Words: Annie Fast
It's September, and Josh Dirksen is packing for a trip to Chile. This is the first major snowboard trip Dirksen has taken in well over a year—notable given that travel has been a constant in his life, especially throughout his last 20 years as a professional snowboarder. But this past season was different. This winter Dirksen made a plan to stay close to his home in Bend and explore the surrounding Oregon wilderness. As he puts it: "Plans changed, life changed, goals changed." Home became more important, as well as friends and family. Overall, he wanted time to relax and focus on just going snowboarding. He found that opportunity while filming for the Insight movie, and it proved to be the right call.
Dirksen's winter started off the same as it has for the last nine with the Dirksen Derby at Mt. Bachelor in late December 2015. It's an event he founded and manages, and this year was arguably the most successful yet with four feet of powder falling over three days, 567 registered racers, and a cumulative total of 40 thousand dollars raised for Tyler Eklund, a local snowboarder who severely injured his neck nine-and-a-half years earlier. The forecasted El Niño winter started hitting the Friday of the Derby kickoff party, eventually producing 170 inches of snowfall at Mt. Bachelor in December alone.
But riding Bachelor wasn't what Dirksen was after this winter. He had his sights set on the local slopes in the Cascade Range, a designated wilderness area of volcanic mountains situated north to south through the Northwest. Access to the zone is only possible through non motorized means, which for Dirksen meant mounting up his splitboard and huffing it past the backcountry gates in search of the type of unique windlip features he's become so adept at riding around the resort. Splitboarding is now a familiar means of transport for Dirksen but a big departure for a rider who made a name for himself in some of the most iconic freestyle snowboard movies, well, ever.
Dirksen considers how these adventures have influenced his career path: "I was along for the ride and enjoying every moment, but I was also searching for something. I wanted to continue snowboarding full-time professionally and not just ride off into the sunset." These experiences equipped Dirksen with a whole new range of skills, which led him back to Oregon. The path wasn't direct, but this new phase in Dirksen's career had begun—one that seems uniquely suited to showcase his strengths, specifically his mastery of stylishly turning his snowboard.
Fast-forward a few years, and we find Dirksen deep into the exploration of the Cascade Range in search of the slashable windlips unique to this area. Dirksen says, "I've always dreamed of finding a version of Bachelor without chairlifts—just splitboard access, no crowds and no problems—and it turns out it's hard to find. But I've been able to narrow down my search by focusing just on the treeline area of the local terrain." Too low and it gets gradually flatter; too high and you get icy, hard conditions.
Dirksen has been exploring as far as Mt. Hood to the north and Mt. McLoughlin to the south, which he sees as just a small slice of the endless possibilities in the Cascade Range. He's relied on his 30 years of exploring Oregon to find mountainsides that would not only pick up the unique windlip formations but also provide accessibility to get in and out—he didn't want to spend all his time skinning through the flats and the trees. He was interested in spending time in the areas and exploring the geography.
In the process he became aware of how quickly windlips could come and go. He says, "You know, you don't notice as much at Bachelor because they come so easy, but the windlips don't last long. There are glorious mornings where windlips are perfect, but then they're gone by the end of the day because they kind of bake off." Dirksen explains, "It's an exact moment that you want to be there, which is the nature of backcountry snowboarding in general."
This exploration turned out to be rewarding in and of itself and has given Dirksen renewed motivation and the personal satisfaction of doing something new, regardless of whether there was anyone there to film it. "I don't see myself as going out just to get a shot," he says. "You know, I hope I get a shot so I can keep my job and keep doing what I love, but it's a different way to look at it. I try to keep myself genuine by doing what I truly enjoy, and hopefully other riders are inspired to do the same." Dirksen kept up these personal adventures and then along came TransWorld knocking on his door.
By the time he started filming for Insight this winter, Dirksen had mapped out and ridden dozens of windlip-packed ridges and gullies. "The windlips really were the focus of my season," Dirksen says. "My main goal was simply to find them; my second priority was to ride them, and then filming them was just a way to bring my friends along."
Everybody was invited, and two of the snowboarders who took Dirksen up on the invite included Nils Mindnich and Alex Lopez, but equally as stoked were local snowboarders and close friends like artist Adam Haynes and high school teacher Andy Benhardt. Dirksen recalls, "A really special part of my year was seeing every level of rider enjoy and excel in the type of terrain we were finding. It's truly world-class terrain for any level of snowboarder."
Dirksen sheds light on why this style of snowboarding matters: "Sometimes I worry that snowboarding is losing its core population to rapid progression. It's refreshing to discover the other sides of snowboarding that are equally as challenging but without the same worries and dangers." His approach to riding this terrain was to truly enjoy it. He says, "My goal was to look and feel comfortable, loose, and relaxed—to be able to forget all my worries, zone out, and just drop in." A simple request, but one that's not easy to find at the top levels of snowboarding these days.
Comfortable and relaxed are two words often used to describe Dirksen's style. There's also a frequent reference to "surfy," but Dirksen sees it a little differently. "Surf is definitely an influence on this type of riding, but it's also influenced by the skateparks around Oregon—you're finding lines, doing airs so you can hit a pocket and get more speed—it's about the creativity of getting down it with flow and speed." He explains, "At famous skateparks like Burnside in Portland, the challenge is not just doing the tricks, but finding creative lines. Skateparks in general are obviously flat with transitions and flow, and that's what the mountains feel like."
Dirksen is upfront and proud of this mellow style of riding being a departure from the traditionally progressive freestyle snowboarding of his past. He's more interested in mastering his board control and in venturing out and exploring new terrain as a new type of progression. Besides, he says, his goal is to share this style of riding with anyone and everyone, not just the top riders in the sport. And with that new approach and new direction, he was led into an incredible new world this season where he could pursue his career as a professional rider while also finding balance of spending time with his family and friends.
On off days he'd ride the resort, often spotted carving down the summit with his three-year-old daughter along for the ride on his back. On the best days he was usually home for a late dinner if he wasn't camping out in the backcountry overnight. It was the perfect formula for any rider, regardless of age, ability, or financial means.
The conclusion Dirksen has come to is that the best snowboarding is where you look for it, whether it's simply out your backdoor or, in the case of his upcoming trip, at the bottom of the world in Chile. For Dirksen, his adventures this past year and in the future are about finding the snow, waves, and the mountains where he feels the most comfortable. He figures if he can find that, then he can look forward to at least another 30 years of satisfying turns.