When American rail riders Cale Zima and Brandon Cocard joined Absinthe Films in the Swiss backcountry they were fish out of water. And yet, to Ahriel Povich, they evoked the spirit of snowboarding's founding father.
This article first appeared in Whitelines No. 113 - February 2014
Some people turn to Jesus in times of doubt. Others look for guidance in the writings of Aristotle, Machiavelli or Marx. If you prefer contemporary wisdom, Marley or Tupac’s words might strike a chord. But those great thinkers will only help you so much when you’re about to drop in. A better question might be: “What would Tom Sims do?"
Absinthe Film’s resident philosopher, Shane Charebois, is famous for asking the right questions – a quest that has led him to a pretty enviable position in life. Shane is a product of snowboarding’s golden age, first gaining notoriety as a pro for Burton in the ’90s before moving behind the camera to help create the iconic Kingpin movies. Then, ten years ago, the Salt Lake City local transitioned to Absinthe and immediately made his presence felt as he helped to integrate urban riding into their powder-centric films. Shane works hard but he knows he has it good. He spends half his year filming some of the best snowboarders on earth and the other half living on a boat in Hawaii. You might feel a pang of jealousy when you hear his tales of surfing and supermodels, but then he’ll just crack another fortune cookie and ask: “If everyone in the story was the same character, would the book really be so interesting?"
As you probably know, snowboarding’s own story lost one of its main characters in 2012 with the passing of Tom Sims. Don’t worry though, this is not another boring eulogy. Rather, this is an observation about the many ways in which older guys like Tom and Shane continue to influence snowboarding today.
But first, we should start with a brief history lesson. In the 1970s, before snowboarding had migrated to Europe, three protagonists emerged. Three young Americans, stretched across a continent, each representing different visions of what snowboarding could become. Jake Burton was on the east coast building a brand that was mostly oriented towards racing – on a parallel path to the ski culture of the time. A lesser-known gentleman from Utah named Dimitri Milovich started a brand called Winterstick, which took inspiration from surfing and focused on powder specific boards. Finally, Tom Sims was on the west coast developing Sims Snowboards in the image of his already successful skate company. All three of these guys made invaluable contributions to the history of snowboarding, but since Tom is the first to have reached the finish line, it’s worth taking a closer look at his legacy.
Driven by passion, curiosity and a talent for seeing potential where others only saw limitations, Tom led the push for snowboarding to be its own subculture. In the ’80s, skiing was the dominant winter sport, but it was growing stale. Seen as a luxury pastime – associated with BMWs, fur coats and vacation homes – skiing was both unattractive and unattainable for the average kid. Tom, by contrast, believed in youth, tricks and rock n’ roll. He thought snowboarding should bring all of that to the mountains, whether the established ski industry liked it or not. It took some time, but in the ’90s Tom’s vision had become reality and set the sport on its current path.
Today, Absinthe Films serves as one of the last links between snowboarding’s past and future. The central characters behind the production – Justin Hostynek, Patrick ‘Brusti’ Armbruster, David ‘Vlady’ Vladyka and Shane Charebois – all fell in love with the sport during that Sims-inspired golden era of the ’90s. And while all of the other major film crews that were born before the millennium (Standard, Mack Dawg) have called it quits, Absinthe soldiers on, using vintage cameras and a classic approach to show the raw and soulful element of sideways sliding. Their movies combine cutting-edge progression and heritage through a crew that, at the same time, links the European and US scenes.
Year after year time zones are traversed, and each winter – without fail –Absinthe’s motley collection of Euros and Yanks come together at a mythical spot known simply as ‘The Zone’. If there were such a thing as backstage in snowboard movies, a peek behind Absinthe’s velvet curtain would reveal this top secret location in the Portes du Soleil backcountry. Careers have been made and ended here, in the proving grounds of a huge bowl that feels as if it was created expressly for freestyle shredding. Vlady, Absinthe’s primary European cinematographer, first started mining The Zone for shots back in 2002 and has returned every year since. In the course of that decade he has filmed well over a hundred features, producing countless cover shots and some of the most memorable snowboard footage ever burned to film.
Depending on the weather conditions, access to The Zone is not always easy. It involves an early morning wake-up, a south face traverse and a minimum one-hour’s hike to get to the top. And a lot can go wrong. Vlady once dislocated his shoulder on the traverse, while Laurent Gougain nearly lost his leg after an ice boulder unexpectedly fell from the south face. Heavy fog can easily make access impossible, and though getting back to civilization isn’t quite as complicated it can still take over an hour and involves more hiking, some one-footing and a bus ride or taxi. Personally, I think of The Zone as rehab. After a summer with too many hours sitting in front of the computer and an autumn lost in the haze of premiere parties, I always know my winter has truly started when I find myself dragging my heavy photo bag to the top of The Zone.
Last winter, February’s heavy snows once again lured an American crew overseas to try their luck in Les Portes du Soleil. But this time, as we assembled to collect shots for Dopamine, there was more than a language barrier dividing us. Vlady had called in his backcountry specialists, the veteran Frenchman Sylvain Bourbousson and local Swiss prodigy, Mat Schaer. Shane, meanwhile, had brought along Brandon Cocard and Cale Zima, two riders best known for their skills in the streets.
The last time I brought some jibbers into The Zone – a French crew – it was a disaster. I vividly remember seeing a rider (who shall remain nameless) eating shit every five metres on the massive traverse. What should have taken a maximum of ten minutes to avoid unnecessary exposure, instead took him about half an hour. When he finally arrived, he threw his board down in disgust and remained seated for the rest of the day while the crew shaped and rode a kicker without him. It turns out our young friend had decided to bring a broken jib board for the day, making the long heelside traverse all but impossible.
So perhaps you can understand my skepticism on this first day back at our favourite spot when I completed the traverse, strapped on snowshoes and began the hike accompanied by a strange yet familiar odor. Yes, Cale Zima has the dubious honor of being the first rider I’ve ever seen attempting to climb The Zone in deep powder while smoking.
Cale Zima has the dubious honor of being the first rider I’ve ever seen attempting to climb The Zone in deep powder while smoking a cigarette.
The Americans definitely suffered a bit during those first few days, dealing with lost luggage and jetlag whilst Sylvain and Mat put on a clinic in how to stack footage in the backcountry. Brandon quickly stepped up however, proving that he has the tricks and style to hang with any rider in the Absinthe roster. Cale, on the other hand, will probably never be able to make a successful transition from professional street slayer to paid powder surfer. But since he’d already filmed most of his part in Salt Lake City before a lot of resorts in the Alps were even open, he didn’t seem stressed at all. And while he wasn’t very interested in sending it off any of the massive jumps we built, he was more than happy to hike around in search of the perfect turn.
While Cale and I were busy catching our breath, Shane led by example, riding his ass off and stoking us out with endless stories from his years of filming. He was constantly encouraging his rail-riding prodigé to hike just a little further so that he could enjoy a few more slashes on the way down, and before the week was over Cale was hot on his heels, trying to bag as much powder as possible before every last inch of The Zone got tracked. Tom Sims would’ve been proud – another skate kid from the city was falling in love with the mountains right in front of our eyes.
Everyone got shots while the conditions were good but it was no surprise that Mat and Sylvain really shined, before they finally landed on the sidelines thanks to a couple of minor injuries. Mat got a knee to the face resulting in a mild concussion; Sylvain re-aggravated an old shoulder injury just as the snow began to turn; and so the natural rhythm of the crew shifted from the mountains to the streets.
To say that every bit of concrete and metal in Vlady’s hometown of Val D’Illiez has been examined for shred potential is not an overstatement. It’s a fairly small village and he’s been bringing crews there for years, so we really didn’t think there would be too many options nearby for Brandon and Cale. Yet in no time they had found new spots and discovered new ways of riding old ones. The locals watched in disbelief as the Americans attempted to transfer from walls to rails, translating an idea that looked like a certain trip to casualty into a banger shot. Of course, this was not the first time an American had shown up in the Alps and used his board to bend the rules – that honour goes to Mr. Sims, who served as 007’s stunt man back in 1984 in St. Moritz. At the climax of the sequence he did one of the first documented waterslides on his snowboard while outrunning evil communist skiers in A View to a Kill. It’s a good laugh, looking back at that footage now: Tom dressed head to toe in white as he slides his way into mainstream culture accompanied by the Beach Boys. At the time, though, that was cutting edge riding. Watch A View to a Kill and Dopamine back to back and you’ll clearly see the difference that 29 years of progression can make. And for cutting edge today, look no further than Brandon’s final trick of our trip.
Fresh off the plane, Mr. Cocard had made it clear he was not opposed to returning to the infamous 68-stair curved rail that earned him a Transworld nomination for ‘Standout of the Year’ when he 50-50’ed it last winter. But while the world had swooned over this shot, many Swiss riders were left scratching their heads, since the same trick had already been done in 2011 by Fred Couderc – to considerably less acclaim. And what most people don’t know is that Absinthe’s history with the behemoth rail goes even further back, to 2006, when Vlady first presented the rail to Nicolas Droz and Jules Reymond. Neither of the pair was ever able to conquer it, and Jules admits that he still has nightmares about the spot to this day. However, this year Brandon rightfully claimed his own place in the history books when he attempted to frontside lipslide the whole damn thing. Three days, and over a hundred tries later, he got the shot.
The trick is pretty unbelievable, but I find the enormity of the effort somehow even more impressive. It takes a special personality to remain focused and undiscouraged for that long. Brandon never lost his shit, never threw a tantrum, and never stopped finding little ways to make himself smile. He took a beating yet was never close to being psychologically broken. In fact, he mainly seemed apologetic for making the rest of us wait so long for him to stomp his trick.
Brandon rightfully claimed his own place in the history books when he attempted to frontside lipslide the whole damn thing. Three days, and over a hundred tries later, he got the shot.
The credit goes 100% to Brandon, but it helps to have experienced people like Shane and Vlady behind you when you take a big step into the unknown. And behind Shane and Vlady there’s the ghost of Tom Sims telling us that, from handrails to waterslides, anything is possible when it comes to snowboarding. So this season – whether you’re hiking a line or a stairset – take a moment to reflect on the roots of our culture and be thankful that snowboarding had pioneers who were more inspired by surfing and skateboarding than skiing.
Come to think of it, skiers should be thanking Tom too.