Mario grew up in a small town called Grüsch, tucked away in a fold of Swiss alpine between Davos and Laax, and after his older brother and his father started snowboarding he quickly followed suit. Papa Käppeli, it seems, laid the groundwork. “It was funny how my dad did tricks and so I tried them,” he remembers, a broad grin cracking his face. “He’s still doing it and… I don’t know if I’m embarrassed or stoked! [laughs].
He’s like “Oh dude, we have to film and I wanna try this backflip,” or trying 540s. And I’m like hyped but he gets hurt all the time and it’s like… it’s cool, he’s 54 years old and trying to do 540s and shit, but at one point I’m like I don’t know if it’s healthy for him [laughs].”
Though Grüsch does have a ski resort, it’s no surprise the young Käppeli was soon drawn to the more expansive inclines and crafted parks of his neighbouring resorts.
It was here that the bug bit good and proper. “My home resort was pretty cool,” says Mario, “but it was kind of small so I went riding in Laax and Davos after a while and got to know Iouri [Podladtchikov] and Christian Haller and those guys, so that’s how it pretty much started for me with snowboarding.”
From there, the familiar pattern of stoked-out grommethood begins: “It was like I kinda got addicted. I remember I was at school and school finished at 3 o’clock and I went home and grabbed my snowboard and took the last gondola up. I was like 13 or 14, and at that time it was all fun.”
Mario’s burning enthusiasm for snowboarding would be tested, though. Before long he was to land a spot on the Swiss team, a turning point that would lead him to question his relationship with shredding.
NO ‘I’ IN TEAM
“I’d been riding pipe and won competitions and after that they came up to me and were like, ‘Do you wanna train with us on the Swiss team?’ So I was super hyped, like ‘Hell yeah!’” Indeed, for a young rider the chance to set foot on the path that could lead to snowboarding more, even becoming a career, is a dream come true. Unfortunately, in Mario’s case, when dreams come true reality often has a way of taking a bit ol’ bite out of them. “When I got into the Swiss team and started doing competitions and it got all serious,” he says frowning. “That was a time where at one point I was like I don’t really have fun snowboarding anymore. You go up and your coach is like ‘You’re just gonna do front 10, back 10, all day long’…
After a few seasons you start thinking ‘Is that it? Trying to find out who’s the best?’ That was the point where I thought I’m either quitting snowboarding or I drop out of the Swiss team.” The revelation, “like it wasn’t snowboarding anymore,” he admits was a bit of a headspinner, but the fact remained: “I remembered I had fun when it wasn’t that serious.” Clearly something had to change, and he needed support from someone more in tune with his vision of snowboarding. Enter Forum.
FORUM OR AGAINST ‘EM
With his mind made up that the national team wasn’t for him, Mario began looking for new sponsors and, after putting himself about, Forum European team manager Jon Weaver (now at Nike) hooked him up with Forum and Special Blend. “It wasn’t like a crazy big deal, but he said we’ll see how everything goes,” he remembers, and immediately he was feeling much more comfortable: “They did exactly what I wanted to do – go out there with a crew and work together on a project. You’re working on a kicker or you go out there and everybody wants to get something together.”
Importantly for Mario, they also seemed to be attuned to his needs as a rider, his strengths and his weaknesses. He grins when he remembers the contest question coming up: “Weaver was actually pretty much straight up: ‘Dude, you suck at competitions. You really should stop that.’ [laughs] ‘You should shoot and film, and that is what you do best.’”
Things were looking rosy, but then in 2009 he blew his ACL. Fortunately Forum stuck by him. “I was ready the next season and it went quite well. The international team manager Kevin Keller hooked me up so I could go to the States and start filming with Forum. And that was exactly what I wanted to do, and I had fun.”
Being on the European team, with the crew and its family vibe, was the beginning of the good times, but his eyes widen visibly when he remembers shortly after he was bumped up to the international team alongside the likes of Andreas Wiig and Pat Moore: “I was super hyped. Super stoked.”
Did he learn from his new-found teammates, or teach them anything? “Yeah. I taught Jake [Welch] some stuff,” he laughs. “No, the season I spent with them in Whistler, we were there for 3 months, they taught me how to sled and they taught me all about the backcountry. Even though it was just 3 months I really learned a lot. They taught me how to do backcountry jumps and about the snow conditions and all that shit. And how it works when you shoot. Seriously.”
From there on in Mario’s snowboarding was finally on the right path. He took his chances and scored a few shots in a succession of Forum’s infamous team movies – no mean feat for a central European rider – laying down big spins and double corks on statuesque US park jumps, travelling and learning from some of the best in the game and, most importantly you feel, snowboarding for the right reasons. Once again he was living the dream; once again, though, reality bit him in the arse.
For Mario, like most of the team, the news that Burton had pulled the plug on Forum, Special Blend and Foursquare was a bolt out the blue. Even more so for him, as he reveals: “The team manager had already said the team will be cut, that it will be going from 11 to 6 riders and I’m in there. I was like holy shit, that’s awesome. Me with 5 other Forum riders left? That’s sick.
So it was all good, I went to the States in October, had a catalogue shoot, meetings about how it will go next season, plans and shit. Came back, and I remember I was in a hotel wellness place with my girl and suddenly [team manager] Chris Patsch called like ‘Dude, dude, dude. Don’t check Facebook, I have to tell you it’s over. Forum is gone. Special Blend is gone. It’s over.’
I was like what do you mean? We’ve gone? I was like, no fucking way. That’s not happening. Because a week before I was in the States, talked about everything. I couldn’t believe it.” It’s clear he still, a year on, resents how the situation was handled, but at the time he had more pressing issues. Namely: it was November. The snowboard industry wasn’t exactly giving out contracts hand over fist, much less having the resources to get a rider into one of the few remaining movie productions. And certainly not in November. But Mario refused to be bowed.
After the shock, how long was it until he started thinking to the future? “I knew it was going to be tough and I was talking to people and I got offers but I was just like ‘I want to ride for a brand that I can stand behind and I don’t want to be just on some big brand and be a number’, so first thought seriously was I want to ride for Slash. No bullshit.”
Mario’s certainly not alone when he says Gigi Rüf has always been one of his favourite riders and after some talks Gigi was happy to get him on the team. But more than just riding for the legendary Austrian’s embryonic brand you get the feeling that it’s about being part of something he sees as being able to stand up for, that’s in tune with his perspective on snowboarding, and that he can be truly involved with.
He continues, “it’s still small but I’m super hyped to ride a board I actually like, and I can talk with Gigi about what we can change and what we want to do. And it’s the same with Colour Wear. They’re still a small brand but they’re doing great and I’m super stoked to work with them because we can talk to each other and I can tell them what we want or what they should change.”
To keep in the spotlight Mario knew he’d have to be productive, but the timing could not have been worse. Undaunted, he turned to two longtime partners in crime – Ethan Morgan and Flo Corzelius – and said, “Hey, let’s do our own thing.” Though, as he says, it was just 12 days filming he firmly believes last winter was his best to date: “It was just three friends, we could do whatever we wanted to do, we could go wherever we wanted to go, and I think it was the most productive season for me filming and photo shooting.”
Today, Ethan and Flo are Mario’s tightest riding buds, but it wasn’t always the case. “It’s weird. Way back in the days I really hated Ethan so bad. Everybody hated Ethan, right? [laughs] He was that small kid with the big jacket, always super loud, and you just wanted to punch him in his face!
Then I got to Forum and I got to know him and he was actually alright. We started to become best friends. Then I got a girlfriend from Seefeld and she knew Flo and he came out and I was like ‘Who the fuck is this?’ With his blonde hair and all, I don’t know, I didn’t like him. I think getting drunk with each other makes you best friends [laughs]. We started going out together and getting shitfaced and then started to ride with each other, and then we started to hang out all three of us together. And like that it became TFA.” TFA is the name of the three amigos’ movie (standing for the German Total Fürn Arsch – totally for the ass: “it’s just bullshit,” he laughs).
With their approach to living the goodlife, and the badlife, as documented in the occasionally sordid Ethan vs Mario webisodes, our wind-down talk turns to whether he thinks snowboarding’s becoming too sanitised, and if he even knows what sanitised means? “Like skiers? Like racers? It’s fucking gay. Some sponsors these days would be like, ‘No, you can’t shit on the table of the jump or no, you can’t show your penis around…’
Then I talked with my sponsors and they were like dude just do whatever you want [laughs]. But I think with some companies, because they’re new in snowboarding, or they have other sports and snowboarding’s just a small part of that so they don’t want to ruin the whole brand because of snowboarding and douchebags… I don’t know… back in the days the Wildcats movies, you really enjoyed to watch them.
They got smashed and drunk and it was funny [and they were very good at snowboarding] but these days sponsors don’t like that anymore. They want to have serious riders that know how to behave. It’s a shame.” If he didn’t enjoy the occasional tipple, though, would he be a better snowboarder? “Obviously I’d be a better rider if I didn’t maybe party that much.
Maybe. I mean, you have to find the thing in between, when can you make party and when not. I’m not going out when I’m filming the next day. It’s just I wanna have a good time besides snowboarding too! You should have a good time with your friends – on a snowboard and off a snowboard.”
Is this lifestyle aspect of snowboarding becoming lost in today’s frenzied rush towards technical park precision? “I kind of feel sorry if I go up the mountain with friends and even if we don’t hit the jumps we do side hits and have a good time, and then you look at the kids with their coaches and they have to run up the jumps and do the trick like 10 times in a row to have it perfect… For me it’s not snowboarding.
Those kids don’t even know how good it feels to ride powder. The best feeling you can have on a snowboard… they don’t know it. They can do triple corks, but then you go out in the pow and just have a good time and they’re screwed.”
With Mario, you can be sure that wherever you find him – park wedges, backcountry kickers, side hits, the bar – he will certainly be having fun. Not only that, the chances are he’ll be better at having it than the rest of us.