Still riding the wave
Interview: Matt Barr
Whichever way you paint it, James Stentiford is an enigma. He’s 36, and yet he’s still making a living from snowboarding and riding better than ever – in a sport that always values youth over experience. Even more impressively, he’s done all this by sticking to the type of riding he knows and loves best, and by steadfastly refusing to kowtow to any trend. Jibbing, tight punk pants, baseless bindings, cut down boards, step-ins, those ridiculous ‘tall tees’ – the man they sometimes call ‘The Pig’ has outlived them all. At the time of his first White Lines interview back in 1995, Stenti could count Chris Moran, Steve Bailey and Stu Brass as his contemporaries on the UK pro scene. Now it’s guys like Ben Kilner, Dan Wakeham and Dom Harrington – riders in some cases almost fifteen years his junior.
And now our most respected freerider has got a new gig team managing for DC, one of the most youthful, cutting edge teams around. It’s a further demonstration of his ability to bend his considerable experience and talents to yet another facet of a seemingly unending career. Just how does he do it? How does this lone freerider, bobbing along in a sea of transient park kids, stay afloat? Part of the answer lies in James’s absolute control over his own destiny and his unspoken, almost zen-like charisma. In every area of his life, James is so determined and single-minded that it is nigh–on impossible not to be affected by it. Left to my own devices I like a drink, love socializing and really see exercise and healthy eating as a baneful yet necessary evil. Yet spend a bit of time with Stentiford, as I am fortunate enough to do each winter in Chamonix, and I’m reaching for the mung beans, dusting off the yoga mat and promising myself I’m going to quit drinking. Even when I was on the blower with him to do this interview I could feel his influence seeping it’s way down the phone line. As I listened to James quietly and determinedly outlining his plans for the coming winter, I could feel myself growing unhealthier by the second. By the time the chat had finished, I’d decided to hit the pool and cook myself a nice, organic meal later that evening. You can’t explain it. He just has that effect on people.
This type of unforced magnetism is an attractive quality. Our erstwhile editor Ed Leigh was making a nod to it when he once referred to Stenno as ‘The Silverback’. I daresay it drives Penny, his poor, long-suffering girlfriend, absolutely insane at points as she contemplates yet another season with Stenti schlepping his way around Chamonix. But it does help to explain why James is pretty much the big brother of the entire UK scene, and the one shredder who has managed to keep his concentration on the one thing that really matters – riding – while all around him have lost their heads at various points over the years. Perhaps ‘enigma’ is the wrong way of describing James. ‘One-off’ would be better, and long may he continue to be so.
As a rider known for freeriding and (for want of a better phrase) ‘keeping it real’, is it weird to be taking charge of one of the youngest and most gangsta teams around?
Ha ha. Well for starters, I haven’t always been a ‘freerider’. Obviously I was a skater first and foremost. I also did a lot of park and rail riding over the years. So I’m not completely out of touch with the kids.
So why have you got that reputation?
Because that’s my passion. That’s what I like most about snowboarding. Hiking up, finding a nice line and basically being in the mountains. It’s what inspires me. I felt confident on the park and hitting the rails, but as you get older it doesn’t really interest me. I can do that on my skateboard. But yeah, I guess it is a bit weird taking charge of one of the ‘yo-est’ teams in snowboarding. I’m enjoying it to be honest. Initially I was a bit wary of team management. I didn’t know if it would appeal to me, but once you start you realize how all those years of riding and being in industry have built up loads of knowledge.
So what life experiences are you gonna try to pass on to your team?
Er… god I don’t know. I find kids these days, they seem to expect a lot. I don’t know if that’s just the UK scene. A lot of the ones I come across, for the standard they ride at, they’ve got a funny idea of what they’re worth. Especially looked at from a Euro perspective. People definitely have high expectations. So I think some of them could definitely do with some realism, and to be aware of how lucky they are. If they were from Switzerland or Sweden, countries with uber amounts of talent, they wouldn’t be getting a free snowboard. I mean, don’t get me wrong, obviously a lot of them are humble. But a lot of them want the world. I get emails from kids wanting money and I’m a bit like ‘Er…’ So I might try and instill some humbleness and appreciation in them. Anyone who gets free kit and gets to go snowboarding is a very, very lucky person. A lot of them don’t see that. The other thing they don’t see is that it’s not just about being a good rider. That alone doesn’t make you marketable to a company. There is so much more to it than that – communicating well, putting yourself across well, being available. Just riding isn’t going to cut it in this day and age.
What’s the best line you’ve ever done?
Jesus Christ. There are so many! I’d have to think about it.
Come on, one must have popped into your head then…
One recent one stands out, the season before last in Chamonix. Me and Johno (Verity) hiked a peak at the back of Brevent. Milner shot it, and I think Ewan filmed it. That one came together perfectly, and that gave me the sort of buzz I’m looking for. It doesn’t always happen, cos sometimes you get it wrong. That one was in Gendle’s film, not Terminal Ferocity, the one before.
How often do you get that a season?
Quite often I think. The biggest buzz is riding pillow lines on bad weather days, when there is a lot of snow. You remember those days. Days you look at lines you couldn’t normally do, but there’s that much snow you know you can make it. I get that a lot in a season in Chamonix. Last season, even though it was rubbish, I still had plenty of good days. Up the Aiguille du Midi I get that every day to a certain extent. That line I just described was particularly memorable though, as it worked out how I wanted it to. Often you’ll ride the line, have it mapped out but then you’ll drop in and things change. The snow might move, or you have to think on your feet. It’s when you visualize it and it works out that I get that feeling. That’s what I’m after. But obviously your imagination doesn’t always match the reality.
What’s the scariest experience you’ve had in the backcountry?
Well, I’ve had plenty of them. I actually get really, really scared. Every time I take on a line I think of the worst-case scenario. Obviously the avalanche experiences I’ve had with Steve Bailey in Les Arcs and Justin Allison in NZ are the worst things. You’re completely ignorant of the power of the mountain and avalanches until you’ve seen them happen up close. In the early days we were happy riding around Chamonix, jumping off anything, not having transceivers. But when you see an avalanche up close, the power of it, the roar and how scary it is, it changes you. I’m pretty much always scared, which I think is a good thing. If you’re not scared you’re quite likely to end up killing yourself. But then I guess something kicks in and you overcome that fear to do the line anyway.
Is that what it means to be good at it? Not turning away when you get scared?
Well I think you either have that drive and mechanism in you or you don’t. It’s all about your comfort zone really. I was talking to this guy Cottee in Ireland and asked him about it. He’s a surfer who takes on massive waves, and to me it’s absolutely insane what he does. But he says you get used to it and learn to judge bad situations. It’s the same for me in snowboarding. I look at it and can generally see how I could do it, and how I could get out of it if something goes wrong. I guess you learn to judge it.
But I think I’ve just got something in me anyway. In snowboarding, there have been loads of days when I’ve been out with Dan (Milner), shitting myself and thinking ‘I really, really don’t want to do this’. The fear kicks in, or you’re tired. But at that moment I can always find a way of getting over it. Once I can’t it’s time to stop I guess.
I remember reading your first interview in White Lines and you were very opinionated about the state of snowboarding. Do things still piss you off about snowboarding?
Yeah. Of course. I think if you’ve been involved in it since the early days you see the early days as the golden years of snowboarding. I guess things have to change as it grows. But I do think it’s a bit up its own arse right now. The industry seems stuck in a rut, not sure where to go. I don’t want to sound like a bitter old man, but as a freerider I feel a bit like a vert skater during the 90s. A rare species. The mags are all about park, jibbing and tricks really. And there is just so much more to snowboarding than that. I think it needs to be more all encompassing, because there are so many rad elements to snowboarding. It’s almost like we’re trying to be like skateboarding, which just appeals to a limited amount of people. I mean, skating is hard. It hurts. There’s a reason why it attracts the kind of young person and attitude it does. Whereas snowboarding is about the mountains ultimately, and this isn’t really reflected in the media and the companies that promote it. I think it needs to take a step back. I’m not saying the mags should just be full of freeriding and lines but it does need to be all inclusive. Some of my favourite shots are of Gigi and Nicolas Müller in Alaska, freestylers who are taking it to the mountains. It’s a new challenge.
Would you say single mindedness has been pretty important in getting you where you are today? Most people have buckled under the pressure from partners/work/real life by the time they get to their mid thirties. How have you managed to avoid it?
I think that’s been a conscious decision of mine. I think since my late 20s, I’ve known what makes me happy, and I know what I want and what I’m looking for. I’ve made sacrifices in a way – no kids, no settling down, four or five months in Chamonix every year. I guess it’s a love for the mountains, that’s what really drives me. I’ve pictured the scenario of it being January and knowing I’m not going away for the season it would kill me to be honest. If I ever found myself in that situation, I’d sell my house and live off the money. It’s a love of snowboarding and the mountains that inspires me. It’s just such a powerful environment. It’s a little like an escape from reality.
What’s so bad about reality?
Well, there’s a lot of greed out there. The world is pretty fucked up these days. Everyone seems to be trying to rip you off. You have to constantly be on your guard to make sure no one is trying to take money from you, especially in the UK. I’d rather live in a little hut in the mountains, go snowboarding and forget about it.
Where could you settle?
Ha ha! Well, as much as I slag it off, I can only really see myself settling in Devon in the foreseeable future. It’s a nice pace of life, and there’s a good community. What you realize as you get older is that the most important thing is to have a good group of friends around you. Any place has its advantages and disadvantages, but a good group of friends is the most important. And waves obviously. Croyde is good like that. Summer I get sick of it, but then in the autumn it’s great, once everyone has left and the crowds have gone home. I think I’d find Ireland and Scotland too bleak in the winter. I also couldn’t handle it in the mountains in the summer. As soon as the temperature rises, I always think I’ve got to get away to the sea. Ha ha! I think when it comes down to it I’m going to be a transient forever, a nomadic traveller.
Image One: – ; Image Two: Dan Milner; Image Three: James McPhail