Standing Sideways & Moving Forward

birth of a dream

sandy_sij_riders

Snowboarding collided with the world of my brother and I in 1986. We were a couple of kids who had spent half their lives on skis, at the top of a mountain. It was a  typical lake louise easter morning, not very crowded, spring day on the slopes . We were always happier when the lineups were smaller. A few snowboarders emerged at the top of Eagle Lift. This was a total rarity, and we stalked them for as long as we could. They were pros, jamie mosberg (mouse) and another dude from the Avalanche team. We knew their names because we had seen snowboards in ski magazines and on film. The ski industry was catching wind of this growing sport and allowing it on mountains. This was a true eye opener. We were in the presence of the beginning of the modern era of snowboarding. It was a time when there were literally 4 snowboarders on the hill at any time. We knew we had to do it. There was no question. It was hard to know where to begin.

As avid watchers of Warren Miller’s legendary ski films, we had seen snowboarding appear as a sideshow part of a classic miller masterpiece. it stuck out as being something truly innovative in a pretty stagnant ski area world of the 80’s. I was 14, my brother was 12. We spent a shit ton of time on those slopes and knew every nook and cranny of the mountain (inbounds. backcountry and slack country comes way later) Every jump, and each liftline. Dad was a ski patroller so we were also well known kids on the mountain itself. We had to play by the rules,. It was literally our second home. We were restless. We had shunned racing in favour of free skiing at a time when free skiing was pretty lame and outdated, and all we cared about was moguls,  air and powder (which was considerably rare at lake louise. doesn’t really count). Lots of air. We were totallly fearless on skis…and bored of the limitations of the ski hill. Snowboarding looked impossibly cool, and the video footage, craig kelly, terry kidwell, big airs, back country booters, deep powder, all of it, was inspirational. you could rent the videos at the video store, but you’d have to search through the ski movie to find snowboard footage.

We lived in Regina during this time. Pretty much the flattest place in Canada that isn’t tundra. It kind of is tundra. Snow is more like ice and the skill hills are actually descents into valleys. It’s not exactly the mecca of ski world. This city is the death of big mountain dreams unless something so magical comes along that there’s hope. Snowboards were just that magical thing, and Jeff Wilkin’s Hit the Deck Had them. They rented them even, which was a brilliant plan, because there was NO WAY IN HELL that any kid was coming back from a rental of a snowboard and not buying it. This wasn’t hunk of plastic bullshit snurfer black snow canadian tire crap. This was Barfoot, Sims, Burton. The equipment was crude but at the time actually the most tech we had ever seen. We rented a board and set off to fernie with our parents on a ski vacation with one board between us and a coin toss in the car of who got the first day.

It puked snow all night. I want to say a foot, but it might have been more. Classic fernie trip and i knew that nothing beat fernie pow. You had to get certified to snowboard in those days. The patrol had to ok you to be on the hill by proving you could turn left, right and stop. They issued you a pass with your picture on it, because snowboards were of widely varying quality, some of which were truly dangerous. You needed a leash attached to the board and you needed to demonstrate control. At this time it was considered a fringe activity and was not expected to last.

We woke up at 5 am, put on our sorel boots and ran up the bunny slope, freshly groomed powder, cordoroy, and taught ourselves the basics of this sport. We had watched enough of it to get the concept but it was a truly new physical sensation. Hard to control. There wasnt that much media to watch and hardly any snowboarders to emulate. People looked at me funny as i got on the chairlift, certified, the board dangling off of my front foot for the first time, a total uncertainty as to how to get off the chairlift, Wondering how on earth i would get up the t-bar. It all seemed to work out, but not without an immense amount of stressful concentration. It was not at all as easy as skiing. i knew i was gonna spend most of the day on my ass.

The first run is what hooked me forever on this sport, this expression of being, way of life, aspiration and contribution, that first run was a descent into the history books, one foot of fresh fernie powder snow, first tracks on a semi crowded day. My bro was with me skiing and already stoked, but this was unheard of. It was worth every fall. There was no way i would ever give it up.

We had agreed on the day split structure democratically, as brothers do, partly by fair coin toss, but it also could have been me pulling elder rank and getting the first day. It was decided before we knew it was gonna be such an epic snowfall. It could have been a shitty day, but it definitely was not, and by the end of it, after multiple first track runs and a confidence that you could indeed take the thing anywhere you could take skis, it was pretty much game on.

Sandy’s day was not so good, but it had gotten cold and icy, a random thing that happens at fernie, where warm temperatures by the end of the day before would freeze overnight. sometimes the falling powder snow would turn to rain, and if it rained at fernie then it wasnt fun. falling on your ass because the edges dont hold on ice sucks balls. It kind of wasn’t fair that Sandy got shafted that day. Ullr is unpredictable, and snow falls when it falls. We knew enough from the mission that we needed to get our own boards. We dreaded having to bring the rental back. The 86 snow season ended on that note.

Dad offered us boards for graduating on the honour roll. When i saw my name on the list i jumped for joy because i knew that it meant, for both of us that would would begin the 1987 snowboard season with boards. Everything was going to change. I got a sims switchblade, and sandy, who was then quite a bit shorter than me, got a slightly less quality (which did not stop him!) gnu kids board. There weren’t many models to choose from and burton was already too expensive to buy.

Sandy, again got the short end of the stick, but he compensated by being the hardest charger and the most fearless scout. We sent him off jumps first. As the youngest in a male hierarchy, he was pushed the most by us, teased, the guniea pig of features, made to ride in the backseat, all as part of the hazing of teenage life. But Sandy took it well, ever the comedian, wizard with powertools and electronics, generally pretty quiet till you got him going. He was always really the inspiration for the devious, cool mischevious stuff, the technical go-to guy for board setups, as well as the instigator of the trips to the local park to climb the hill and practice with our snowboards by building kickers, which of course, he would test. He pretty much was a superhero then but we just called him the pro-star (a dig at wayne gretzky’s cereal). He was tony the tiger, the kid who just kept at it, and it paid off.

the golden age

At the height of this era, we lived in Calgary again and rolled with a crew of kids who all snowboarded the lake on weekends, as well as worked at the hill and lived in lake louise. This was an especially potent time in the development of snowboarding as it deeply took on the newschool edge of skateboarding, with its huge baggy pants and the jibbing, riding switch, drinking tons of beer and partying so hard you passed out and still made first chair.

Those were the days when we were invincible. I was a pretty decent rider at this time, with lots of style and an eye for big hits. Sandy was creeping steadily ahead of all of us with his ability to throw huge airs, and it was clear that he would be the one that broke into the big leagues, should that ever happen to a kid from the lake. There were better riders than him, but he was always awake and at the hill. he just wanted to ride all the time, not always getting the photo ops, but likely having already set the track into the jumps . He never cared about the fashion show, and had no patience for hangover excuses.

The louise locals were called Team Core. If you rode, you knew them, or of them. They feared nothing and pioneered so much snowboarding technique at a time when stuff was barely named. Louise locals rode on hard pack alberta snow, in temperatures up to -30 below, they were truly core, matching their riding with their drinking and weed smoking prowess. Room 101 was the legendary room in Charlestown, the louise hill staff dorms. where team core lived, at times upwards of 10 kids in the room. They all got up religiously for first chair, haggard as they may have been (unless they were too bar star, of which a few sad examples grew), and they took photos with whatever photographers came through the lake, looking for fodder for the canadian snowboard mags. This was 89-95.

I tapered off snowboarding as i began my second year of university, 1992, as Sandy graduated from school, said fuck it to university and went to live in Lake Louise (for a year which turned out to be a hell of lot longer). I would go to visit the team core crew whenever school allowed. As they all ripped every winter, each year they were exponentially better. Dennis Bannock, Scot Newsome, Fatty McFarlane, Greg Todds, Paul and Tim Nelson. Basher, Jonaven the 13 yr old ripper. There were a lot of kids in and out of the crews, and probably none of those kids would remember me at all. They would remember Sandy though, because he was a destroyer.

Sandy was also pretty responsible and grounded, which made him the ideal candidate for the nanny for the local hairdresser. From this odd winter job position he started to climb the rungs of the Canadian Snowboarding world. I came and visited every other weekend, took a few photos, partied with the boys and returned back to school on monday. The life was slipping away from me and the jumps were getting so extreme i spent the better part of the day getting the courage to hit them. Times changed. Sandy started to win contests in the local area and got hooked up by Rude Boys out of Banff. A kid from the Lake was catching the attention of the snowboard world.

I kind of dropped off the map into the inner city of East Vancouver. I taught Skiing at Mt seymour and snowboarded as much as i could in my breaks. The snow on the coast is wet and slushy. It never felt like i was going fast enough. It rained a lot and the experience got more and more miserable and i drifted from the sport, which admittedly was beginning to slump in the absence of good technology. I rode a few days with some seymour locals who went on to become legends: Devun Walsh and Kevin Sansalone. I was demoing a board by a then fledgling company known as Prior. So much of me wanted to drop out of SFU and just follow the newschool wave that was ripping through the snowboarding world. Young riders like walsh were slaying the entire mountan in ways that had not yet been seen. park riding was developing and rails, stair sets and park kickers were replacing half pipes as the new freestyle arena.

I kind of ended my aspirations to this world with a jarring crash on an immaculate powder day. Head to icy groomed cattrack at high speed. It resulted in a hospitral visit and a limiting of the fearlessness i once had as an aspiring pro. The drive to compete died in me, and the rain washed the snow off the slopes by mid march. Winter 94 i hung up my board and started to forget what it was like.

To make it in Canada you had to go to Whistler, and eventually team core all moved there. Except Sandy. He made the olypmic team training for Nagano, and i was hearing about all this from a distance as he won competitions all across north america, and japan. He was sponsored and had a snowboard jacket named after him. He was in magazines, although not a lot, because he wasn’t an attention whore or a party star. He was real, and he called people on their shit, as much as he stayed utterly focussed on snowboarding. He mastered the half pipe in it’s early phases, making the Canadian Team and rolling with the new and emerging snowboard elites. He wasn’t as noticed by the industry because he didn’t give a shit about the image, or the game that went towards marketing yourself. In the end he had a few sponsors, mostly people who met him and realized how great of a guy he was, how you could count on him to actually show up for the flight, or train. He was actually a perfect sort of candidate for these national teams.

During this time i left snowboarding almost altogether, except for the one or two days i would get at christmas. Riding Sandy’s used sponsor boards and boots, i would go and shred with the boys, the ones who were still around. Newsome and Jonaven moore were still too young to leave home, and their parents lived in the Lake Louise area. I’d ride with them for the day but they’d leave me half way through. They were locals by birth, itching for bigger terrain. My one or two days a year were always fun but it was a good decade that i lost the sport. It progressed so rapidly, that in the 98 olympics the world was taken by storm, as the snowboarders unveiled, on a global level, what had been happening on hill since the 60’s. Snowboarding was an official world competition sport. Rivetting and fresh. It had come of age. Just in time for the whole sport to reinvent itself.

Sandy’s career was cut short by nagging shoulder injuries. Many riders go through this eventually after they beat the shit out of themselves one too many times. They just start asking themselves why they even bother. Sandy didn’t want the spotlight, and knew he was never going to be the best. He loved to ride. As he bowed out of the olympics, the industry came looking for him to help judge the new sport as it started to gain global prominence.

The sport took a drastic change in these last years of the 90’s. Snowboarding, while now in the olympics, had become a mighty industry in the back country. The Forum Snowboard team was rewriting what the sport looked like, acted like, did on the hill. JP Walker, Jeremy Jones, Pete Line. It was clear that progression in the backcountry had proceeded beyond levels that we had ever dreamed, and i had all but stopped. It reached a level of lack of comprehension, and a lessening of the drive to put myself in danger for the trick. What was happening in air was so advanced and inverted, twisting and spinning so many rotations, that i could not relate.

I had not yet experienced interior BC powder. That comes later. At this time snowboarding was something that i saw only though the videos i watched with sandy when i saw him at home. He kept me up to date and i marvelled at the levels. He called out every single trick, knowing which way the riders rode, and what tricks were switch. He told me of advances in the technology which make the ride more stable and smooth, binding have changed, boots have changed the effective sidecuts and cambers have all inverted. It’s fascinating, I was a hippy living on the sunshine coast at this point. Deep into rave music and travelling around India. The ski industry was incongruous with my lifestyle or environmental consciousness and low impact. These were weird times with my ski family, and i felt a distance between myself and this world. The grey sleet of Vancouver was the closest i got to snow.

I read concrete powder (free skate/snow mag), and kept up with the latest films as much as i could. I never lost my love of the creative media culture of the snowboard community. In the early 2000’s the internet was making all of the latest films available at the click of a button. I could also watch all of the old classics.  I rode so infrequently that my legs nearly forgot how to do a heel side turn. the equipment i had was so old, it featured a form of step in bindings which had long since been phased out. I was wearing laughable gear on the hill at whistler during my only trips to that hill. I was an embarassment to my self, a gaper, and somehow i managed to stay upright long enough to get the drive to return full on to this passion of mine which had so long lain dormant.

Modern Day

In 2007, when i pondered on it, it had been over a decade that i had all but quit the sport. i had never really had a full on season in my life. i never rode day after day when the snow was amazing, or had a season’s pass for anything more than 12 weekends a winter. The kootenays had been calling me softly for decades, for many reasons, so i moved to nelson, ready to chase the legendary lines that i had been seeing in ski movies from as far back as i could remember. Whitewater ski area was the best kept secret in BC they said, paradoxically. in 2008 i gathered up a few possessions and left the coast to become a winter rider. I got a pass to whitewater gifted to me by my generous parents, who wanted to see me make a solid move to a ski town, which made visits much easier. The idea of living in Nelson made perfect sense. It had a night life which i catered too with my media design company, the ski area 20 mins from my door. My oldest friends lived minutes away on a lake that was epic in all seasons.

Whitewater was an utter revelation. Not only was I living the snowboarding dream i did not pursue when i was younger, and riding daily, but the snow was more immaculate than i had ever ridden in my life. I had never known powder like that, except for the very first day i had ridden. This was interior BC gold, the reason why people deked off into the short sides, past the shrine, even when they had to hitchhike back up the road. The backside of Whitewater has become the tearrain of my present day obsession. The reason i now write about how this sport got under my skin so deep that i am looking out the window all night to see if the blizaard has started yet.

My partner Niki looks at me funny when i get up at 6am to check the snow reports. I have a morning winter routine that involves scanning the Whitewater snow accumulator to see what might be in store for the day. Any more than 10 cm and it’s on. She is less of a morning person and I totally respect that. I have my crew of homies on the snow. Mark Felt gets nod as being the perfect shredding companion. It’s another identity, your hill persona, it’s gear talk and trash talk and non-stop searching for the best snow. It’s hiking when the runs are tracked out a meeting at the shrine before dropping in. I gauge my winters by the number of times my pass gets scanned, the days by the moments that stand out, fleeting and ethereal, snow on the branches, the sparkling crystalline formations of water that give speed to the flow of the carve. It is a spiritual experience, the morning descent. Still chasing that snow dragon to the immaculate whiteroom. We all have our reasons for being on the hill, but it’s amazing how focussed we can be on the quest.

Sandy is still my number 1 snowboarder of all time. It’s not even a joke. It has to do with the attitude and approach he brings to the hill. If there’s one person i know who was never caught in the image of the sport, never the poser for money, just a good solid shredder who will outjump you, outspeed you and outjoke you at least double. He was the exact ideal person for a international snowboarding judges job. When Sandy’s career as a pro rider ended with one too many separated shoulders, he was approached by a newly forming competition circuit judges committee, looking for good riders who were current with the tricks and the riders. His personality and skillset were perfect match for this role and he currently jetsets to many major snowboard competition environments to be the head judge.HE supervises the evolution of the sport by being an uncorruptible, purist, encyclopedically knowledgable and still, to this day, completely stoked on the sport from the inside out.

Last year Sandy and I met up with our dad at island lake lodge. For all of us it was the first real taste we had of the cat-skiing world. Sandy narrowly missed the window of opportunity to get flown up into the backcountry to ride as a pro. Both of us were on the cusp of that technical wave which was so earlyschool that the idea of making a living, a lifetime of acheivement in the sport was not really possible. Through Sandy’s insider connections we were sitting back in the cat and having laps of the best snow of our lives. It was coming full circle back to Fernie, where we began the adventure all those years ago. This time we both had boards, and Dad was along to watch what both of us had become as riders. It was a bluebird day. Perfect actually.
sijay_sandy_2012

Winter has some simple pleasures which make the more complicated world we live in more tolerable and worth participating in. As the world falls apart, a few morning runs  can take the edge off of an apocalypse. As the industry of snowboarding attempts to come to terms with the growing problems of the expanding consumer world, the depletion of resources and environmental impact, it is becoming clear that activities such as these offer youth the opportunity to be outside, involved with nature, and can involve many levels of discipline from geology, to botany, meterology and guiding, to the reclamation of clear cut areas, selective logging and glading, forest management and preservation and community building. Snowboard industries which actually value the ecologies of living forests could rise to become world leader in resource management. This is a pipedream which would take the sport from a pursuit of leisure to the lifetsyle choice of sustainability. I want to believe that my beloved sport could be seen as a viable and accepted activity of the future culture, more than a kids hobby…a way of life.

As they say:

“Before enlightenment, Snowboarding. After Enlightenment. Snowboarding”