[Above: Sven Thorgren offers up his tribute on the lift park hip. All photos: Sami Tuoriniemi]
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Sat in the taxi from Kiruna, the road bends round to reveal a seemingly endlessly long expanse of frozen water. The driver, a jovial middle-aged Swede, was regaling us with how, back in the 80s, the locals decided to start spreading rumours of a monster living in its waters in a bid to lure tourists to the area. Their very own Loch Ness monster, if you will. Chuckling, he informs us that it sank without a trace. But not long after this failed attempt at travel marketing snowboarders, at least, would have our very own mythical beast that had drawn the world’s gaze in the same area, just a few kilometres up the road on this barren part of the Arctic Circle. Ingemar Backman’s Backside Air.
[Below: Recognise that backside air? Recognise that board? Ingemar takes 2016 to 1996 and back.]
[Above: Ingemar and the Craig Kelly Memorial that stands watch overlooking the infamous Norwegian Run.]
It was 20 years after that day, and we were headed to the King of the Hill 2016 for a reunion, gathering... call it what you will. Ingemar, Pierre Wikberg (the guy who filmed the infamous clip of Backman trying to achieve orbit) and a few accomplices had wanted to bring a bunch of their friends to Riks for a get-together for a few years, and the 20th anniversary of the King of the Hill seemed like the right time.
Invites were sent out to the old rippers, a select few current pros and media and a Facebook group established. This would become a virtual treasure trove of classic old footage and photos from snowboarding's golden age in one of the sport's most established northern outposts. The fact that the Riks Banked Slalom was on just prior meant the hotel - and Riksgränsen is basically a hotel and not much else - was full of snowboarders; some who were just there to race and others who'd stay for the duration. Once we arrived we were greeted by a host of familiar faces and settled down to a few beers while the realisation began to dawn that up there at this time of year it never gets dark.
The legends crew had certainly assembled. You'd see Johan Olofsson sat by the piano, turn your head and Terje was having a pow-wow with Sebu Kuhlberg, Joni Malmi and Paavo Tikkanen were heading out to hang at their RV... it was a 1990s shred grom's wet dream. Today's crop of riders were well represented too. A Smith crew including Scott Stevens, Austin Smith and Alek Østreng were in the house, Arthur Longo, Sam Taxwood and Pat Moore were with Vans, Nico Müller, Elias Elhardt, Len Jørgensen, Wolle Nyvelt, Eiki Helgason, Sven Thorgren... it was epic to see how many guys who were just kids when Ingemar sent it appreciated what a significant moment that was.
In keeping with the rootsy vibe, the schedule - if there was one - was loose. David Ny (the dude who'd shaped the original Arctic Challenge pipe amongst a host of other legendary creations) and his crew had hand shaped a 2016-sized hip along with some smaller trannies in a tight zone by the lift where several sessions would go down. At the end of day one we were instructed to take the last lift at 4pm and meet at the top of the mountain for "something special". Still none the wiser, from there we were directed to take the short walk over the Norwegian border and ride down to the top of the Norwegian Run where it was explained that Ingemar would unveil a memorial to Craig Kelly.
Craig was instrumental in both putting Riks on the map and inspiring a generation of Swedish snowboarders by his visits in the 90s - and the windlip-laden Norwegian Run was one of his favourites - so the speech given by Jakob Söderqvist was an emotional one. All the more so when you looked round at a couple hundred people gathered in a May snowstorm to witness it. Long live snowboarding.
[Below: Couple of timeless classics from Terje.]
[Above: Sven Thorgren and Fredrik Sarvell occupy opposite ends of the Swedish shred timeline, but both were ripping.]
From the Memorial, we were invited to session the hand-carved features the dudes from Gällivare had shaped at the top, or simply ride down the Norwegian Run throwing some turns for Craig. Despite the flat light and increasing snowfall, a solid posse hit the top quarter throwing an onslaught of Methods that would have made Craig proud. Alek Østreng even took it from 96 to 2016 by tossing a hectic double Rodeo off the the damn thing.
The next couple of days was spent rising late (the never-ending light took its toll), sessioning either the chairlift hits or any of the heaps of other spots the Riks terrain offers up - including the famous train tunnel wallride. The last day everyone gathered at the foot of the Norwegian Run, at the site of the original King of the Hill in 1996. A bad snow year meant that the planned reincarnation of the quarterpipe didn't quite measure up to its iconic forebear - it was more like a small, rugged hip - but it didn't really matter. You had locals throwing Methods, Sven and Alek throwing doubles, Müller daubing his own ode to Ingemar across Norwegian skies, and a bunch of snowboarders having a blast in the May sunshine/cloud/blizzard/sunshine. It was quite possibly the best minishred session of all time.
Of course, there was a good amount of solid snowboarding on display at KOTH 2016, but perhaps the most enduring image is the sight of over 200 riders making the short walk and ride down to the Norwegian Run for the Craig Kelly Memorial ceremony. Gravity-defying airs, stunts, jibs, flips and whoop-de-doos are great but pale into insignificance alongside the communal spirit of strapping in, enjoying the mountains and sliding around with like-minded people. This is the true essence of snowboarding, and one that was certainly flowing 24/7 this spring in Riksgränsen.
Thank you, Ingemar, Pierre, Ola, Riks and everyone who was there for letting us be part of it all.