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10 of the Gnarliest Big Mountain Descents

Victor De Le Rue. Photo: Matt Georges
Victor De Le Rue. Photo: Matt Georges

There’s little in snowboarding that compares with charging down the face of a mountain. It’s the dream that people lose themselves in for the rest of their lives; sleeping in a campervan, pooling money for heli time and becoming far more acquainted with America’s 49th state than anyone should ever have to.

Becoming a ‘good’ big mountain rider is no easy task, as we said, most people spend their lives trying to attain the standard of legends and unfortunately, sometimes the mountains cash in on these lives. There’s no denying that the riders over the next few pages have earnt their place in the rarefied air from Alaska to the Himalaya’s to the Southern Alps in New Zealand.

In the days before action cameras and RED cams, some would argue that it’s mellower than some of the mountains tackled today, we however believe those years in the mid-to-late 90’s were the heydays of big line riding. Just some dudes, a heli, a guide and more balls than a pingpong tournament.

From the early pioneers like Craig, Johan and Noah; to the modern day magic of Travis and Gigi, check out some of the gnarliest descents of the 20th and 21st century.

Johan Olafsson – TB5

The edit where a group of riders take a rookie into the backcountry to teach ’em a lesson is an oft replicated, but rarely as well executed as the arrival of a young Swede in Alaska in 1995.

A young in the tooth freestyle ripper by the name of Johan Olofsson, was taken under the tutorage of the Standard Films crew to star in their film ‘TB5’. It’s sort of difficult to explain the seismic shift that Johan made on snowboarding with this part. It wasn’t so much that Johan learnt how to ride terrain on this trip, it was like he found the terrain he was made to ride, and he attacked it instead of learning how to survive in it.

When you see Mark McMorris riding with the boys in the Oakley film, he’s learning how to adapt to the terrain; the same goes for Markus Kleveland, in Japan with Eero Ettala, and Heikki Sorsa. Johan’s blistering assault on the terrain saw him merge the venn diagram of two elements of snowboarding in a way that hadn’t been done before.

These days Johan, has been getting into his bindingless riding in the States, where he’s currently a snowboard designer at Venture Snowboards in Silverton.

Terje Haakonsen – First Descent 7601

Whilst, on the most part, First Descent was met with general disdain and mutterings of hype by most snowboarders, they did dish up some servings of decent snowboarding whilst they were at it.

Taking three generations of snowboarders out to AK to try and replicate some Johan magic; Shaun White, Hannah Teter, Terje Håkonsen, Shawn Farmer and Nick Perata tackled the barbed spines that span the region.

Whilst mainly focusing on the new blood cutting their teeth, the real magic comes from the Sprocking Cat, who if anything, is probably more at home on 40-60° pitches, than he is on stairs.

For the closing scenes in the two-hour long flick, Terje faces up against the pitch of the 7601 face.

Xavier De Le Rue – Nation Full Part

Xavier De Le Rue, has taken big mountain snowboarding to a different realm as far as we’re concerned. The snowboarding that he does is difficult to compare to anything in snowboarding – he’s almost found his own plane of snowboarding that nobody operates on, it’s genuinely that far out.

In climbing, there was an essay/book published that describes fairly accurately the phenomenon that we reckon Xavier experiences. The concept was one of ‘feeding the rat’; The more you feed the rat, the larger it grows, the greater its appetite – and therefore the more fear you must experience in order to satisfy your inner-rat.

Where most riders draw the line, Xavier pulls out the rubber and erases it. For us, it almost doesn’t look fun, but for Xavier, it’s the way he feeds his rat.

Half-mountaineering and half-snowboarding, Xavier takes pitches and terrain that nobody would dream of riding, and adds his own je ne sais quoi, to the mix.

The video above is his now legendary part from Transworld Magazine’s film ‘Nation’.

Travis Rice – Art of Flight POV

What can we say about Travis, that hasn’t been said before? Nothing.

Right. Fuck.

Anyway, this wee clip above is a POV run from the Art of Flight which dropped in 2011 with a bigger budget than a Christopher Nolan production. Because of this, all the footage is locked down, so Travis’ gnarliest descents are locked into the movie magic, which we highly recommend you buy.

Arguably, Travis took the baton of big mountain freestyle, and made thundering dash to the horizon with it. TR has taken a few riders under his wing, but the really exciting thing is working out who is going to take the baton from him.

There was a long-ish gap between Johan and Travis, but we’re hoping there’s someone in the wings to take his place. Daviet? Who knows…

Jeremy Jones – Himalaya Face

Jeremy Jones has morphed into many incarnations over the years, now almost mid-way into his second decade in the big mountain business; business is still booming for Jeremy.

Having released ‘Higher’, early in the 2014 season, we have absolutely not a sausage what Jones is up to as we speak.

However, if this line in the Himalaya’s which closed out the movie, is anything to go by, we’re sure Jeremy’s skinning up some more peaks as we speak.

Gigi Rüf – Escramble

Now this line from Gigi [his part starts at the 16.36 mark, but you should find time to watch the whole movie – Escramble’s an overlooked gem in our opinion] isn’t necessarily the gnarliest line in the world, however; it just keeeeeeeps on going.

Gigi’s ability to read the terrain and flow into it makes it almost orchestral in its composition. The long flowing turns temper the pitch, with high note slashes and drops punctuating the score. It’s a fairly hidden gem of a line that rarely gets the acclaim it deserves.

Dave Hatchett – Medenhall Towers

Another one of those pivotal moments in big mountain snowboarding came from Dave Hatchett, and his first descent of the Medenhall Towers.

In the infamous words of Jemery Jones in the Art of Flight; “I can tell you from experience; I mean if I’m going into something that’s really intense, and someone else has ridden it before me, the level of intensity is totally brought down a notch.

The level of intensity for these pioneers must’ve be off the dial when they rolled up to AK in those formative years.

Jeremy Jones – Shoulder of Death

Whilst we’ve already touched on Jeremy’s current conquests, it’s the descents like the Shoulder of Death that honed his abilities in the pioneering years of the so called Last Frontier.

Taking advantage of the all-time conditions in a place where 10 rideable days over the season is considered average – the ending section from Mind the Addiction saw Johan O and Jeremy team up like the Kray Brothers to attack, intimidate and slash the terrain.

This ender complete with some early POV footage gives you a clue as to why it was called the Shoulder of Death; it looks like riding into the abyss.

Craig Kelly

It would be dishonourable to mention the above without Craig. The first rider to turn his back on the competitive circuit to find what snowboarding was for him, he shunned the spotlight to become one of the most respected riders of all time.

He used the skill and poise from his competitive background to redefine the way mountains were ridden. Alongside riders like Terje, he brought a clinical approach to snowboarding, but had the finesse to make it look effortless.

Craig was studying for his Canadian Mountain Guide qualification in 2003 when an avalanche took him and 6 others too early from us.

Craig’s spirit still lives on through us all when we drop in to a face, drop a cliff or crank a turn anywhere in the world.

Tom Burt – Cordova Peak

We’ve generally found in life that it’s always the quiet unassuming dudes that are the guys that charge the hardest. Rarely brash or bold, they’re focused on honing their skills than they are building a reputation for necking beer faster than a Land Rover consumer diesel.

One of those men is Tom Burt. One of the early adopters of big mountain riding, he was carving his own line whilst the rest were still chasing gates in slalom.

Now serving as the Head Judge on the Freeride World Tour, he brings his own brand of wisdom to the up-and-coming generation of big mountain chargers.

Got any gnarl to contribute? Drop us a link in the comments, yo! 

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