Words: Chris Moran
Photogrpahy: Didier Lafond
We often forget, but the sport of snowboarding is very young. In the early 1980s, it was being practiced by perhaps a few hundred people across America, and a handful of riders liberally sprinkled throughout the rest of the world. When the sport hit Europe it was championed by a frankly strange bunch of characters from the French resort of Les Arcs. To set the scene, the resort had been set up ten years earlier, and was still trying to establish itself as a serious rival to the surrounding resorts of Val d’Isère and Courchevel. In this quest Les Arcs had a trump card: it was run by young, trendy and adventurous mountain fanatics, and each winter like-minded Parisians with outrageous fashion tastes (even by 1980s standards) were free to hang out together and indulge in some serious skiing – and serious partying. Somehow, the resort seemed to capture the idea that the mountains were there to be enjoyed. Perhaps due to its elevated position above the valley, Les Arcs started to enjoy a kind of ‘space-station’ removal from French society, and to entice people to its liberal slopes it embraced a very open policy towards any new forms of snow craft. It was against this background that snowboarding arrived in a blaze of publicity, when Alain Gaimard – the marketing director of the resort – realised that this sport had exactly what Les Arcs was trying to sell to its clientelle – a new form of excitement and a new way to enjoy the mountains.
His vision – the Apocalypse Snow series of publicity films – perfectly captured the moment. They are an incredible slice of early 80s exuberance and quite literally, they are without peer in cinematic history. They are bizarre even for snowboard films, and in the context of worldwide cinema they make no sense at all. If you have never seen them, check out this clip:
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A re-released box set of the trilogy can be bought for around 25 Euros (with postage) from priceminister.com. For any snowboarder they are a must have item. I personally owe my snowboarding beginnings to the films, having accidentally stumbled on them when a film tour entitled “La Nuit de la Glisse” played at Manchester’s Corn Exchange in 1988. I was absolutely hooked by the snowboarding lead character, so when the opportunity arose to interview him, well, I reverted to a child-like state. It is therefore with great pleasure that I introduce the living legend that is Regis Roland. What I didn’t know beforehand was that an Apocalypse 4 is already in production, so expect to see a lot more about this influential and strangely wonderful cul-de-sac that snowboarding enjoyed in its European infancy.
Hi Regis, can I first ask: where do you live these days?
In Aix Les Bains in France, next to Chambery and Annecy, so I can be close to my company APO Snowboards.
People will probably know you as the star of the Apocalypse Snow film series. Do you still have a connection with Les Arcs?
Sure! Yeah I still have many, many friends who are there. I go there each winter and I always have, and of course the Apocalypse number 4 film is half way finished and Les Arcs are again the main sponsor.
Lets go back to the beginning – where did you first see snowboarding?
It was 1982 in Les Arcs. In fact they were opening the new village, which was really just one hotel, in Arcs 2000. I was a ski instructor and they invited all of us from Les Arcs 1800 over for the opening. Then Alain Gaimard, who was the marketing guy for Les Arcs (but also a guide himself) he had seen a brochure in La Plagne I think, which had a picture of someone riding a snowboard. Well, it was actually a Winterstick, and he thought it might be a good publicity stunt to have someone ride one at Arcs 2000. So he found the name Dimitrije Milovich [owner of the company] and invited their team over from the USA for the opening of the resort.
I read that Paul Loxton, an Australian, was one of the team members?
I don’t remember the names of the whole team now, but I remember Paul Loxton yes. He was one of the team. So they took us snowboarding and we tried it. It was all powder, we couldn’t make any turns, but the Winterstick team were already good. They were doing turns and jumps and could really ride their boards. So I was the only one of the instructors that wanted to carry on trying snowboarding. I keep trying every afternoon after my ski lessons, and hike up the road if the lift is closed. You know I made my first turn in April of 1982! I decided to go straight down, and I thought “Ok I lean over, and it turns, and it turns… and voilà! Now I get it!”. What was funny was that Alain Gaimard, he saw me doing that very first turn, and he came up to me and said “Hey, you’re the first one to make a turn.” So after that Les Arcs made a promo film for the resort called Ski Espace, and Alain asked me and Paul Loxton if we can ride in it. Then the year after we made the first Apocalypse Snow film.
Back then did you have to make your own equipment?
I bought a Winterstick from one of the team before they went back to America, then for Ski Espace I got a new Winterstick, then in the summer of 1983 I started to make my first board.
Where did you start on the design?
Oh I copied the Winterstick! But the construction of mine was wood, and not very advanced. Because you know Dimitrije, he was a genius, and he had all these materials in his boards – much more advanced than he should have been. My board rode well but compared to a Winterstick it was a piece of shit! But then after my first board, which was like a 165, I knew I had to have a bigger board you know? Because I was starting to go faster and faster. So then I made a 175, then a 180.
Can you described the scene in Les Arcs back in the early 80’s? Was it as empty as we would imagine?
Oh yeah! In the 80’s it was perfect. Les Arcs 1800 was about half as big as it is now, and of course Arcs 2000 was just one hotel. Then they make more buildings but still when we had powder there were much less people there to enjoy it. And the big thing was we had a helicopter! So we went to all the powder. We flew to the hotel in St Foy, we did east, west, north Les Arcs, it was incredible. You know between the years we made Ski Espace, and the last Apocalypse Snow film – that’s five years – I had no edges? Ha ha! Because with the helicopter I was on powder all the time, every day. I remember 83 was a very good year for powder, then 84 was good, and 85 incredible. 86 and 87 were very good, full of powder.
Regis I’m so jealous right now. Do you realise how lucky you’ve been?
Ha ha! Yeah yeah sure. I know!
It seems like monoskiing and snowboarding were level pegging at one point. Did you do both?
For me, after I did the first ski movie, I thought “You know, one day snowboarding will be as big as skiing.” Well maybe I was wrong about that but maybe that prophecy is not finished yet! So the sport was not really there at that time. The efficiency of the product was not there, but then we saw the evolution onto the piste with edges, and in 88 and 89 we got hard boots in France, which was maybe bad but it at least put people on the snow. But yes, because I was a ski instructor I did it all, I monoskied. Nobody knows but I still ski and I still have my level of skiing from when I was doing competitions.
OK let’s talk about the Apocalypse Snow films. For anyone who has never seen them they’re going to be hard to explain, because they are by a million miles the most experimental winter sports films ever made. I have to ask you, where did the whole idea come from?
They are all the idea of Alain Gaimard. And he was a crazy guy but when you put him together with the director Didier Lafond – Pfff! And then you add in the eight instructors from Les Arcs who starred in the films, well it was a funny mix that’s true. But I think the idea came because they thought “Oh we’ll put some James Bond in there” and then this idea of a concept between good and evil happens. And so the idea was that the snowboarder – which was me because we only had one – he would be the one who had the genius of the slide. He had the secret to sliding you know? And the bad guy, he wanted to get it off him. That’s it. You know Alain was ahead in his time you know? He saw the snowboarder as the star.
Were you making it up as you went along then?
Yes. Sure some of it. There was no script, just an idea. So when Alain heard about someone in Paris that had a bubble you could climb into and roll down a hill, he got on the phone to find one, and the same with the rafts. And with the paraglider too. We just did what came into our heads. And Didier is a crazy guy you know? I mean the film took all winter to make. The first one is 24 minutes long but it took 3 hours of filming every day of the winter to get that much.
And were Les Arcs paying you?
I wasn’t a ski instructor that year, I just got a free winter you know? The film was paid by Les Arcs, Killy Clothing, Rossignol and Salomon for the first one.
They are so different from any other snowboard film that has ever been made. Like the gorilla suits monoskiing down the hill chasing a guy in a florescent suit. It’s pretty funny but I have to ask you Regis, were there any drugs involved?
Ha ha! No no. Sometimes you have to remember it was just the 80’s you know? We didn’t have any drugs. We had to remember our shape and it’s not good to ride when you are even having a drink. No, there was no drugs.
In England there seems to be a neon 80’s revival, is France experiencing a similar thing and will the Apocalypse Snow series cash in?
Maybe. France is always there for sport. Like snowboarding was not coming from France, but we pushed it with the films. You know when the Winterstick team came back for Apocalypse 3, they couldn’t follow me! I was too fast for them. And they were doing the surf style thing but for me I came from skiing, so it’s a different style. It’s the same for windsurfing. It didn’t come from France, but we got better than the Americans at it. Maybe we have something special in France? Or maybe sometimes we’re full of shit? Ha ha!
The funny thing is that some of the stunts in the films stand up today. Especially some of your straightlines down the powderfields, knowing what kind of equipment you were using.
That’s the skiing style again. And I just wanted to go fast all the time. Even today I am not as good on freestyle or those things, but technique, and turning, and to go fast, I can do. I am still very powerful even if I am forty-seven because I trained as a ski racer a long time ago.
Do you still see the guys that made the Apocalypse Snow films?
Sure! Alain is my neighbour! I see him all the time. And then Didier because we’re making Apocalypse Snow 4 you know? It’s going to be very good, because we have all the new sports, and very good riders. Already we have filmed Jeremy Jones and Terje Haakonsen, he was doing the first shoot.
Really? Is it the same story?
There is a story. It’s the genius of the slide again. It’s that same snowboarder. Someone has stolen his jacket because the idea is that it is the jacket that has the secret. So the old guys from the first films, they try to protect it but they are too slow now, so the bad guy gets it. Then we get all the new generation of riders to catch him to get it back. It’s gonna be all the new sports you know? We already filmed the fly suits, and jumping from a helicopter at 6,000 metres, and we shoot this amazing scene in Chamonix with paragliding where the guy touches the snow sometimes on the way down. Very fast, very dangerous, it looks good. It was a chute from the top of Mt Blanc all the way to Chamonix. We already have a teaser available.
So what do you do these days? Are you still the CEO of APO Snowboards?
Yes. Now we’re in Aix-Les-Bains, and we have this super new product the Expresso System binding. Have you tried it? It’s a super nice binding, the best system worldwide. It opens at the back you know? When you ride this kind of binding you can’t come back.
And it’s good for straightlines too I imagine?
Ha ha! Yes it’s really good for that. It’s good for everything. You have to try it.
You seem to have led a very charmed life Regis. I think without you and the Apocalypse films then snowboarding would me much poorer. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you. You must feel proud of what you have done for the sport?
Thank you. I’m proud. I was lucky somewhere, but I take my luck too. I never had the big head. Never. It’s like that.