After battling injuries and contest burnout, Boulanger finds salvation where few women dare to tread-the Whistler backcountry.
By Jennifer Sherowski

Everyone always says that being a pro snowboarder must be the “best job ever!” And I’m not denying that it is. Getting paid to do what you love is the ultimate human dream. However, I wonder if “everyone” realizes how hard it can be, too. Your livelihood and sense of self-worth are based completely on the delicate well-being of your physical body, along with something much less tangible-your marketability. You know-hot one second, gone the next. These variables can and often do come together to create a system of pressure so intense that it eats people alive.
With that said, it’s a tough task to nurture a healthy career with longevity as a pro rider-and to still love snowboarding after all is said and done. At 25, Annie Boulanger has fought plenty of her own battles in the name of pro-snowboard-dom. She moved from Quebec to Whistler as a teenager, hooked up sponsorship and quickly gained momentum, blew out her knee, came back to win the U.S. Open two years in a row, suffered another injury that left her unable to walk for an entire season, disappeared for a while, struggled with the meaning of it all, and finally emerged as a powerful Whistler backcountry force following in the footsteps of female pioneers like Victoria Jealouse. And from the sounds of it, she loves snowboarding more than ever.
The story starts back in January of 2000. Annie was living in Whistler and riding a lot of park and pipe, as well as competing a ton like most other pro girls. That’s how you earned your money as a female snowboarder, and it’s definitely how you got your coverage. But just as things were picking up with her sponsors, she blew out her knee. “I was devastated, but I learned so much from that injury,” she says. “I learned that ‘thoughts are things.’ I was afraid of blowing my knee, so that’s exactly what happened. I learned to visualize, to think positively and to be smarter about the risks I take-because you can loose everything in a heartbeat.”
She did her physical therapy and worked hard to get strong again, but the mental aspect of an injury is often the toughest to overcome. While the next few years were some of her most successful result-wise (she won the U.S. Open quarterpipe event in 2001 and the slopestyle in 2002), she went through a period of profound discontent with snowboarding and her place in it. “I wouldn’t say I was burnt out, but I just wasn’t happy-I wasn’t confident anymore. I always hated contests. I’d had a few good results and suddenly everybody was expecting me to continue down that same path.
“It’s hard to compete when you live in Whistler, it snows so much, and the pipe and the park are always filled with snow. I wasn’t sure what to do-like, should I move to Mammoth? I was reading a bunch of psychology books and telling myself I should be into competing or I’d loose my dream. I really admire riders who are good at contests-it’s a big mental challenge. It just wasn’t my thing.”
This mental disquiet manifested itself physically with yet another injury. In February of 2003, Annie was competing in the X Games. “I really didn’t want to compete-I was just there for my sponsors.” She seriously bruised her heel, so badly that she could barely walk for the entire rest of the season.
“I like to believe that everything happens for a reason-that injury got me into the backcountry. I couldn’t walk, so I got a snowmobile and went sledding whenever the guys would let me tag along. I stressed about not getting to ride park and compete, but I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just hung out in Whistler with my roommates Alex Auchu and the Etiennes (Gilbert and Tremblay). I learned how to sled, helped build jumps, and watched the guys ride. Alex was definitely my biggest influence during that time. He always pushed me, and I always trusted him.nd of course, Etienne Gilbert and Martin Gallant were my best coaches.”
Another huge influence and inspiration for Annie’s backcountry journey has been Victoria Jealouse, a legendary Canadian rider who has almost single-handedly pioneered the big-mountain aspect of women’s snowboarding for years. Victoria took Annie under her wing, and this past season they went out sledding and shooting together almost every day. “I feel really lucky that I got to spend last season with Victoria. She’s an amazing person, on and off the snow-her years of experience, all her knowledge, her perseverance, her skills, her style … There’ll never be another snowboarder like her. I make sure that I listen when she talks.”
Now, you might be thinking, “Great, she doesn’t like to compete, so she just goes and rides powder instead-tough life.” But backcountry snowboarding, with all its dangers and challenges, along with the fact that there just weren’t any other women doing it, made it anything but the easy way out. Women’s riding was and still is very contest-centric. Good results are bread and butter for female riders and their sponsors.
“My team managers wondered why I wanted to switch what I was doing-they really believed in my ability to compete. The problem was that I didn’t want to do contests anymore, and I knew that I couldn’t do both-after being in the backcountry for a month, I couldn’t show up at a contest and get a good run together in a day. Kale (Gray), my Salomon team manager, was so cool-he didn’t think contest results define how good a rider is. And Emanuel Krebs (also from Salomon) was from Whistler, so he understood what I wanted to do. They took a real chance, because I was starting back at zero.”
Lucky for Annie, she lives in a big-mountain riding Mecca. Flip through this magazine and count how many photos have a “Whistler backcountry” caption and it’ll blow you away. “Whistler is different than Mammoth and Park City,” she agrees. “There are so many great freeriders-the riders who are respected the most are the ones who can ride the entire mountain and the backcountry. I wanted to be one of them-I wanted people to understand how hard riding backcountry is, how much more beautiful and complex it is than hitting the same park jump every day.”
You could call this realization a new lease on life, and it would be damn cheesy, but it would also be true. Big-mountain riding fulfilled Annie in a way that competing just couldn’t. “When you ride backcountry, all your skills come into play. You have to be so on it and work at it really hard. The terrain changes every day. You have to know how to ride everything, from cliffs and lines to transitions and jumps. You need so much board control and confidence, because you never know exactly what you’re dropping into … and there’s no way back. The snow might be terrible-it might all slide or the cliff might be bigger than expected or the landing flat. Or it might just be perfect, and all those years of riding come together impeccably in that one line or drop. That’s the fun of it, and when you start figuring some of it out, there’re a million other possibilities that open themselves up to you.”
Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes how brave, skilled, and straight-up talented you have to be to ride and even get to the backcountry. In fact, not until you get out there and face the elements yourself, stand at the top of a disappearing slope and wonder what’s below you-a mellow rollover or a 500-foot cliff-can you really appreciate how small you are and respect the mountains for being able to squash you like the tiny bug you are.
“I can relate to that mentality because I used to think that way-that all Victoria did was pow turns, and that the guys were just lucky ’cause they got to jump into deep snow while I was stuck in some icy park. I’d say, ‘I’d jump that cliff, too, if I had deep snow like that!’ Well, you realize pretty fast that it’s not launching the cliff that’s hard-it’s landing it! The first time I got into that position, I stood at the bottom of the face, picked a nice line with two turns into a small cliff. ‘Easy!’ I thought. Then I got to the top. It was steep, and I couldn’t see where the drop was anymore. I figured out that I didn’t even know how to line up two turns before dropping a cliff. So I went from there and started to learn how to land cliffs before doing blind pow turns into them.”
These days, Annie is finally getting recognized for her hard work with a banger part in Ro Sham Bo and a hard-won interview on these very pages. “My dream was never to win the X Games-it was to get an interview in TransWorld,” she says-and well, here we are. I’m sure most snowboarders in the know would agree that there’s a soulful element to riding in the backcountry, something different than what you get at a contest with a huge crowd, blaring music, and judges watching you intently. There’s a simple “man versus mountain” thing going on, something kind of pure and solitary. Annie has found that, and it’s given her a sort of peace-and made her a better, more mature rider by virtue of doing what she loves.
“The mountains, the view, the snow, the silence, my friends, the good energy. We’re so lucky to live in such a beautiful world, and to be able to take advantage of the mountains is such an amazing feeling. Every moment out there is like gold. You’ve got to be on it, but at the same time, you look around and appreciate where you are and what life is giving you the chance to do.”


Quotes
“Bou Bou is fearless, reckless, and from another planet. She definitely always wants to learn and try everything, and she’s always ready to go.”-Martin Gallant

“I’ve always had big expectations for Annie’s riding. She rides her sled better then lots of guys now, and getting out there has given her lots of opportunity and knowledge. If Annie steps up to the level I think she’s capable of, she will change the face of women’s snowboarding!”-Etienne Gilbert


‘s hard-it’s landing it! The first time I got into that position, I stood at the bottom of the face, picked a nice line with two turns into a small cliff. ‘Easy!’ I thought. Then I got to the top. It was steep, and I couldn’t see where the drop was anymore. I figured out that I didn’t even know how to line up two turns before dropping a cliff. So I went from there and started to learn how to land cliffs before doing blind pow turns into them.”
These days, Annie is finally getting recognized for her hard work with a banger part in Ro Sham Bo and a hard-won interview on these very pages. “My dream was never to win the X Games-it was to get an interview in TransWorld,” she says-and well, here we are. I’m sure most snowboarders in the know would agree that there’s a soulful element to riding in the backcountry, something different than what you get at a contest with a huge crowd, blaring music, and judges watching you intently. There’s a simple “man versus mountain” thing going on, something kind of pure and solitary. Annie has found that, and it’s given her a sort of peace-and made her a better, more mature rider by virtue of doing what she loves.
“The mountains, the view, the snow, the silence, my friends, the good energy. We’re so lucky to live in such a beautiful world, and to be able to take advantage of the mountains is such an amazing feeling. Every moment out there is like gold. You’ve got to be on it, but at the same time, you look around and appreciate where you are and what life is giving you the chance to do.”


Quotes
“Bou Bou is fearless, reckless, and from another planet. She definitely always wants to learn and try everything, and she’s always ready to go.”-Martin Gallant

“I’ve always had big expectations for Annie’s riding. She rides her sled better then lots of guys now, and getting out there has given her lots of opportunity and knowledge. If Annie steps up to the level I think she’s capable of, she will change the face of women’s snowboarding!”-Etienne Gilbert