There are enough snowfields on Earth for the search for the ultimate snowboard ride to go on more or less for ever, if you want it to. But if you want it to end—if you want to stake a claim to having left your stomach farther behind and carved more sinuous bends on deeper, steeper slopes than anyone in history—there is probably only one place to go.
A couple of years ago a group of extreme snowboarders went there. They piled into two helicopters and a ski-plane in Anchorage, the northernmost city in the United States, and flew west for an hour. They landed at the foot of the Tordrillo mountains, which rise from America’s last truly untracked wilderness to about 11,000 feet (3,350 metres), and waited ten days for the cloud to lift.
The Tordrillos are technically part of the Aleutian range, but they look north towards Mount McKinley and catch moisture from all directions in the form of snow that hangs from their steep summit ridges like curtains of thick icing.
After the blizzard, the brown granite of the mountains was almost hidden by soft but stable snow, several metres deep. The team’s guide, also its paramedic, gave the all-clear. What followed went straight into the annals of gravity-assisted sporting madness. Scott Serfas, the expedition photographer, sees it more as a coming-together of conditions, skill, topography and daring.
Look at his shot of voluptuous new snow smothering a series of gullies apparently unvisited by man. In the top left-hand corner a boarder, dwarfed by the mountain, has left a few sinuous tracks and jumped into space. This is John Jackson, Snowboarder magazine’s Rider of the Year 2010. A few minutes earlier, Serfas had dropped from the helicopter onto a narrow crest facing Jackson’s planned route, unaware he was going to jump. “My heart stopped,” he says. He thought, “Does he know where he’s going?”
Jackson fell about 80 feet—eight storeys—before touching down in a freezing but infinitely forgiving explosion of powder on a slope that, fortunately, did not avalanche. It was one of those moments when you either had the shot or you didn’t. Serfas checked the back of his camera, put it in his backpack and slid down his own cliff face to catch up. “Ten, 20 years from now, people are still going to be talking about that,” he says of the jump, the day, the whole Tordrillo trip.
Before leaving, he took another helicopter ride to capture another boarder, Travis Rice. This time he stayed on board, hovering far overhead with a long lens. The picture removes all sense of time, place, sound and even which way is up. It’s a simple portrait of a human being alone, at play.
None of these images is exactly crowded. They use the cold and quiet and sheer scale of winter to drown out the hip-hop that usually goes with snowboarding. The snowscapes dominate, even when they’re cityscapes. One is a wry homage to Vancouver, where Serfas lives and took up snowboarding 20-odd years ago, “when everyone said they hated you” for the way snowboards on inexpert legs scrape so much snow off ski slopes. Now the high-rise waterfront condos don’t give a boarder a second look even when he drops off a piece of public art.
Serfas often gets up at 3.30am to drive the two hours to Whistler Mountain, gas up his snowmobile and head out past the end of the logging roads to take pictures of unadulterated snow. This kind of thing has been his day job for 20 years and he isn’t nostalgic for film or its limitations. Whether shooting with a Canon or a Leica M9, he tends deliberately to over-expose, to flood the sensor with data and give himself more to play with on the computer later. One result is a picture he shot on a whim of a backcountry peak, already familiar to him, but exceptionally well lit that morning. The contrast and composition are exquisite. The foreground snow begs you to dive in but is somehow so perfect that it knows you won’t. The faint tracks to the left of the right-hand clump of trees are the photographer’s; his signature.
The subject and the treatment remind me of Ansel Adams, but it turns out this wasn’t the idea. Serfas is an admirer of Adams rather than a fan. “I don’t really know any photographers,” he says. “I just shoot snowboarders.” ~ GILES WHITTELL