's THAT good. Perfect harmony of rider and terrain, and - almost always - the results are epic."
The Lame/Lecht Kicker
The Transition that Changed Park Jump Design
Christoph’s cab 5 from that day was something like 3.6 seconds, which is pretty ridiculous - David Benedek
With its clever choice of soundtrack, awesome riding and above all, a real sense of fun, the first Robotfood movie, Afterbang, changed people’s conceptions about what snowboard films should look like; its sequel, Lame, featured a session on a natural booter that would change the way people thought about park jump design.
“We were in Austria filming for Lame," explains David Benedek, “and we randomly stumbled across this feature in the backcountry of Lecht. It had almost like a quarterpipe-style take-off – very steep – and then a really steep landing afterwards."
To the casual observer, this kicker might look like a million other powder jumps, but what made it so special to Benedek and his friends was the airtime it offered. Thanks to the steep take-off, riders were sent a good 5 metres out of the lip, while the pitch of the landing meant that they would drop a further 10 or 15 metres to the landing – maximizing that lovely weightless feeling every snowboarder knows so well. “It’s actually so rare to find this kind of combination," says Benedek. “That’s why it was such an eye-opener."
So special did this jump feel to the Robotfood crew, they decided to precisely measure the airtime on video. “I think Christoph Weber’s cab 5 from that day was something like 3.6 seconds, which is pretty ridiculous," says Bendedek. “two to two-and-a-half seconds is about what you’d typically reach on a pretty well-built jump. For instance, Mads’ ‘world-record’ 150ft jump in Norway was barely above two seconds airtime. So it’s really about how jumps are built, not the size. You can have 2.5 seconds of airtime on a pretty small jump if it’s built right."
Not only did the Lecht kicker offer massive airtime, it was also fun and relatively safe. This switched on a lightbulb in Benedek’s head: Rather than relying on these rare backcountry finds, why not try to recreate the shape and trajectory on a park kicker? “Essentially, we just had such a blast hitting this jump in Lech that we wanted to recreate that however we could." Making this dream a reality, however, would prove the biggest challenge yet…
The Zugspitze Step-Over
Stepping Into the Future
The blueprint consisted of a steep take-off, a steep landing, and a curved deck which would follow the trajectory of the rider. This would maximize the airtime.
By summer of 2005, David Benedek and his riding buddy Christoph Weber had carried out two failed attempts to build a park-style jump that would imitate the hang time of the natural kicker they’d found in Austria (see previous page). These were documented in the film David made with his brother Boris, 91 Words for Snow, which was given away on the front of various snowboard magazines throughout the world (including issue 63 of Whitelines).
The blueprint they were attempting to realise consisted of a steep take-off, a steep landing, and a curved deck in between which would follow the trajectory of the rider - rather than a conventional flat tabletop. This would maximize the airtime and do away with the usual sharp knuckle that is responsible for most of the danger in park riding. Shaping such a jump proved harder than anticipated. In Whistler, Benedek had found a crew of park builders that were willing to lend him all the necessary machinery and expertise, and he’d scouted a seemingly perfect spot over a natural hillock. After a solid week of moving snow and shaping, however, he discovered that the run-in was nowhere near fast enough to clear it. Another three days of re-shaping brought no more luck; it appeared the boys had bitten off more than they could chew. “I was going 124 kmph (77mph) which is the fastest I’ve ever been in my life, - and it was in the run-up to a jump. That’s just too much."
As disheartened as they were, there was good reason to keep the idea alive. If successful, the added airtime - and the lack of consequences should you come up short - would grant riders like Benedek the opportunity to try new tricks. With this in mind the boys went back to the drawing board, returning that summer to the Zugspitze glacier, at the summit of Germany’s highest peak. “From Whistler we’d learned that you have to stay in a human scale: less distance but more in-run," says Benedek. He and his team - including Christoph Weber and Marco Grilc - set about building a more modest version of their step-over design, and sure enough an epic session unfolded, the highlight of which was Benedek landing the world’s first double cork 1080 on a kicker (pictured).
Following the success of Zugspitze, Benedek and Weber tried to apply their design to the big air contest format, building another step-over in Garmisch and inviting a handful of the world’s best riders to hit it. This progressive ‘Gap Session’ event was where Travis Rice perfected his double backflip late backside 180s, with which he later claimed victory at the Munich Air & Style. Further successful step-overs have been built, including one in the Pyrenean resort of Les Cauterets in 2008, where Benedek again pushed the boundary with three brand new tricks – a switch double cork, a switch backside rodeo 900 and a switch backside rodeo 1260.
Looking at the step-over concept within the larger context of kicker history, it seems that balls - even talent - will only get you so far. As dramatic as Hemsedal and Chad’s Gap were, for instance, the potential for progression is limited by simple physics. When it comes to developing that science and taking kicker riding into the future, Zugspitze proved that you have to engage your brain too. As Christoph Weber put it, “I think we came pretty close to the perfect kicker."