Originally printed in Issue 20.1.
Somewhere in Central Java, the WhatsApp connection finally started working. “Is that birds in the background?” I asked. “Yeah, there are tons of them, kind of just blocking them out at this point,” said Judd. It has been hard to sit down with Judd Henkes and Spencer Whiting the past few months as they have been charging full steam ahead on their upcoming project, Greenhorn. And we still weren’t even sitting on our wifi call with plenty of avian interference, they were currently headed to a different wave between swells in Indonesia when service kicked on.
Greenhorn is due out this fall, and judging by the leaks the Judd and Spencer have dropped online, the surf and snow undertaking is sure to impress. The duo has been around the globe the last eighteen months, trying to not only score in the snow, but in the water as well.
Hailing from La Jolla, California (Windansea is his home break), 22-year-old Judd Henkes is the focus of the upcoming short film. A rider well known for his abilities within a slopestyle course, Henkes is hoping this will show another side of his skills, primarily his homegrown ability to surf along with a breakout into the backcountry. Behind the lens, Spencer Whiting is expecting the same result. Judd is the protagonist, but Greenhorn is a statement piece of what Whiting can do behind a camera that doesn’t fit in the palm of your hand. (Under the moniker @gimbalgod, Spencer is probably the most-watched snowboard filmer of all time if you count the views online he has racked up follow-caming, between Instagram and YouTube). The pair is finally seeing the video’s deadline fast approaching, and luckily, we caught up with them on their last trip to the Southern Hemisphere. Speaking straight from their search to button up the project, enjoy this interview with Spencer and Judd. – Mark Clavin
You have your ender yet?
Judd: Nope. That’s why we are on this last trip.
Spencer: And the premiere is in November, so we have to figure it out somewhere and soon.
This is probably the biggest thing you guys have ever worked on?
Judd: Yeah, definitely. This is the biggest project I’ve ever worked on. And I think this is Spenny’s directorial debut, so…
Spencer: We both came in from different sides. I spearheaded a lot of it, but Judd also had a lot of input. I feel like we both co-directed this thing.
Is the rumor true that this was just supposed to be one short YouTube edit?
Judd: Yes. We had a little budget and came down to Indo last year to film a YouTube edit. The original plan was Indo, New Zealand, and Chile. It was going to be a little surf and snow project. But we were sitting for eighteen days waiting for the swell to hit HT’s and when the day came, big swell, and we bagged this first water clip on that day…we kind of lost our minds. It just set everything in motion from there.
Spencer: That’s the opening shot of the movie. The second we arrived in Indo, we just gave the guide our passports to extend our stay and then didn’t see them for two months. It was pretty scary, ha, just hoping that we would eventually get the passports back.
Where those the best waves you’ve ever ridden?
Judd: Yeah, that was probably the biggest barrel I’ve ever been in.
And now even as you are wrapping up, still the biggest?
Judd: I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to say. It feels all around the same, you know? We tried to keep it at that level. I was scaring myself for sure on this project.
Spencer: That has basically been the whole year-and-a-half. A lot of blind faith and scaring ourselves.
Can you list off every place you guys went to for this project?
Spencer: Indonesia, Chile, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, Alaska, Wyoming, Whistler.
What’s the meaning behind the name, Greenhorn?
Judd: It refers to your first year on a boat. This is my first solo project. I’ve never tried to film surfing or really tried to film a full part snowboarding, so we just kind of felt that Greenhorn was the perfect name.
Spencer: I was super into the Deadliest Catch show, haha, and I remember all the rookies on a crab boat, they called them greenhorns. So it is water-based in a way, but also in a cold, snowy environment.
Why did you guys decide to make a surf and snow video?
Judd: It’s just always been something I wanted to do. Surfing and snowboarding have been part of my life since I was a kid. I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could film a project that would be good in both.
Spencer: It was easy to see from that first trip to HTs [Hollow Tree in the Mentawais]; Judd’s style is worthy to be watched from a surfing perspective, at least to me. Most snowboard movies are all white and a lot of surf movies are a mix of blues, so it seemed like a fun challenge to edit the different color palette instead of just one vibe.
Which one did you start first, snowboarding or surfing?
Judd: I started surfing first, but they were both around the same time. My dad had me on a surfboard when I was around two years old and by four, I was snowboarding.
Did you compete in both of them?
Judd: I did little surf contests when I was a kid, but I mainly just competed in snowboarding. I never really liked competing in surfing.
Do you see yourself making a run on the competitive side at the Olympics in two years?
Judd: Yeah,I’m not giving up on competing, but I want to keep my options open. You can only have so long of a competitive career and I don’t want to stop snowboarding after that, you know? Just want to keep getting better. The whole premise for this project was just to make something that both snowboarders and surfers could respect. Try to hold a certain standard. Spencer: Yeah, we just wanted to make something that flows that we are proud of.
How did you two meet?
Judd: We met on the Mammoth Snowboard Team when I was super young. I actually don’t even remember when specifically. I’ve always known him, I guess.
Spencer: I was 12 and I think Judd was 6. Yeah, it was the Mammoth Snowboard Team, essentially like a glorified soccer team. We kind of just started carpooling up to Mammoth from Southern California on the weekends in his dad’s RV.
So about fifteen years in the making?
Judd: Yeah, Spencer started filming and follow-caming with all the top riders at the big contests and as I came up, we just always crossed paths over the years.
Spencer: Haha, a lot of people still call me The GoPro Guy, yet I haven’t even filmed on a GoPro in two years.
Does any of your surfing correlate to your snowboarding or vice versa?
Judd: I don’t know if they directly correlate, but there is the mental aspect of it. Doing both, pushing yourself in both, you have just a better scope of things. I guess it doesn’t hurt to be in the gym for both of them, either. You want that power in your legs.
Which one pushed your fear more?
Judd: They both are very similar in fear experiences. Paddling out in Ireland at this wave, proper ten feet, was probably the most scared I’ve ever been, just watching the ocean unload on itself. Mean, cold, dark water. And my first Alaska line…both were pretty humbling experiences.
All right, how’d your first AK line go?
Judd: I didn’t really understand the scale up there. Everything’s so big that it looks kind of small at that point. I picked this one line thinking, Yeah, it’s super chill. it was actually the finals venue of Natural Selection where we were at, so in reality, not that chill. But this was before it aired, so we didn’t know it was the same zone. It was my time to drop and I just rode that thing, blind confidence. Spencer is always telling me to go fast, so I was cruising and as I get to the end of this spine into a pillow section, I bounce and land deeper than I wanted and got put into this choke with all the slough running. I remember going on my heels, toes, and then when I went back to my heels, all of a sudden I’m in the air and I just tomahawked into the slough and luckily got pushed out. But I think it was like eight tomahawks.
Spencer: I was in the helicopter shooting, just thinking I was watching Judd die. But there were no rocks below him so we thought he would be okay. The impact from the fall ripped the airbag out of his backpack. It was probably one of the heaviest falls I’ve seen in person.
Judd: I took some mellower lines after. I got my feet in the water there, but I’d like to get more after it next year. I just wanted to get in at a young age to see what it was about up there.
Judd: It was little bit over my paygrade. There were gnarly big wave surfers in the water and I was watching these guys get pitched and bodied. Nathan Florence, one of the best big wave surfers in the world, was basically the only dude making tubes. All I was thinking was, What’s gonna happen to me?
Spencer: I was pretty scared for Judd out there. I was trying to keep tabs on him in the lineup.
And you still paddled out?
Judd: Yeah, you never know unless you paddle out. But I ended up just kind of watching and I didn’t go on anything too heavy. I would like to surf waves like that, but that trip ended up being a bust. We went and surfed some other wave after around the same size but a little less heavy. But I didn’t make anything. I packed a lot of closeouts.
Which board was it harder to get a clip on?
Judd: I think surfing’s harder to get a clip on. I’m not a professional surfer, haha. I’m trying to get clips that are of that caliber, so it’s just taken a lot of work and developing my surfing. But with that being said, getting clips in the backcountry isn’t easy either.
Spencer: I didn’t even know you could ride at this level.
Do you have more pressure from one side or the other, like surf or snow, in your head?
Judd: I don’t want to put out anything bad. So you have to be harsh on yourself. And you know, it sucks sometimes coming in from five surf sessions in a row, not getting a clip and just being super bummed on yourself. It’s the same in snowboarding. Working hard and not getting the clip is tough.
How do you bounce back after five sessions in a row not getting a clip?
Judd: I mean, you’re not going to get a clip by giving up. You have to keep trying, no matter what, you know? I had a lot of sessions in Costa Rica, not getting a single clip, and just taking duck dive after duck dive on the head. And the same thing in snow, slamming on that trick over and over and over again. I’m either gonna ride away from a clip or I’m gonna go until I physically cannot.
Who’s crazier, heli pilots or boat captains on surf trips?
Spencer: Haha. I think Alaska heli pilots are more calculated crazy. Boat captains are just more ex-pat crazy. One captain in Costa Rica brought us into a house that he was definitely just squatting in. And then you got another captain that is yachting around with the richest of the rich.
Which one’s worse to pack for when going on a trip?
Judd: I would say doing them together, that’s the worst to pack for, ha. It is a lot cheaper to hang on the beach, though.
Spencer: You use bigger lenses for surf and a water housing, so probably surf, but yeah, it’s all pretty easy until you combine the kits. We checked like nine bags, probably close to 500 pounds of gear. I have some status with United, so we try and stay on those flights. But, for this trip, we put all of our snowboard gear in a storage unit in Australia and then flew to Bali with our surf stuff. The baggage fees cost more than the flight. I’m still only bringing two t-shirts and two pairs of boardshorts, and keep my personal items pretty limited. But I am trying to shoot this movie like a proper commercial or Hollywood movie and that comes with weight. It is thirty-five pounds in batteries just to shoot an entire day, ha. You can’t really go wrong with Indonesia in August, though. The success rate is kind of like similar to going to Whistler in March.
Which you guys did as well?
Judd: Yep. We camped all of March. We just figured if we were out there, we wouldn’t have to wake up as early to get the morning light and would able to go out whenever, so we pulled the trigger and bought all this snow camping equipment. Spencer hired Mason [Mashon] as a photog and a guide. It was really fun for the first couple weeks, but then when you’re actually filming and snow camping, it gets pretty exhausting. You’re not getting the same recovery at night when you’re sleeping. Your body is working hard to survive in that harsh environment and so the tiredness just starts to creep in. You just start getting pretty fatigued by the end. I almost cried on my snowmobile one day because I was just so over it, haha.
How did you charge batteries out there to film?
Spencer: We had a super battery bank and a solar panel. But we realized that the solar panel wasn’t able to charge all of our stuff, so we’d go down to my truck to plug stuff in—but just doing that was a two-and-a-half-hour round trip. A lot of the clips wouldn’t have been possible without camping out there, though, like the dramatic time-lapse or every single glory light. Normally a fog bank or a shitty day would stop you from coming into the backcountry, but we were already there, and if it cleared up, we were filming at night.
Yeah, I have seen the photos, but not the film yet. How was filming at night?
Spencer: Mason dialed it in and ran it like a military program. I will never forget seeing all those alpine features lit up. I was trying to do this project without drones, because in my experience drones always make everything more complicated, but the second he put that thing up it was a game changer. We had it looking like a Hollywood studio.
Judd, was it tough riding in the dark, lit by a drone flying above?
Judd: To be honest, it actually wasn’t too bad. It was pretty nice. I was riding with a headlamp, but if you white-room yourself with just that, you get super white-roomed. It’s like the light reflects off the snow and you get straight blinded. Can’t see a thing. But with that drone light, it just feels like there’s a mini sun above you.
But you can only have the drone up for like twenty minutes at a time and we obviously still had the danger levels of the backcountry—avalanches and all that. There was some stuff that popped off at night, but Mason knew the zones we were riding in and it was very mellow terrain compared to what we were doing in the day. We were constantly on the radios just making sure we knew where everyone was when there was no light. I don’t think we would have been able to make this thing happen if it wasn’t for Ryan Finder, Brandon Davis, Kyle Mack, Torgeir, and Mason. Like straight up, those guys helped us so much throughout the backcountry side of things. Sage, as well, early on, and then Jack Dawe on the photo side.
So why make a Judd solo project even though you were with a crew the whole time?
Spencer: Haha, it is hard to get all the energy drink brands to work together! We were all filming for our own separate things but working as a crew. Even though the end goal was not the same, we all wanted to film, and you kind of need some muscle filming in the backcountry.
And on the surfing side, you were alone a lot, yeah?
Judd: A lot of this project surfing has been solo. It is a bit different. Some spots, you want to keep a low presence if there are others already at the wave. It’s better to go as a small unit. But yeah, it would have been nice to have someone. I had to self-motivate to get out there in Chile. It’s heavy, I’m paddling out solo, there’s not another surfer for maybe a hundred kilometers and it’s just Spencer on the beach and me in the water. If something goes wrong, it’s not gonna be great.
Spencer: I had fins right next to my tripod and a full med kit, tourniquets, everything. It’s like you know if anything goes down, we aren’t close to a hospital. It is really important to be first aid certified. One thing we’ve learned, just like you’re doing the Baldface Risk Maturities, is just be prepared. A lot of things can go wrong when you add the ocean as the thing you’re standing on.
Are you guys excited this is your last trip?
Judd: I mean I’m super stoked to finish this project and put it out, but I don’t know, I just feel like Spencer and I are going to just continue to do the same thing.
Spencer: I think this one couldn’t be on YouTube faster. For my bank account’s sake and my sanity.
Yeah, seems like a ton of travel for Greenhorn. How did you fund the whole thing?
Judd: By eating into our own savings accounts haha. The sponsors did throw up a lot of budget, but not all of it was covered. And not in the beginning. You know, Spencer and I were fronting money. I paid for my whole AK trip and you know Spencer paid for a lot of other stuff. He was leveraging a lot of credit to even allow us to snowboard in Alaska.
Spencer: There technically wasn’t a budget for this film. I took out a loan to cover that payment just to make sure that like we had enough funds in Indonesia and like, dude, it’s a constant yo-yo game. I think at the end of it, Judd put in $35,000 and I’ve put in $35,000, so it’s like we each could have a down payment on a house with that, but instead Judd has a 15-minute video part. We just started doing it and when we ran out of money, we’d figure out a way. I think at one point I was in the hole $125,000 and had less than a thousand dollars in my bank account with an $80,000 Amex bill. Whether you snowboard or not, you’re paying the heli op in AK. The budgeting is always pretty stressful. My one takeaway is to always get the insurance.
So why is AK still worth it, even when it’s that expensive?
Judd: You’re not going to get that snowboarding anywhere else. It’s the thing.
Spencer: I think I could skip riding anywhere else in the world if I could just get to AK during the winter for the next ten seasons.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR THE MOVIE DROPPING ONLINE SOON!