Thomas Delfino is originally a man of the Alps. He grew up in the backcountry of a small valley called Vallee de l’Esteron and now lives in Grenoble, France. We met on his first trip to Alaska in 2014 when he joined Cody Booth and I to explore the possibility of snowboarding in the remote and wind-swept Aleutians. Eight hundred miles removed from the Alaskan road system, this treeless land of rime ice volcanoes does not fall short on terrain, but rather good weather and snow conditions. The area is often referred to as the birthplace of the North American weather system, or the, “Cradle of Storms”. Maddeningly consistent winds and variable snow make this range one of the most difficult places to ride in Alaska. There’s almost never powder, and the scale coupled with the weather makes the rest of Alaska look like the Bahamas. I remember watching Thomas ride fast and confidently while navigating through the hostile conditions on that first trip and knowing at that moment that he would have a bright future. We just needed to get him on some of the classic powdery spines that the Great State is so well known for.
"Prior to our arrival, Storm Troopers hadn’t been explored on foot"
His next opportunity came two years later when Thomas came back to Alaska and joined me on his first glacier camp in the Tordrillos. Although our trip was largely successful, full of great people and good times, the trip was cut short by a large low-pressure system moving in that meant we had to fly out before we got to step foot on our main objectives. Nonetheless, that little taste was enough to confirm my spine slaying suspicions about him. He was a beast and I couldn’t wait to have him back in the North again.
Fast forward another season, and Thomas was finally back in Alaska. This time to face one of the most unique, technical, and downright terrifying faces known to man, the Storm Troopers spine wall. For the past decade, Storm Troopers has appeared in a variety of major snow films, from Absinthe to Teton Gravity Research (TGR) and beyond. There have only been a few challengers over the years, but those that have are some of our most respected big mountain heroes, Jeremy Jones and Gigi Ruf included. Almost everyone familiar with Haines will perk up a little bit when the face is mentioned.
Historically, this truly unique spine wall has always been done with the aid of a helicopter, however it was recently zoned out of the fly boundaries, and has not seen any action since. Prior to our arrival, Storm Troopers hadn’t been explored on foot because there were no established landing zones for fixed wing aircrafts, and nobody wanted to hike the dangerous approach. As it turned out, the one reliable landing zone we found was many miles and vertical feet away from the objective itself. Our mission not only required the usual fly-in base camp, but also a remote snow cave camp closer to the wall so that we could be on time for the pre-dawn ascent. I had been dreaming of a ground-up style film project here for years, and the timing was perfect.
"Some might say we pushed it a little too hard"
"It looked as if a dragon was breathing fire"
At 6 o’clock on the morning of Thomas’ attempt, I stood alone balancing on a knife-edge portion of the Storm Troopers summit ridge. Thousands of feet fell away on either side of my boots and a rush of wind blew fiercely at my back. The rising sun and the reflection of golden light seen on every single snowflake across the powdery north face only amplified the scene before us. We had front-pointed up bulletproof avalanche debris in separate south facing couloirs under darkness and a full moon to gain access to this legendary spine wall. It was our third and final day on the mountain out of our twelve-day trip, and there were ten tracks and a film crew waiting beneath us. As I balanced on the ridge, I reflected on the previous days, and the fact that I had witnessed Thomas do some of the best snowboarding I have ever seen. Some might say we pushed it a little too hard, but the weather and snow was flawless, so we decided to push into the most fearsome part of the wall for the last day.
The first thing that came to my mind at 6:30 a.m. when I saw that billowing slough explode out the bottom of largest, most technical part of the spine wall was, “Good thing Thomas isn’t in that!” After gaining 2,000 feet of momentum on a sustained 45-degree face with even steeper entrances, the snow blew out the apron with such force, and with such rich color in the morning light, that it looked as if a dragon was breathing fire into the run out. All of a sudden, Thomas appeared in the debris pile at the bottom, only ten seconds after he went out of view on the upper face.
The Storm Troopers face is so incredibly featured with pillows and spines that it is almost impossible to keep a visual on riders at all times. For a moment, the sound of that deep rumble of snow faded into radio silence and it was absolutely maddening. Is he ok? Is he conscious? What just happened? “I’m alright guys,” broke the silence, and I could finally breathe. Thomas had made one wrong turn near the top of his line and was instantly carried off of his feet by the moving snow and sent to the bottom in a high-speed chaotic tumble. He snapped his board in half, and lost the highback of one binding, along with his Go Pro. But, luckily, he was otherwise unscathed.
"For me, the greatest lesson from our experience was in devotion and determination."
The documentary soon to be released by Almo Films does a much better job of representing Thomas’s incredibly adaptive snowboarding prowess than my words ever could, but I can say with certainty that I witnessed a great friend of mine take his big mountain game forward with a huge leap in progression. Something that would take most pro riders five to ten seasons in a helicopter took Thomas three trips to Alaska on foot. We climbed that mountain, and Thomas rode Storm Troopers just as good or better than any pro in the world. And while he was served a slice of humble pie at the end, the experience taught him exactly where that edge of possibility is, and what happens when you step over the line; triumphs and failures, all without the physical or mental safety net of a helicopter.
For me the greatest lesson from our experience was in devotion and determination. Thomas may be a professional snowboarder, but he still pays for all of his travel out of pocket and is far from having a Red Bull helicopter budget. Nor does he want one. He believes that the style in which you do something is important, and we both agree that the ground-up style suits us best. We live in tents and trucks so we can afford to make our dreams a reality. We cut corners on costs and sacrifice many conveniences, but at the end of the season, our ambitions feel more than fulfilled. Thomas’s recent progression in big mountain snowboarding is a profound testament and accomplishment. It speaks to the seemingly impossible being nothing short of possible after all.