Annie Boulanger – Irresistible Force

Throw up a roadblock in front of Annie Boulanger, and watch it get smashed to pieces. In this month’s interview, the world’s most accomplished female freerider talks to WL about starting up, breaking out and what it’s like to be “a woman in a man’s world.”

From the early days on the contest circuit through to her current status as a cast-iron backcountry legend, French Canadian rider Annie Boulanger has literally done it all. Along the way there have been injuries, awards, avalanches, video game appearances, Olympic cycles and just about everything else you can expect to encounter in a career on shred. While it’s hard enough for anyone to get medals around their neck or pillow lines under their feet, Annie’s perhaps had more to deal with than most. When asked what’s been the biggest challenge she’s ever faced, there’s no hesitation: “It’s been that it’s an industry run by men. Everyone always says that it’s so easy for a girl. Yeah, there’s more guys competing for the same thing, but girls have had to make their own opportunities, because they’ve not even been there.”

Yeah, there’s more guys competing for the same thing, but girls have had to make their own opportunities, because they’ve not even been there.

There’s just no getting away from it; at every stage in her career, she’s had to qualify herself as a ‘female snowboarder’. Even in the early days, when she would head up to her local hills as a teenager in Quebec, the issue raised its head. “I learned most stuff by watching the guys,” she recalls. “I was the only girl at my high school who rode, and the guys didn’t really want to ride with me, so I would watch the good guys and see what tricks they were doing. Then I would go and try them myself.” Despite having to go it alone she was soon competing regularly, and set about moving to Whistler, British Columbia to snowboard full-time.  She’s been there ever since; when we talk, she’s enduring a snow-starved winter that ranks among the worst she’s ever seen. There have been some productive trips to the BC interior, around Revelstoke and Baldface Lodge, but she admits that the conditions mean that she’s “not exactly running down the stairs in the morning.”

Annie's Full Part from 2013. Just wait for the line at 2.10.

I really love watching the X Games. People make fun and talk shit about triple corks and stuff, but they’re so impressive to watch. It’s crazy.

When she first arrived in Whistler, this wouldn’t have been an issue as long as the park was looking good. Back then the plan was to make it to the 2002 Olympics and compete for snowboarding’s newest, and arguably biggest, prize. However, all the desire in the world wasn’t enough to make it a reality: “I did a few contests with the Canadian team, but I really didn’t like the people who were running it. They were clueless, they were all old skiers.” Competitive snowboarding’s much-maligned organizational split inevitably played a part, too.“I didn’t like FIS contests. No-one cared about them but you were obliged to do them [in order to qualify for the games]. There was no budget for them, so you had to pay out of your own pocket. And if you did well, no-one cared! It wasn’t important in the snowboard industry, or to the sponsors, so there was no way to make any money. I didn’t think my career would go anywhere, so I quit and instead did fun contests that were more useful.” She counts the Westbeach Classic (her first major win) and the Vail sessions among those that she enjoyed the most, as well as the US Open. Her preference was for more relaxed, jam-style competitions – the kind we see less and less of these days thanks to the creeping influence of TV-friendly formats. The ‘two runs, best run counts’ events never sat well with her; she didn’t enjoy the X Games and, tellingly, can’t even recall exactly how many she attended (two, for the record, in 2002 and 2003). The Aspen-based huckfest can still count her among its viewers, though: “I really love watching the X Games. People make fun and talk shit about triple corks and stuff, but they’re so impressive to watch. It’s crazy.” Her bad experience with FIS and Team Canada is all clearly water under the bridge as well. With the Olympics due to start about a week after our chat, she’s fired up for it. “I’d like to see Danny Davis win, he’s so cool!” she says, when asked for a prediction. “He came to Alaska with Absinthe, he’s such a great human being. He’s a true snowboarder, a rebel! And that’s what snowboarding’s about.” While that wasn’t to be, her pick for the women’s slopestyle fared better: “Jamie Anderson. I used to travel with her, she’s badass.

Annie had her own successes on the circuit (she is a two-time US Open champion, for quarterpipe in 2001 and slopestyle in 2002), but competing was always a means to an end. “All my friends were filming for Mack Dawg, that kind of thing. I thought that was the coolest aspect of snowboarding. I wanted to be in the movies and the magazines, because I thought that was beautiful. It inspired me way more than contests”. However, breaking into a film crew wasn’t easy, and the lack of opportunities kept her competing for longer than she’d have liked. Things changed when Martin Gallant invited her to film with his company, The Gathering. He and fellow Whistler legend JF Pelchat took it upon themselves to school Annie in the ways of mastering both snowmobiles and the BC pow. Just as it had been back east, it was a case of listening and learning as much as possible. She would often spend entire days out on the sled with the crew, picking up what she could off the seasoned locals while never actually strapping in. Applying it to her own riding would come later. From The Gathering she went on to film with Alterna Action, and was by this point a fully paid-up freeride addict. It was, she confesses, not something she saw coming. “When I moved to Whistler I knew nothing about backcountry. I found freeride video parts really boring to watch!” 

When I moved to Whistler I knew nothing about backcountry. I found freeride video parts really boring to watch!

With this new direction, there was one organisation above all others that she wanted to join. “It was a dream of mine to film with Absinthe; the type of riding they shot matched what I wanted to do. I spent a few weeks with Jonaven Moore and really liked riding with him, so I asked [Absinthe filmer] Justin Hostynek if I could film with them since me and Jonaven got along.” Again, wanting it was one thing, and making it happen was something else entirely. “Jonaven had to vouch for me – that’s how Absinthe works, you have to fit in with the crew and the other riders have to accept you.” While that’s not necessarily a problem exclusive to female riders, the issue of her gender did come up in the process. Sponsors protested her decision to step away from contests, at that time pretty much the only way for a girl to get exposure. Many were blunt in their opposition to her move into freeriding, and needed some persuading to use their clout.  She remembers being told in no uncertain terms that, “they wouldn’t be able to market me. I think they were really embarrassed to call Absinthe and ask them to film with a girl.”  It wasn’t the first time that short-sighted industry types had come between her and her ambitions – ones which, looking back, were in the brand’s best interests too, with an untapped market there for the taking. “There were no girls doing it, which I saw an advantage, but to them it was a disadvantage. It took a long time to get them to run my backcountry photos – they wanted a close-up of me looking like a girl, to sell their product.  They’d say ‘from far away no-one can tell that’s a girl’, and I would be like ‘but it’s a good shot!’” She laughs about it now, but concedes that at the time it was incredibly frustrating. Especially so, when all she’d endured to break into freeriding wasn’t being recognized: “The people who hadn’t really been in the backcountry, they thought I was taking the easy way out. My team managers thought it wasn’t hard to, you know, ‘go with your buddies and build a jump in the powder’. But just to learn how to snowmobile took so long, and they’re such long days. Those people hadn’t spent any time out there.”

Fortunately for all of us, things worked out in the end. Annie finally got her first Absinthe part in 2007’s Optimistic? which, among some crocheting and rag-dolling, saw her set a new standard for female backcountry video parts. She had become only their third female rider, after Tina Basich and Victoria Jealouse – and while those two only did a single season, Annie stayed with the crew right up until their 2011 release, twe12ve. Her work with the company led to four consecutive nominations for Women’s Video Part of the Year at the Transworld Rider’s Poll Awards, as well as two for Women’s Rider of the Year. She picked up both gongs in 2010 for Neverland; in her acceptance speech, she was quick to thank her sponsors for “believing that a woman could film with the guys.”

So no hard feelings, it would seem. The important thing for her was the outcome – she’d seen what could be done with the right attitude. So had a fresh batch of backcountry specialists such as Helen Schettini, Laura Hadar and Marie-France Roy. In fact, there has been an exponential increase in the number of women venturing into the backcountry. When asked to compare the early stages of her career to the present day, she acknowledges that for female riders there’s “way more choices now. Every team now wants a girl who rides backcountry, whereas back then it wasn’t an option. [The sponsors] are seeing that it’s marketable, and that different types of girls are attracted to different types of riding.” Indeed, the projects that have filled Annie’s dance card recently are opportunities that would have been unlikely, if not unheard of, when she was starting out; since parting ways with Absinthe she has filmed for all-girl flick Intervals, appeared in the strong female section of Nike’s debut effort Never Not, and most recently released a full part online to high acclaim. This season she’s involved with a big-budget extreme sports documentary called The Search For Freedom, alongside the likes of Kelly Slater and Warren Miller. While things are undoubtedly moving in the right direction, it’s not changed Annie’s overall impression: “I still feel that I’m a woman in a man’s world”. Even as the number of girls in her Whistler crew has increased (some days, it might be an even split between the sexes), behind the scenes the scales are still tipped. The vast majority of photographers, filmers, brand directors and team managers are still male. Having said that, she’s felt the winds of change in this part of the industry too. “At Salomon there’s a few awesome girls”, she points out. “The bigger companies usually have a lot of girls involved. Now that the sport is older, more girls have grown up in the snowboard world, and have got involved in the industry”. This, she feels, is what’s truly needed to redress the balance. The more female influence there is behind the scenes, the better the sport will be marketed to women. More girls will then see the appeal in picking up a snowboard, and many will eventually want to head off the beaten path à la Annie. It’s hard to argue with that logic.

The longer we talk, the clearer it is that Annie was never, at least consciously, on a mission to smash any glass ceilings. Even as she recounts how much the industry has changed in the last dozen years or so, she gives herself no credit. The way she tells it, she’s only ever been focused on building a life in the mountains, and getting the best out of herself in the process. Alongside the enjoyment that came from riding with her friends and being close to nature, her move into freeriding was, at least in part, a calculated move to prolong her career. Backcountry riding is a tough nut to crack and requires a lot of work, but in general you’re far less likely to suffer the kind of serious injury seen all too often in the park or pipe. If Annie’s riding companions are to be believed, this long-term, sensible approach is par for the course. She’s seen as one of the more cautious riders out there, but does she see herself that way? Yes, as it happens. To her it’s inevitable “once you count your injuries! I’m way more cautious than someone who’s never blown a knee”. Whenever there’s uncertainty, she continues, “you ask yourself, ‘is this worth it? It’s the end of the day, and I’ve not got injured…’ You start to think about making it all the way through the season.” That mindset was sometimes an issue when she was the only girl in an otherwise all-male crew. ”There’s no way to compare us; they don’t know what I can or can’t do. Sometimes they’ll tell me I can do something, where there’s no way my body could take the same level of impact. So I have to make my own decisions, and judge for myself.” Being careful can only help you so much, though, as Annie knows all too well. You need only look at her most recent video part, in which she triggers a monster avalanche on a seemingly low-key line. “I was really happy not to go down with that one!” she recalls. “It was going exactly where I was headed, and there was a lot of snow, so I don’t know if they would have dug me out in time. That was such a mellow slope that we weren’t ready for it to crack. Sometimes you’re prepared, but I wasn’t even thinking about it on that one.” She puts the fact that she was able to keep her speed up and ride to safety entirely down to experience. If that had happened a few years earlier, perhaps she might have frozen – and then who knows?

Looking at her own career, it’s hard to argue with that. All of her scariest moments in the backcountry have involved having to dig others out of avalanches, rather than being dug out herself. She’s developed a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable freeriders around, always up to speed with weather forecasts and avalanche reports. Her fellow pros fall over themselves to praise her attitude, ability and determination. She’s had quite the run, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Filming remains her priority, for the time being at least. She’s ruled out a move onto the Freeride World Tour, on the grounds that, “I would push myself and hit big cliffs in conditions where I would normally not ride, just to impress others. I think it’s great that people do it, and that it’s really gnarly, but it’s not my definition of fun. I don’t like being judged – that’s why I didn’t like contests!” No, you’re more likely to see Annie making appearances at the Dirksen Derby, as well as Mt. Baker’s Legendary Banked Slalom – events that, much like the ones she favoured in the early days, are more about getting together with friends and having fun. That’s what drives her these days: “Surrounding myself with good people, and just sharing and enjoying snowboarding, that’s what’s most important.” There are plans to ride more with Marie-France, specifically for MFR’s own project The Little Things, and she intends to maintain her tradition of doing an annual heli trip that’s just for her, with no cameras in sight.

Other than that, we’ll just have to wait and see. Even with all she’s been up against she remains relaxed, optimistic and, in her own words, “really happy”. As long as the future involves travelling, meeting new people and having new experiences, she won’t be worried about it. And should any more ‘immovable objects’ threaten to get in her way, our money’s on Annie.

And should any more ‘immovable objects’ threaten to get in her way, our money’s on Annie.

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