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The mountains in AK are A-OK (just ask Tanon, Anthamatten, and de Le Rue)

Featured image credit: Jérôme Tanon

This article first appeared in Issue 3 of the Mpora print magazine.

It’s not new information, but filmmakers looking for a big blank canvas to paint huge cinematic brushstrokes on can do a lot worse than Alaska. Sparsely populated and home to some properly massive terrain, the state offers the kind of space that allows visionaries to come and really lay down a marker. For creative-types like snowboard photographer and documentary director Jérôme Tanon, the brain behind instant classic ‘The Eternal Beauty of Snowboarding’ and the equally excellent ‘Zabardast’ (check them out immediately, if you haven’t seen them already), the potential is palpable.

“When I get in, I get in 100%. Full creative freedom”

Here, after all, is an artist adept at celebrating the ‘epic-ness’ of snowsports while simultaneously poking affectionate fun at the human side of the scenes that fuel them. Where some make the mistake of focusing too much on the mountains at the expense of the personal journeys occurring within them, JT has a track-record of getting the balance right; putting together films that make you laugh out loud one moment and knock you for six the next. It might seem like an easy trick to pull off, it’s anything but. At multiple times during our call, Jérôme reiterates that while drones have been “game changers” it’s important not to overuse them to the detriment of insightfulness and entertainment. ‘Everything in perfect harmony’ seems to be the Frenchman’s mantra.

“When I get in, I get in 100%. Full creative freedom,” he tells me at one point. It’s a statement with an air of the ‘Stanley Kubricks’ about it, but it’s one delivered with enough of a knowing-smile to ensure it sheds any of its pretentiousness. Speaking on a day when chaotic queues are engulfing Dover, and heatwave-induced fires in the UK are on the news, he’d opened things up by comedically turning the spotlight on me and my British passport Tanon-style with the words: “How’s Brexit going?”

Jérôme is keen not to give away too many details around the Alaska filming project, relishing the chance to keep some cards close to his chest like France’s most ice-in-the-veins poker player. He is, however, happy to reveal that the action takes place in the Haines-wide area; an extreme skiing paradise where the steep snow-covered mountains undulate wildly and the terrain has an almost extraterrestrial quality. “We don’t want to be more specific, as it’s a bit of a secret spot,” he later tells me over email.

Credit: Jérôme Tanon
Credit: Jérôme Tanon
Credit: Jérôme Tanon
Pictured (left to right): Christoph Thoresen, Victor de Le Rue, Sam Anthamatten, Yannick Boissenot and Jérôme Tanon

Featuring fearless freeride skier and fully qualified mountain guide Sam Anthamatten, two-time champion of the Freeride World Tour snowboarder Victor de Le Rue, and cameramen Christoph Thoresen and Yannick Boissenot, Tanon’s Alaska project certainly scores well on the heavy hitters front. What’s more, it’s clear from speaking to him just how hyped he is on how well the shoot itself went; an example, perhaps, of reality not just meeting expectation but, quite possibly, exceeding it as well.

“We robbed the bank over there,” he says, no doubt playing back the trip on a loop in his mind. “Everything came together, and we had the luckiest weather imaginable.”

“You’re pushing your limits a bit, pushing what is doable in skiing”

Midway through our Zoom call, I tell Jérôme that one thing which really stood out to me, while browsing the folders of stunning photographs he sent my way a week earlier, is a tangible sense of scale; an existential feeling of ‘mountains big, people small’ that, no matter how long you’ve worked in the industry and how desensitised you’ve become, can still strike at a moment’s notice. He points out to me that there were some faces in their corner of Alaska which were even bigger, even more impossible-looking than the monstrous beasts that Sam and Victor took on and slayed. Studying the pair’s tiny silhouettes on some of the images, it’s difficult to imagine.

A few weeks later, I’m on a rescheduled call with Sam Anthamatten after our first conversation got postponed at the last moment because of his mountain rescue responsibilities. No stranger to skiing massive terrain, Sam is one of a small number of skiers on the planet who can authoritatively discuss how the backcountry fare in Alaska stacks up next to chasing lines in the Himalayas.

Credit: Jérôme Tanon / Christoph Thoresen

“The Himalayas are the top playground for alpinism, and Alaska is the top playground for big mountain skiing,” he tells me. “The Himalayas are really impressive, the mountains are huge and that’s also true of Alaska. On this expedition though, we were choosing a zone where we were comfortable with it. It wasn’t about skiing a 4,000 metre or 5,000 metre peak, it was more the goal to ski some smaller lines which are still crazy big but that felt more manageable. In the Himalayas, you’re spending four days just to end up skiing one summit. Here, in Alaska, we were able to ski two, sometimes three, lines per day. That’s a big difference.

“Alaska is really special because it’s all about technical riding on spines. It’s really tactical”

“Alaska is really special because it’s all about technical riding on spines. It’s really tactical. We did a first warm up line where Victor got hit by his sluff, and I had another little wake-up call. It was the moment you realise, OK, the game is on.

“In the Alps, we’ve got these big, plainer, faces where you can go super fast and it’s all super obvious where you ski. In Alaska… you’ll know you’re on the right path, on the right spine, but you don’t see where you’re going. You really have to trust in your decision making and, also, you have to do a bit more of a line study than you would on other mountains. You’re somewhere in Alaska, and the nearest hospital is far away. You have to trust your decisions.”

Credit: Christoph Thoresen / Jérôme Tanon

Throughout my chat with Sam, I become aware of the extent to which taking on Alaskan terrain is a process with an almost rhythmic quality to it. The potential for things to go wrong and the choices Sam and Victor have to make to stop things going wrong, it’s all broken down into small manageable chunks; isolated tasks that get pieced together like bricks on a wall or tiles on a mural. Picking something massive, like a steep face in Alaska, and reducing it down into normal-sized parts is the plan. Freeing yourself from distractions, zooming in on the finer details of the mountain, simply the way it’s done.

“The whole focus is on that one line that you want to ski the next day”

“On expeditions, you only have the thing,” Sam tells me. “There is no social media, there are no emails, no wife or girlfriend, you’re really living for the riding. And, for eating and sleeping. That’s the difference when you’re out there, the whole focus is on that one line that you want to ski the next day. The process is way more intense, and I think that’s why you end up living the expedition experience way deeper and way stronger. You’re pushing your limits a bit, pushing what is doable in skiing.”

With that sense of a carefully-structured process in mind, I wanted to find out how throwing in someone as creative, and as unrestrained by traditional genre rules, as Jérôme Tanon might have affected the standard routine of an expedition. Sam’s answer is revealing, and underlines why the resulting film is going to be essential viewing.

Credit: Jérôme Tanon

“Jérôme is like this crazy snowboarder. His character is really special. If you see him, you think what have I got into here? Is this the guy who’s going to make our movie? I had my doubts at first. On the expedition, I saw that he wasn’t really an experienced mountaineer or splitboarder. I saw that he was struggling a bit. But, he’s a super funny character. And, the crazy thing is that he puts so much effort into the editing process that it’s mind-blowing. He was coming onto the expedition like an underdog. He might seem like this weirdo who doesn’t have any idea, but he really does have a plan in his mind that he’s following. For me, it’s visible now but it wasn’t at the beginning.

“He’s a real artist and usually, in the mountains, you cannot have an artist on an expedition because, on an expedition or just when you go mountaineering or you do crazy lines, it’s more about decision making and doing things clearly… In the end though, it was so cool to have him there because he was also bringing a reality to our expedition. Having someone there who’s thinking differently was cool.”

“It was so cool to have him there because he was also bringing a reality to our expedition”

Reflecting on my conversations with Jérôme and Sam later, I realise there’s something rather fitting about two of the world’s best exponents of freeride partnering up with someone who relishes creative freedom and making art on his own terms. Ultimately, it’s that pull towards going outside the boundaries that drives all of them.

“You don’t get more freedom than out there, where we were in Alaska,” says Sam, towards the end of our conversation. “It’s, of course, freedom for only a short time but to have good conditions, and a good crew, it’s the best thing that could have happened to us. In the end, I think the movie is going to show that we had some fun.”

Credit: Jérôme Tanon
Credit: Yannick Boissenot

This article first appeared in Issue 3 of the Mpora magazine

Free Rider is out now and available to watch on The North Face’s YouTube channel

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