King of the Hill
Words: Matt Barr
Photos: Florent Ducasse
Belgium’s Axel Pauporté might just have the fullest CV in international snowboarding. Certainly his journey, from the dryslopes of his home country to the steeps of Alaska, and now unofficial curator of freeriding’s history, is rather more interesting than that of the average shredder.
Axel first popped up on the radar in Christian Stevenson’s Odd Man Out film, a movie that seems more of a classic with every passing year (as the appearance of Pauporté – back then more known for his kicker hitting skills – proves). Soon though, the lure of the steeps drew Axel in. As he says, “I met Regis Roland who showed me all the backcountry riding in Les Arcs, and I knew I’d found what I wanted to do. I much prefer to ride from top to bottom instead of hiking a kicker. Basically I always wanted to ride!” Within two seasons, Axel was over in AK, carving out a name for himself as a balls-out powder rider and, ultimately, one of the greatest freeriders our sport has ever seen.
Today, Axel’s career has taken yet another interesting turn, with his involvement in Billabong’s Lines project, a film about the history of big mountain riding. “It was always going to be a documentary,” he said recently. “I wanted to show the reality of big mountain riding, and that it’s not a bunch of yahoos and daredevils or crazy people. It’s a pre-controlled event and there’s a lot of preparation to it. People have these preconceived ideas of what freeriders are like, and it’s rarely the case. I was asked so many times throughout my career about what I did, so I knew what was missing from people’s knowledge of freeriding. Hopefully the film fills in a few gaps.”
The resulting movie is a fascinating visual alternative to the formulaic representation of snowboarding we’re all used to, and we were stoked to get the chance to speak to one of favourite riders about his life right now.
Hey Axel, how’s it going?
Good! I’ve just been surfing on my home beach in Hossegor. Was it good? It doesn’t get any better. 20 degrees, perfect off shore winds. I’m going back in as soon as we’ve finished talking!
Better make it quick then….
Ha ha! No it’s all good.
So how is promoting the film going?
Really well. I just got back from Salt Lake City where we showed it at a film festival. It was nominated in three categories, including best film, which was amazing. We didn’t win, but it was great to be nominated. After that I went to ISPO, and then to Innsbruck for the Billabong Air and Style QP session.
How was that?
It was one of the best events I’ve been to actually. That venue is perfect, and the riding was great, and the music was great. I mean, Queens of the Stone Age played, and Kevin Pearce won. He killed it. So did Scotty Lago. The whole riding level was incredible. You know, 8 metre inverts, 7 metre McTwists. It helped that the quarter pipe was perfect though.
So you’ve been travelling a lot to promote the film?
Yes, and we just won best film at a recent one in the Pyrennes. I actually missed that one cos I was in the States though. We’ve been taking it around lots of festivals, and have more coming up. There’s one in California in March, and the Danish Adventure Film Festival. I think one of the reasons it’s doing well is that it’s a documentary, which is fairly new in action sports. I mean, most of those films are pure porn, action set to music.
How is it watching the film with audiences that aren’t necessarily snowboard crowds?
Well it’s great. I mean, I wanted to make something that was understandable to somebody who doesn’t ride, and also something that would be respected by pros who know what it’s like to do it as well. That was the biggest challenge of the whole thing. It would be easy to go mainstream, to exaggerate and hype up the drama, but then you lose all cred, and no one thinks it’s legit. On the other hand, it’s easy to go ‘too’ legit. I think there’s a fine line between those two audiences and I’m happy with the way we’ve done it. People who don’t ride have loved it – like I showed it to my parents and they liked it and they’ve never been snowboarding in their lives. And it’s great seeing the reaction in the theatres. Everywhere it seems to get a really good reception.
How long did it take to make the project a reality?
It took two years. It was a long process for sure. Some stages were really interesting, although there were some heavy parts. Like editing for four months with no surfing or snowboarding was pretty hardcore. That definitely wasn’t very pleasant. I mean, if you wrote it in advance it is probably a lot easier, because then you can essentially direct the way it’s going to go. But I think if you do that you miss out what naturally happens. Sometimes it doesn’t look natural. We went the other way, filmed everything and let the footage speak for itself. It’s way harder and you end up with a giant puzzle from which you have to work out the storyline, the flow and the rhythm. But it shows the reality of what goes down. I wanted to stay away from pre-conceived notions. It was hard but worth it.
Would you change anything about it?
I know it could be shorter, and we do have a 60 minute cut for TV. But I’m really happy with with the 85 minute cut as I think it says it all. Also, it’s two films in one. One side is the history and the other side is the making of a video and how that works. That’s why it’s 85 minutes – I think it’s better to show stuff than to just having people speaking. We wanted to show that patience is a big factor of this, and we had to show this in the film. That’s why there are a couple of slow segments about the down days and the waiting around.
(Laughs) Well, I’m gonna take some time out, get out of that editing room. You know a project like this you have to do so much in the background. It’s a couple of people’s jobs, and me and [my partner] Flora did it on our own. It was a lot of work, and as I said, no snowboarding and surfing, so I really want to get back to that. In terms of another film project, I can wait. I don’t have to rush into it. If I’m not passionate about something, I can’t do it. So I’ll wait to figure it out. Maybe it’s a film, maybe not. Maybe a snowboard film, maybe not. I wanted to do a film on big mountain snowboarding and I’ve done that now. Another film could be on a completely different subject.
What’s your favourite part of the film?
I think the history is really funny. Gathering that footage was not easy. Farmer’s Rap, and all that colourful footage from back in the day I really liked. We went into a guide’s basement in Juneau to get it all, it’s so great and colourful. But on a personal level, my favourite footage is the stuff we shot at the motel, some of the really set-up stuff.
How did you get into snowboarding?
I think it was watching the Apocalypse Snow films with Regis [Rolland]. That’s why I moved to France really. But I began riding on dryslopes in Belgium – like you guys have over there, ha ha! Then I had the chance to move to Val, I got a deal that meant I could live there, and then I met Regis, Scalp [the photographer] and the other guys and got my deal with A Boards. Regis made a deal that meant the A Boards team could move to Les Arcs so I did two seasons there. My very first time riding though was actually in Les Arcs at a summer camp thing. I saw the videos and thought, “I want to do that.”
When was the last time you were on a dryslope?
Wow, that’s a scary thought. I think it’s twenty years ago. Maybe not, must be more like 15.
What was the scene like over there back then?
It was unreal. I mean, there weren’t too many people back then. It was quiet. Now everybody has a helmet and a backpack, and thinks they can head out into the backcountry and do stupid things. But it was different then. Les Arcs was more of a family resort. I mean, when I first went there I was still doing a lot of freestyle, but Regis gave me the taste for powder and showed me around the place. You know, how to get there, when it’s safe. He taught me a lot, and showed me his home, you know? It made me realise that this was the kind of snowboarding I wanted to do. I mean, respect to freestyle and what is being done now, but I think utilising the terrain is where snowboarding is the most legit. Because hitting rails and little jumps is kinda copying skateboarding. Racing – like slalom especially – is really just copying skiing. And where snowboarding is original and legit is in big mountain terrain. Not necessarily with big lines, but reading the terrain. You just have to look at the Absinthe riders; they’re freestylers but they’re taking it to natural terrain and going big. You can do this better on a snowboard than anything else. You know, go to any park around the world and everyone can do the tricks. Even the instructors can do all the tricks these days. But pros that can take their skills into serious terrain and ride properly in deep snow – it just makes you a more accomplished rider.
When did you turn pro?
It began back in Belgium. Some guy sponsored me on a distribution deal. I turned pro pretty much when I went to Les Arcs and began doing shots, I think maybe in 1992. I got my first pro model … I don’t know actually. A while back. It was in the early nineties anyway.
Oh, tons. Back then it was more like a long vacation than anything else. The scene was more mellow, and there were a lot of good times. Now it’s almost evolved into like a corporate ski industry. I mean, it’s good for the younger guys because I guess they can make more money out of snowboarding this way. But for me, I’m happy I lived in those years cos everything was new. It was all time – the parties were all time and there was a lot more craziness and everything was a little bit more rock and roll. You know, you had Palmer, Ranquet and all those guys. Today you look at the younger kids and they’re in bed at 10 cos they’re competing in the morning. At the thing in Innsbruck they were all going to bed early, I couldn’t believe it! What?! Cos you’ve got a snowboarding contest the next afternoon?
How many days do you get now on snow?
It’s hard to say today. Back then I was getting over 200. It really varies during the season. I guess these days it’s more like one here, two there. I usually try and get to Alaska for one or two weeks a year but I don’t know, I’ve never really counted. The other thing is that I’m more picky now too. I’d rather have one great day than ten average ones. I’ve been spoiled so much that after two good days in AK you don’t really feel like hitting up ten resorts and getting ten average days.
Is surfing a priority?
Surfing is becoming a big part of my life. It’s so much fun, and living on the beach where I do it’s so easy. It’s the only thing that comes close to those intense moments, you know, where you’re just living in the moment. I can only get those in big mountain riding, doing some really intense stuff, or surfing. That’s why I love it so much. It’s the same rush, the same kind of feeling. That’s what I’m after.
Where do you like to go? Or is it easier to stay at home?
I do both. In California I always surf when I can. Last year I went to the Mentawais with some friends. It was unbelievable, same as going to AK with a heli. Ultimate. Early this winter I went to Tavarua with Billabong and that was all time.
What about the films you were involved in as a rider? I mean, Odd Man Out, the film you made with Christian Stevenson, is such a seminal film in the UK, did you know that?
No way, I didn’t know that. That’s crazy.
Yeah, a lot of people cite that as a real inspiration. What memories do you have of those days?
Those were just such good times, with no pressure. Today producing a video part is a different world. If you don’t produce your very best, it basically doesn’t make it in. We were fortunate back then that the conditions were so good and it was on our local hill. Good times, and a great crew – David Vincent, Yannick [Amevet]… It really just felt like a vacation back then. Today it feels so much closer to work. Snowboarders are more like professional athletes.
Which movie were you proudest of?
Probably one of the Absinthe ones. Or any of them. Was it Blackbox? I was really stoked on some of the things in there. Or one of the more recent ones, like Saturation or POP. They’re all pretty amazing though, those films, I can’t really pick one. Actually, the Arnette film I’m still stoked on, My Way. That was one of the best action sports movies in history. People still talk about that one. And I had the part in it just before Tony Hawk!
Which riders do you admire these days?
Freestyle, it would be Romain de Marchi, Travis Rice, Gigi, Nicolas, Wolle. With big mountains, it’s different. I always have the best time riding with Jeremy Jones, Jonaven Moore and Victoria Jealouse. She’s definitely the one that needs mentioning as well, what she has done out there. Those guys are always super fun to ride with. If I go out in the mountains the best times are riding with those guys. And Yannick too. He’s still making the bridge between both kinds of riding.
Thanks a lot Axel. What’s next now?
Next, I’m going back in the water as soon as I put down the phone!