Henrik Harlaut is from Sweden. He is a professional skier and the Skier of the Year, according to the voters. And yet he is not an athlete, at least in any conventional sense of the word. As I flew over the Nevada desert in a narrow seat just forward of the lavatory, my hands were already full with the near impossible task of amending public misperception of the X Games champion with what I know as the truth—that there is much more to Henrik Harlaut than that public veneer. His Olympic bid will be a sideshow to the main act, the story of a 22-year-old kid who has changed the sport of skiing forever.
“The biggest little city in the world,” exclaimed a bearded man with a Realtree camo cap as the plane circled in to land. With some effort, he tore his eyes from the spread of casino lights below and pointed enthusiastically to his buddy across the aisle like a third string quarterback might point to a rookie receiver who just pulled down a Hail Mary with five seconds left in the fourth. People jostled for position when the seatbelt chime sounded. I avoided eye contact with the meth-faced soldiers of fortune at the slot poker machines as we exited through the lobby. Someone had puked in one of the drinking fountains. Reno.
The kid at the rental car counter was intrigued at the prospect of my trip. “Going to Mammoth, huh,” he said. “You a snowboarder? I figured you were either a snowboarder or you were in a band when I saw the long hair.”
“I’m a skier. I’m going down there to write a story about the Olympics.”
He smiled knowingly, wise to my game. “So it’s about Shaun White then.”
“Afraid not,” I said. “No one cares about that ginger prick anymore. It’s a profile piece on Henrik Harlaut.”
“Never heard of him.”
“You will. In a couple of months, he’ll be bigger than the Flying Tomato and Tony Hawk. Combined.” Then, with an air of importance befitting the conferral of insider information, I snatched the keys from the counter and walked off.
Truth be told, I’ve never had much use for the ready-made drama of the Olympiad and its contrived Cinderella stories. The Olympic debut of slopestyle and halfpipe skiing is just something for old people to talk about at dinner parties and bridge games. The sport of freeskiing that I know and love will surely be misunderstood by such water cooler enthusiasts. Like most aesthetic pursuits that fall under the banner of “action sport,” it is something beyond the American general public’s understanding.
Racing at 90 mph through the dark of the high desert in an uninsured Chevy, my mind wandered to a summer not long ago (although four or five years amounts to an epoch in the scope of freeskiing’s young history) when I lived with Henrik and ten other skiers in a Mount Hood ski chalet off Highway 26 in Oregon. At night the sound of engine-braking Peterbilts rattled through the window screens in a way particular to big trucks in a misty corridor of tall trees. Long after everyone had gone to bed, you could hear Henrik laughing softly from his mattress in the loft.
“…strangers invariably gawked at the cornrowed Swedish hobbit…”
He was watching an animated musical called A Goofy Movie on his laptop, practicing his “Henglish.” The most fascinating thing about the then 17-year-old Swede, besides his obvious ski talent, was his creative use of English diction. He was always adding and dropping h’s and s’s. His favorite movie was about a kid wizard named “’Arry Potters.” His Hollywood crush: “Hemma Watson.” Aloe vera was pronounced “AOL.” Milwaukee: the remote principality of “Milky Way.” “I always confuse dem Teenage Turtles with the Three Mosquitos,” he said one day. He meant Musketeers. About the only English verbiage he had a good handle on in those days was Wu-Tang lyrics.
Everyone in that house loved him. Henrik was our little “brudder;” we, his surrogate family. He had a special moniker and secret handshake for each of us. Several times, I drove him all the way to Sandy at 10 p.m. so he could get Taco Bell when he ran out of Goetze’s caramels and Fruit Loops. After skiing on the glacier, he would clunk around the grocery store in ski boots, where strangers invariably gawked at the cornrowed Swedish hobbit with a dirty tall tee and chrome grille.
Henrik paid no mind. Coming of age in Åre, Sweden, he had learned the hard way that people tend to espouse a fairly narrow view of skiing. Sweden has a storied history of alpine and nordic ski champions. To this day, snowboarding is often snubbed by the conservative element as “hashplanka” or “stoner board.” Åre local Jon Olsson had helped pave the way for a nascent generation of cookie-cutter freeskiers, but Henrik hardly fit the mold. Where, if at all, young Henrik fit into Scandinavian snow sports culture is hard to say. He hadn’t postured himself a Jon Olsson type but a Tanner Hall or Mickael Deschenaux. A gangster on snow.
The swaggy hubris reflected in Henrik’s skiing in 2009 was largely at odds with the person himself—an introverted and exceedingly humble kid who said, “No, you,” at the slightest suggestion of a compliment. Even his malapropism-laden lexicon was just a clever act, a diversion tactic that allowed him to do what he did best. Sit back in the cut, watching, listening. Learning.
One night that summer, I borrowed his computer to check my email. Before I typed my password, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and Henrik politely asked if he might hazard a guess as to what it was. His face pinched at the corners as he smiled slyly through two prominent rows of white teeth. “Is it Dynastar?” he whispered. It was.
I hadn’t skied for Dynastar in four years, but Henrik didn’t bother to guess any of my current sponsors. Only my first. He knew too well the things that the skier holds close to the heart. If skiing were writing, Henrik would be JD Salinger. If it were a guitar, he’d be Hendrix or Page. Skiing, for Henrik, is a thing that simply makes sense—a force that flows through him like some divine whim. Henrik’s skiing is a symphony that he was born to compose, an opus that the whole world will soon watch with bated breath.
I rolled into town and found it much the same as ever. Mammoth is a desert isle where great skiers are born and where washed up pros wander off to die. The same is probably true, in one way or another, of any place that is too good to be true, if only because it is three hours from anywhere.
I went straight to Lakanuki, the village tiki bar that is both the bane and saving grace of Mammoth nightlife. It was Thanksgiving week and outside, the line was forty head deep. The LA weekend warrior constituency, dressed in tight black denim and leather jackets, had beaten the locals to the punch. Henrik and Phil Casabon showed up as planned, joining the dissenting crowd outside the door. “Blunt, though,” Henrik said as our palms met. “Yessir, Blunt,” I responded in kind. It is our mutual nickname, dating back to the days of that house in Hood, denoting a shared proclivity for grabbing the tail of the ski.
Casabon and Henrik poked each other in the ribs as we waited. “Got you,” Phil said after thirty seconds of trying to break through Henrik’s defense. “No, B, them ribs are here,” Henrik contested, pointing to a spot just above his hip. “He never admits it when he got got,” Phil explained, but it is rare to see them in any kind of competition, regardless of how petty.
There is a strange kinship between the eponymous heroes of the B&E (B-Dog and E-Dollo) Show. A few years back, in a power move that took some real sand, they split from Level 1 Productions to pursue their own vision with a series of web edits under Tanner Hall’s Inspired label. The barn-burning success of the B&E Show came as no surprise. Between the two of them, they have invented or popularized almost half the tricks that kids are doing these days.
It was neither surprise nor coincidence that they used Wu-Tang in almost every one of their early edits. Besides the vertically integrated production of the B&E Show (rider filmed, edited and inspired—pardon the pun) an even deeper synthesis exists with the ideals of RZA’s hip-hop syndicate. Wu-Tang was the first hip-hop group to treat rap as a martial art—a melding of philosophy and its physical manifestation, classic form and spontaneous creation. B and E have treated skiing the same way, borrowing from the ski style masters who came before them to create a brand of skiing that looks and feels like a completely different sport.
As we finally passed through the stone façade and into the bar, snowboarders in Red Bull hats and pretty girls popped out of the woodwork in droves to give Henrik daps. “Whatup Dollo!” they all said. He meekly rejected their advances with a smile and a nod. It was the same Henrik
as ever but somehow more comfortable in his own skin. Even after our numbers had grown to ten, including Hornbeck, P-White, the whole cast of the Traveling Circus, Paul Bergeron and Vincent Gagnier, Henrik was the only one that anyone recognized.
These were not fans of Phil Casabon or the B&E Show. These were not even fans of skiing. They were fans of Henrik. We were the rest of the Rat Pack, and he was Frank Sinatra. The cornrows and grill of old had been replaced with dreadlocks, his stained tall tee had been exchanged for a clean one, but little else had changed. He had become the most iconic two-planker since Glen Plake. And it had happened overnight. The source of his fame, I knew, was the fabled nose-butter triple cork of the 2013 X Games.
It was a trick that had single-handedly put Henrik, and freeskiing, on the map. A crowd-pleasing maneuver may not have been his preferred methodology, but it was what we had needed. I remembered the tall tale that I had fed the kid at the Alamo car rental counter. At the time, it had seemed like a great joke to think that Henrik Harlaut could ever be a household name like Shaun White, but just five hours later, I was beginning to wonder.