Team Electric Wages War on France
From Freeskierâ€™s October 2007 issue
Words and Photos By: Jay Michelfelder
Like Molly Hatchet, we were flirtinâ€™ with disaster. Nine inches of snow had fallen on a bed-layer of hardpack and rock the night before. Our zone was sketchy, with long, steep fingers reaching down a 35-degree face, converging into a deep valley at the bottom. Stability is often questionable in the Alps, and today the sun had been hitting our zone all morning, heating up the surface and releasing snow rollers â€” the precursors to a slide. Everywhere around us there was evidence of avalanche activity; at least a dozen surrounding valleys had fractured that morning. I held my breath, and Tanner Rainville dropped in. Thankfully, on this particular day, in this moment, the snow did not break free and the trip went on. Moments of panic â€” the kind where your heart drops past your stomach and into your intestines like a capillary-filled bowel movement â€” are part of every good team trip.
Growing up, I read Thrasher magazine cover to cover. In each issue I was regaled by accounts of the â€œteam tripâ€â€” the kind where a company rounds up its athletes, packs them in a van (or a plane) and sends them off to throw down tricks, do a little bonding, promote the companyâ€™s good name and generally wreak havoc on the civilized world. For years I fantasized about being on trips, hitting the road with my favorite pros to drink beer at 9 a.m., trash hotel rooms, sleep with strippers, play violent pranks and do every other fun thing you can only do when youâ€™re 1,000 miles from your parents or anyone else you know. Thrasher glamorized the thrill of the open road so much that I knew I had to make that my life. The lure of gritty, overwhelming, life-changing travel was the main inspiration for pursuing my path as a photographer. Only for me it wasnâ€™t skateboarding, it was skiing.
Ten years later, and now making a living off photography and travel, my life is filled with team trips. Iâ€™ve been to beautiful places with great people and skied deep snow. But my trips were nothing like the 120 mph, death defying, drug-fueled carnival rides that had prompted me to pick up a camera. Itâ€™s like having a U2 CD on repeat when all I really wanted to do was bang my head to some Guns nâ€™ Roses. Had Thrasher lied? Or is skiing just that much more boring than skateboarding? There are several key elements that elevate a Bono-esque outing to an Axl Rose-style hell ride. Brushes with death, travel mishaps, drugs, alcohol, partying, girls, contests, cash, cover shots, a good crew of kids, adventure, camaraderie, angry locals, high-speed van rides, good food, property destruction, fist fights, gambling, cops, downtime, uptime, new kids, old faces, bad weather, good weather, movie quotes, old stories, catch phrases and hard work all combine into a swirling mass of mayhem that will give you epic yarns to spin for years to come â€” at least the parts you remember. For the first time in my life, the pieces were about to come together. Welcome to the jungle.
We knew snow had been falling in the Alps when we arrived in Geneva, but France was still having the driest year on record. The coverage was so bad, there had been talk of throwing in the towel on the whole deal, canceling our expensive international flights and meeting up in Whistler where the snow was good. But nobody had the heart (or the balls) to pull the plug. Tanner Rainville and I sat at a cafÃ© and sipped miniature cups of espresso to kill six hours until Andy Mahre and Electric team manager Jimbo Morgan arrived. Neither of us knew details about the next nine days of our lives. All Jimbo had told us, rather cryptically, was when and where to show up; he would take care of the rest. It felt like one of those scenes from a movie where the guy in the overcoat tells you to meet him in a dark alley so he can give you all the information you need to solve your murder case. Sure, itâ€™s a sketchy proposition, but do you go? Shit yeah.
You have to find out what it holds.
Upon arrival, Jimbo immediately began reminiscing about his days of traveling with Holmes and Kreitler; about the nights spent in Geneva at the punk rock bars; about fights and trashed hotel rooms and everything else thatâ€™s fun and illegal. Jimbo is a former world record-holding speed skier. He has been to the Olympics and has gone faster on land than any other human not propelled by an engine. And he still lives like heâ€™s screaming down the hill on a pair of 240 cm boards. Then there was Tanner Rainville and Andy Mahre, the much-needed mellow guys to bring balance to a crew so we didnâ€™t all end up behind bars for five years (three with good behavior). These are the kind of guys who are content to throw down tricks when the situation calls for it, and are happy to just chill the rest of the time â€” two of the most under-rated, well-rounded skiers on the planet. We couldnâ€™t have asked for a better crew.
Foreign travel never goes smoothly, but the bumps and glitches can help make for the adventure of a lifetime. I canâ€™t say why, but a 15-minute detour under a sketchy bridge full of sketchy people caused us to miss our train by 13 minutes. And it was the last direct train of the night to Bourg Saint Maurice. So five hours and a few unnecessary and unwanted train transfers later, we were still three hours from our final destination of La Plagne. Thankfully, Electricâ€™s European team manager, Phil Richardson, was there to bail us out â€” with a very French minivan. Phil was a very tall, very friendly, very bald man who grew up surfing in Australia. He still carries a thick accent and uses all the Australian catch phrases you would expect from a man like Mick Dundee. In our case, we couldnâ€™t have asked for a better man at the helm. Phil immediately got into our good graces by saving our asses in the train debacle, having added an extra two hours to his 12-hour drive to pick up our very tired crew at the train station.
Upon entering the van, Phil welcomed us to France and quickly warned us about being â€œpoodled.â€ Being poodled was a term he had invented for being screwed over, in any way at all, by anyone French. Apparently this is a frequent occurrence for an outsider. We had been warned. Jimbo, Andy, Tanner and I have known each other for years. We have traveled together, partied together and skied together. But thereâ€™s always room for some new blood on any good team trip. In the van with Phil was a very quiet, very blond kid. He was from Norway. I was skeptical at first of how well manicured his hair was. I was also skeptical about how often he checked his hair in order to keep it looking that way. But sometimes you have to give a guy the benefit of the doubt. Turns out Anders Backe is, for lack of a better term, the shit. A talented skier, a hard worker, and an all-around good dude â€” down to party, shred and play poker for push-ups; all with a thickly accented â€œFuck Yeah!â€ Any kid who is willing to wake up before dawn just to try and get one foot higher on a rock jib he already did the night before is OK in my book. I had always read about the kind of bond you can form with a total stranger after 10 days of mayhem. Now I know what everyone was talking about.
If youâ€™ve never had the pleasure of driving roads in the French Alps, itâ€™s like driving up the board from that game â€œChutes and Ladders,â€ but add in a few inches of wet snow and some sheer cliffs on the side. And if youâ€™ve never had the pleasure of driving a French minivan, itâ€™s a lot like a rear-wheel drive tin can, complete with bald tires and a small diesel engine. At least it was in our case. As our matchbox ascended into the snowy hills, Phil proclaimed that he was just a surfer, and was not suited for the task of navigating the winter highway. So Jimbo promptly took over behind the wheel and stayed there for the duration of the trip. Apparently, Jimbo was not content with being the fastest man on the planet without a motor, he also wanted the record for fastest man with a motor. His venue of choice for attempting to break that record? The mountain highways of the Alps with our two-wheel drive minivan. Jimbo drove that thing like it was a 400-horsepower rally car complete with the tires, suspension and brakes needed to hold a slick corner at twice the recommended speed. Iâ€™m not ready to die. And Iâ€™m not stoked on being reminded how easily death can come â€” especially not every 30 seconds as I skid around every corner of a French road. Iâ€™m not a religious man, but the van ride to La Plagne made me question my faith, the triviality of my life and the existence of heaven and hell. I was just about to plead a deal committing my life to the betterment of mankind if I survived the van ride when we arrived in La Plagne. This was just the first of many times during our journey that I would barter with God to spare me for just one more day.
We arrived in La Plagne to almost a foot of fresh snow. Trying to ski the whole place in a week is like trying to go on every ride at Six Flags in an hour. On a Saturday. During spring break. La Plagne has valley after valley that extends to the edge of the horizon. If you left your hotel at eight in the morning, it would be easy to find yourself so far away by four oâ€™clock that there would be no hope of making it home for aprÃ¨s wine and cheese. The magnitude of French resorts is awe-inspiring. And scary. Not only are they big, they have a thing called â€œpersonal responsibility,â€ meaning if you cross the boundary of the resort and die in an avalanche, itâ€™s your own damn fault. What a novel concept. There arenâ€™t even real â€œboundariesâ€ at the resortsâ€¦ they are more â€œsuggestions.â€ And if you go outside the suggested edge of the resort, you do so with the full understanding that there wonâ€™t be any lawsuits, and youâ€™ll pay for your own rescue should you get injured. The thing that scares me the most about resorts in the Alps is that even if youâ€™re in-bounds and you die in an avalanche, itâ€™s still your fault. Apparently, skiing is a hazardous activity, and if you participate, you accept the risks.
On our first day at La Plagne, it struck me as humorous that there was almost a foot of fresh snow everywhere, yet all the locals were skiing nothing but the groomers. No one was venturing even a few steps beyond the edge of the trails into the knee-deep snow. But the funny thing about French skiers is that as soon as we would enter a zone and prove its stability, the locals would flock to it, invading our space, tracking our landings and getting in our shots. This meant that we had only one or two tries in each zone to get things done before we were forced to move on.
It was snowing too heavily to shoot, so we sat inside and sipped espressos and wine and watched the snow collect inch-by-inch. We capped off our first full day in France with some fondue at a very French restaurant in a rustic slope-side cabin complete with French waiters in tight ski sweaters. Our first introduction to the world of fine French dining was a tasty, but harsh one. I may be getting a bit personal here, but do you know what a few pounds of cheese will do to your digestive system? Letâ€™s just say the toilet paper went unused for several days in everybodyâ€™s hotel bathrooms.