Pär “Peyben” Hägglund: A horizontal story in a vertical world

WORDS • Alex Hackel | PHOTOS • Alric Ljunghager

We live in a world where “original, “creative” and “authentic” are overused buzzwords that have lost their true meaning. It’s a real shame because when you meet a person who is truly all of those things, it can be hard to translate the experience of what it is like to be in their presence to other people. In this instance, the person I’m talking about, who truly exudes all of these sought-after traits, is Pär “Peyben” Hägglund.

You’re most likely familiar with his out-of-the-box brand of skiing thanks to standout parts in films from The Bunch and Level 1. His appearance in Level 1’s Zig Zag earned him the coveted honor of Best Street Performance of the Year at the International Freeski Film Festival (iF3). At the beginning of 2019, Peyben, 26, was also one of six skiers chosen to compete for an X Games Real Ski gold medal, a testament to his standing amongst the street skiing community. But before we talk more about the creative mark Peyben is leaving on ski culture, we must first take a look back at how he rose to one of freeskiing’s biggest stages. And, as is befitting, this story is just as unique and non-traditional as his skiing.

Hailing from Bollnås, a quaint lake town in northern Sweden, Pär is a proud countryman who credits his town and nation for shaping him into the confident, forward-thinking man he is today. As a kid, Pär grew up ski racing at the humble local hill of Bollebacken. Although he loved to ski, it was not the main focus of his youth; he ski raced, but hadn’t caught “the bug” yet; skiing was a footnote. That all changed in 2008, when he saw an advertisement via a Swedish ski website, freeride.se, for Rymdgymnasiet, a high school in Kiruna, located in the far northern reaches of Sweden. This was no ordinary high school. Rather, it was a specialized one that only offered a space-engineering program. However, the school had just opened a new freeskiing club where students could ski four days a week at nearby Luossabacken. Although Pär may not be the stereotypical science student, the perks of skiing four days a week were too good to pass up. While space-engineering wasn’t top-of-mind for him, the high school gifted Pär with an above-average education, although the role of space plays little more than a psychedelic inspiration for his video parts today. However, his decision to attend this high school turned out to be very influential not only in Pär’s life, but to freeskiing as a whole. 

Pär wasn’t the only one who noticed this ad, packed his bags and went north to Rymdgymnasiet in the heart of the Arctic Circle in 2009; he was joined by several other young, ski-crazed Swedes who have, collectively, left their mark on skiing’s modern style and culture. This is where Pär met lifelong friends Magnus Granér, Lucas Stål Madison, Jens Nilsson, Linus Tornberg and Gustav Cavallin, a group of unlikely space-engineering students who realized a common passion for the mountains and started “The Bunch,” one of skiing’s most influential, yet definitively “out there” collectives.

Being separated from the United States and the central European-based ski industry, out of necessity, Pär and The Bunch opted to take a different route in skiing than most. With access to world-class, perfectly manicured terrain parks and memberships with the top freeskiing clubs becoming the prerequisite to top-level success on the slopestyle circuit, the contest route became less of a possibility for skiers like Pär. Instead of learning both way double corks and training for competitions, The Bunch chose to reinvent how people hit normal, everyday features by using their skis in unique ways that had never been thought of before. In particular, they began bending their noses and tails to utilize their whole ski as part of the trick. Proving that sometimes progress is not a vertical movement up the technical ladder but is instead a lateral movement into new possibilities.

Their vision made skiing accessible to everyone, no matter where they grew up skiing. With their movies, Pär and The Bunch would rise to the forefront of creative thought in skiing. When you watch his part in the first Bunch movie, Far Out, you can see the blueprint of what we see now with great style, outside-the-box ideas and tricks that smoothly blend into one another. It made viewers feel something special and understand that it wasn’t just the tricks that were different, but the whole way that Pär approached each of his tricks. It was apparent, though, that he still had a long way to go before fully realizing his gift. By no means a child prodigy, Pär was late to start freeskiing and wasn’t the most gifted skier amongst his peers at the academy. Many would get discouraged by this, but Pär’s passion for skiing and self-expression continued to be his North Star. While his friends Lucas and Magnus from The Bunch rose to international recognition, Pär was still looking for his big break.

It was at this potential turning point that Pär made a conscious decision to break the mold of conventional standards of what skiing looked like and the traditional thought of what was considered “good skiing.” He was patient and stayed true to his personal style, and, eventually, it paid off during the inaugural JP Memorial in Riksgränsen, Sweden, in May 2015. On that day, Pär’s skiing caught the attention of a handful of industry figures in attendance. He was approached to ride for Line Skis, an offer that would change his life. With Pär’s skiing blossoming and receiving support and recognition, he had a breakout part in The Bunch’s third film, Finito, where he delivered many of his trademarked NBD (never been done) tricks. 

Now that we know where and how it all started, we can get back to where we are going. Like most of you reading this, I watched the phenomenon that is Peyben from behind a computer screen with big glaring eyes and a jaw that continually dropped to the floor. Then one day—a day I consider one of my most fortunate—I was discussing potential film projects for the upcoming winter with Magnus, a close friend. He put me in contact with Pär to film with him for the new Bunch movie, Color. Pär would not only ski in this film, but would also shoot and edit it—passions that he acquired through his love of skiing. We talked on the phone for an hour discussing ideas for the project. Two weeks later, I boarded a plane to Sweden to meet up with him and begin filming for the movie. 

Before I flew to Sweden, I had only met Pär briefly and wondered if our efforts would truly live up to the expectations I had of Pär’s skiing. But, with zero notions for who the man behind the skiing would be when I got off the plane, I quickly realized what made Pär, and, subsequently, his skiing, so special. 

Filming with him turned out to be so exhilarating; where other people see nothing, Pär sees his next shot. He is incredibly handy and always knows how to shape the angle of the jump just right or how to build the most conducive in-run for the trick he wants to accomplish. These are often underrated traits of a street skier, but Pär uses them to turn his visions into reality. He gets this crazy look in his eyes before trying one of his tricks. You can tell he is one hundred percent determined and solely focused on the trick at hand. This came as a surprise to me, because it’s in juxtaposition to his usual big, goofy smile and unconventional dancing techniques that he uses to pump himself up before hitting a feature.

But what stuck with me the most was not the way he was able to bend his skis, specifically his tips, in ways I had never seen before, or the twinkle in his eyes when he’s sessioning a spot. What stuck out the most was his ability to shift his mindset. Many get stuck in their own train of thought and often ignore the magic in front of them. Pär is able to throw out an old idea and pivot to a new plan on a whim. This rare malleability allows him to be present, stay in the moment and conjure this magical energy that works for him, not against. Pär’s skiing is simply a mirror for who he is as a person.

When you are with Pär, everything is possible at all times. Not because he has supernatural powers, but because he chooses it to be so. The positive attitude and grace that he carries with him are contagious and all those around him are positively impacted. I’m always aware that when I am around Pär, I feel one notch higher.

During the filming of Color, Pär and I became fast friends, and I, along with filmer Emil Larsson, was invited to be a part of his crew filming for his X Games Real Ski part this past January in Québec, Canada. Filming for X Games Real Ski is especially hard on the competitor. Usually, when shooting a standard video segment, you have six months to film, allowing the skier to endure the ups and downs that go along with the territory of trying to showcase their absolute best skiing to the world. For a Real Ski part, you only get two months to capture your segment. The skier is now faced with skiing the best they ever have in one-third of the time. This would easily be the biggest test of Pär’s career. I am not going to tell you that it was always smooth or that Pär was levelheaded the whole time. The truth was, there were a lot of bumps and low points along the road.

Fast forward one and a half months into X Games filming. It was crunch time, with about two weeks left before the deadline, and it was clear the X Games footage we had was nowhere close to what Pär had dreamt of making.  With his back against the wall and the stakes at their absolute highest, Pär did what he seemingly always does: turn the improbable into reality. His belief in what’s possible allowed him to overcome everything in his way.

Over the final two weeks of filming, Pär went on an absolute tear. He was skiing the best I have ever seen him ski and landed many of the tricks that make his video so special, including his ender, a “peanut butter” 720 with a tail tap at 360. The starting gates were open, and Pär was in a full sprint to the finish.

With the deadline now firmly upon us, Pär still needed two tricks to complete the part as he had visualized it when we hopped on the plane to Canada two long months ago. There were now only 24 hours left to film before having to drive back to Boston to catch a plane to Denver for the premiere of the videos. We started bright and early and arrived at the first spot of our last day at 9:00 a.m. By 11:30 a.m., Pär had just landed what would be a crucial trick to his part—the 270 “noses through a hole” on, pretzel 270 out. Usually, a celebration would ensue and we would go to our next spot. Not the case this time. We spent the rest of the daylight hours trying to perfect this shot. As the sun went down at 5:00 p.m., so did our hopes of improving the clip. Deflated, freezing cold and exhausted, we left the spot and had what was one of the most depressing dinners of the trip. 

With the stresses of finishing the editing in time for the next-day deadline coupled with our gamble to spend the last hours of daylight we had trying to improve Pär’s previous trick, it was uncertain if we could get the last shot that we desperately hoped for. The crew was deflated, but I started to see a glimmer emerge in Pär. I assume it was the same glimmer that radiated from young Pär back in northern Sweden, years ago. It was the ability to believe, to see the possibilities that others were not thinking of. Pär declared that we were going to brave the cold, not  only to get his final trick of the trip, but to also get me to another spot—one I had been dreaming of skiing for the last month—so I could round out filming for my part in the upcoming Bunch movie, Elnour

Pär’s energy is infectious; when he declares we aren’t stopping, you have only two choices: hop on the bandwagon or get out of his way. The undeniable positive energy he brought to that moment was, above all, authentic to himself.

We arrived at 7 p.m. at what would be the last spot of the trip for Pär. By 11 p.m., the clip was in hand, and by 1 a.m., we were fast asleep. Fast forward to 5 a.m. and we were awake, driving to what would be my final shooting location of the trip. At first light, Pär was operating the winch on top of a hotel roof to make sure that I had the chance to get my last trick. At 7:30 a.m., with my clip safely in the bank, Pär, Emil and myself were fist-pumping, singing along to Queen’s We Are The Champions in the parking lot and celebrating a successful end to our adventure, something that none of us would have believed to be a possibility 12 short hours earlier. Soon after, we began the eight-hour drive to Boston with Emil editing the whole way in the van to make the submission deadline. With one hour before the clock struck midnight the video Pär had dreamed of making was submitted.

From L-R: Alex Hackel, Emil Larsson, Alric Ljunghager and Pär Hägglund review the fruits of their labor at the end of a wild two months of filming.

This is exactly what I meant when I told you earlier that being with Pär makes anything possible. Here is someone who chose possibility in the face of despair, not just for himself, but for all of his friends, and willed it into reality. Pär truly personifies the rising tide that lifts all the ships around him. Three days later Pär received an X Games silver medal for his video part—finishing just behind the iconic Phil Casabon for gold.

Pär’s award is just the start for him. It proves that with an amazing attitude and tireless commitment to your vision, in spite of obstacles, you can achieve your dreams. This exact mentality is how a northern Swede, otherwise overlooked by the greater ski industry, defied the odds and became one of skiing’s brightest lights.

Editors’ Note: Alex Hackel is a pro skier and a close friend of Pär Hägglund. This is his first published story.