“We got one day in, and I was like, what did I just sign up for?”
In 2018, Elena Hight was having a moment. Opportunity had knocked in the form of Jeremy Jones picking her to accompany him on the trip of a lifetime; a nine-day, splitboard-powered tour of California’s Sierra Mountains.
While she had a redoubtable track record on the competitive halfpipe circuit, her splitting CV was on the thin side: a crash-course Volcom team trip in Bryan Iguchi’s stomping ground of Jackson Hole – at this point not yet out of her teens, and using a standard board that had been chopped in half – followed by what she describes as “dabbling a little bit in the side country and starting to step out in the backcountry with people that I trusted”. Winter camping experience: zero.
“While she had a redoubtable track record on the competitive halfpipe circuit, her splitting CV was on the thin side”
Now she was lugging a pack almost as big as her 5’1” frame through 40 miles of the John Muir Wilderness. Jeremy, one of the world’s most seasoned adventureboarders, would later call it the toughest trip he’d ever undertaken.
“That trip was the catalyst for me to ultimately decide that I wanted to pursue freeriding and splitboarding”
Being out of your comfort zone is one thing, but getting out of your depth is quite another. This was shaping up to be a fish-out-of-water scenario worthy of Sam Beckett, and the kind of thing that might derail a career in splitboarding before it had even begun.
Of course, Teton Gravity Research’s Ode To Muir tells the story of how those early doubts soon dissipated. A few days later, she’s capping off a gruelling day’s touring with a moonlight hike and the words “we’ll sleep when we’re dead”. The progression isn’t lost on Jeremy: “Elena comes out here, has hardly been on a splitboard, has never winter camped, and is like, ‘this stuff’s fun!’ It’s driving me nuts…”
“A few days later, she’s capping off a gruelling day’s touring with a moonlight hike and the words “we’ll sleep when we’re dead””
“That trip was the catalyst for me to ultimately decide that I wanted to pursue freeriding and splitboarding,” she explains down the line from her home in Tahoe. That meant saying farewell to the competitive halfpipe riding that had been the default setting since dominating youth events in the late 1990s. That early promise was realised at the highest level, despite a self-described ‘if you’re not first, you’re last’ approach to competition. “I often put my own personal goals above medalling, even. That came with a lot of ups and downs, and was maybe sometimes not the best call as far as winning medals goes! But that’s what kept me inspired during my competitive years.”
We’ll never know whether a different approach might have landed her on more podiums, but seven X Games medals (including gold in 2017) and two top-10 finishes at the Winter Olympics is an impressive haul by anyone’s standards. Yet what she’ll be most remembered for in the halfpipe goes beyond medals.
“The determination to raise her own personal bar, as well as that of the sport at large, hasn’t gone anywhere”
At the 2013 X Games, Elena became the first female snowboarder to land a double cork in a halfpipe contest – not to mention the first rider, male or female, to put down a double backside alley-oop rodeo in front of the judges. “Tonight was not about my win,” said Kelly Clark after nabbing the gold on her final attempt by the narrowest of margins. “It was what Elena has done for women’s snowboarding.” She may not have come first that day, but hers was the run that has lasted – and the determination to raise her own personal bar, as well as that of the sport at large, hasn’t gone anywhere; “I’m definitely continuing to take that mindset into freeriding.”
No kidding. After the head-first dive into the unknown that was Ode To Muir, the next step she took was arguably just as bold. A second collaboration with Teton Gravity Research, produced across two winters in The Before Times, resulted in her own contribution to the freeride film canon. Blank Canvas takes a closer look at Elena’s code-switch from the stunt ditch to the skin track. Accompanied by some of backcountry snowboarding’s biggest names, she goes after the goods in Japan, BC and her native Tahoe.
The movie is many things: an endearing throwback to the mid-2000s glut of travelogue shred flicks, complete with chin-strokey voiceover and outtake-stuffed end credits; a love letter to the Tahoe region and its pioneers (look out for the neat splicing of a Jim Zellers toeside turn with one of Elena’s own); an important milestone in women’s snowboarding (more of which later); but above all else, it’s a study of transition.
“That drive to push personal limits earns her some impressive battle scars”
“In snowboarding, or really in everyday life, we have this opportunity to step out of our secure space, or stay on the path that we’ve created for ourselves,” she explains. “I think there’s a lot of magic when you can face the unknown, and that fear of failure and insecurity… but it’s also really scary, and the whole process is hard, so I wanted to show this journey of mine in the hope that it would inspire the viewer.” Hence the film’s title; at its heart, Blank Canvas is about “stepping into this new chapter of mine… I have this opportunity to draw it however I would, from the very beginning. So it’s exciting, it’s like a brand new start.”
Moving from one type of snowboarding to another might not seem like much of a leap, especially for someone who has spent their life standing sideways at the highest level. Nevertheless, the backcountry remains a different ball game, and that drive to push personal limits earns her some impressive battle scars in the opening scenes. “I tomahawked a lot,” laughs Elena, ego missing in action, “so I had to put some in there!”
Naturally the slams soon give way to some memorable airs and lines, with Elena more than holding her own among the likes of Danny Davis and Nick Russell. There’s even an NBD that’s every bit as impressive as the one she did under the Aspen floodlights all those years ago. Perhaps you’re already aware of what went down, thanks to the reports that surfaced in early 2019. But if not, no spoilers here; just go watch it.
“Barely out of the gates, and already in the history books – but given her track record, should we ever have expected any different?”
Barely out of the gates, and already in the history books – but given her track record, should we ever have expected any different? “What has always excited me about snowboarding is the progression of it, and really pushing the limits,” she reflects. There’s a broader objective at play, too: “Helping progress women’s snowboarding is something that’s always been important to me, and was a huge part of my competitive mindset.”
For Elena, a lot of it boils down to representation. As activist and amplifier of marginalised voices Marian Wright Edelman put it, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. “To have that opportunity to show up as the featured rider in a film, and have that pass down to generations that are coming… like, ‘this is really possible!’ I think as soon as women see other women doing something, they’re more inclined to do it.”
Let’s therefore hope that Blank Canvas reaches as wide an audience as possible. It’s certainly a significant moment; while major releases built around a male rider are commonplace (Jake Blauvelt and Travis Rice, to name just two), only double Olympic gold medallist Jamie Anderson has had the treatment so far on the women’s side. Now Elena has centre stage, and it’s fitting that Jake and Travis are among the supporting cast in her story.
The timing for such a film is perfect, too. “In just the couple of years that I’ve been committed to getting into the backcountry, I’ve seen more and more women out there and that’s super exciting,” she notes. But what’s causing it? “A big part of it is that, a lot of the time, women are really into fitness, so I’ve seen girls pick up splitboarding really quickly just because their baseline fitness is really good. And I’ve seen so much change in companies really devoting a lot of energy to the women’s gear. It’s really cool to see.”
“The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year may have… caused a surge in the burgeoning splitboard community, as more and more riders embraced arguably the most social-distance-friendly sport out there”
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year may have cut the filming of Blank Canvas short, but it also caused a surge in the burgeoning splitboard community, as more and more riders embraced arguably the most social-distance-friendly sport out there. Time will tell if it’s just a passing spike or a long-term trend, but as long as people are considering the safety aspects, it’s the more the merrier as far as Elena’s concerned. “I love all types of snowboarding – I won’t be picky, I’ll take any day! And I love springtime halfpipes, there’s almost nothing better. But the process of splitboarding, being able to kind of go out on these adventures, find your routes, the pace of it all, and the time that you get with your crew out there… it really makes you appreciate your runs. For me, it brings you into the present moment more really than any other type of snowboarding. There’s nothing like getting yourself up to the top of the mountain.”
“Nothing is set in stone, of course, but however the splitboarding world looks once all this blows over, expect to see Elena breaking a trail somewhere”
Presumably when you’ve successfully carried the weight of a film project (as well as that insane Ode To Muir pack), the satisfaction levels are greater still. Which begs the question: where does she go from there? Like most of us right now, Elena’s plans are up in the air (mere hours after our conversation, her beloved Tahoe was once again closed in an effort to contain a coronavirus flare-up). Once normal service has resumed, further adventures in celluloid aren’t out of the question. “I think what excites me about making films is really being able to tell a story in a really unique way and share a message with people,” she says. “In the future, that’s where I would like to take my snowboard filmmaking; trying to tell stories that people are touched by.”
Nothing is set in stone, of course, but however the splitboarding world looks once all this blows over, expect to see Elena breaking a trail somewhere. As for the specifics of where, and when, there’s no rush. “Right now I’m in this exploration phase of, like, ‘where I can take it’? It’s a lifelong pursuit really. I look at my peers, and everyone has so much mountain knowledge, and every time I go out I’m learning something new…. about snow, and mountains, and safety, and really moving in the mountains properly.”
She might still be near the start of the path, but few have covered as much ground so quickly. Can it really be the case that, even after everything she’s achieved since that day of soul-searching in California, she still feels like a rookie?
“Yeah!” she laughs. “But it’s cool – I like being the rookie!”
Elena is an ambassador and athlete on the Spark R&D Team. Click here to take a closer look at their range of splitboard specific products.
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