Onboard senior Photographer Pat Vermeulen reflects on a somewhat tumultuous, and ultimately intimate, affair with his adoptive home in the mountains of south-western Switzerland, its riders and the epic terrain it holds in its valleys.
A Rolling Stone
I was born in Holland but moved to, and around, Australia when I was 9. That was a hell of a place for a kid to grow up, but after a couple of years it was time to move once more. By now I was over going through the whole 'new kid on the block' thing and was pretty against getting uprooted again. But what can you do when you're 12 years old? Whether I liked it or not, I was bound for Switzerland.
Our plane landed in Geneva and I remember it being grey, raining and the people were all grumpy. Plus a lot of the cars had VD on their number plates, which in English means venereal disease. Talk about culture shock. I hated the place.
We had to go straight to French school not speaking a word. Everyone was saying "salut", which means hello, but I thought they asked me to salute them... like in the Army or something. From there it was just downhill. I was quite good at school in Australia but the school system in Switzerland is out of hand.
I started snowboarding in 84-85, which along with skating was the only thing that kept me going and kept me away from the more nefarious activities I was being drawn to. But still, I hated Switzerland and its people.
I guess I got on OK at snowboarding as in my 'career' I had a couple of sponsors, did some contests and I think I even beat Michi Albin once, though I guess he must have been like 13 at the time. At the same time I was doing a mechanic's apprenticeship. When I finished, I swore to myself that I would never ever touch a car for the rest of my life. I had no clue what I was going to do with my life until one day my dad comes home and says: "Who wants to move to Los Angeles?"
I thought California would be epic for snowboarding and skateboarding, but boy was I wrong - $50 day tickets and surrounded by a horde of arrogant American snowboarders. Horrible! I hated the place and pretty much quit snowboarding that day. Surfing and music took over and life was good, but then I found I had to move back to Switzerland to keep my Swiss permit, and I couldn't stay any longer in the US anyway. Great.
Being rootless as I clearly am, I have no real reason to stay in Switzerland. So why do I? It's certainly not the cheapest place in the world to raise my two kids, after all. But the answer is simple: the mountains. This area is the perfect place for people like me who shoot snowboarding. I consider the area I live in to be one of the best on this planet and within 100km there are about 50 resorts. I haven't even been to half of them.
The riders I shoot are also special. I think the Swiss-French scene has a special flavour to it. I just think the riders are very humble and quiet. We always used to laugh back in the days because the French had all the mags and a bunch of well-known riders but most of them sucked and were nowhere as good as a lot of unknown riders in Switzerland. Switzerland has never really had any kind of magazine or anything and I think that if me and David Vladyka (now filming for Absinthe) hadn't been covering this part of Switzerland it would still be unknown. That's what I love here: there's no 'scene' or anything, just a bunch of friends who love to shred and who are good at it.
If you're into the snowboard “party" kind of lifestyle, then I would advise you to move to Innsbruck, which is pretty similar to this part of Switzerland only with nightlife. A lot of foreigners that come here find it really nice but quite boring as there's not much going on besides the Montreux Jazz Festival in the summer and some obscure concerts once in a while. You can forget about après ski around here. But I think that's what produces great riders. When people go to ride, they actually ride and don't talk rubbish or use it as an excuse to pick up chicks in nightclubs.
Good things come in small packages
In terms of actual snowboarding, I'll tell you what's so cool about this area. There are so many family-type resorts that are amazing but which are really mellow crowd-wise and it's really fun to go shred there because there are no crowds. A good example is Les Rochers de Naye, which is in the Thermos movie. That place is like a ghost town, mostly because there's no nightlife or anything. Great!
The famous resort of Les Crosets is actually a tiny place too, but has great potential as it's got great backcountry and the pow stays untracked for days as there're not that many people.
It's funny because you drive half an hour to Verbier and it's the complete opposite. On a sunny pow day, if you're not on the first lift up at 8, you get nothing. I think Verbier's popularity is due to the fact that it's very international. Mostly Swedes, Americans, Brits and so on. A bunch of ski-bums that like to ride but like to drink beers and party even more. You just get stuck in crowds and that's really annoying. Most of the local riders from here never go there. It's a tourist's place.
Most of the resorts are pretty co-operative too because they're quite small and a bit of free publicity in magazines doesn't do them any harm. Two resorts that have really worked with the snowboarders are Les Diablerets and Les Crosets. Les Diablerets has been organising autumn and summer camps for around 15 years and you can pretty much snowboard all year round if that's your cup of tea. Les Crosets was one of the first resorts here to invest in a snowboard park and to understand that if you want to attract snowboarders, you have to collaborate with them. They have been hiring experienced riders for full seasons to shape the park and have never hassled about handing out passes to crews that come to shoot. The results are pretty obvious.
Another big plus is that there's no real 'scene' or big productions round here. Go to Lake Tahoe and you'll no what I mean by 'scene'. There are a couple of weekend shooters but that's it. That means that for David Vladyka and me, who are the only professional shooters around here, we pretty much have 50 resorts to go to and shoot without being bothered.
I've learned over the years that there's always snow to be found, no matter what, but for that you need to know your way around. The worst thing is to have a bunch of great riders but nowhere to go. I think that's the problem with travelling because you don't know where to go unless you stay there for a long time. If you want to take full advantage of somewhere, you have to spend a full season there so that when it gets good, you know what to do and where to go.
I reckon I know this place pretty well but even so I keep discovering stuff. Whenever riders come to shoot, they 're always amazed that I find stuff to do even when the conditions are terrible. That's just due to the fact that I spend a lot of time here and can scope when there's no-one around, or when the weather is really shitty. You can't really do that when you travel.
This area also has little microclimates, which means that it can be sunny in one place but 50km down the valley, it can snow. The Burton movie Thanks in Advance has the perfect example. That whole Saas Fee part and the whole of Fredi's Onboard interview was shot at the end of March / beginning of April. This was when everyone was complaining how bad the season was. I live about 80km from Saas Fee and I would drive up every day to go shoot with Fredi and I remember one day leaving my house, sunny, and calling to see if it was worth coming and Fredi said: "Yeah dude, it's dumping!" Most people had already put their boards in the basement but on top of Saas Fee, around 3000 metres, we had waist-deep pow for a week! My friends didn't believe me.
It's the same in these other resorts near Brig. Everywhere was shitty but Fredi told me he knew of a tiny little family resort with the best terrain ever, and powder! It was unbelievable. Can't give you the name though. Sorry.
Anyway, now my youthful teenage hatred is but a distant memory, I love this place. I never get sick of it and every day I go to shoot, I discover new spots and resorts and it's the same for the riders. Now that I live in Leysin it's even better. I can even ride down to my house. As I'm writing this, it's mid November and we just had a huge dump here and shot for 5 days straight with some Frenchies. We had a blast.
I can understand the photographers that come from Scandinavia have to travel a lot because there's not much to do there but, damn, I've got everything I could wish for here. Great riders, great mountains, great vibe and never-ending terrain. What more can I ask for? As far as I'm concerned, there's gold in them there hills.