As seen in the Feb. 2012 issue of FREESKIER.
Words: Shay Williams
Photos: Nate Abbott
Shit. Why didn’t they tell us about the wind back in LA?
What was supposed to be a mellow 45-minute commuter flight from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes was devolving into a two-hour aerial tour of the Sierras. The plane touched down back in sunny Los Angeles, and now we, a group of eight, were no closer to Mammoth than when we started.
Leading up to what I like to call Monster Energy’s Annual Team Summit, nothing out of the ordinary was on the books. The plan was to bring in a number of athletes to Mammoth Mountain—Henrik Harlaut, Justin Dorey, Sarah Burke, to name a few. Build badass custom features to shoot on. Ski hard. Ski a lot. Gather content. Business as usual. Regrettably for the gang, it was anything but.
As the rental—a beefy Ford E-350 passenger van—chewed up sections of Highway 395 on our seven-hour second attempt to reach Mammoth, I was thinking, “Well, that wasn’t a great start, but it’ll be a productive week with Monster.”
Eventually, the road weary were fi nally united with already embedded Mammothites Justin Dorey, Parker White, Spencer Millbocker and Henrik Harlaut. Tom Wallisch smoothly landed the next day at Mammoth Lakes Airport. JF Houle managed to slip through customs and drive from Reno. Things were on the up and up. The team of 12 Monster athletes was assembled and ready to do what they do best.
The badass features were ready. The team was fired up. But the winds didn’t stop. The would-be daredevils only got to spin a few park laps one day and there was absolutely no skiing the next. Day one’s activities quickly became day two’s regimen and then day three’s routine. Wake up. Eat. See that it’s still super windy. Check e-mail and Facebook. Eat. Afternoon movie. More computer time. Eat again. Lounge with the crew. Sleep.
Mammoth’s park staff was still kicking things into high gear and readied a few simple features for the crew: a quarterpipe-like transition, a pole jam and a very small, very bright wall ride. Not exactly terrain park bounty. But even with the progression of technical tricks in the past few seasons, the stylish and well executed tricks still always get the job done. JF Houle was nose buttering the crap out of the QP. Parker White was pole-jamming to the transition like it was nobody’s business. The weather—75-mile-per-hour winds, doom clouds and all—forced the team to be creative. You can’t argue with the aesthetics of Justin’s handplant (this page). These were the team’s first good shots of the trip and the first metaphorical middle finger to the weather
As if to spite the previous day’s progress, the next day brought even higher wind speeds and even more cloud cover. In fact, Mammoth didn’t even run its lifts. Determined not to consider the whole day a bust, the group swapped out “afternoon movie” for “hot tub session.” Bad idea.
Hot tubs are known for providing relaxation. But it turns out with 11 guys in there, hot tubs become mostly awkward and soupy. The photo to the right doesn’t accurately illustrate how weird it was. You’ll notice the other photo shows Alex Schlopy performing a textbook belly flop. Pure commitment. We’re not sure whether it was the man soup, pure boredom or his inability to stay still for fi ve minutes that drove him to this, but he certainly brings the same gusto to belly flops as he does his skiing. If there were an X Games pool flop big air, Alex would take that gold home, too.
After a while, the crew tried an age-old tactic to combat the weather: the drink-it-blue routine. And for two spirited nights, the crew tried its damndest. But despite their best efforts including birthday-boy Parker White—the weather gods just wouldn’t accept the team’s libation.
The drink it blue strategy has one downside, a crippling hangover. Enter the Caesar. A generally better regarded version of the Bloody Mary, the Canadian drink became a pet project for the crew, if only to busy themselves. Celery and onions were precisely chopped, beef jerky was sizzled, Clamato and vodka were carefully measured. If the team was to sit out another day due to snow and wind, they were going to do it with some damn fine drinks in their hands.
After that day of no skiing, however, the crew got the chance it was waiting for. The winds subsided and the sun was filtering through a thinning layer of cloud cover. Time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.
Again we can praise the Mammoth park staff for the sizable true table they built on the back side of the resort with a stunning mountainous backdrop (which the park staff did not build). You could already picture the spread: JF Houle, double cork 1080 blunt, just as the setting sun projects a magical orange and pink palette onto the dispersing clouds. But like most of the preconceived images of the trip, that mental image never happened. JF and Parker White were the first to speed check and eventually clear the jump. JF, being the hard-charging soul that he is, pushed a little too hard (like 50-feet-past-the-landing too hard) and bruised his heel. His day shut down before it even started.
Even with JF on the sidelines, the team was fired up to be jumping on a perfectly shaped kicker. Parker and Chris Laker were hammering 720s. Spencer Millbocker floated some flatspin 360s. James Woods and Colby West were finding the sweet spot. But alas, all was for naught, as the wind came creeping back. Parker led a spirited knuckle jumping session, including some gnarly nose butter 900s, but the troops were forced to retreat down the mountain to try their hand at the next feature.
Next up was the double offset quarterpipe feature. That’s right, a channel gap isn’t enough anymore. Now the transitions have to be offset, so that you’re landing exactly 180 degrees from how you took off. The athletes were a little puzzled at first, slowly feeling out the feature. Timid straight airs soon turned into Colby and Schlopy’s huge mute grabs, Dorey’s lofty flatspins, Wallisch’s cork 540s and Harlaut’s floated air to fakies. If the team had more than a couple hours to play on this thing during the week, who knows what they could have accomplished.
Much of the team made its way down the hill for a break while a few went to scope out the holy grail of the week: a cannon rail to snow pillar. A brainchild of Tom Wallisch’s, no one expected the thing to be so damn big. In fact, the snow pillar was so huge that Colby West had to mount the thing like a mountaineer and hand shave it down a couple feet. His thanks? The rope snapped as he was being lowered back down.
As Wallisch, Spencer, Schlopy and Woodsy all sessioned, it was apparent that this thing was sketchier than anticipated. It looked pretty damn difficult. And really damn scary. Rocketing into a rail that catapults you inches over a tower of snow that you’re supposed to tail tap before dropping 20 feet to the landing. No problem, right?
Eventually, the guys got tired. It was cold. The light sucked. They’d been sled lapping for a couple hours. Then as day turned to dusk, a glimmer of hope presented itself. Namely, a couple one-minute windows of staggering beauty. Small breaks in the clouds revealed the sun setting over the Minarets. Here, in the near dark, Alex and Tom had to muster up what was left in their tanks to hit this feature that had been terrifying in the daylight. And not just hit it, but perfectly execute the trick. While the clouds were breaking the right way. And hope the photographer caught that exact moment. Not exactly great odds.
This was the point where a bit of hope was interjected, where a couple athletes went above and beyond to galvanize the entire crew, like Tebow on a fourth-quarter drive. Look at our cover. Alex Schlopy and Tom Wallisch risked life and limb to get that shot. Seriously. And because of that—because of that one shot—the whole trip became a success.
On paper, one shot for seven days of time spent with 12 athletes doesn’t sound like a resounding success. Mostly what you see here are vignettes into the life of a pro team whose plans were derailed by bad timing and worse luck. But those insights might even be more interesting than standard issue eye candy. Dozens of pro skiers can do dub 10s for a photo, but only a certain group of misfits have the kind of chemistry to pull off a trip so beset by misfortune. Kudos, Monster athletes. Kudos.