Maluti Mayhemby Dorin Bambus / 08.08.2011
I love snowboarding. All of its aspects.
Gliding over snow feels like flying. Not like bungee jumping, bridge swinging, BASE jumping or skydiving. That’s not flying, it’s falling. I’ve done seasons overseas, I’ve experienced the real deal. I’ve also been on domestic snowboard missions almost every year in the last decade. It’s difficult, and limited, and novel. A non-sequitur. It’s awesome even though it shouldn’t be. The SA snowboard scene’s a mashup of improbabilities. It happens, even though it shouldn’t. Like Teahupoo or Travis Pastrana. Against all reasonable expectations, it exists.
This shapes the local scene as a whole, particularly the people involved. Their ridiculous clothes, absurd tanlines, unfathomable in-jokes and near-incomprehensible lingo. Hanging out with them is like sitting backstage at a circus with a bunch of performers in various blends of costume and civvies. Veterans who have been playing the role for so long, it’s not entirely clear where the person ends and the caricature begins. The show continues after the curtain drops, like Boswell Wilkie improv where the act has left the ring to continue in the stands.
Some of them thrive on it, turning their self effacing humour on and off so often it’s impossible to tell whether they’re ripping on you, themselves, or being serious. You embrace it or it overwhelms you. Every time you laugh, it’s a coin toss whether it’s at a joke or a genuine observation. Best not to think about it.
Quiksnow 2011 is only Slopestyle, which is fitting. It matches the conditions perfectly. The guys shaping the park have a bunch of seasons at major North American resorts under their belts. Places like Whistler and Tahoe, where the parks are cathedrals to the sport. They’ve brought that knowledge home and built kickers and rails that would be fitting in most international locations, with ambitions to continually improve and grow the setup. Bonafide experts. Slopestyle will be an Olympic sport in 2014 and it’s a discipline that South Africans can realistically compete in. Lofty but attainable goals.
There are certain criteria which render hangovers null and void. Holidays in a foreign country, or being above an altitude of 3000m, for example. Afriski, nestled in the Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains meets both. There are no cops, no traffic. The symbol of authority is the ski-patrol and the instructor who taught you Falling Leaf and then tried to sell you some jut-weed. The water is about as pure and clean as you can possibly get. Ideal conditions for getting hammered. Passing out in the freezing night is a real concern. Writing your whole name in yellow snow a very real possibility.
More snow than anyone can remember blanketed the region this year, so the earliest arrivals bailed the park in favor of laying down big drawn out turns in backcountry powder. While it looked like it would clear for the qualifiers on Friday, sub-zero temperatures, gale force winds and flurries of snow really took the fun out of the occasion.
Good times with your mates became a gruelling hike in miserable conditions with visibility that felt more like scuba diving than snowboarding. The action was delayed, then postponed. By the time we finished up everyone was exhausted. When 4 layers of clothing failed to keep people warm, they resorted to booze and spliff. Both will work, but a day of deliberate imbibing rendered a big night in the bar very unlikely. We went home, ate and crawled into bed still wearing our socks and underwear because it was just too cold to get completely undressed. I passed out with the vague scent of wet dog in my nostrils and the knowledge that it’s coming from me.
Saturday morning dawned like a postcard from the Swiss Alps. The snow glistened. The sky was several shades of perfect, changing hue as you turned your head from the horizon to the sky above before looking across to the opposite side of the world.
No wind. No clouds. Snowboarders refer to these conditions as Bluebird. It would be mockable if it weren’t so oddly fitting. You’d whistle but your cracked lips would probably start bleeding. You put sunscreen in odd places, like the inside of your nostrils and the underside of your ear lobes, because that’s where the reflection off the snow will burn you most.
A good night’s sleep was evident as the 16 semi finalists completed their runs. There was hunger there, an eagerness to take this amazing course and wring every last drop of awesome from it. Instead of huddling miserably the crowds were energetic, shouting support and cheering their friends on in between sips of vodka. The DJ snuck in some dubstep and no-one yelled at him, right away. You can’t snowboard to dubstep, the beat doesn’t work. The Red Bull samplers built a snowdwarf and threw snowballs at Paul, a man with a nipple ring and no shirt on. We all approved. The snowballs, not the nipple ring.
You don’t need detailed explanations of the riding, that’s what the photos are for. What does need to be mentioned is the level of riding and the judging. This was no cakewalk. There were at least five finalists doing multiple variations of a 540º or better. Grinds on rails other than 50-50’s, some of them switch. You could watch two or three runs in a row and not see a trick repeated. This is fantastic because it means that there is progression at the top level.
What does need to be addressed is the judging. The judges have a very hard job. In order to comply with international standards, SA uses a judging system that matches global criteria. These guidelines are structured to differentiate between runs with very little difference in technical level or style so they penalise landing very heavily. At the highest level of riding, a hand-check or landing on your butt is anathema. No medal for you.
Our riding has yet to attain that level, meaning that the judging system favors conservative runs stuck cleanly rather than progressive riding that pushes the limits of the rider’s ability. This showed very clearly in the final, where the only runs that were clean were significantly less technical than the overall ability of the rider doing them, or the ability of the group as a whole. I think that while we’re building our scene, and this will be for a while, our emphasis needs to be on progression. Hedging your bets will not get us anywhere.
Luke Dutton’s solid, consistent approach and smooth, clean style made him South Africa’s youngest snowboarding champ. At 15 years old the torch has been passed to him by multiple winner and veteran Marcin Jekot, who went bigger on harder tricks, but sketched his landings. It’s up to guys like Luke and other groms Andrew Le Roux and Dean Van Greunen to take things to the next level, but they’ll need help and guidance in order to get there.
The wrap up party was insane. The bar was packed to capacity, all sweat and sunburn and pheromones. The guy-girl ratio is one sided and women have all kinds of leverage. After five hours of rum and coke I stagger out the bar into the freezing air, surrounded by nicotine addicts with blue tipped fingers sucking down cigarettes at their regular pace as opposed to the double time inhalation they were doing at the beginning of the night. They’ll feel the stinging, fiery sensation when they go back inside and blood flow returns to their digits but for now they are numb, the nicotine and alcohol wrapping them in a warm impenetrable haze.
I stumble passed them and head for my chalet, the crunch of re-frozen slush under my feet getting louder as the buzz of the bar fades into the distance. The jol will run to well passed five the next morning, but I’ve had enough. I’m hammered, sore and tired. Another amazing visit to the snow.
I love snowboarding. All of its aspects.
*All images © Quiksilver.