Not everybody gets to see potential. It isn’t included in the basic package, like hunger, pain or satisfaction—it’s an upgrade to human life. To see potential takes a shift in understanding, a change in what we know as real; it’s like waking from a dream to find a different world. The day we wake up to potential is the day creative forces turn our thinking towards what could be, to what we can make of our surroundings. Chances are you’ve seen and felt it every time you strap into a snowboard. Our sport shows us potential with every run, every feature we approach, every mountain we discover. And no matter how long we’ve been riding or how much we’ve explored, we have lifetimes of potential waiting for us in Alaska.
I’d never met Jeremy, and for the worlds of respect I had for him I wondered if we’d have anything in common.
This spring, after years of wishing, I made my first pilgrimage to AK. It happened unexpectedly (you never see the best adventures coming) and started with photographer Justin L’Heureux inviting me to join the LifeProof crew on a shoot out of Wasilla, AK. It would be Jussi Oksanen, Jeremy Jones (jib), a marketing team from LifeProof, Justin and his brother Gabe behind the cameras, and me. A crew with a heavy legend presence for sure (Jeremy and Jussi!?), and, for me, one made up essentially of strangers. I’m used to getting to know new people on the road, so I wasn’t shaken up. I said yes right away.
By the time I had a moment to think about what was coming I was on a plane, just hours away from Anchorage, AK. Looking out my window at 20,000 feet of air, thoughts of what might transpire rolled around my head. I’d never met Jeremy, and for the worlds of respect I had for him I wondered if we’d have anything in common. I’d always seen him as this G, like the Snoop Dogg of snowboarding; I was excited to get to know him more. I had met Jussi once or twice, and always held such great respect and admiration for him. The thought of riding with them was a big honor, especially in the giants of Alaska.
Still, my mind kept landing on Annie Boulanger telling me about her first trip to AK. She was with Absinthe Films, and was dropped on top of a face she’d barely had a chance to scope (with Nicolas Müller of all people), scared as shit and feeling unprepared. I was a bit nervous, but not nearly as much as I would have been earlier in my career, and had a good feeling that this would be a perfect introduction to the realm of Alaska. Watching the clouds drift beneath the plane helped me find calm, showing me that this experience was underway already. It gave me acceptance, and as the flight went on I realized that I was lucky to have such experienced riders to mentor me into my lines. By the time the seatbelt signs were lit, all that was left was a lot of stoke.
This ominous and beautiful landscape stretched on forever; rivers, stands of bare trees and mountains that left no doubt that I had made it to the Promised Land.
Verity Hoskins from the LifeProof dream team picked me up in Anchorage. She was the producer on the trip, organizing and totally killing it. We drove north toward Wasilla, the town that would be home base, and Alaska pressed upon me its looming palette of serious grays and blues, browns and yellow tans. This ominous and beautiful landscape stretched on forever; rivers, stands of bare trees and mountains that left no doubt that I had made it to the Promised Land. The colors were subdued by the scale of everything around me and gave the place a mystical air. It already seemed that plans, hopes and dreams would be secondary during the trip. Like some unknown force would take it on itself to shape our days. But before I could feel like I was at the mercy of the colossal nature all around me, we caught up with the crew. Jeremy and Jussi were skating and shooting photos at this amazing steel bridge—we rolled up on them mid-session. They were laughing and just having an awesome time, acting like teenage brothers hanging out in their garage. The energy reminded me that we would have a say in how this adventure went, and before I even said hello the guys had set the tone for fun.
For the first time since I got the invite things rolled along with familiarity, and it finally felt like a snowboard trip. We met our guides—Ted and Matt from Mountain Safety Logistics. They are amazing guys who kept us safe and even managed to show us up from time to time. We went through beacon practice, which was set up at our hotel. I got to know the crew and man, all of them were rad! Jussi is the nicest, most down to Earth guy, and gave me a ton of inspiration throughout the trip. He was shooting photos for his Mizu catalogue and working hard every day to create content for his brand. It was sick to see him taking such a passion to his project, looking for images that would inspire people to get outside.
The group from LifeProof was hilarious. David, its creative director, was like a fireball, just on all the time and trying to amp us up. He kept at us with the slogan for the trip, “Unleash the Remarkable,” like a coach from a sports movie. Jeremy turned out to be nothing like the D-O-double-G (I think, I’ve still never met Snoop). He was like an oversized kid, stoked all the time and skateboarding everywhere we went. He had these Pee Pants that he wore every day, these sweatpants that had a graphic of a piss stain. Justin and Gabe were awesome to shoot with, of course. Claiming how much America rules and hating on the Canadians was their favorite pastime that always made for good laughs. The other LifeProof homies were amazing as well—Bill from their ad team and Jessica, who does their social media. They were there for the adventure, just like everybody else. It was really rad to see that they were into the lifestyle and exploring crazy new places, and not just trying to sell something they have nothing in common with. We had dinner together and got to bed before too long, stoked for the next day. If the weather was good we’d be flying—heliboarding in Alaska.
It’s no secret that when you head to Alaska, shit gets real. Knowledge is the most valuable asset you can have in the backcountry, along with a shovel, probe and beacon. Once you have those, here are five essentials you shouldn’t leave home without.
We woke to clouds; our heli was grounded. Fortunately an alternative itinerary precluded disappointment. Our guides were hip to a near-enough spot, the Matanuska Glacier, where we could dip our toes in AK snow. From Wasilla the approach was a trek, hours in the car before a hike through mud and then, as the glacier started, snow and ice. We brought our boards, hungry for whatever opportunity we might have to ride. Travel to the glacier brought back impressions from the day before, the sense that we were in the presence of an energy of greater strength and personality than I had ever seen before, a living and dynamic nature. We were guests upon its grounds, uninvited but lucky enough to be allowed.
As we reached the glacier, hiked into the labyrinth made of ice and time, I was in a place of silent appreciation. Here were the remnants of another world, the remains of an ice age. It felt ancient, receded, like an old man who’d had his time to shape things, now sitting powerful but weathered in the twilight of a long and storied life.
Exploration quickly got our crew revved up. We called out to each other as we got closer to the glacier’s features. It held an unbelievable variety of ice formations: flats and rolling mounds, seracs, even a cave big enough to walk in with the deepest and brightest blues I’ve ever seen. We rode our snowboards, interpreting the place in terms of tranny, finding sniper gaps and testing our creativity with laybacks, one-footed boot slides, and drops to landing pads of solid ice. It was amazing to be in such a special place, a place with such immense energy, and feel continuity with the life I’ve led as a snowboarder. To look around and see new friends, people who share my passions for my sport and for the wilderness having so much fun was unforgettable.
Driving back to town, I thought about how lucky we all were to see the day as an adventure, to find potential in the ice. Our personalities let my new friends meet a down day as an opportunity, that we could start a conversation with a landscape and immerse ourselves in what it had to offer, seemed like circumstance as wonderful as anything.
In the afterglow of day two we got to know Wasilla. The town is really charming but a bit bizarre—it has a movie set vibe. Maybe because its most bumping store seemed to be the Value Village, or because it’s where Sarah Palin lives (really, we stayed right by her house!). We didn’t get to meet her, but a local at a nearby restaurant pointed out her spot. I think he hoped that we would mess with it—he was not down with the Palin.
They may have invented a new sport, actually: snowboard sailing
Jeremy and Jussi got rad with the frozen lake adjacent to our Best Western. They may have invented a new sport, actually: snowboard sailing. It involves two dudes sitting “butts to nuts” on a single board, holding a tarp and ripping around a lake by catching gusts of winds. Again, it has potential. As we romped around, there at the intersection of raw landscapes and the people who thrive amongst them. I felt our jokes and conversations adding to the texture of the trip, coloring our adventure with a style that I couldn’t have anticipated. Once again I learned the lesson that every shred trip reinforces: snowboarding is just part of it.
The next morning brought excitement. Our guides and pilot saw a window and offered us one spot on a reconnaissance flight with hopes that the later weather would be good enough to ride. Jeremy won the roshambo and the seat in the heli, with the rest of us waiting in anticipation as the recon crew loaded up and lifted off. By now we were established in Wasilla, and far enough into our trip to feel more than ready for some full-on boardin’. I realized that we were nearly halfway through our time in Alaska, which would extend another three days after this, and caught myself hoping this was it. That morning, waiting for the verdict on the recon, I had my first real taste of what Alaskan pilgrims describe to me year in, year out—the anxiety that comes with watching weather. It isn’t easy seeing clouds roll in and out, watching windows of sun start to open and then quickly close. It leads the mind to guessing games, and thoughts of getting skunked are constant threats to positivity. By the time the heli got back, all of us were feeling varying degrees of apprehension.
The look on Jeremy’s face as he disembarked the helicopter told it all: no stoke. The winds had picked up in the mountains, and the light had gone to milk. No chance of flying for the day. As the rotor covers went back on, I told myself that this is usual game in Alaska. You have to be patient and wait for the proper timing to earn the goods. I don’t think most people realize that Alaska makes its own schedule and doesn’t consider plans or budget. You have to approach it on its own terms. But Jeremy and Jussi, our veterans, had seen it enough times that their moods quickly came around and they pulled the crew around to laughs before the bummer got its claws in. I found my peace with the situation. We have to wait. We regrouped, made a new plan, loaded up and headed for another highway access spot.
Hatcher Pass, through the Talkeetna Mountains, is a hot spot for local winter recreation and was the perfect place to salvage our day. It’s home to a series of amazing cabins, which people use as staging for sled and splitboard missions, as well as summer expeditions like fishing and camping trips. Alaskans love to explore their backcountry, no matter what the season. Our guides were telling us that everyday people will hire bush planes to help them access camp spots, that exploring hits a whole new level up there. And the whole time I felt like the world was opening up in front of my eyes. Exploring with planes, camping between cabins and finding remote basins of wild and untapped radness; all of it could happen up there, all of it was possible! And not just for gnarly, crazy senders, but also for anybody who can see it. The wheels in my head were turning, dreaming up ideas for the future and seeing possibility in everything that came across our path. And, as if being rewarded for excitement, we found a sweet little setup to shred, a bunch of BMX- style jumps that had been built and left behind. We were stoked, and a session quickly fired up.
By the end of the day, I’d told myself a few times that I could spend months in this area. After three days, I felt like I’d found reason to reimagine the next years of my life.
On day four, we flew. From liftoff it was like a waking dream; the spinning rotors cut away the calms of life and left us with a high. There were no filters for amazement. Our flight into the Talkeetnas took us quickly to the feet of giants and as the heli picked up altitude we were put squarely against massive walls of rock and snow, deep in a land kept only the mountains. The glaciated world beneath us put off my perspective, without trees I had no frame of reference. The effect was one of separation, from familiarity and expectation. Everything felt new, and frankly, gigantic.
We put down at a staging area, where we scoped lines while our pilot shuttled in the crew. Everyone came out, not only the riders, cameramen, and guides, but the LifeProof marketing team as well. The days that came were some of the most fun of my life. Despite a shallow snowpack with less than confidence-inspiring stability, we managed (with a huge thanks to our guides) to find safe slopes with pockets of incredible snow. While conditions kept us from stepping to the gnarliness that keeps us all obsessed with AK, we shared runs that delivered all the fun of riding with friends, of leaning into long, arcing turns, of spraying snow as hard and as fast as you can through bluebird skies.
On the sixth and final day, Jeremy put on a show. He’d scoped a gap across a creeping, low elevation canyon, a picturesque feature that looked badass and pretty reasonable from far away. Up close, it was crazy. The gap was probably a 40-foot ollie with a serious don’t-miss factor of 80 or 90 feet of rock wall to the bottom of the canyon. Jussi and I were definitely not into it, but Jeremy was in the zone, fully committed to the potential of the spot and his potential for unlocking it. We saw his drive as he eyeballed everything up, throwing snowballs and planning his build. He just knew that he could do it, I think. As we built Jeremy’s jump, I saw a literal interaction between our crew and the energy I’d felt since I arrived. There we were, among these giants, changing the temporary landscape of the snow, putting our spin on the terrain and finding a point where our ideas of snowboarding could meet with what was there. We were showing ourselves to the mountains.
Looking back, I wonder if the impression that we made goes deeper than the tracks we left, the lines we painted on the slopes and the evidence of Jeremy making his gap and riding away clean. I wonder if the energy I felt the land exuding kept anything of us. After seeing my friends decode their potential on these mountains and imagining how I can do the same, I can say without a doubt I’m going back.
I want to thank everyone who was part of this trip: Justin, Gabe, David, Verity, Jessica, Bill, Ted, Matt, Jeremy and Jussi. Sharing my first AK trip with you guys was such a privilege. Thanks for making it happen, for keeping me safe, and for keeping me stoked. And to everyone who’s dreamed about Alaska, go. If you can keep an open mind and let yourself see the beauty that lives there, your trip will be worth it.
Photography by Justin L’Heureux