Mike Hornbeck Profile: Skiing’s hard working Familia man

Comments by Nate Abbott/

At the end of a long mazelike road above the town of Park City, I find an icy driveway fronted by a mid-80s Toyota Land Cruiser. In the fading light, I see the smiling face of Mike Hornbeck peering from the driver’s window. Behind him, the truck is filled with a jumble of the tools of his trade: skis, shovels and construction lights. We gingerly climb the driveway covered in the remains of the season’s first big storm and the ice from the melt off.

A couple of friends wander in and out of the kitchen while Hornbeck’s girlfriend, Jessica, cooks up a stir-fry for us all. The rental house, home for the coming season, is spacious and clean. The scene borders on domestic bliss, and the conversation ambles gently from skiing to personal history to any other topic that pops into Hornbeck’s head. He chats about making ski edits; why he’s never held a job where he’s used a cash register; and La Familia (La Fa), the nascent ski accessory and media company he founded with skier Ahmet Dadali and Kelly Armintrout, known as K-Day, a friend and underground skier from Michigan.

This isn’t the story of a superstar, a champion skier who’s driving an oversized diesel truck with a brand new sled in the back, someone who just signed some big energy-drink check over for the down payment on a new house. Mike Hornbeck is, though, another cliché. He grew up in Bloomingdale, Michigan, and it would be silly not to embrace the stereotype, to not describe him as a hardworking guy from the American heartland. It’s the scruffy beard, the constant laugh, the willingness to put his sweat into achieving a goal, the crooked smile that brand him Midwest. And maybe the Land Cruiser isn’t your typical Michigan vehicle choice, but its condition is certainly in line with its owner—well worn, utilitarian and filled with possibilities.

Denver, CO. Photo by Chip Kalback.

Denver, CO. Photo by Chip Kalback.

To get out of the so-called flyover states, that’s a goal of many who grow up there. When I ask what growing up in a one-stoplight town like Bloomingdale did for him, Hornbeck can’t help but toss out the punch line, punctuated, as most of what he says is, with a laugh, “Wanting to see more. Wanting to ski on other stuff, too.” But through our conversation, he keeps coming back to the Midwest, back to the friends, back to the work, back to his family.

Sean Hornbeck is Mike’s brother, three years older, and the person Mike credits with inspiring him to start skateboarding and skiing. After a few years in his teens spent snowboarding (“I hated strapping in. That’s why I quit.”), Hornbeck went back to skiing and eventually got really into the sport. The catalyst was Sean getting his driver’s license. “Then we could ski every day,” Mike remembers. “We’d get there at 4 o’clock, ski til 10—all night long.”

Their home resort, Timber Ridge, has a whopping 240 feet of vertical and 15 runs. For many of Hornbeck’s formative ski years, skiers weren’t allowed in the terrain park—thus the snowboard hiatus—but there were still skiers to look up to and learn from. “It was all just mimicking people around the hill at first,” he says. “I saw an older kid do a backflip on skis, and it was like, ‘That dude is sick.’ Once you meet those kids, they get you up to date.”

Skiing wasn’t all that Bloomingdale taught Hornbeck. His parents bought a retired brothel and split it into six rental studio apartments. “There was always work to be done,” he recalls. “I was at work for them, they paid me, but it taught me a work ethic. I had a dirt bike and stuff, but to have a dirt bike, I’ve got to work three days a week and not get paid.”

Hornbeck’s mother worked in nursing and his father did property management for some apartment complexes. He took their ethic and the push of his big brother to heart as he made his way into skiing. “It’s definitely all from that,” he says. “I’d want to be skateboarding or swimming, and I’d be working. And my brother was always like work, work, work, making me look bad. My friends wouldn’t come over ’cause they’d be like, ‘He’s got to do some work before he can go.’ It wasn’t ever negative. To be able to go skiing, buy a season pass, you got to work to be able to do that.”

Although his last job outside of skiing was during shooting for Level 1’s After Dark, the willingness to put in the labor required to accomplish a goal crosses over into his ski life. “He represents our company as much as any person that works with Armada,” says Chris O’Connell, co-founder of Hornbeck’s main sponsor. “He brings a great dynamic, no attitude, and he’s down-home good times. He works hard and always appreciates where he’s at. That’s pretty rare in today’s over-privileged pro skier world.”

Whether it’s his sponsors, friends, or the filmers he works with, people speak with one voice describing Hornbeck. “He truly has that Midwest mentality,” says Kyle Decker, who has been filming with Hornbeck since 2006. “Talking to his parents, ever since he was a kid they made him work hard. He’ll pick up a shovel and work his ass off to build exactly what he wants, no matter how long it takes. And once he puts his skis on, he has such a different perspective of style than a lot of skiers.”

Surpassing his geographic roots—the sheer Midwestern-ness of Mike Hornbeck—the most common point of discussion is his style. Through the years, few people have had more close up experience with the way he skis than Decker and Dadali. “I’m going to continue to shoot with Mike Hornbeck as long as I’m filming skiing,” says Decker. Part of the loyalty is to Hornbeck’s temperament; the rest to the way he skis.

Of course, to separate Hornbeck’s character from his skiing is willfully blind to the fact that the person, and their history, is the skier. “His style is his personality,” says Dadali. “He’s got a very unique style, and it comes from a lot of unique shit going on in his brain. He’s one of those guys that you can tell his style is all natural. It’s coming from him. He’s not pushing tricks to make it different, it’s just how he skis.”

As much as how he skis appears to be an organic manifestation of who Mike Hornbeck is, he is constantly thinking about his style. “It’s crazy how close I’ve been skiing, with my feet together,” he explains. “I don’t know why. It’s just the skis I’m on, they kind of make you ski like that. But someone like TJ [Schiller], he’s got that super wide stance, so sick. It’s just how your knees are, what feels best.”

The discussion of the act of skiing makes it clear that he spends a great deal of time watching and learning from videos, from the latest edits on Newschoolers to snowboard and skate movies. And skiers are watching him, trying to learn from any piece of footage they can find. “He’s got a unique, smooth style that has incredible flow,” says Decker. “I think that’s why he is one of the most emulated skiers.” Which fits perfectly with how Hornbeck describes his perfect ski feature.

“This summer I skated a lot, and I was trying to do a couple trick lines, and it’s so hard to do three cool tricks on a skateboard in a row. That’s definitely influenced now, how I want to ski. Skateboarding, you snap a kickflip real quick before you do a nosegrind on a ledge or something. It’s just added in there. It’s so fun to do that on a skateboard. On skis, rather than just build one big feature, there’s a whole hill, I might as well ski down it.”

Sapporo, Japan. Photo by Nate Abbott.

Sapporo, Japan. Photo by Chris O’Connell.

As Dadali says, and Hornbeck readily admits, a lot of random thoughts are floating inside his head. Hornbeck doesn’t exactly make linear arguments. Talking about the process of filming shifts to how it’s stupid to have poles in your hand when you’re using a bungee to hit a feature. That becomes an idea about how more people should be skiing. It all wraps back around to the poles again. Hornbeck’s take on skiing is intriguing to me because it is all encompassing. If you let him go wild, the way he does on skis, it all comes together—his peculiar mind in conversation is just as varied and sharp as his skiing.

“Poles are just another thing you can buy,” Hornbeck says. “What if more people could start skiing? They could just buy boots and skis.” The argument might be faulty; it’s not like the cost of a pair of poles keeps anyone from joining the sport. But it makes more sense when he flashes back to his own childhood, remembering that he had a cheap, edgeless backyard snowboard. “I had a good snowboard, but my parents said, ‘You’re not going to mess that up in the yard.’”

The concept of inexpensive access to skiing certainly comes from his Midwestern roots: kids without a resort around should be having as much fun as possible. To Mike Hornbeck, that means going skiing, and his version of skiing is free of rules or boundaries. “People ride on tubes and hit jumps,” he explains of the city park snow-day culture of the Midwest. But imagine if there were people on twin-tips trying to learn how to ride down that hill backwards. Even a mom could do it. Essentially that’s what urban skiing is. That’s all we’re doing.” In his world, everyone is included in the fun times.

Couldn’t he accomplish the goal of converting the masses in a grander manner, for example by going to the Olympics and being on TV in front of millions of potential skiers? To Hornbeck, there’s a fundamental problem with expanding the audience in that way. “That’s where I think the Olympic thing is weird,” he says. “I don’t want kids to be buying skis to only have that goal. No, you can do it whatever way you want. You can compete if you want, but you slide down this hill. You don’t ever have to go to a resort, but you should have a pair of these skis ’cause they are fun as hell to be on.”

It’s a noble idea, getting more people to strap on skis and rip down some snow-covered hill switch. And Hornbeck isn’t just talking about it. Although La Familia has been around for a while—in name, stickers and t-shirts, at least—this is the winter where Hornbeck, Dadali and K-Day are bringing the idea to their people in a new way. The new focus of La Fa can be seen through a Vimeo channel (vimeo.com/lafamiliachannel) featuring some short clips and edits, including 5 on It (five tricks on a single feature) and Fucked-up Fridays (epic wrecks).

The real payoff for this season is their Lake Effect tour of the Midwest and East Coast, starting in December at Big Boulder, PA and hitting Mad River, OH; Bristol Mountain, NY; Cannonsburg, MI; and Trollhaugen, WI by mid-January. Along the way, they’ll be filming for a La Fa movie on any urban spots they can hit, which is really why Dadali and Hornbeck ski together so often. “We’ve got a similar point of view on what we want to hit,” says Dadali, “and we’re usually pretty good at doing two different things on one feature. It makes it more interesting for the both of us not to be doing the same exact thing.” But maybe doing the tour as La Familia is perfect for another reason. “We both almost needed someone else to split the gas with to make it happen,” says Hornbeck when I ask why he started skiing with Dadali. “That’s the dude who would do it.”

By building a couple of features out of whatever rails or jibs are on hand in the terrain park at each small resort—“Creative and cool to hit, no superpark shit, just fun stuff,” as Dadali puts it—and skiing with anyone who shows up, La Fa intends to get more kids into the sport. Although both say they respect and admire the contest scene, it’s obvious from the way they ski, and from how they talk about the sport, that Dadali and Hornbeck feel like the pinnacle of skiing has very little to do with who spins or flips the most.

Hornbeck explains, “You don’t want kids at these little Midwest resorts to look at the sport of skiing like, ‘Damn, I’m over this because this dude’s doing a triple flip.’ Kids might just not do it because it’s so untouchable almost.”

“You don’t want kids at these little Midwest resorts to look at the sport of skiing like, ‘Damn, I’m over this because this dude’s doing a triple flip.’”-MH

If watching video of Hornbeck’s smooth style on skis has inspired anyone to have the “I could do that” feeling, then Hornbeck has accomplished part of his goal. Through the La Fa tour, he wants to let kids see, in person, that they can jib whatever is around them. “I’m just gonna go ski and ski with them. If I want more people to ski urban rails, you gotta show kids it’s possible to do it right there.”

For a couple of skiers who have committed themselves to filming for their movie parts, the tour may be the first time since school that there’s a schedule instead of just a snow report. “With the tour, we’re going here, here, here,” he says. “I’m committed. I gotta be there. It’s fun though, taking it in your own hands. That’s how you grow I guess. You eventually do your own thing.”

It seems silly though, to hear Hornbeck talk about “eventually” doing his own thing. Isn’t that what he’s been doing since he first got on skis? But he wants to go further in skiing, for himself and for others. “Going from your local hill, keep going up to the terrain park, and then you’re in AK, at the peak. But you can branch off, with rails or whatever, and get people into skiing that way.”

This fall Hornbeck’s parent’s came to the premiere of Sunny, their first big movie premiere. “It was definitely a big goal,” he says of getting his first opening segment with Level 1. “It was cool my parents were there. I was excited that timing worked out. It was sick. ‘See, I’m doing all right!’” The recognition is great, but like when he was young, working for a ski pass, anything that requires effort and drive is a pathway to the end goal. “I get to go ski—I’m so damn lucky. I just gotta keep it going,” he says.

“The season is never long enough,” Hornbeck says. “I want 60 clips back to back, every trick I can do, showcase my skiing to the fullest. Get everything I can do on film. Well, not everything, there’s always more.” Maybe time isn’t long enough for the ideas for video projects he dreams up.

He throws out a variety of projects he wants to do—an all-pow segment advocated by Adam Delorme, a greatest hits movie filming all the played-out urban spots in Utah with his own style, and the ultimate homecoming. “You could be pro outta Michigan,” he says. “There’s pros who are from there, but I want to be the dude to go live out there. You’d be so different from everybody. You’d be so open minded about everything.” As the ideas flow, you can’t help but get excited to see what he comes up with next or to go ski yourself.

Earlier in the evening, Hornbeck was talking about when he thought he had made the biggest leap in his career. He told me about a year when he didn’t get on many Level 1 trips, but instead he filmed a Keystone park edit before doing a trip to Minnesota to shoot urban for Sammy Carlson’s movie Can’t Stop. “I was trying to do some different tricks,” he said. “I was fully thinking of my skiing and being, like, ‘I’m going to put time into this.’ That’s when you realize you’re trying to make it. You’re fully committed. Not just working and skiing at a resort, filming an edit to promote yourself. No, you gotta go all in, hit real shit, get shots.”

Regardless of the drive to succeed, it’s still all skiing to him. Several times over the course of the evening, Hornbeck implies he would just as soon ski with his brother as he would anyone else. He is a family guy, except that, as I drive down the maze of streets away from his house, I can’t help but think that Mike Hornbeck wants to ski with everyone. And he wants everyone to ski with him.

*This article originally appeared in the 2013 February issue of FREESKIER. Subscribe to the magazine, or get it on the iTunes Newsstand.