Jamie Lynn, currently snowboarding's best representation of late-career gnar. Photo: Matt Georges
About two years ago, as I was approaching my 40th birthday, I gave myself a set of rules to live by as a middle-aged shred. Don’t wear garish gear, steer clear of rails, don’t wear a beanie indoors, stretch and don’t be grumpy, amongst other things.
I’d given myself those rules, because I was fully anticipating that by 40 I would have a near total shutdown of all my physical and mental faculties, and my snowboarding would rapidly descend to the depths of a two-week beginner who has set his bindings up with the toes pointing inwards.
"I was fully anticipating that by 40 I would have a near total shutdown of all my physical and mental faculties"
If anyone can remember the scene in X-Men when Senator Kelly goes all fishy and then dissolves into an amorphous puddle of water, that was pretty much what I was anticipating the moment I blew out the candles on my birthday cake (it played out slightly differently, but suffice to say it felt like that was actually happening the next morning).
I thus became a study in monochrome on the slopes, my new board was devoid of any stickers, my glossy slap head would gleam “en plein air" even if I was in the Bec Jaune drinking craft ale, and for the most part I avoided rails (apart from the one time I didn’t and then smashed up my shoulder - which firmly re-enforced the importance of the “no rails" rule).
But I was struggling to avoid being grumpy, which is of course the most important rule, because my snowboarding playbook was slowly shrinking. There was less and less of the old me - my methods had gone to rat shit (just as they became fashionable again), the back 7 I’d had on lock years ago was buried at the bottom of my sock drawer, and a little bit of wee came out if I ever found myself at the top of a drop-in to a big booter.
I figured that it would always be thus - a slow, inexorable descent towards incompetence and incontinence, and that by the age of 50, I would just be happy to be capable of doing an ollie and not shitting myself when I bent over to put my boots on. Like many parents, I would live vicariously, taking pleasure from the accomplishments of my offspring, and their ascent up the snowboarding skills mountain would be perfectly mirrored by my own degeneration.
"In the world of snowboarding, it’s been all too easy to come to the conclusion that you are pretty much cooked by the age of 25"
And then, one lazy Sunday afternoon when I had somehow managed to avoid any domestic chores and none of the kids was nagging me to help with their maths homework (which I can’t do anyway, because I can’t remember how to do long division), I settled down with a cup of caffeine-free earl grey tea, a scone, and my iPad - with the intention of entertaining myself for an hour.
On those rare occasions that I am able to just kill time, Red Bull TV is my go-to internet thing [surely you mean Whitelines.com, Pingu...], and I thus noodled my way through the multitude of Sam Masekela-fronted content to some old footage of the Vans Pool Party.
Once the buffering of my rural broadband has stopped, it was like the moment I first heard Public Enemy’s Terminator X dropping beats whilst I was doing my graphic design homework in the kitchen at the age of 14. What I saw completely rewired my brain.
The Vans Pool Party is a get-together for the world’s most talented pool skaters, which sees 14-year-old phenoms rubbing shoulders with the legends of the sport. Eddy Elguera, Chris Miller, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill and Christian Hosoi - the guys who literally gave their names to the rubric of skate tricks to which we have all adhered for the past three decades - are dropping into the same lovingly sculpted concrete pool as a bunch of kids who are easily young enough to be their grandchildren.
Some of these legends have blasted way past their 40s and are firmly embedded in their sixth decade. Not just still skating at the age of 52, but absolutely killing it. Busting way above the coping, dropping McTwists and stomping all the tricks that they were doing nearly one third of a century ago. I literally couldn't believe it.
There I was, bitching about my suitcase airs, considering the merits of Viagra and worrying whether I was making sufficient contributions into a pension fund to maximise my tax-free allowances, and here were a bunch of 50-year-olds painting a picture of late middle age which was, metaphorically speaking, a massive middle-fingered salute in the face of the grey-faced masses who have long-since given up their youth for fear of looking stupid.
"I made a contract with myself that I wouldn’t give a shit, would learn at least one new trick every season, and might even wear a hat indoors. I’m still not doing rails though"
So I vowed to change, or at least - not to change. I made a little contract with myself that I wouldn’t give a shit, would try and learn at least one new trick every season, would actually wear my vintage Air Jordans rather than keeping them in my cupboard, and might even wear a hat indoors. I’m still not doing rails though.
But in the world of snowboarding, it’s been all too easy to come to the conclusion that you are pretty much cooked by the age of 25. Unlike skating and surfing (where a middle aged Kelly Slater continues to lord it like a colossus over the sport), there are scant few role models in competitive snowboarding who have got anywhere near their 30th year.
"For the average 26-year-old with reconstructed knees who has been living out of a board bag for nearly a decade, the backcountry lodge is undeniably far more appealing than wearing a bib and being humiliated by someone without pubes"
The M.O. for the heroes of our sport has been to, for the most part, avoid the white-hot heat of competition and rush into the comfortable semi-retirement of the backcountry lodge and powder turns. Terje Haakonsen’s life is the Rosetta stone through which a generation of shreds have interpreted the optimal path for their own careers. The sooner you can step off the live-streaming shit-fest of competition and learn to use a transceiver, the better.
It's not that surprising when each new season heralds the arrival of another freakishly-talented super-grom who simply rips up the textbook and redefines the boundaries of what is possible. For the average 26-year-old with reconstructed knees who has been living out of a board bag for nearly a decade, flying around the world, sleeping in shitty hotels and growing tired of taking Instagrammable photos of pro-ho’s naked backsides, the backcountry lodge is undeniably far more appealing than wearing a bib and being humiliated by someone without pubes.
But once again it took Shaun White, who doesn't really care about snowboarding or what everyone else thinks, to show what is possible.
When the 29-year-old El Blanco turned up at the Burton US Open last year, with his wrinkly face and dark bags under his eyes, and proceeded to eat shit on the slopestyle course, it looked like he was re-enforcing the received wisdom that competition is for little rubber people who don’t shave yet. Perhaps he should have swapped his cranked-up forward lean for a splitboard, and just chilled the fuck out.
Then he dropped into the superpipe and inked one of the most important chapters in the history of competitive snowboarding. He went into the stratosphere, with massive dangling testicles, making everyone else look minuscule down on Planet Earth, and also showed that it might actually be possible for someone to be really good at snowboarding (as defined in the competitive context) beyond the age of 30.
"Once again it took Shaun White, who doesn't really care about snowboarding or what everyone else thinks, to show what is possible"
And let's not forget Travis Rice. He may have just unleashed on us the most over-ripe snore fest of a snowboard movie that has ever been known to man, but he did show that despite being a long way past 30, he can still rip like a motherfucker (and fight off massive avalanches, go to really far-off places that are really difficult to snowboard in, sail a boat really good and speak poetry).
Now that his odyssey of following water particles around the pacific, reciting his GCSE geography textbook and spraying mountains with helicopter fuel is over, will he continue to be the alpha male? Will he stay at the forefront of snowboarding progression, intimidating all other measly human beings with his cojones grandes, dropping out of helicopters onto exploding cornices and then busting out 70-foot rodeos onto 45-degree faces? Or will he be throwing mellow methods whilst letting the young bucks do all the revolutionary spinning and take the slams?
"Funny shaped snowboard, unkempt facial hair, powder, some abstract philosphical statements that you read on the back of a cornflakes packet... It’s kind of an extreme version of buying some nice slippers"
I really hope that Rice and White keep their boners for being the best and pushing themselves well into middle age. Then we will have some proper wrinkly heroes to rival Chris Miller, Bucky Lasek, Grandpa Hosoi and Kelly Slater - and I might thus be inspired to learn a Dracula air off a side hit in Morzine, rather than buying yet another powder board I don't need.
Don't get me wrong, I love watching Bryan Iguchi making powder turns in interior BC, and by God I would love to be him and have his life, but in many ways it just re-enforces the cosy, middle-aged model for snowboarding. Funny shaped snowboard, unkempt facial hair, powder, some abstract philosphical statements that you read on the back of a Cornflakes packet, and a wistful reminiscence of what it was like doing pipe comps "back in the day". It’s kind of an extreme version of buying some nice slippers.
So when they finally roll out high-speed broadband to my home and I stumble across footage of White going 50ft out the pipe at the age of 40, or Rice hucking 100ft over a ravine whilst tearing the flesh from a baby seal with his bare teeth, I for one will be hollering at my computer screen in joy and booking my next holiday at High Cascade.