[Into the Albanian wilderness. All photos: Carlos Blanchard]
Austrian freeride legend Mitch Tölderer's quest for true wilderness boarding in Albania resulted in the production of the impressive short movie, When The Mountains Were Wild, which is released on onboardmag.com tomorrow...
Originally from the southern Austrian region of Carinthia, Mitch Tölderer discovered snowboarding on a homemade board on a hill in his village in 1987 and it would become something he would devote himself to for the following 30 years. “For my generation, snowboarding was something that has not been there before," he reflects, “something we could discover for ourselves – no history, no rules... like a beautiful empty book we could start filling up with our own stories." His own stories in these halcyon days included throwing himself into any facet of riding that was available at that time – racing gates, halfpipe, park… you name it and Mitch was down.
After moving to Innsbruck to study medicine and put himself in European snowboarding’s epicentre, Mitch was introduced to boardercross – a discipline that married many of his skills together – and his successes in this field brought him his first sponsorship contract, allowing him to follow the ISF boardercross tour in the late 90s. All the while, though, he’d started dreaming of Alaskan spines.
With his edge control honed from years of boardercross and feeling a strengthening tug towards freeriding, he lobbied for a spot at the renowned Verbier Xtreme. Not only did he get his spot, he won the whole damn thing in 2001 (he’s podiumed there 6 times in his 11 appearances) which enabled Mitch to finally make a living as a freerider and – more importantly – start realising his Alaskan dreams. From a first, low-budget AK trip camping with just enough cash for one heli day, he progressed to filming for several projects on snowboarding's ultimate proving grounds over the years, finally riding the lines he’d dreamed of.
Though his competitive freeride career would continue until 2011 when he'd win the coveted Freeride World Tour crown, it was the release of Leeward Cinema’s movie My Own Two Feet in 2008 that started lightbulbs popping; it would inspire Mitch to fall down the rabbit hole of splitboarding and the lesser-charted backcountry terrain it made possible to access – often a lot closer to home. Fast forward to 2012 and Mitch and his wife Bibi would score a memorable slice of Jeremy Jones’ movie, Further, in which the trio explored Austria’s remote Karwendel national park’s mountains on their splitboards.
More recently Mitch felt an itch to delve deeper into exploring the wilderness still out there in Europe and, with support from Patagonia and Jones Snowboards, set out on a mission to a less-charted region of Albania. When the Mountains Were Wild is his story….
You’ve managed to hold down a long career in a niche of snowboarding that’s historically struggled for support - freeriding. How did you manage it?
I would say that I always loved what I was doing and I could realise some of my dreams, so for that the support was really OK!
When the financial support really dropped I didn’t want my passion to be dependent on any company’s money, and I also wanted to be free to choose the companies I would really like to work with even if there was not enough money to make a living – or no money at all. That was when I decided to start working as a medical doctor, besides snowboarding, to pay the bills and also finish my internship one day…
I hooked up with Jones because I was stoked that one of us started a freeride-orientated company, making splitboards in a time every brand I talked to told me that they are about to stop doing splitboards or would never start doing them! Some of the companies didn’t even want to make freeride boards back then! Later, I was also very happy to start working with Patagonia because on the one hand they do great product for the stuff I like to do, and on the other hand I can identify with the company's philosophy.
[Below: With only old Russian maps and a bit of Google Earthing to guide them, the crew strike out into the unknown.]
[Above: Balkan bridge looking moody.]
For your project, When The Mountains Were Wild, you headed to the former Yugoslavia, with an end point of Albania’s ‘Accursed Mountains’. How did this come about, and why did you chose to go there specifically?
I was looking for real mountain wilderness in Europe. I didn’t want to fly to Canada or Alaska; I wanted to see what is there to explore in Europe, away from the dense infrastructure of the central European alps.
All of the infrastructure in the central European alps like roads, ski-lifts, huts, dams, avalanche safety reports and so on make it really easy and comfortable to access great ski-touring, climbing and freeriding. Some of the ‘huts’ you can stay at on the mountain feel more like hotels than what their original purpose was: to give shelter to mountaineers. The price we pay for all this comfort and easy access in the central European alps is that we gave up pristine mountain wilderness for it.
Researching for a place to experience ‘real’ mountain wilderness in Europe meant to me looking for a place with no ski resorts or winter tourism; a place with interesting, demanding mountains, and a good chance for good snow and good riding conditions. I didn’t want to fly anywhere, but rather pack up a car and kind of travel from home back in time to experience what it was like before mass ski tourism.
Did you have prior knowledge or experience of this region?
I never went further than to Croatia, and that was for a classic summer family holiday…
"The price we pay for all this comfort and easy access in the central European alps is that we gave up pristine mountain wilderness for it."
What was the prep like for the trip? How did you figure out where to go, who the crew would be, how many supplies to bring...
In the beginning I didn’t plan for a film project on this trip. Initially it was just Klaus Zwirner and myself who wanted to go exploring. When I was already researching Albania, the Jones Snowboards folks sent out an email informing us about the first ‘Jones Adventure Grant’. So I sent my concept in and when I heard that they’d given me the grant for this project I decided that I want to produce a short film about the trip.
With Jakob Schweighofer and Joi Hoffmann from Whiteroom Productions I found a super dedicated crew with the highest level mountain skills and who were ready for an adventure. I remembered Carlos Blanchard once told me that he would like to come on a trip one day so I asked him if he would like to join, and then all the seats in my van were taken.
We started checking interesting terrain before leaving Innsbruck. Klaus somehow got hold of an old Russian map of the region, and also we used Google Earth to check potential areas. Gear-wise, we brought everything we could as we didn’t really know what to expect. Everything for snow camping, and food for couple of weeks in the wild.
You don't see that many movies with both snowboarding and skiing. Was it a conscious decision to change that, or is the freeriding community just more relaxed about the so-called divide?
For me there is no divide and I think that is the same in the freeride community overall. Especially on a trip like this you want to be surrounded by people who have the personality and also the skills to deal with potentially difficult scenarios, no matter if they are snowboarding or skiing.
Kids these days lap parks in shirts. How important is having good gear when you do a mission like this?
You really want to have the right gear you trust! On a trip like this you think about each piece you are bringing twice. You carry your gear for two days one way and it has to work in any possible conditions. You might end up sitting in a snow hole for a few days because avalanche danger is cutting off the way back.
The best possible outerwear can save you from suffering or even save your life. The same for your splitboard equipment, you really want to trust your board and binders! Thanks at this point to all my partners for making this great gear that makes trips like this fun and easy!
[Above: Late afternoon lines with no one else but the crew to lap up. Mitch scores one for the memory banks.]
You had to wait out a long period of bad weather and it looked like tempers maybe got short. How did you deal with cabin fever?
Everybody has their own way of dealing with cabin fever in bad weather conditions… I am pretty easy-going and enjoy being out there and sitting out a storm as long as there is a chance for good riding on the horizon! Keeping the daily routine of hoping for better weather, snow shovelling, checking the snow conditions, digging a pit, eating, playing cards, sleeping, drinking coffee…
What was it like to wake up one morning to discover it had cleared and was perfect conditions?
At one point you are so used to the same picture of snow falling and bad whiteout that you don’t trust your eyes for a moment when the sun is shining and you see wonderland out front and days away from civilisation.
What’s the process when conditions finally get good after such a long wait. Do you head off immediately, or are there pits to be dug, plans made etc before you start out? Did you have a local guide who knew the terrain there?
We didn’t have a local guide because we didn’t find anybody who’d ever visited this area during winter time. In the summer shepherds are living in the simple huts taking care of their animals.
During the storm we were checking on the snow conditions and digging pits so when it finally got clear we were pretty sure that it was on for us and started to hike out as soon as we had our shit together.
It seems there was a lot of new snow. Was your approach to mountain/avalanche safety different to when you’re riding at home? Were there avalanche bulletins you could consult or reliable weather data?
The difference to back home is there are no avalanche bulletins and there is no rescue you can expect from outside. But anyway you make yourself a picture from the situation and if you feel good about it you start moving and feeling the snow under your board. In the end it all feels familiar and you are right there and do your thing as if it would be in your own backcountry.
[Below: When George Michael sang 'You gotta get up to get down' we're pretty sure he was on about splitboarding in Albania.]
[Above: After waiting out the weather, Mitch and the crew were rewarded with glorious bluebird and virgin peaks to caress.]
Often you seen trips of this nature in exotic, faraway lands. But as you showed in Jeremy’s movie, Further, and now this, there’s heaps of lesser-ridden wilderness at home in Europe. Is this something you want to focus on more?
At first I travelled to different places around the world, mostly for helicopter-accessed riding. Back then I didn’t really have a closer look at anything further than the sidecountry of our home resorts. Almost a decade ago, and also inspired by Chris Edmands’ film, My Own Two Feet, I cut my board in two and hiked out in the backcountry to see if there were hidden treasures out there.
That opened up so much unridden terrain and so many different mountain ranges with their own characteristics just inside a radius of, let’s say two hours' drive from home that one mountain man’s life wouldn’t be enough to get all the good stuff done.
"[Splitboarding] opened up so much unridden terrain and so many different mountain ranges with their own characteristics just inside a radius of two hours’ drive from home..."
Finally, in your movie you ask: “What was it like before all the development in our mountains?" Did this trip answer your question, or leave you hungry to search for more?
Being able to drive there from home we were stoked to find these untamed and sparsely populated mountains that are still home to wolves and bears. We met people there living a simple – and harsh – life that probably isn’t much different to what living in our home mountains was like decades ago. Of course, these people would like to have more infrastructure, more tourists coming, more river regulations to have a more comfortable life for them and their kids. [Check out this initiative to 'Save the Blue Heart of Europe' - Ed]
I really hope that there is a way to gently develop these areas for the people living there and at the same time conserve these pristine areas on the Balkans that are probably some of the last real wild areas in Europe. Maybe the best chance to give value to this wilderness and to make it worth it for the local people to protect them could be the individual eco tourism that has already started in some of these regions.
For us, living in the central European alps, the mountains keep the last refuge where we can experience kind of a raw, original natural environment. Although these places are still getting smaller and fewer due to the construction of more ski lifts, bigger resorts, bigger hotel-like mountain huts, more dams…!
I really think we should preserve what is left of our home mountain wilderness so we, and also our kids, can still hike out there and have the chance to experience mountain wilderness.
[Below: Valbona valley local, Demush Selimaj on the daily grind.]
[Above: After days in the wilderness, the crew return to civilisation.]