Blood on the Rails: Filming in Helsinki with Strenio, Milbocker and McChesney
“I hate when I fall asleep and I think I’m not going to remember today. I’m sitting here right now, and I’m tucking this away. I’m going to remember today.” It’s sometime after midnight, and LJ Strenio is lying on his back in a small bed at a hostel in Helsinki, Finland. His left leg is raised up, encased from ankle to thigh by an enormous cast. Twelve hours before, his life was different. “My whole life was get as many shots as I can right now. Push it. Then get ready to compete again, and then film again. Send it, send it, send it. Now my whole life is 180 degrees different.”
The morning started off carefree and fun. LJ, Spencer Milbocker, Tim McChesney, under the gloomy dark of a Scandinavian winter morning, set off from our hostel to hit a rail in the suburbs of Helsinki. “We were re-upping on this double kink, the classic Finland double kink that was sessioned in Refresh,” says LJ from his bed. “I did a four pretz two on it that felt really good, and I was stoked on the shot. I thought I’d tee up the six on ’cause Wally [Tom Wallisch] did it [earlier in the 2012 season], and I heard that’s what’s hot. I had a few really good ones that were feeling clean, was starting to lock into the rail coming out forward. I just wanted to lock one in 100-percent and maybe even put a front two in there. I came off a little stair heavy, and my knee went underneath the rail into the last support. One hundred and eighty pounds of me and 25 miles per hour of me was 100-percent into the front of my kneecap.” [Watch video of LJ's crash here.]
After stomping this 450 disaster, LJ could have quit for the day. Instead he wanted to make a bigger disaster and ended his season. Photo by Abbott.
The sound wasn’t definitive like you’d expect. Even with the blurted, “Ohmyohmyohmy!” before he slid to a stop, I wasn’t sure what had happened. The trip, before and after this moment, was a wild blur of sleepless nights, endless driving, stomping feet to fight the cold and some happy moments when a shot worked out. The next 30 minutes though, they stick in my mind just like LJ said later that night. LJ knew his kneecap was shattered, and we worked quickly to get a jacket on him, throw all our gear in the van, find a hospital on our GPS, get him into the van and navigate Finnish street signs to get to the small hospital.
Once we got there, it still wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. “Going to a hospital in a foreign country is the worst experience I’ve ever had,” says LJ, with the ordeal fresh in his mind. “No one spoke English. They wanted to operate immediately. It was miserable. I couldn’t even understand what they were saying to me. It took four hours to even get an X-ray.” Eventually though, we got a hold of his father and doctors in Utah, where LJ wanted to have the inevitable surgery to mend his shattered knee.
Less than a week earlier, I was on the phone with Kyle Decker talking about putting together a trip to shoot for Level 1’s movie Sunny. With dismal snow in North America, we made a snap decision and, two days later, jetted off to Helsinki with LJ, Spencer and Tim. We reached out to some local crews, organized a van and lodging, and started the long process of finding spots to hit by watching video clips, pouring over files of photos and scribbled addresses, and cruising Google Street View.
On our first day, we went to a super-long down rail. We had an address and had seen some photos and video, but still, our GPS sent us circling and cursing while we peered out the dark windows of the van. When we finally got it together, each of the skiers made relatively quick work of their tricks, and I thought the hard part of the trip wouldn’t be the skiing. Aside from two big smashes, that held true.
Our second day, we spiraled toward an old snowboard video clip and a Google address by the city’s waterfront and eventually found some stairs off a large apartment building. The rail leading down them was soft aluminum, but Tim decided to step up to a sizeable drop over the rail. It took the skiers from an angled wall ride to a landing way below, right on the limit of being stompable. For numerous attempts, Tim fought to land his 180 after the 20-foot drop. One extra abrupt landing, a little wide of the small pile of snow that masqueraded as a tranny, left him bleeding from his nose. Still, he persisted and got a clean landing on the trick a couple of tries later. After Tim’s long battle, I was surprised to see that LJ still wanted a crack, but with the short day fading, he stuck another 180 after only a few tries.
You saw McChesney’s bloody nose in the gallery above, but that flat landing didn’t come close to stopping him from going back and stomping his 180. It actually gave him something to aim for, a small target like a torero’s red cape. Photo by Abbott.
While two solid shots would often earn us a little rest, these skiers flew around the world for a short trip, and they wanted to drive on. And drive they did. Actually, it was Decker who did the driving. The van was an enormous beast, perfect for hauling our gear around, but it wasn’t exactly perfect for navigating the tight, snow-packed streets of the city, especially with the confusion of Finnish street names and unfamiliar surroundings. I will also take this opportunity to apologize for my merciless heckling of Decker’s driving because having a team captain to push us on was, ultimately, what made our trip a success.
That night, after a few hours of scouting, we ended up at the double kink that would claim LJ’s kneecap the next day. Our rental generator didn’t cooperate, so we called the mission until morning. As memorable as that day was—for all the wrong reasons—the days after LJ left were a blur of street shooting. “I knew he would want us to keep hitting stuff and going hard for the rest of the trip,” says Tim. “So we had to just put it in the past and keep on going. Pretty much right after he left, we got right back to where we were going.”
We drove hours north from Helsinki to visit a string of successful features. We battled traffic, cold, spotty GPS directions, a barely functional generator and lack of sleep with endless cups of coffee, torn puffy jackets, daytime shooting and a single-minded desire to find any rail worthy of shooting. We shot another double-kink rail late at night, followed by a dark drive back to Helsinki. We found a gap to down rail on a random street far from any spot we had heard about. We set up and Spencer got a 270 pretty quick. Then, as Tim worked on his switch 270, a couple of police officers showed up. Decker talked to them (while Spencer filmed the proceedings). “They ended up being real cool with us,” recalls Tim. “Usually in America, it’s the complete opposite.” They moved their van away from the landing and on his second try, with the police patiently observing, Tim pulled the trick perfectly, and we drove off to our next feature without so much as a warning.
Certainly, LJ’s injury is the most intense memory that remains from the trip, while the rest of the experience blends together. It takes some blood—a little pain—to bring out the best in each of us. LJ is scarred by his injury, but he has those shots and his memories. Just this past week, as I was finalizing this story, LJ skied up to me in Park City. He chatted with me for a couple minutes, then skied off. As I rode the lift for my next run, I watched him do a perfect 270 onto a down rail.
[Ed's Note: In the time since this article was originally published, LJ went on to win the 2013 War of Rails at Bear Mountain, and he was also a member of the "Level 1 Constructions" team, which took first place at Orage Masters 8.]