It’s the 11th of March, 2015, and I’m boarding United Airlines flight 956, with service from Newark Liberty International Airport to Genève Aéroport. I arrive at my seat in the 40th row and sit next to a black-skinned gentleman who’s sporting a blue velvet tracksuit and a fresh pair of sneaks. “Dude’s got style,” I think to myself before saying hello. We exchange small talk and then introduce ourselves. “I’m Jamel,” he says. “Henrik,” I reply. And with a slight cock of his head, Jamel says, “That’s weird. I only know one other Henrik. He’s a skier too.” He’d laid eyes on my FREESKIER-branded cap.
The gears in my head begin to turn. The velvet. The swagger. The B&E Invitational—kicking off the next day in Les Arcs, France—and its “special musical guest.” Henrik Harlaut’s highly publicized ties to the Wu-Tang Clan…
Jamel shifts his attention and I discretely consult Google to confirm my suspicion. I’m admittedly not the most in-tune with hip-hop culture. Indeed, I’m seated next to rapper Jamel Irief, better known by his stage name, Masta Killa.
“You going to the B&E?” Jamel asks. I tell him no, and explain that I’d instead be joining another assembly of heavy-hitting skiers, just down the road in Tignes. Specifically, I’d be linking up with a handful of Giro athletes for a halfpipe-focused photoshoot. And not just any ordinary shoot—Frenchman Joffrey Pollet-Villard (JPV) had his sights set on smashing the world record for the highest air in a superpipe on skis.
Even for someone like Jamel, who’s not exactly a connoisseur of skiing, a world record attempt is easy to grasp and appreciate.
Fast forward through an eight-hour flight and a four-hour bus ride and I found myself at Tignes Val Claret, one of five village clusters that provide lodging and amenities for skiers who visit the ultra-expansive and breathtaking ski resort. Springtime slush turned to ice as the sun dipped below the peaks and, up on the hillside, gargantuan lights illuminated a massive, perfectly sculpted 22-foot halfpipe; the SFR Freestyle Tour finals would begin shortly after dark. Tignes played host to numerous Euro X Games showdowns through the years and I’d dreamed of seeing its U-ditch up close; it was—not surprisingly—infinitely more stunning than it appeared on television. It was the most picturesque halfpipe I’d ever laid eyes on. And after tonight, for the next few days, it’d be all ours.
Canadians Mike Riddle and Cassie Sharpe took top honors that night before a raucous crowd. Proper celebrations were had at the infamous Diva Hotel, the place to party post-contest in Tignes and where “everyone loses their teeth.” At least, that’s how one individual described it, citing the frequent fisticuffs that seemed to go hand-in-hand with X Games après fests.
It must have been 4:00 a.m. when a grinning and glossy-eyed Riddle was swaying perilously as he vacuumed the floor of the hotel bar. How he got his hands on that machinery, we’d never know. JPV sat in a stool cradling five cigarettes between his fingers. Canadians Simon D’Artois and Justin Dorey sat by, equally well-lubricated. Together, these guys represented the Giro faction that would remain in Tignes with a mission of providing their sponsor with imagery to fill catalogs and advertisements. Thirty-year-old Todd Kupke, sports marketing manager for Giro Snow, promised to take the motley crew “to the Moon” if they secured ample branding collateral by the end of the week; it was the first of many incentives—reminders that there would be no shortage of fun ahead, but there was work to be done, too. “I’ve never been to the moooon,” said Riddle with a drawl as he continued to vacuum the red carpet.
On the morning of March 13, Kupke and I arrived to the halfpipe—closed to the public for the duration of the photoshoot—at the pre-arranged meeting time. Fifteen minutes later, the skiers were MIA, prompting Kupke to exclaim half-humoredly, “Where the f#ck is the talent?!”
Dorey soon arrived. He moved at a slow pace and dragged his skis behind him; I thought of The Walking Dead. JPV came next, sporting a jean jacket, as usual, and shouted, “Where’s the beer?!” He rocked one black eye on account of a fall in the halfpipe and another bruised eye on account of a fist; he’d been punched a few nights back after spilling out of a nightclub, lending support to the claims of regular fighting in Tignes. Riddle and D’Artois eventually showed up, also with laboring steps. When in the Alps, right? It seemed the only thing in good shape was the halfpipe, which had been cut with precision overnight.
Before JPV clicked into his skis, he said with a distinctly French accent, “I think I’m gonna puke before I ski.” Kupke shot him a scornful glance and Joff was quick to respond, “Yeah, to be lighter so I can break the record.” The crew laughed as one. This morning-after banter continued nonstop.
The four skiers spun snowmobile-assisted laps. Warm-up airs transitioned into mellow tricks. By mid-morning, I’d watched D’Artois—the 2015 X Games gold medalist in halfpipe—stomp his X-winning run three times, flawlessly. It was safe to say he’d kicked the hangover. Dorey and Riddle—each of whom represented Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics, where Riddle earned a silver medal—focused on single hits, maximizing amplitude and style to ensure photographer Ashley Barker captured stills worthy of a two-page magazine spread.
With the trio of Canadians fueling his fire, JPV mustered the energy to make his first attempts at cracking the world record, set originally by Peter Olenick of Carbondale, CO; Olenick soared 24 feet, 11 inches on January 31, 2010, during the first-ever X Games High Air contest in Aspen, CO. JPV came mighty close to that barrier on four or five attempts that day, but ultimately threw in the towel and fixed his sights on March 14.
The next morning was a bit like, well, the prior morning, thanks to late night adventures at Discothèque Le Blue Girl, et al. Someone asked D’Artois whether he’d made an appearance at The Melting Pot—a popular club—to which he responded, “I think so?”
Four skiers became five with the addition of Torin Yater- Wallace (TYW), who’d been hangin’ in Les Arcs theretofore; he explained upon arrival that he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to party with the likes of the B&E Invitational roster, chock full of skiing’s most illustrious counterculture icons. In fact, TYW would have missed out on this day too, presumably, had it not been for Kupke driving two hours round-trip to Les Arcs to retrieve him. Yet, Torin was excited to join the squad. Tignes holds a special place in his heart—it’s where the 20-year-old halfpipe slayer won back-to-back X Games gold in 2012 and 2013.
So, despite having slept a mere forty minutes, TYW made quick work of the halfpipe, bagging ad-worthy photos by his third lap. He focused his efforts on a left-wall flair tail, executed 15 or so feet above the deck. On one occasion, he stomped his trick near the bottom of the transition with a gut-wrenching SLAP! Hunched over and grimacing, he made a beeline for the base of the pipe, where friends of the crew were posted up in lawn chairs, soaking up rays and admiring the skiers’ stunts. Torin requested a beer from the ever-flowing Heineken mini keg: Hair of the dog. For the record, he’s legal in France.
Meantime, all eyes were on JPV as he slowly upped his amplitude through a handful of warm-up laps; he couldn’t rely on the fuel of adrenaline that lifts him to great heights during contests, so rather, the support of his friends sessioning alongside him helped to push Joff into a proper mindset for launching into proverbial orbit.
“All of the guys have been ripping,” he told me. “The Canadians are f#cking crazy. I’m so stoked.”
JPV eventually stationed himself on the skier’s left wall—near the top of the pipe—and appeared to be collecting his thoughts. The other skiers took the cue, positioning themselves alongside the spectators, including the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in halfpipe, David Wise, and French halfpipe star, Kevin Rolland; they’d stuck around after competing in the SFR event. The setting was fairly calm. There was just a group of friends, a handful of cameras, an immaculate halfpipe and the ever-flowing Heineken. And Joff.
The 23-year-old Frenchman, of La Clusaz, France—who began skiing at 3, freeskiing at 11 and cut his teeth trailing in the tracks of Candide Thovex—made a handful of attempts at the record, inching higher each go-round. Then it happened.
Again, near the top of the pipe on the skier’s left deck, Joff clinked his poles together, pushed off, straight-lined a ways and dropped in switch at a blistering speed. He pumped powerfully and gracefully through the transitions, launching a massive switch 720 as a setup air, traveling so far down the pipe—as one should if you wish to work the halfpipe to its full potential. Then, with a wide stance and a low center of gravity, Joff ascended the left wall and WOOSH. Up and up he went, rolling slowly into an alley-oop flatspin 540. Weightless at his apex, Joff floated above the top of a rocket that had been custom-built for the shoot and positioned on the pipe deck; the mark to beat was painted on its nose.
“Please, please don’t hit the deck,” I thought to myself. The margin of error when you’re soaring to such astounding heights in a halfpipe is, of course, miniscule. But he found the transition and stuck it—26 feet, three inches. History made.
“26 feet, three inches. History made.”
Joff’s performance earned hugs, high fives and more than a few “holy shits.” But there was no rowdy crowd showering JPV with roars of approval—not like he’s used to when he competes at X Games, for example, where he’s built a reputation for emphasizing air and style above technicality. There were no ESPN commentators screaming in production booths. No Guinness World Records representative on-hand to present a plaque. There was just a kid in a jean jacket, content to have fulfilled a personal goal—to have done something that made him feel sincerely happy.
“I think that from an early age I always wanted to just go high,” he told me, when asked about the motivation behind his feat. “After some air time, you feel more alive than any time. I just wanted to go huge. The time in the air was long… it was a really good feeling. I want to go bigger. I always just want to go bigger and bigger.”
“It was insane, I don’t know what else to say,” said D’Artois of Joff’s record air.
“Anytime someone is going that big it’s really exciting to watch,” explained Riddle. “And scary, too. I’m glad it wasn’t me.”
TYW echoed Riddle’s remark about JPV’s mind-boggling hit, noting, “I think it’s the direction that things should be going in… that’s one of the biggest things in ski pipe for me, the amplitude. It’s so crazy for the crowd, the judges, for everybody. If you’re doing difficult tricks and [not going big], to me, it’s just not as rad as watching Joffrey, even if it’s just a flat[spin] 5. The style, the float, the air time, it’s just that much more appealing to the eye.”
JPV’s favoring of amplitude over technicality means he wouldn’t be the first-pick for a podium spot on the top-tier freeskiing circuit, but he’s not in it for trophies. The quiet-natured, short-statured Frenchman would rather smoke cigarettes, drink beer, play guitar, listen to Slayer or talk with friends about art. And whenever possible, go as big as humanly possible on skis. He’s just trying to “do things different,” he told me.
“He’s kind of like a dark-sided kid. He won’t open up much,” says Aïssam “Ais” Dabbaoui, Joff’s friend and sports agent. “His respect for skiing is different than the other guys who are competing. If you were to compare him to other successful skiers out there, he’s a bit like a Jossi Wells or a Parker White. The only thing that matters to him is how he inspires other skiers with his style. I think he wants people to look at him and be like, ‘I want to be like this kid, I want to have his mojo, his style, his spirit.’ Skiing with friends is the most important thing for him, really.”
It was no mistake, then, that when the idea first emerged for a record-setting photoshoot, Ais collaborated with Kupke to ensure Joff would be able to perform in a comfortable setting.
Dabbaoui explained, “We talked and talked [about the record] and Joff said, ‘You know what? I don’t see myself doing this Shaun White style and going all alone to a closed pipe. I need friends to ride with and if I feel it, I’ll go, if I don’t feel it, I won’t.’” If someone else is killing it, it helps him go bigger.”
And so it was that four men inspired one. And in turn, that one inspired tens of thousands. His story transcends the halfpipe in Tignes—through videos, photos and words—calling attention to this wonderful sport of ours, touching skiers and non-skiers alike. Someone like Jamel Irief.
With Joff’s record in the books and Kupke’s shot list fulfilled, our crew piled into the Funiculaire Du Perce-Neige, which deposited us at 9,948 feet, near the summit of Tignes. We shared a few steins of beer at the lodge before slowly descending the slopes—careful in our buzzed states not to tumble on the “last run.” Nearing the base area, we took one last spin through the halfpipe for good measure.
“This is probably the drunkest run I’ve ever taken in a halfpipe,” said Riddle. “Oh wait, maybe that was yesterday.”
This was team bonding at its finest. Rather, “Tignes bonding.”
P.S. Hey Kupke, I’m pretty sure you owe JPV and the boys a trip to the Moon.