Connecting the Past, Present, and Future of Women's Snowboarding
This feature originally appeared in the November issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine and has been updated with the full photo gallery above.
By Annie Fast
It's 7:00 a.m., the skies are clear, air crisp, and our headlights beam into the dark as we make our way through the last of the high-alpine timber toward the ridge. Our all-star crew consists of Leanne Pelosi, Helen Schettini, Robin Van Gyn, Annie Boulanger, and Marie-France Roy. It's late January, and we're on a shoot for Runway Films' new movie, Full Moon Film, in the interior of BC, Canada. The search is on for cold powder at Golden Alpine Holidays' highest backcountry lodge. We're on splitboards, a first for about two-thirds of our crew. Schettini is committed to perfecting the kick turn, Pelosi has proven to be kryptonite to the glue on splitboard skins, and Van Gyn is way out ahead with our guide, Cam McLellan. MFR is happily shuffling mid-pack, and Boulanger has concluded that she's more of a "downhill snowboarder." Much like the winter itself, production on the film is off to a late start.
These ladies would have loved to be filming already, but going into this winter, there weren't any opportunities with film crews for these top, established riders. Surprising? Yes. Sad? Yes. But Pelosi didn't see it that way—she saw an opportunity to bring an epic crew together. "I talked to all the girls, and everybody was super hyped," she says. Pelosi knew the crew would work well together, and in addition to the riders on this trip, she recruited Hana Beaman and Jamie Anderson. That was it, no more 15-rider-deep crews of the old Runway days. Pelosi's all about running a tight ship.
"For quite a few years I've wanted to incorporate pioneering women's snowboarding into the films and give respect to the riders who paved the way."
The last full Runway movie was in 2008, what Pelosi refers to as "the glory days of women's snowboarding." Reminiscing on how she was able to film in the streets between contests and travel with magazines on plush editorial trips, Pelosi remembers feeling like she was part of everything. "There was so much being put into snowboarding, so many options—there were multiple women's issues [RIP], Fuel TV [RIP], and brands seemed to be focused on women-specific products and marketing," she says.
It's not as upbeat these days, budgets are tight and opportunities are even more limited. Women's teams have been scaled back (as have men's), women's team managers barely exist, and if you want to keep your career going as a female snowboarder outside of the contest circuit, the pressure is on each rider to make their own fortune.
In some ways, this has kind of always been the case for female snowboarders, but that's not to say that women didn't have chances to film with bigger mainstream movies—Mack Dawg Productions, produced and directed by Mike McEntire, was always inclusive of women, although selective. "It was the same for anyone in the crew, especially in the old days—whoever was the best snowboarder, we wanted to have them in there," McEntire says. "And that was the same thing for women snowboarders in the movie, we wanted to have the best women's snowboarding represented." McEntire never thought twice about having women in the movies. It wasn't strategic either way, he says.
Over the years, MDP featured groundbreaking full parts from Tara Dakides including Amp (alongside Anne Molin Kongsgaard) in 2000 and Stand & Deliver in 2001. For McEntire, Dakides stood out not just as a great rider but as someone who was really into filming and wanted to put the time in to create the best possible part. "That meant something to her," he says. "I think that's why she had so many parts—she made it a priority."
McEntire points to Morgan Lafonte and Victoria Jealouse as another pair of hard-charging riders of the time, both of whom shot with Standard Films. Cara-Beth Burnside, Janna Meyen, Tina Basich, Barrett Christy, and Michelle Taggart also found success filming with established crews. These are the riders who inspired the next generation of women snowboarders including the current all-star Runway crew. Pelosi's goal with this upcoming movie is to acknowledge the influence of these riders and share their experiences and some of that old footage. "For quite a few years I've wanted to incorporate pioneering women's snowboarding into the films and give respect to the riders who paved the way," she says. "I have a lot of respect for those riders. I don't think we would be where we are today if it weren't for the female pioneers pushing it."
Pelosi plans to include short interviews and historical footage throughout the Full Moon movie, highlighting historical clips. "Back in the day those girls were doing awesome tricks," she says. "It's just cool to see the progression of the terrain and tricks over time." The idea of coming full circle, back to the pioneers, is where the Full Moon name came from.
There's no doubt the current Runway crew has already inspired the next generation through their video parts—Boulanger established herself away from the contest scene beginning in 2003, with Martin Gallant's Gathering movies, then with Alterna Films. Most notably, she had major parts in Absinthe films from 2007 to 2011, winning TransWorld SNOWboarding's Women's Video Part Of The Year in 2010 for Neverland. MFR likewise has filmed with Rome and Absinthe, also winning multiple Video Part Of The Year awards (right up until 2015 for The Little Things). Pelosi has had notable parts with Standard Films, Schettini with the YES. Film crew, and Hana Beaman represented during her run in the Grenade Gloves films. This list is in no way complete, but simply acknowledges that women have found opportunities within bigger snowboard film crews. There have always been more than a handful of women vying for a chance at exposure, and that is where all-women's snowboard productions like Runway have become a crucial part of women's snowboarding.
"Everybody was riding together and having fun pushing each other, but there wasn't a way for us to showcase that, so it came not out of frustration, but a need for something else."
Way back in 2001, former pro snowboarder Sky Rondenet and Tiffany Jones started the first all-women's production company, XX Productions, based in Tahoe. The riders included Roberta Rodgers, Janna Meyen, Tara Dakides, Cara-Beth Burnside, and Nicola Thost. They released two movies: Our Turn followed by Hardly Angels. "We were both avid snowboarders at the time—and we both loved filming and traveling with our friends and showing people that girls weren't just half-assed athletes," Rondenet says. "We decided to do a snowboard movie and we got a lot of sponsors to back it, so we had a really good amount of financial support from the industry. We were proud of what was happening at the time." Beaman still remembers watching those movies and being inspired by them as a young rider.
The next major exposure for females came in 2005 when pro snowboarder Amber Stackhouse teamed up with business-savvy fellow rider Fabia Grüebler to launch Misschief Films. Stackhouse explains how Misschief came to be: "Everybody was riding together and having fun pushing each other, but there wasn't a way for us to showcase that, so it came not out of frustration, but a need for something else." This was the era of Robot Food, and all eyes were on that group of friends who left the video companies and started their own thing. "We were inspired by them to create something," Stackhouse says.
The project was conceived collectively by the riders, including Natasza Zurek, Anne-Flore Marxer, Erin Comstock, Alexis Waite, and Pelosi. Among that group, Stackhouse and Grüebler organically took a leadership role. "We were just responding to a lack of opportunity," Stackhouse says. "It was important to show sponsors and companies in the industry the value that these girls have. Even though these girls weren't riding at the level the guys were, it wasn't about that—it was about this cool progression that was happening and this independent scene."
To this day, Stackhouse meets girls who appreciate those movies. "It's still cool because sometimes I hear it from girls who are at the top of competition scene now—the next generation," she says. The initial Misschief teaser in 2004 consisted of footage that riders and brands were sitting on that would've otherwise gone unseen (pre-YouTube days). Stackhouse and Grüebler used the teaser to bring in sponsors for the project, and while brands didn't take the initiative to create these opportunities for female riders, the girls found they were willing to support the projects.
With the backing they needed, Stackhouse and Grüebler released As If in 2005 and Ro Sham Bo in 2006. But after two packed years, the girls called it quits. "We had done our service to women's snowboarding, we needed to turn what we'd been doing into actual careers and get paid for it," Stackhouse says. She went on to head up women's marketing and team at Roxy where she produced Labor Of Love, a women's ski and snowboard film.
The following winter, Pelosi took the initiative to start Runway Films with Jeff Keenan. From their home base in Whistler, they co-produced LaLaLand and See What I See in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Pelosi kept competing and filming while directing Runway Films, and the movies featured backcountry riding, parks, and jibbing with Erin Comstock, Jamie Anderson, Laura Hadar, Beaman, MFR, Jealouse, and many more. After a two-year stretch, a similarly hectic schedule, and a budget that once-again just covered production costs, Pelosi got an invite to shoot with Standard Films and she stepped away from Runway.
But over the years there has been a demand and an expectation for all-girls snowboarding movies from both the riders who need a platform and an enthusiastic audience. So it's not surprising that yet another crew of girls stepped in to pick up the slack—Esthera Preda and June Bhongjan formed the all-women's film crew Peep Show, a street snowboarding extravaganza. Bhongjan was an established rider in the Bear Mountain park scene, and Preda had been producing all-women's mini-movies with limited distribution around Quebec. In 2010 they released Let's Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow, followed by Winter Wars in 2011 with a crew that included Desiree Melancon, Gabi Viteri, Bryn Valaika, Silvia Mittermuller, Jess Kimura, Darrah Reid-McLean, Colleen Quigley, and Laura Hadar.
Bhongjan's goal was to create an all-female movie featuring new names with a focus on personality and emphasizing female street boarding. "We wanted them to be like art videos but with snowboarding, and we had all the creative freedom we wanted," she says. Bhongjan feels this sub-genre of snowboard videos is really important. "As a viewer, it inspires girls to snowboard and gets girls stoked on riding," she says. "I remember watching Misschief and Runway videos in the morning before riding. As opposed to guys' videos, it makes the tricks seem more attainable and more relatable." And like Misschief and Runway before them, making all-girl snowboard movies was not a moneymaker. "It was very stressful to scrape by making all-female videos," Bhongjan says. "We decided to stop making our own movies and end on a good note." After Winter Wars, the riders went separate ways—some started filming with other video crews, others just stopped filming. Fortunately, the girls' hard work didn't go unnoticed. Stackhouse hired them through Roxy to create videos including a webisode series called Wanderlust in 2012 and the movie Wilder in 2013.
As the entire model for video projects has changed from DVD to digital, so too have women's movies. Ladies have taken on their own projects including Pelosi's Vision Aires series, Beaman's PS series, and Schettini's Hel series. Just this winter, the young JetPack crew, including Danika Duffy, Nirvana Ortanez, and Mary Rand, released four-episodes. Most found industry support in small measure, including Danyale Patterson's Too Hard series.
Patterson, however, has broken the two-year spell with her fourth movie now in production. She's gotten creative in the quest for funding, including the use of Kickstarter for her latest movie. In a true show of community, Beaman contributed at the 420-dollar level to support the Kickstarter, which also got her a 30-second part in the movie. She raffled it away on her Facebook page to a lucky up-and-coming rider.
Supporting the project was important to Beaman because "there has to be some kind of outlet besides contests for girls," she says. "If they can go out and film and do urban riding and make a video that gets them support, I'm totally down for that. They've found an outlet to film and do what they want to do snowboarding and I think that's sweet and I want to support that. I like to support more girls getting into filming in general."
For the Full Moon Film crew, it was a desire to be part of a group again and to document the riding that brought them together. Which brings us back to the backcountry of Golden Alpine Holidays.
"We wanted them to be like art videos but with snowboarding, and we had all the creative freedom we wanted."
Our crew finally reaches the ridge top at dawn as the rising sun lights up our little section of the Esplanades, the furthest range in the Selkirks. Valley fog rolls in, settling into the Columbia Valley way below. The girls scatter. Van Gyn has her big-mountain line scouted. The others reassemble their boards in search of pillow lines. The rest of the week plays out similarly. Schettini talks to herself all the way down her runs. MFR laughs out loud at the end of every line. Boulanger acts like she's over it, then reappears at the top of some insane sheer feature and nails it. Pelosi hilariously never masters her splitboard skins, but once reassembled, she's a pillow pro.
Back at our off-the-grid cabin, Pelosi shares her goal with this two-year movie. "We're not doing a history of women's snowboarding by any means. It's stories about who we were inspired by back in the day, how this was all connected, and who we got our inspiration from," she says. "The goal is to connect the past, present, and future of women's snowboarding." This collection of women have all had remarkable careers and continue to inspire and excite, and they all really love snowboarding, which Pelosi hopes will come across in the movie.
Our trip ended with blue skies and epic conditions, but unusually warm weather drifted in just as we drifted out. It stuck around Interior BC, Coastal BC, and all along the West Coast, dampening the crew's plans for the winter. In a follow-up call at season's end, Pelosi said, "The main goal of this winter was to have fun as a crew. We had never all worked together before. It was interesting and awesome to see the camaraderie between everyone in the backcountry despite the conditions."
Although the snow was really bad, it didn't stop them from getting onto some epic trips. The girls had planned to be on their snowmobiles in Whistler the whole season, but, in snowboarding, what you plan often doesn't work out. To find snow, the crew ventured to Italy, rode epic couloirs in Bella Coola, explored the terrain of Mica Heli, and scored some spring heli bumps in Alaska. The plan for this upcoming winter is to revisit some of the same spots and build around those locations.
Looking back, it's easy to see how one generation of riders has influenced the next. And through the years, it's clear that it's the proactive, rider-driven productions—like XX Productions, Misschief, Runway, Peep Show, Too Hard—that we have to thank for the thorough exposure of all-aspects of women's snowboarding and the continued growth. When you look at the big picture, it's clear how much credit goes to the female riders themselves for creating bigger platforms for exposure and how hard they've worked together to make it happen year after year. These videos have been crucial in inspiring the riders' careers, continuing to grow the sport, and pushing the progression of women's riding.