Tracking Giants : In Search of the Origins of Freestyle

French legend Jean-Baptiste Charlet, came out to ride with Arthur Longo, Victor Daviet, and Victor De Le Rue while they were filming for Origins in Italy. Photo: Chris Wellhausen / Origins
Chris Rasman (left) and one of Canada's first backcountry snowboarding pioneers, Martin Gallant, soaking in the Whistler backcountry. Photo: Rusty Ockenden / Origins
Chris Rasman, keeping with tradition in the Whistler backcountry, BC, Canada. PHOTO: Scott Serfas / Origins
Regis Rolland, the godfather of French snowboarding at Les Arcs, where he first learned to ride in 1982. Photo: Nick Hamilton / Origins
We returned to St. Joseph's last winter to session the rail Gallant first hit. Jeremy Cloutier, 2015. Photo: Erik Hoffman / Origins
Kazu Kokubo is on his way to legend status. Otaru, Japan. Photo: Darcy Bacha / Origins
Martin Gallant boardslides at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Quebec, 1993. This was the opener to the TransWorld SNOWboarding feature, The Last Resort, from the January 1994 issue. It was the first full feature TransWorld ran dedicated to urban riding. Photo: Eric Berger
Arthur Longo, Victor Daviet, and Victor De Le Rue get some turns with a rider they all looked up to when they were growing up—Jean-Babtist Charlet. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

We set out to find the people, places, and spots that shaped freestyle snowboarding at five locations around the globe for our movie, Origins.

This feature originally appeared in the October issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding and has been updated with the gallery above. Subscribe here.

By Gerhard Gross

David Vincent is the Jamie Lynn of France. That's what everyone we've met in the French Alps had told us so far. Like Lynn's legacy in the US, Vincent is one of the country's most stylish riders, they say, known for bringing skate style to the slopes in the early-'90s with grabs between the legs and tweaked McTwists. If Regis Rolland is the father of French snowboarding, Vincent is the father of French freestyle. He's one of the key riders we're trying to interview, but the rumor is he doesn't want to talk about snowboarding anymore.

At the moment, TransWorld SNOWboarding content director Nick Hamilton, Origins director Theo Muse, and I are headed to Les Arcs, the epicenter of French snowboarding. Under a deep-blue February sky, the only clouds clinging to the towering peak of Mount Blanc, we're on our way to interview Regis Rolland at the mountain where he found the inspiration to start the first French snowboard company.

The previous day, Nico Droz had toured us around Avoriaz, home of France's first snowboard park. Greeting us in baggy, worn Analog cargo pants and an iFound varsity jacket open just enough to flash a thin silver chain, he hardly looked different than when he first appeared to international audiences in the friends section of Forum's 2000 movie, The Resistance. Once strapped in to a 2016 Yes 20/20 sample, he was as smooth as ever, spinning off side hits on the way to share the stories behind the infamous Dave's Cliff and the Avoriaz Road Gap.

That evening, as the Aiguille du Mid and its surrounding peaks shut the last daylight out of Chamonix, we rolled up to the Boardriders shop to meet with Jean-Babtiste Charlet, another monolithic French rider. Along with Guillaume Chastagnol, he's one of the guys Victor Daviet and Arthur Longo drew influence from growing up. We hoped he'd have time to join us while Longo, Daviet, and Victor De Le Rue sessioned a jump for their parts.

Nico Droz on the deck of his chalet in Avoriaz, France, home of France’s first snowboard park in the early-’90s. Photo: Nick Hamilton

Japan

At the start, the plan for Origins was typically loose. While the 15 pros in our film worked on their full parts, Muse, Hamilton, and I would travel to each of the five locations in the film—France, Japan, Quebec, Whistler, and Mammoth—and try to talk to as many of the legends who shaped the local scenes as we could. Yeah, real tough job. But in a culture that values the pursuit of pow days over almost anything else, there are no guarantees who would be around to get on camera.

Before this trip to France, Muse and Hamilton spent the first three weeks of January filming in Hokkaido, Japan. As the north island got hammered with pow, they met up with Kazu Kokubo, Kohei Kudo, and Teddy Koo, the three Japanese riders filming Origins parts. Stacking shots was on the agenda but the real task was to trace the freestyle movement in the region from the riders' point of view.

The movie had just gotten the green light at the beginning of December and what Muse and Hamilton filmed in Hokkaido would help define the rest of the project. While they were lucky enough to get buried in Japanese blower, navigating the deep language and cultural barrier wasn't easy, even with the translation expertise of Koo.

For Kokubo and Kohei, the closest connection to their roots is the Seven Samurai crew and the pipe at Makomanai, where they learned to ride transition, so Muse and Hamilton head there to capture the link.

Arthur Longo, Victor Daviet, and Victor De Le Rue: The current generation of French riders leading the charge. Arêches-Beaufort. Photo: Andy Wright / Origins

France

From the base of Les Arcs, we ride the funicular to Arcs 1600 village where Julien "L'Arrogs" Haricot has offered to fill in some blanks on our timeline before we meet Rolland. Haricot is a fast talking native of Vienne, whose energy and wealth of snowboard trivia is rivaled only by his job titles. To name a few: TTR judge, international team manager for Bataleon and Switchback, co-founder of The Reels snowboard film festival, and the film company Psykopit, which made snowboard movies from 2000 to 2006. He's deeply involved in the scene here and it turns out he knows Vincent. He thinks he may be able to get us an interview.

Moments after Haricot finishes connecting the dots on France's biggest riders from Vincent to Charlet and Mathieu Crepel to Longo, Daviet, and De Le Rue, Regis Rolland arrives with a broad smile, board in hand. He's here to teach snowboarding to a few clients and has cleared the afternoon to ride with us.

Just six months earlier in September 2014, Rolland parted ways with APO Snowboards after cost overruns while developing a new step-in binding. APO was the third iteration of his brand, which started with Apocalypse Surf from 1986 to 1991, followed by A Snowboards from 1992 to 2002, and finally APO in 2003. He could easily be embittered after nearly 30 years of watching his brands rise and fail, and in the case of A, getting fired from the company he founded. Instead, the 54-year-old is brimming with energy and almost immediately begins an animated discussion about his technique for powerful heelside carves, which involves opening the shoulders, raising the back arm, bending the elbow while turning the hand in, and extending the back hip.

We've asked Rolland to take us to any of the lines from Apocalypse Snow, his 1983 film, which brought Les Arcs and French snowboarding to the world. We follow his remarkably smooth turns to a bowl beside the Comborciere lift where a series of steep chutes run down a 400-foot cliff face. As Muse sets up the camera, he points to one line near the middle that he straight-lined half of 31 years ago.

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"When you go straight down in a couloir, which is about 40-degrees, you get high-speed very fast," he says. "In about two-seconds you get about 80 miles per hour."

Back then, as the only rider on Les Arcs, Rolland had to teach himself the basics of turning and stopping. In his rapid-fire English, he tells us that a chance meeting with the Winterstick team in 1982 left him fascinated by snowboarding and how, after experimenting with handmade presses for years, he brought his boards to market in 1986. Two years later, he put a 20-year-old Vincent on the team.

"The way he was doing his airs and methods—super nice," he says. "When we did the first pro model with David Vincent in France, we sold about 30 to 40 percent of our production of only David Vincent pro model."

We end our day with Rolland on a run off the Aiguille Rouge, the highest peak on Les Arcs at 10,500 feet, and ask him if he'd able to put us in touch with Vincent, whom Rolland sponsored for 17 years. That turns out to be a mistake.

The next day, we hear back from Haricot. He's contacted Vincent, but Rolland called first and now Vincent refuses to be interviewed. Later, we find out that Vincent is still furious about unpaid royalties for his pro model during his final year riding for A and blames Rolland.

Snowboarders often have an uneasy relationship with business and company owners can sometimes be more interested in inventing and riding rather than dealing with the realities of commerce. Look no farther than the Sims story. Here we've bumped into the phenomenon again.

Charlet, however, is down to get out with Longo, Daviet, and De Le Rue and a huge storm is forecast to hit the Italian side of the Alps. As the crew mobilizes to move south, Hamilton and I pack to head back to the US, while Muse and I make plans to meet again in Canada a week later.

Quebec

Martin Gallant boardslides at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, Quebec, 1993. This was the opener to the TransWorld SNOWboarding feature, The Last Resort, from the January 1994 issue. It was the first full feature TransWorld ran dedicated to urban riding.Photo: Eric Berger

We returned to St. Joseph’s last winter to session the rail Gallant first hit with Jeremy Cloutier. Photo: Erik Hoffman / Origins

It's fucking cold in Montreal. The coldest February since 1889. Dark clouds sweep overhead, pushing south to the Saint Laurence River, then west, giving us a few minutes of sun before rushing back to drive stinging snow into our faces as we try to build a jump to the rail at the top of St. Joseph's Oratory. There's a wind-blasted layer of snow that's bonded to ice on the step so thick it bends my shovel when I try to chip it. This is where Martin Gallant, along with Bryan Iguchi, hit the first street rails outside of a resort area to be published in TransWorld SNOWboarding. The story, called The Last Resort, ran in the January 1994 issue while the video shots appeared in Adventurescope's Speak No Evil, adding to snowboarding's fast-moving expansion beyond resorts.

These days, the spot is a bust. There's a tight kink rail that JP Walker and Bjorn Leines hit in True Life back in 2001, but security is so tight that the chances of getting a session in are low. When I said that I wanted to go there to try to replicate the shot of Gallant's board slide that ran as the opening spread to the story, most of the Brothers Factory crew advised against it. Muse and I had just finished a week of helping Will and Charles Demers film Jason Dubois, Jeremy Cloutier, and Frank Bourgeois in Chicoutimi and wrapped up a day of interviews about the Red Ledge at Quebec City's Montmorency Falls. After some convincing, Cloutier finally agrees to drive to Montreal with us and photographer Erik Hoffman.

Sure enough, Muse had barely set up his tripod to get a few establishing shots of the oratory before a security guard barged over to ask if we had permission to film. Of course we didn't. I was gearing up for a screaming match when he said he could get clearance if we followed him to the administrative offices. Skeptical, Muse and I drove to the top of the hill where the guard brought us to an office under the rail we were hoping to hit.

Admitting that we're at a National Historic Site, also Canada's largest church, to hit handrails didn't seem like it would sit well, so when the communications director appeared, we started spinning our yarn about working on a historical documentary. We just needed to get a few establishing shots of the oratory, Muse said. Meanwhile, Cloutier and Hoffman, who had been wandering around looking for other features to hit, found their way into the office.

Cloutier introduced himself and then tried a surprise tactic—honesty. We were working on a movie about the history of snowboarding, he said, and the rail above these offices was likely the first street rail ever hit in Quebec. Maybe it's the fact that a few stories about urban snowboarding had been on Quebec news channels recently, helping to explain to the masses what riders like Cloutier do for a living, but the woman suddenly warmed up to the idea that such recent history happened here. I showed her the photo of Gallant on my phone to seal the deal, and somewhow she cleared us to session.

The latest snow squall has just blown by and we've finished packing the lip of the jump with a combination of ice and sugary snow. Cloutier hikes up the snow-covered steps behind the steps and drops in for a frontside boardslide. The run-out is only about 20 feet long before ending abruptly in a metal fence, which guards against a drop to the courtyard below. He barely gets his board parallel to the fence before slamming into it. Cloutier is goofy foot, so to recreate the Gallant photo on the next round, he drops into a switch boardslide. After three more tries, Hoffman finds the right timing and angle for the shot and we get what we came for.

The next day, we hear from Frank Bourgeois that some of his friends are reinstalling the Perfect Rail in Trois-Rivieres. Built by David Gauthier on a set of rarely used steps, in 2005 the Perfect Rail became an iconic spot that the city tore down three years later. For one day, Gauthier wants to put the rail back in and Muse is going along with Bourgeois to capture it.

I have to head to Colorado for the US Open, but Muse and I make Mammoth our next meeting place.

Mammoth

Billy Anderson at Mammoth Mountain, 1994. Photo: Jamie Mosberg

Billy Anderson has just wrapped up the awards ceremony in Mammoth's Main Lodge for the third annual JLA Banked Slalom. Trevor Jacob and Elena Hight won for the second year in a row. It's the kind of contest that brings everyone together to ride from pros and industry heads to locals, parents and groms. Anderson floats around the room catching up with friends and giving interviews to local media. With a busy season for all of us, it's the only time to get him on camera at his home turf, so Muse and I sit and wait.

Anderson has seen the scene grow here from when he was a grom lurking at Storm Riders shop to the explosion of the Mammoth Unbound park scene in the late '90s. His uncle Bill built the first guerilla terrain park out by Chair 12 on a run called Secret Spot, he tells us behind the Main Lodge as the cats groom the park in fading evening light. In those early days, he says it was more about riding the mountain and finding powder, but soon Mammoth became a park mecca for riders looking to prove themselves, "like the North Shore for surfing."

Anderson tips us off to the other players that helped make the Mammoth park a talent-magnet when Origins riders John Jackson, Eric Jackson, and Kimmy Fasani were coming up. There are the obvious people, of course, like his brother Jeff, Danny Kass, who grew his Grenade crew here, and Eddie Wall, who went from nighttime janitor to pro on these slopes. But there are also those behind the scenes who made Mammoth what it was—park builders like Josh Chauvet and Oren Tanzer. With a few more names of people we need to interview, Muse and I once again part ways, but not before setting our sights on Whistler for the final days of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival in late April.

Whistler

Chris Rasman (left) and one of Canada’s first backcountry snowboarding pioneers, Martin Gallant, soaking in the Whistler backcountry. Photo: Rusty Ockenden / Origins

The problem with Whistler isn't finding people to talk about the history of snowboarding in the area, it's making a cutoff. In the first three days, we sit down with DCP, Shin Campos, JF Pelchat, Ken Achenbach, Stu Osborne, Alex Warburton, and Rube Goldberg. We've gotten in touch with Devun Walsh and he's coming up from North Vancouver to ride and talk about the great transition from filming on Whistler/Blackcomb to the backcountry. Martin Gallant has also promised to come out sledding in Brandywine, if it ever gets sunny. We'd like to talk with Kevin Sansalone, but he's over surfing on Vancouver Island.

In each location we visited for Origins, the legends of the past are still snowboarding, still a part of the community. But Whistler is by far the most vibrant. Not only is the scene thriving, but DCP, Campos, Pelchat, Achenbach, Warburton, and Walsh all have kids who are already riding.

The Manboys, Rusty Ockenden, Matt Belzile, and Chris Rasman, well, they haven't settled down so much. They are, however, back from a spring filming mission in Stewart, BC. They still have a private hip session planned in Harmony Bowl once Whistler shuts down, but with warm temperatures in the alpine, it looks like their backcountry filming days are over. Just in case, everyone keeps their eyes on the forecast.

It's Friday and I'm off to the airport in Vancouver, heading to the Big Wave Challenge in Bend, Oregon. It's the last event of the season for the resort. We've got most of what we've come for and I'm feeling good. It was cold last night, snow fell in the alpine, and it's supposed to be sunny on Saturday. Maybe there's one last chance to get Gallant and the Manboys in the backcountry, but Muse will have to rally the crew.

It's always a gamble this time of year, and Ockenden, Belzile, and Rasman are not so down to beat on their trucks getting to the snowline up near the 3,900-foot mark of Brandywine. Even after driving most of the way to the bottom of the bowl, they still have to ride long sections of gravel on their snowmobiles, meaning more maintenance later. But the crew goes for it and scores some knee-deep pow. Gallant entertains and informs as always, living up to his reputation as the Godfather, when he shows the crew a hidden line near the top of the S-Chute that they had driven by for years.

For the last in-season interview shoot of the movie, Muse got lucky. It wasn't always that way, though. Sometimes the conditions were challenging, sometimes it was trying to find the right people to talk to. But for the most part, the amount of support we got from this project was incredible. Thanks to the dozens of snowboard community giants who took the time to talk to us, we returned to our office with over 20 hours of interviews to mix in with footage from some of the most progressive riders in the world. Half the battle was over. And so began the editing.

Martin Gallant, still charging in the Whistler backcountry, 2015. Photo: Rusty Ockenden / Origins

Check out more from Origins here. 

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