Published in Whitelines Magazine Issue 95, February 2011
Photos: Carlos Blanchard
Alaska for UK snowboarders is a bit like the Playboy mansion for spotty teenage boys – it’s a far-off, mythical place full of the stuff that dreams are made of but you’re never likely to get anywhere near it. You can read about it in magazines, sure, and you can watch movies. You can listen to the endlessly embellished tales about the place from your mates (who probably won’t ever get to go there either), but short of becoming a super-pro, or winning the lottery, there’s very little chance that you’ll actually get to sample its delights. In fact, over the years, the number of UK pros who’ve actually made it to Alaska is so small that even a Playboy bunny could add them up. So when Tyler Chorlton told us he’d just returned from a trip to there, we found ourselves getting strangely excited. It was time for him to spill the beans
So, AK. This was it! All the stories I had heard over the years were about to be put to the test. The number of times I’d heard old-timers saying “Ah, you’re not a real snowboarder ‘til you’ve gone to Alaska" or “You think your 1080 is cool? Wait ‘til you do a line in AK son…" Well, now I’d get to see whether they were right. Pirates producer Basti had just called me. Although he had given me a minute or two to decide, it only took a split second to make my mind up. But now, it definitely felt a bit daunting. Here I was, a new-schooler from the UK getting the offer to go Alaska – would it be the dreamland I’d imagined or just nerve-racking as hell?
Either way, I’d figured it had to be better than staying where I was. By March, winter seemed to be almost at an end in Europe. We were seriously lacking in depth of snow and the quality wasn’t all that. So once we put all the necessary calls in, Marco ‘Fichtl’ Feichtner, Arthur Longo, Carlos Blanchard the photographer and I made the 26-hour journey to Anchorage, the 49th state’s largest city. There, we would be hooking up with Russian filmer Pasha Karykhalin, and heading off on for a three-week trip to find winter once again.
We were kind of on a budget (or as much of a budget as you can be when you’re going to Alaska) so we figured it made more sense to shoot with sleds rather than spend $3,000-odd a day for a couple of heli-drops. On top of this, some of us had sled experience before, so we thought we knew what we were doing. A good friend of Pasha’s, a fellow Russian called Sergey, was to be our hook-up for sleds, beds, and pretty much everything else - our general fixer. Sergey was born in Kamchatka, just across the Bering Strait – the icy expanse of sea that separates Alaska from the Eastern tip of Siberia. A proper frontiersman, he works in a garage buying, fixing and selling trucks, sleds and whatever else he can get his hands on. He’s also currently at Uni in Anchorage, but despite that his accent is still as classically Russian as Pasha’s! It’s worth adding that Sergey also has absolutely no fear of heights or crevasses - he’s an all-round legend, in the truest sense of the word.
Upon arrival, our spirits took a bit of a blow because our luggage didn’t make our flight. Then it got lost. Typical. So for two days we had to suppress our excitement, spending the time checking out Anchorage. Looking on the bright side though, at least we got to feast in some classic American diners. I have very fond memories of Dennies… Eventually the airline company sorted their shit out and our kit finally arrived with a 4am delivery! We were buzzing, so by 7am we’d decided it was time to saddle up and hit the road. Sergey drove us a couple of hours North-East to one of his favourite zones, surrounded by a panorama of perfect Alaskan steeps. As we unloaded the sleds, the view of the mountains was insane – this was what we’d come for!
A half-hour sled ride gave us the chance to show Sergey our non-existent sled skills, and took us to our first spot. A slight windlip would provide enough pop for a decent take-off, and we could fly pretty much as far as we wanted down a big, rolling landing. It was sick. Get-in Alaska! Once the session was over, we decided to venture further into the valley and scope out some other spots. As we drove, we were crossing over some enormous slides that had come down some days before. The place made you feel very, very small.
This is pretty much always the case with AK. Every rider who has been there has at least one story that goes something like this: You spot a feature, you talk through how you’re going to hit it, you ride up to it, and when you get there, you realise it’s about five-times bigger than you previously imagined! If you did hit it you’d probably die. Or maybe worse…. So most of the time you spend your day scoping, getting excited about the potential, only to be quickly disappointed by the brutal reality. Another strange thing about Alaska is that time seems to go by really fast here. The late winter sun was still high in the sky, but before we knew it, it was 8.30pm. We decided we couldn’t face the prospect of a long three-hour drive back to Anchorage, so we found a little lodge close by and crashed for the night.
Waking up the next morning was a painful experience. Everyone was so sore from sledding, nursing all kinds of aches and pains in muscles you’d never normally use. But the sun was rising and it was time to unload again. We headed to the same valley we’d been in the previous day, and on the way up we spotted a zone we had somehow missed. Instead of heading deep into the backcountry, we decided to session that instead. Everyone managed to get some shots in the bag, so we were all pretty stoked. A storm was rolling in though, so we decided to head back to the city to recover while it passed over and dumped its dump.
Our storm lasted a little longer than the weatherman had told us it would – about a week in total! We spent the time in and around Anchorage, but didn’t get out again before it was time to head out to Valdez. The drive is a good five to six hours so we thought we'd break up the journey and go see a glacier on the way. A man called Bill took us up on the back of his sled. He also took his rifle, in case any bears were hanging around…
Thankfully, we managed to make it to Valdez without being eaten. It turned out we were staying in the same lodge as everyone doing Tailgate Alaska – the annual freeride festival that features the legendary ‘King of the Hill’ comp. It was nice to see some familiar faces, and to get the chance to hang out with some true legends, like Terry Kidwell and Nick Perata. The weather was on our side for that week too - conditions were perfect, we didn’t see a single slide anywhere, and so the Thomson Pass became our playground. Between building some nice big booters and looking for natural stuff to hit we also managed to squeeze in some lines. I mean, you can’t come to AK without doing a few lines right? Because we had naught but sleds, the lines were a hiking affair, which was hard work, but in the four sunny days we got up on the pass we got three lines in. One of these was the famous Books line - a hell of a hike but well worth it in the end. And it’s funny but again, what the old-hands said about Alaska was true. If you watch Lines, the Axel Pauporté movie that came out a few years ago, they describe it perfectly. You get the nerves and stress. You double and triple check your line. You literally shit yourself until the moment you drop in. But then once you’ve made your first turn there’s a little voice in your head that says: “ See? You were being a pussy for nothing! This is a piece of piss!" Once you’ve made that first turn and see where you’re going the nerves quickly turn into adrenaline, and then into a massive grin as you rip your way down the mountain.
Unfortunately, a couple of days into filming, the ever-fearless Sergey decided to hit a massive cliff and hurt his knee. He had to head back to Anchorage to see a doctor and get it scanned. And, as luck would have it, as soon as Sergey and his frontiersman skills left us, stuff started to go wrong. On the first morning out Pasha and I both managed to roll our sleds, sending them flipping down the mountain. Meanwhile Arthur managed to drive his sled through the back window of our truck while loading up. Nice one!
In the end though, as always in AK, it was the weather that really shut us down. Arthur Longo left for Mammoth, and we spent one bad weather day amusing ourselves on a boat trip to celebrate Marco’s birthday, but pretty soon the cabin fever started to set in. Marco and I had spotted a forested area on the way into Thomson pass and thought it might be worth heading up into to try and get some shots - It didn’t look amazing, but it had to beat sitting on our asses watching it rain. Unfortunately the rain had made the snow super-heavy, but Marco and I were pretty determined to make something out of it anyway – mostly out of pure boredom! We found a nice-looking step down, so we got it set up and waited for a little more light to hit it. With Pasha looking on, Marco counted himself in, dropped, and landed in a hole, compressing his knee... nooo!
After watching Marco sketch it I wasn’t feeling great about the whole thing, but I had a few more hits. It soon became obvious that the snow was just too heavy though, and there wasn’t really enough of it around to land anything anyway. We called it a day. We only got a few miles back down the road before Pasha and Carlos’ truck stopped dead. They’d forgotten to refill their tank that morning! Muppets. Marco and I drove Carlos back to Valdez in our truck, picked up some fuel, and after some faffing around at the gas station for a while, we drove back up to Pasha. He’d been waiting on the cold cloudy pass for us for hours alone. We put the gas in, but the car still wouldn’t start. Turned out all that waiting meant the battery had gone dead. Somehow we managed to find someone with jump leads, and… still nothing! Where was mechanic/handyman/all-around legend Sergey when we needed him? Realising we were really in the shite if we stayed where we were, we called a tow-truck out to pick up the car, figuring we’d sort it out later.
The broken down truck stayed in the RV repair for a few days and the mechanic just couldn’t start it, so over in Anchorage, Sergey decided to take matters into his own hands. He sent someone to come pick it up in Valdez and tow it back to his own workshop. Once he’d got hold of it, it took Sergey a matter of hours. He called us up to tell us he’d fiddled with the fuses a little, played around under the hood and then started it up first go! We couldn’t believe it.
Unfortunately, the weather never cleared long enough for us to take advantage of Sergey’s miracle car-mechanic skills – I got to go out just once more on a solo mission before we had to catch our flights home. But despite not really getting out, we still managed to fit in one more fuck up! On the drive back to Anchorage, Pasha suddenly stopped his truck. I looked out the back window - one of the sleds was hanging off the back of the trailer. I have no idea how we hadn’t noticed it, or how long we’d been driving for like that, but when we went round to check the sled it was in a sorry state - the tarmac had burnt through the track, the rear inner wheels and even the alloy frame!
Alaska had been an incredible experience - for the days we actually got to ride we’d had pretty much perfect conditions. The snow pack was safe and we’d had no serious incidents on the mountains – and I know that’s not always the case, so we were lucky. On the machine side, I guess we were less lucky - as Sergey said: “You boys decided to learn the hard way". But even with all the fuck-ups and frustrations, the added expense from breaking shit, and the bad weather, it was totally 100 percent worth it. Turns out the old-hands were right about one more thing – AK is like nowhere else and I’m definitely going back next year!