You’ve probably heard of him. Mathieu Crepel has been a name in snowboarding for nearly two decades. He’s won medals in major events, been to the Olympics, filmed standout video parts, and won the Legendary Mount Baker Banked Slalom’s regular and switch categories in the same year. He wouldn’t say this, but snowboarding is easy for Mat.
He’s also a good surfer. So are some other snowboarders. There are probably even a few who can hold their own at competitive breaks like Lowers. Pipeline and Jaws, however, are not places where our type paddle out. Some people there have heard of him too. He’s “that snowboarder guy.”
— Taylor Boyd
So now that's you've finished the premiere tour for your new film, Shaka. What's your plan going into this winter?
Well, I'm doing Christmas here with the family in Biarritz, then going to the Alps, then I’ll probably spend New Years and most of January over there with Victor [Daviet] and a few of the Frenchies. I want to ride for myself, at least for the first half of January. That hasn't happened in a while. I need to get back on my board and get my legs kind of ready. I haven't been riding yet since April; that's never happened in my life. But I just got back from Peru. It's an increbible place—long lefts everywhere. It’s goofy-foot paradise.
You're one of those people who surfs goofy but snowboards regular. It's not entirely uncommon, but I've never been able to figure out how it happens.
Yep, that's right. I can't really explain it. I guess it was because when I was a kid, my father was the one who started me on a snowboard, and he was regular. He figured I should be regular too. Then when I started skating and surfing, where you don't have bindings and you step on your board however you feel, I was goofy. And actually some of the first surf photos I have, I'm surfing regular, then I guess I kind of switched to goofy. I don't know why. In some ways I think it's an advantage, but in others I think it can be kind of tricky because I have to spin my mind around when I switch from one to the other.
Yeah, I'm actually a little jealous because it feels like it really helps with switch riding.
I think that's one of my strengths, especially in the pipe, I was doing tricks in my runs like switch backside 9's and 10's that not a lot of people used to do. I won the switch race at Baker, so I guess going goofy is not too bad.
So your first snowboard—you see it in the film—looks wild. Is it just ski bindings mounted to a piece of wood?
Especially in France, and more so in the Pyrenees, the scene was really small, and there was no brand making any kind of snowboard for kids, and I think it was in 1991, maybe, and I was around 6 or 7 years old. A friend of my dad was building boards, maybe two a year, and when they had me start, they took one of the old boards that was broke, cut it in half, and put ski bindings on it. They were doing it with straps and solid boots. So I guess they kind of created the first step-in bindings, haha. I needed help to get in and out. But I remember the first session I had was in the pow, because my dad believed snowboarding was meant for powder. I remember making like two turns. It was heavy, but I felt right away that it was so much more fun than skiing.
And your dad worked as a ski instructor?
Yeah, so that helped. I got put on skis right when I was able to walk. So I did a lot of skiing before I started snowboarding. Skiing was all about racing at that time, and I skied until I was 10. Until then, it was racing gates and training every day. Even though it was pow or blue sky or whatever, you had to go train on gates, and that sucked. When I realized that snowboarding could open up my mind about the mountain in all areas—it wasn't just focused on slopes and gates—it connected me a lot more to the mountain.
Yeah, absolutely. It's a way less limiting way of looking at the mountain than racing, that's for sure. I always thought about it at Hood—how much it would suck to be at the race camps looking down at the snowboarders, going every which way, doing whatever they wanted.
Yeah, and those kids go down when the snowboard kids go up. They need sheer ice to race.
I heard that at an early age, Terje [Haakonsen] spotted you and kind of saw some talent in you.
Yeah, so when he was doing the Arctic Challenge, he invited Shaun White and myself at the same time—Shaun was a tiny bit younger than me, maybe a year or two—and we stayed together at Hemsedal. Shaun was already beginning to have some recognition. And for a European kid, like me, it was really something to be invited to the Arctic Challenge by Terje.
What was Shaun like at that time?
It was cool. He was a special kid. He was there with this dad, and his dad took super good care of us. We were staying in the same chalet. Shaun was already on that mission. You could tell he was programmed already for being what he is, where I think I was more just enjoying it. I think that's why I picked up surfing and stuff. I could have made the choice to leave Europe and settle in the US to get better infrastructures for training, but I never wanted that because I loved surfing, and I loved being able to cut from snowboarding from time to time. And for him, it was pretty crazy how he did this, and for skating as well. It was a bit more in the US culture that you do whatever it takes to make you succeed. He was already on that program. I didn't have many goals other than just having fun; if I did good then it gave me the chance to snowboard more.
That makes sense. But you did get pretty into the competitive side of snowboarding for a while.
Yeah, I did a few contests, then I went to a snowboarding school in the Alps. That's where I met many of my good friends, like Morgan Le Faucher (director of Shaka) and Tristan [Picot], so we started doing quite a lot of contests, the French comps. Then, as you know, Tristan had that accident. That was really the time when I had to either go toward filming or contests. And when Tristan died, the first thing his mom told me at the funeral was that she wanted me to go to the Olympics for Tristan.
Wow, that's pretty heavy.
Yeah, very heavy. I wasn't sure about the Olympics. I was 18, and I was like, "Ok, the Olympics are in four years, so I'm committed to this for a while." I was like, "Well, ok, I've got to do it." And of course I did it for myself, but that pushed me toward it even a bit more. Even though I didn't do well at the Olympics, I went. And I guess Tristan was always there throughout my career. Not just me, but all the French riders. He was the first guy from the Alps that I met, when I was in the Pyrenees. He was a sick rider. He was already filming with Absinthe. He was a leader for our generation, so that was tough.
So how did that affect you, losing a friend like that?
Well, you know, if you lose a friend in a car accident, you think, "Ok, this is just fate, and that sucks, but there wasn't much that could've changed it." But that happened snowboarding, and that was what we loved and what we did together every day. And when you're a kid, you don't realize the dangers. For a bit, I was like, "Do I want to keep doing this and putting myself in danger?" And at one point, I was like, "Fuck yeah, this is what I love, and this is what Tristan loved, and I've got to do it for myself and for him as well." Just do it twice as much and twice as hard as I used to do it because he's there somewhere, and he wants us to keep doing it. So that's what changed, and the mindset I got into.
So to move into the surfing side of things, I mean, people die out almost frequently at some of these spots you surf in Shaka.
Yeah, that can happen as well, of course.
We've talked about your snowboard beginnings, but let's talk about the beginning of surfing, for you, before you decided to surf some of the heaviest waves in the world. How far from the beach were you, growing up in the Pyrenees?
It's quite close; it's an hour-and-a-half or two-hour drive. It's not far. I live in a spot where you're able to snowboard in the morning and surf in the afternoon. Usually in the spring that's what I try to do. So it wasn't far, and I got lucky enough to spend the winters in the mountains and in the summers at the beach in Hossegor. So it was easy to start surfing.
Did you ever consider pursuing that as a career?
No, we were always more mountain people. Even though we loved the ocean and waves, and my dad surfed as well. But I was never good enough at surfing to even think about making a pro career out of it.
So when did this idea come about to start training to be able to surf some of the gnarliest spots in the world?
The idea of making the movie and going to Jaws came two-and-a-half years ago. After I won [the Legendary Mount Baker Banked Slalom], that was big for me. I was stoked I did it; it was kind of a goal in snowboarding. And I thought, "What's next now?" I just kind of wanted to do my own project with Morgan, who was doing Almo, and we didn't want to do a biography or just tell my story; we wanted to document a quest or something. And actually, surfing Jaws was on the back of my mind. But it's like snowboarding, riding big mountains or something, you don't wake up in the morning and think, "I'm going to surf Jaws." It's a process of starting surfing bigger waves and bigger waves, and that came with some friends here in the Basque country, who are big wave surfers. Five years ago, they started to bring me into bigger waves here—three meters, four meters, five meters. And it was a mental shift and process. But I loved the feeling, and it actually brings me closer to snowboarding than small waves. The feeling of drawing big lines and going fast. Mentally, I had to make a shift and make sure I was ready. I'd never been to Hawaii, and Jaws is the mother of big waves. If there's a swell at Jaws, anyone will stop anything and go for it.
So it was a two-and-a-half-year lead-up.
So we started thinking about the idea and writing some ideas about how we could make the story. The idea was to involve people who could help me achieve that. It was really important for me to learn from those guys who are in the movie, but I think it was an interesting aspect of the movie for viewers. I would learn something from them, but people who are watching the movie can learn something as well.
Absolutely. So the movie has a great ending, but what would've happened otherwise?
I don't know.
Would you have kept trying?
It's not like the mountains. It takes a special swell for Jaws to break. It was the only swell in the winter of 2018. There was one swell in October 2017, when they did a contest. And there was no other session on the wave. And it was that day, and there was no other chance, and I kind of knew that. We were lucky; we didn't plan the trip to Hawaii around that. Luckily, the swell came ten days after we got there.
So you were thinking more in terms of surfing the North Shore—that's why you were in Hawaii?
At first, Jaws was on the back of my mind for sure. It was the pinnacle. I guess we would have made a different movie. And as we often say, with Morgan, you don't make the move you want; you make the movie you can. If you look back at the first notes when we started making the movie, it's totally different than what we have in the end. That's why it was tricky for Morgan as well, because he didn't want to miss anything. It was a nightmare for him to edit. He spent two months editing and labeling shots. Then that's when the story kind of came up.
In your situation it happened to write itself very nicely.
For sure. And there's one point when I was staying at the Quik house, and you see it in the movie. At Pipe, I didn't get the waves I wanted. I didn't get any good barrels or anything. At one point, I was like, "Fuck, stop filming. We're not going to make a movie." At Jaws, I didn't have any security or any safety; no jet-ski assist. No one to really watch me. We rented the boat with Morgan and jumped in the boat. Usually what I like about big wave surfing is you go there with two or three friends and it's more of a group sport; it's about looking after each other and pushing each other. That time at Jaws, I knew a few guys in the water.
That's so crazy that you went by yourself with no ski to rescue you.
Yeah, the boat was already expensive, and the ski was more expensive. And since it was my first time to Hawaii, I didn't really have the connections. And even though I knew Koa [Rothman], he went there with John John [Florence], and Nathan [Fletcher], and those guys, and they went by themselves. They actually went by the cliffs, and Koa got a wave but had a bad wipeout, so he got out right away. Mentally, it was heavy. I had to switch into an extra gear in my mind. Just being by yourself in a place you've never been, doing something you've never put yourself through. Just, "Ok, let's do it."
So describe that experience. When you take off on that wave, you're in the right position, but you're in front of another guy. You had to be fairly confident.
That was pretty much it. It was getting late. The wind was picking up, and I knew I was in the right spot for that wave. There were the heavy hitters, the pros and stuff, that were actually catching waves. In big wave riding, if you catch three waves in a session, you're stoked. Even some of the pros—I mean, they wait for the big ones—but they might only catch one. But I think that guy that was paddling with me was struggling as hard as I was, and I remember we looked at each other, and he knew that I was going to go, and I knew he was going to go, so whatever. And actually, I got into the wave a bit earlier than him. He was a bit too deep inside, and with the line he had, there was no way he was going to make it.
You had a pretty good line on that wave.
Yeah, I mean there was not much wall on that wave, but when I stood up, I waited so long to make the bottom turn, and as soon as I did, I was like, "Ok, I gotta try to get out of here." It was crazy. It was pretty bumpy, and every meter, I was like, "Oh no, next bump, I'm going to bail, just get ready for the worst beating of your life." That was my mindset during the wave. "Just get ready because you're going to eat shit." And as soon as I was out of the wave, I just couldn't believe it.
It made me feel good as a snowboarder. "One of us caught a wave at Jaws." But what about the North Shore. That seems almost gnarlier in terms of the vibeyness of it. It's got to be really crazy for an outsider, even though you were with the right people.
Yeah, even though I was with the right people, I could feel that it was heavy. Everybody is watching. Everywhere I went it was just, "Here's the snowboarder guy." I remember one morning I was doing a bit of breathing exercises in the yard of the Quik house, at like 5 am; it was pretty dark. And Eddie Rothman came out. He checks the waves every day. He knows everything that happens there, anyone that is there. And I opened my eyes, and I saw him there, and he was like, "So you're the snowboarder guy." And you could tell he was kind of thinking, "What the fuck are you doing here?"
When I took Koa riding, we went to Bachelor, and we had the chance to ride a bit with Gerry Lopez, and it was cool to be with those two guys—the opposites of the generations, Gerry as an old school legend and Koa, a newcomer hitting big waves. We took really good care of Koa. And when I got to Hawaii, I realized on land, he was super cool, but in the water—it's not that he wasn't cool, but you have to prove yourself by yourself. That's how surfing is, and you have to earn your respect, and if you do everything for it, you will get it. But it takes time. It takes a lot of time. And three weeks is definitely not enough, and that's why all the brands get kids to Hawaii as soon as they can, 'cause they know the waves are heavy, and it has its own way of working. There were a bunch of guys staying at the Quik house, so I knew all the dudes, and we were hanging out at the house and stuff, but as soon as I went in the water, they wouldn't even talk anymore. It's like they don't even see you anymore. But I get it; Pipe is their wave, and when the season comes, you have hundreds of people that come there to try to get the best wave, and the competition in the water is heavy. Like really heavy. Even more than the wave, it's the people.
Right. If you were surfing that wave somewhere uncrowded, it would be so much more manageable.
Right. It's heavy, but you'll get some waves. Exactly, and the crowd. If you paddle on the wrong guy…
It's over for you.
It's over for you. And that's something really different from snowboarding because with snowboarding, you usually don't have to race for anything. Even in the backcountry, you're usually with friends and you don't have to race or fight for a run. It's a different mindset.
Right. And with Koa, going to Bachelor, that's a pretty mellow mountain. It's not equatable to the North Shore at all. And you see that even in California, where people are nice in the parking lot or whatever, but it's a little different as soon as you paddle out. I think it's just that finite commodity of waves, where with snow, there's a lot more of it on a mountain. Waves are in short supply. It's inherently a very competitive thing at any place that has any amount of people surfing it.
It's strange what surfing can do to people once they hit the water.
So speaking of parking lots, what about that guy in the movie? That guy was so nutty.
I didn't really realize. That was my first session at Sunset, and it was heavy, like 10 to 15 foot, so I wasn't really thinking about that guy. I was just focused on myself. I was getting ready, and I saw that guy, and Morgan filmed because he has the camera always pointed somewhere, which is sick. I realized what happened when he showed me after. I was like, "Wow, this is money."
You can't write that. So are you still trying to continue surfing big waves like that, or are you content surfing head-high stuff?
It's a never-ending process, I guess, and it's something I want to keep doing. But last season, I spent more season surfing and getting ready for Hawaii. So this season, I want to snowboard a lot more, and I'll keep an eye on the swells, but I miss snowboarding. It's my first love, and I will always have the same love for snowboarding. But if I get the chance to go back to Jaws again, I will take it.
Watch the trailer for Shaka: