Travel Stories

Alaska – The Proving Ground

Taken from Whitelines Issue 92 November 2010
Words: Ed Blomfield   Photos: Scott Serfas

If you've got the bucks (and Red Bull definitely do have the bucks) the world is your helipad

Magazines and snowboard films abound with incredible images of riding, but each winter – without fail – the most jaw-dropping shots of all come from the wild landscape of Alaska. When lensman Scott Serfas visited the state to document Travis Rice and friends as they began work on a sequel to That’s It That’s All, the result was yet another epic photo gallery. But how did these remote mountains become a magnet for the world’s best riders, and why do they continue to set the stage for next level riding? We set out to find out.

How did he get there? Where is he going to land? And what the hell is he supposed to do next? Only John Jackson knows the answers... we hope!

Try this experiment. Ask yourself who the top five snowboarders in the world are right now – the riders who are really pushing it, and who you and everyone else look forward to watching in the videos. Chances are you won’t think of the contest pros – not even Shaun White (though he may sneak onto your list for his undeniable results and sheer, ginger-maned media profile). If you’re anything like me, you’ll think instead of people like Travis Rice, Gigi Rüf and Nicolas Müller – John Jackson too, if you’ve been lucky enough to see his ender parts in the last two Forum films. OK, now broaden it out to an ‘all time’ top five, and who’s on there now? Terje Haakonsen, no doubt. David Benedek, maybe? ‘Big mountain’ Jeremy Jones? And as for female snowboarders, surely you can’t exclude the trailblazing Victoria Jealouse, or Annie Boulanger, the woman currently smashing glass ceilings with parts in ‘blokes only’ movies.

If you have no fear, you will die.”
– Bruce Giggs, Alaskan Guide

The fact is, these snowboarding legends all cut their teeth in Alaska. This rugged outpost of the United States is firmly established as the ultimate big mountain playground, and a rite of passage for riders looking to prove their talent and balls. As grizzly local guide ‘Fishbone’ put it in the Billabong documentary film Lines: “Alaska is the final test; it’s kind like Teahupoo or Pipeline for surfers.”

One look at the photographs on these pages tells us why: Giant peaks tower up from sea level, laden with deep snow which clings improbably to the steepest of faces; cliffs, spines and pillows provide the perfect natural obstacles for a lone rider (and he’s always alone, for lift queues are an alien concept in AK) to boost a beautiful air or draw an impossible line. It’s an iconic, almost mythical landscape.

Bananaman's 'front crawl' flying technique wasn't quite going to plan.

To those who’ve been there, the irony is that Alaska is far from perfect. For one, its remote location makes it expensive to visit. More importantly (because let’s be honest, money isn’t the biggest concern to pros with travel budgets) it’s prone to shitty weather. While helicopters buzzing across blue skies, and snowboarders tits deep in it, might be the defining image of AK, the reality is that these moments are hard earned. Much of the winter up here can be written off as dark and stormbound, and even in the spring, visitors spend the majority of their time getting cabin fever in one of the redneck towns. “If I can get 10 days where it all comes together, that’s like an over-the-top year,” remarks Jeremy Jones.

Having survived the down time, riders then have to be able to turn it on at the flick of a meteorological switch, as they’re whisked to the top of a peak in seconds. With limited time to scope out their run from the heli, and numerous perils to avoid (including sluff, avalanches and bergschrunds) a dream powder run can soon turn into a nightmare. Famously, the landscape is so vast that even seasoned veterans often misjudge the scale of features they hoped to ride. As Travis Rice explains, “So many times you’re standing there looking at a line, but you get up there and that little pillow you were looking at turns out to be an 80 foot drop into steepness.”

When the stars align, however, these downsides become positives. The consistent, wet storms rolling in off the ocean leave behind a stable snowpack that (thanks to the added moisture) sticks to the kind of sheer faces that would be bare rock anywhere else; massive features – judged right – become a platform for freestyle shredding on steroids; and of course, all that expensive isolation means empty runs when the clouds break.

Alaska has an uncanny knack of putting your puny existence into sharp perspective. John Jackson, dust on the canvas.

In the early years, Alaska’s location and lack of any resort infrastructure rendered it an unknown blank on the snowboarding map. As far as big mountain riding went, the cutting edge was over in Europe, where Frenchmen like Regis Rolland – star of the fantastically surreal Apocalypse movies – ticked off first descents down some of the gnarliest lines in the Alps (check out for some classic Regis footage). In America the emphasis was on style rather than steeps, as freestyle contests in hand dug halfpipes and the birth of jibbing saw snowboarding progress down a skate-influenced route.

Why do I push my limits up here? Because I’m pretty much, totally extreme.”
– Travis Rice.

The earliest Alaskan shredders, then, were local kids who had nothing else to ride. They blagged drops from the local pilots for a few dollars (though ‘heli skiing’ as we know it had yet to take off, choppers and ski planes were an everyday form of transport up in the wilderness) and asked to be dropped off on nearby peaks. Meanwhile, snowboarders from Cali and the lower 48 were developing their own addiction to powder – taking their skate tricks outside the pipe and pushing the boundaries of airtime with some giant drops – and by the early 90’s a few gnarly characters in search of new challenges were attracted north to AK. Hooking up with crazy locals and even crazier pilots, guys like Mike Ranquet and Shawn Farmer bought shotguns, wrecked cars and drank the bar dry to pass the idle hours – before stumbling out the hotel door next morning and climbing into the bird for another sketchy descent. It was a wild time with little thought put towards such boring practicalities as avalanche safety, but then not for nothing is the state’s official nickname ‘The Last Frontier’.

John J takes the frontier of freestyle into new realms. Monster double cork step down.

With the discovery of Valdez – a region of endless unridden lines – word soon spread through the scene of a new powder mecca, and more and more snowboarders made the pilgrimage. The sport was exploding in popularity worldwide and, flush with sponsorship money, film crews were able to book large chunks of heli time and document numerous first descents. Dave Hatchett’s run down ‘Mendenhall Towers’, Tom Burt at ‘Cordova Peak’ and Noah Salasnek at ‘Superspines’ were just a few of the groundbreaking AK moments captured on celluloid during the mid 1990’s.

This macho era of balls-out big mountain riding reached its zenith with the King of the Hill contest, an annual test of testosterone that saw lives regularly put on the line in the quest for fame and glory. Axel Pauporte, a Belgian dryslope kid turned straight-lining hellman, epitomized the King of the Hill spirit. His unlikely origins were not unique – it was around this time that the first British pros came to test their mettle in what was now established as snowboarding’s ultimate proving ground. Ed Leigh, in the days before his larger-than-life personality and legendary motormouth were earning paychecks from the BBC, entered the 1997 King of Hill as a humble seasonaire from Val d’Isère, finishing an impressive 12th; he was soon joined on the AK veteran list by James Stentiford – still the finest freerider the UK has ever produced – as well as Scotland’s Johnny Barr and photographer Dan Milner (whose repeat visits have seen him befriend the some of the biggest names in the business). “It’s proper wilderness,” says Stenti. “You feel like you’re out there. It’s not like being outside any resort in Europe, where you always feel you’re reasonably close to civilisation. You feel the exposure up there. You fly into these vast glaciers and you might see some bear tracks beneath you. It’s intense. And you can’t really practice for those conditions. It’s like surfing in England all year and going to Hawaii for two weeks and paddling out in 30-foot waves.”

Why does Travis Rice's shadow have no arms? Strange place, Alaska.

While the Alaskan video parts of the ‘TB’ glory years did showcase different riding styles – from out and out speed (Tex Davenport) to monster drops (Matt Goodwill, Shawn Farmer) to exposed, technical lines (Tom Burt) – the region was still the preserve of grizzly freeriders of one form or another. It took an 18-year-old freestyle kid from Sweden to break the mould by bringing these elements together – and throwing in some spins for good measure. Arriving in AK in the spring of 1996 with only a few weeks’ serious powder riding in Tahoe under his belt, Johan Olofsson was effectively a bit of a wildcard selection by the Standard film crew. But with the naive fearlessness of youth, he set about tearing the mountains a new asshole, blending steep, fast descents with improvised tricks and literally redrawing the line of what was possible. One clip in particular, from his monumental part in TB5, lives on in the collective memory: the camera pans slowly out as Johan drops into a face called ‘Cauliflower’ and puts about five turns in down the whole thing. Then the immortal caption appears: ‘3000 feet, 50 degrees, 35 seconds.’

“He rode that place without any fear because he was so young,” recalls James Stentiford today. “Now he’s older and realizes the consequences of what he’s doing, he’ll probably never ride like that again.”

A couple of time I’ve been stood at the top of a line thinking, ‘Don’t worry you’ll see your friends again.”
– Johan Olofsson

Weather, light, snow and trick all come together for one of those photogenic AK scenes. Travis Rice savours the moment.

Despite these death-defying antics, by the late ‘90’s, Alaska’s position at the centre of snowboarding progression was coming under threat. Truth be told, kids were more impressed by the cool-looking (and attainable) tricks being thrown down by freestylers in the park, or off cheese wedges, than some tight trousered maths teacher (and yes, Tom Burt actually was a maths teacher) threading his way like an ant down some distant couloir. As ever in snowboarding, style was everything – and no one encapsulated this better than the newly formed and all-conquering Forum team.

“When I started getting into snowboarding, all I cared about was freestyle, and jumps and halfpipe,” admits Nicolas Müller in Lines, “I never really paid attention to the big mountain parts in videos. I was like, ‘Ah, that’s so boring. You can’t even see his grab – what the fuck?’”

Even genre-busting Johan wasn’t immune to the industry’s lucrative new freestyle focus. Increasingly obsessed with the big line challenges of Alaska, such as his death-defying first descent of Odin’s Ladder (a line so exposed filmer Dave Hatchett confesses “I wanted nothing to do with it”) he pretty much dropped off the map to focus on storm chasing. As Jeremy Jones puts it, ““If you really wanna push your riding up here you gotta put in your time year in, year out… it’s a long term commitment.” But while Johan’s self-imposed exile might seem like the ultimate in core, after a couple of years his sponsors lost patience and he was unceremoniously dropped from the Burton team. For them, it made more sense to give a pro model to the style-conscious park rat who represented where the kids were at (and who would actually turn up to signings in Japan) than an increasingly maverick powder hunter getting boozed up in a cabin somewhere waiting for the weather.

Mark Landvik carves open a new chapter in big mountain riding. Check out the start of his line! He's actually dropped into these fluid turns from somewhere.

Every day in Alaska you can go out and do something that’s never been dome before. You go out to Mammoth park, and it’s pretty damned hard to do something that’s never been done before.”
– Jeremy Jones

Through all these trends, however, one constant remained: Alaska was still the most ‘extreme’ destination on the planet. And for that reason, it couldn’t be ignored. When a new European movie company, Absinthe Films, began exploring its terrain with a crew of hungry young freestyle riders, a fresh chapter was opened up. These weren’t some hermit-like crusties ticking lines off a list, but the very same cutting edge pros the kids wanted to watch – guys like Travis Rice, Nicolas Müller and Gigi Rüf. Throwing their talents onto the biggest stage of all was a recipe for next level freestyle, and was lapped up by audiences of films like Pop and Futureproof. David Benedek, mastermind behind the huge Robotfood films and progressive freestyler par excellence, followed suit, visiting AK for Afterlame and 91 Words for Snow. And when Travis went off with two helicopters and a fat wad of Red Bull cash to make his own flick, That’s It That’s All, the result was a high definition head f*ck. Alaska was no longer the obligatory but boring freeride section that younger viewers fast forwarded through, it was the freestyle heart of the movie – combing technical, stylish park moves with sheer natural scale. Today’s films, explains Absinthe director Patrick ‘Brusti’ Armbruster, are about “bringing the evolution of the sport to the most progressive terrain.”

Not that the pioneers were forgotten. Like those old, silverback big wave surfers passing on the baton to a precocious new generation of shredders, AK elders like Tom Burt – now turned guide – helped these kids understand the terrain and maximize its potential. “The lifestyles of big mountain riders and freestylers were quite separated in the past,” comments Travis Rice, “but in the last few years respect on both [sides] brought the two cliques together.” It helps, of course, that guys like Travis and Gigi grew up in powder meccas of their own, where they developed a love affair with the backcountry and a healthy disdain for man-made jumps. “I’ve always said the best way to improve your park riding is to stay the hell out of the park,” Travis told us during an interview in WL75.

John J does his best impression of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

As Johan Olofsson discovered to his cost, however, you can only really indulge a passion for powder – and still keep your paycheck – if you produce enough magazine and movie coverage to please your sponsors. In this respect, cameras are key to the whole game in Alaska. At the geographical and physical frontier of snowboarding, it’s not about contests, crowds or prizemoney; it’s not even about looking ‘cool’; it’s about strapping your nads on and sending it. And the only way for the world to witness this progression is through video and photos. The catch-22, of course, is that audiences get bored quickly. What was ‘next level’ one year can’t be repeated the next, and like Evel Knievel jumping more and more buses, riders have to keep raising the bar. Such is the self-perpetuating nature of shooting in AK.

But where does all this leave the rest of us? Our annual glimpse of these pristine, powder-laden peaks has naturally captured the imagination, and a heli trip to Alaska remains the dream of many an ordinary rider. Should we start saving now? To be honest, it’s a gamble. While it’s possible to strike it lucky, the infamously fickle climate means tales abound of hideously expensive holidays spent staring out at the rain. And although there’s plenty of easier terrain (as Jeremy Jones once told us, “anyone can go to Alaska and safely ride the run of their life”) most people who take the plunge go there in the expectation of challenging themselves – and are therefore disappointed when increasingly cautious heli operations play it safe, dropping their punters off on the kind of tame slopes they could find closer to home. Yes indeed, the wild days of paying an ex-Vietnam pilot a few bucks to “take me up there!” are gone. These days, AK in the spring becomes a relative zoo and heli ops are expensive, busy operations. Many of the best runs are reserved for film crews spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and your lowly group may be bottom of the pecking order. Truth be told, for a guaranteed good time you may be better off looking elsewhere. But if you’re at the top of the game, looking to push snowboarding’s envelope, there is still nowhere that comes close to AK.

“Of course it’s inaccessible to so many people,” explains Absinthe Films’ Justin Hostynek. “But so is big wave surfing in Hawaii. It’s not accessible, but that’s where the frontier is.”

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