Words: Melissa Larsen
Ideas are rarely singular, solitary things, born out of nowhere in a flash, like lightning hitting a tree in the dark. The big ones, especially, are patchworks formed from wide-ranging snippets of things read, discussed and overheard, of experiences had or lived vicariously through others, and of dreams imagined but not yet achieved, all woven together into new fabrics of possibility.
Take, for example, two men whose lives are literally ruled by the weather. One, raised on the ocean and relocated to the mountains later in life, has an epiphany one day, while contemplating his love of nature and the fierceness of her storms. He realizes that the snow that brings him such joy in the winter will eventually melt, flow into the ocean and merge with the waves that he plays on in the summer—and that this water will then evaporate and form back into the clouds that will bring him snow again.
Active volcanism. | Photo: Scott Serfas
The interconnectedness of it all, and the realization that he has unwittingly dedicated his life to chasing the hydrological cycle, hits him in the heart. He shares this revelation with a friend whose passion for water, in all its forms, equals his own.
The friend, an amateur scientist and climatologist who just happens to make a living snowboarding, meanwhile has been trying to figure out how to pull off an open-ocean crossing in a wind-powered boat. His brain is full of current and wind pattern data, and knowledge of how the sun and the ocean work together to create the weather systems that spin through the zones along the North Pacific Rim where he spends so much of his time.
Also lurking in the corners of his mind are pictures, floating snapshots of mountain faces and snow-covered features—"geographical oddities," he likes to call them—located in hard-to-get to places that he has either flown over, seen from afar, or imagined based off of stories told and information obtained from Google Earth and topographic maps.
Travis Rice atop the Continental Divide in April. It's debatable which is gnarlier: the hike or the line. | Photo: Scott Serfas
The conversation between the two friends about the cycle of water that guides their lives like the North Star combines with the snowboarder/climatologist's science-based knowledge of how weather works and his desire to snowboard science-fiction-like features in places, and in ways, that no one has ever ridden before.
And then, the thread of adventure that he keeps forever in his back pocket stitches it all together into the fabric of a grand, new idea: to follow the cycle as it moves in a clockwise rotation around the North Pacific Gyre—from home, across the ocean, up through fantastical, mountainous places he's only ridden so far in his mind's eye, and back home again.
Shake that idea out and not only can you see the full shape of it, you can see all the little, seemingly-random pieces it's made of.
Few things are as simple as they seem on first glance. New ways of seeing will always be revealed to those willing to take the time to look.
The view from a Japanese monastery. | Photo: Scott Serfas
And so, it may seem the The Fourth Phase is merely a snowboard film that follows the physical journey of Travis Rice and friends to a few places located along the path of the North Pacific Gyre. Look deeper, however, and you will see that it is also the story of a man who is in love with the natural world, is endlessly fascinated with how it works, and consumed by the desire to understand its mysteries by experiencing them from the inside.
A cycle is, by definition, a repeating loop. Since a circle has no real beginning or end, a story that follows one could, theoretically, start anywhere. But most journeys begin at home, so it's as logical a place as any to kick this one off.
Water melts down from the Continental Divide in Wyoming and flows out through rivers into the Pacific, where it is swept across the equator and warmed by the sun. It then banks north and squeezes through the gap between Asia and Japan. The cold, dry air blowing out of Mongolia mixes with the warm water and pushes into the 10,000-foot-high mountains of the Japanese Alps, which scrape the moisture out. This combination of factors is what makes Japan the snowiest place on Earth.
Kamchatka was a mystery. No one had ridden there before. It's the most actively-volcanic region on the planet, with coastal mountain ranges and the same basic weather-pattern setup as Japan, where frigid air blowing out of Siberia hits warmer water coming up from the south and creates cyclonic storms that tear through the area. The Kuril Islands and the Kamchatka peninsula string between Japan and the Aleutians of Alaska, so it seemed logical to assume that the conditions there would be similar to the two places on either side of the sandwich. Alas…
What we're looking for is the perfect trifecta: Heavy precipitation falling in regions with unique topography where the snow sticks, forming unique geographic features for us to play on. When these three factors come together it's like Captain Planet has opened a vortex in the Shredders Triangle. The Gulf of Alaska is on the receiving end of the hydrological cycle, and is the ultimate example of this.