Street Roots

Embedded with two urban ski crews—the modern day antithesis to mainstream skiing

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the February 2015 issue (Volume 43, Issue 6).

I can’t feel my face.

Fingers and toes aren’t far behind as I fight to stem the flow of snot creeping down my chin. Montreal’s Mont Royal glares in the noonday sun, entombed in two inches of January ice as temperatures hover around unbearable. Two snowshoers plod by in burly overcoats as I bounce up and down to stay warm, desperate to shift focus from physical pain to the metal beast snaking down the hill. Six kinks of curving metal handrail have already claimed two days of filming, one pair of skis, and a skier, but our crew needs this shot—we can’t leave town empty-handed. Finally, skier locks onto rail, surfing the undulations like an iron wave around thick maples and frozen steps, two cameras following his every move. And then, with nothing left to slide, the metal slayer narrowly avoids a street sign before chattering to an icy halt. Instead of customary high fives and fist bumps, a relieved silence pervades, interrupted only by the words we’ve been thinking all day: “Let’s get the fuck out of this city.”

While the skiing mainstream shifted toward organized competition en route to the Olympics, and big-budget productions mounted cineflex cameras onto the noses of helicopters, a dedicated collective has stayed true to freeskiing’s urban roots.

Quebec’s urban-skiing crown jewel was the second stop on our 14-day mission—a route snaking from Vermont through Northeast Canada before winding down into Minnesota. I was traveling with 4bi9 Media, an urban ski crew that seeks to slide and air over and onto jungles of concrete, brick, and metal, rather than ski powder on jagged peaks and double fall lines. For two weeks, they skied without topping 1,000 vertical feet or buying a single lift ticket, driving a pair of stuffed Subarus halfway across the continent to stack video clips for their annual film. Living on Tim Hortons breakfast sandwiches and Coffee Crisp, our group crammed seven dudes and all the smells that accompany them into a single hotel room, convinced the bone bruises and sore muscles would all be worth it when the movie dropped in the fall.

This is urban skiing—dangerous, exhausting, and, a lot of days, thankless. But there’s something about a sprawling metropolis that keeps skiers like the 4bi9 posse coming back. While the skiing mainstream shifted toward organized competition en route to the Olympics, and big-budget productions mounted cineflex cameras onto the noses of helicopters, a dedicated collective has stayed true to freeskiing’s urban roots, remembering that before skiers were boosting laser-perfect kickers, they were filming handrails and running from cops. Film crews like 4bi9 and its contemporary, Stept Productions, have built on those early urban days to establish their own unique style of skiing.

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In recent years, that experimentation in the streets has yielded an exponential creativity, the influence of which has trickled down into competitive skiing and found its way into mainstream productions like Warren Miller—something that even the forefathers of the sport couldn’t have predicted. “We used to just go out after competitions and travel somewhere to go do a couple rails at night,” says Iannick Brouillette, a pioneering urban skier out of Quebec in the early 2000s known as Iannick B. “I don’t think I’ve ever done an urban trip like they do now. Kids today are so organized, they know how to plan and make it happen—more so than we used to do. That’s how you build something constructive, something that lasts.”

Urban skiing originally gained traction over 15 years ago, when skiers like Brouillette started emulating the rail sliding moves of skateboarders at local schools, parks, and industrial zones. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, these skiers were featured in films such as Poor Boyz Productions’ Degenerates and Propaganda, Level 1’s Balance and Second Generation, Eric Iberg’s Royalty, and LP Sansfacon’s street-heavy Assault, among others. Urban skiing evolved out of what was available to these packs of skiers, most of whom came from the East Coast. Fueled in large part by the rise of handheld VHS cameras, then later digital cameras and the Internet, sliding handrails has evolved into spinning ledges, jumping buildings, and pressing retaining walls. For a young generation bent on the next thrill, street skiing offers a unique opportunity: It’s fast, exciting, and above all, accessible.

“People forget that most skiers don’t have Squaw and Whistler and all the big mountains to ski like Colorado,” explains Brouillette, who made his ski film debut in Iberg’s iconic Stereotype, in 2002. “More than half the skiers in North America are on the smaller mountains of the East Coast and Eastern Canada, so a lot of people around here get into urban skiing.”

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4bi9’s co-founder Andrew Napier was one of those people. Raised in Middlebury, Vermont, the dry-witted 26-year-old grew up skiing at Killington as a member of his high school’s park and pipe team. After the school cancelled the program his senior year (Napier was the sole member), ski buddies and competitors on the local park scene, A.J. Dakoulas and Andrew Holson, urged Napier to migrate south to Okemo, where they linked up with Tim Maney and a young Dale Talkington. In the winter of 2005, the group hit park and urban together under the moniker 4bi9, filming “The 4bi9 Mixtape.” That ski movie never saw the light of day, but it was the film genesis for the urban ski crew.

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“Urban offers an opportunity for skiing to include people who can’t afford a really expensive pass, fly in a heli, or go on a cat trip,” says Napier.

It also presented more access for filming, allowing a lanky skate kid from Vermont and his friends a chance to emulate ski heroes. Giving the finger to the established ski world, urban showed a whole generation of skiers that pros could be born in their own backyard with the help of a Sony Vx2100 and an early version of Final Cut.

When Napier and Dakoulas (and Holson a few years later) moved to Utah for college in the fall of 2006, they found another gang of East Coast ski transplants, including a skinny Pennsylvania kid in an adjacent dorm. His name was Tom Wallisch.

“I met Wally at a party,” says Napier. “We started talking about skiing and I asked if he wanted to join our little group. He’s been with us ever since.”

No one would have guessed it then, but Wallisch went on to become one of the biggest names in skiing. His mainstream fame stems from an X Games slopestyle gold and a 2013 World Championship. But the 27-year-old gained much of his stature before he even started competing, filming web edits with 4bi9, including the winning video in Level 1’s 2007 Super-unknown competition.

“We were all blown away by each other’s skiing,” says Napier. “People were doing stuff that we’d never seen before, that no one had ever seen before—it was impossible not to film.”

Along with Wallisch, the crew added names like Steve Stepp and Henrik Harlaut to the mix, moving into a defunct frat house just off the University of Utah campus the next year. Christened the 4bi9 House, the dwelling hosted a number of urban skiers looking for familiarity in new surroundings. From that karmic couch, the posse grew.

“We put a couch, giant bean bag, and 4bi9 sign on our roof…and hosted ‘4 to 9’ parties,” says Stepp. “The idea was to have people over and start drinking at four in the afternoon and end by nine so we could go skiing in the morning. It ended up being more of a four-to-four situation.”

The group of friends started skiing urban that freshmen fall in Salt Lake. Eventually they migrated up to Park City to hone their skiing and filming skills. No one in the group had formal camera training, but after a few serious injuries, Napier and Dakoulas took up active roles behind the lens. They didn’t want to give up skiing, but they knew the crew was onto something big.

“We were all blown away by each other’s skiing,” says Napier. “People were doing stuff that we’d never seen before, that no one had ever seen before—it was impossible not to film.”

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Seven annual films later, a handful of original members have expanded into a clan of 10 or so, setting up around Salt Lake under the 4bi9 flag. They live together and play together, a factor Napier feels is essential to 4bi9’s success. Even Wallisch—freeski royalty in recent years—stays connected, turning the guest room of his Park City home into the group’s editing bay.

“We choose our skiers based on who we like to ski and film with, not who gets us the most sponsorship money,” says Napier. “I think that shows in our movies, a bunch of guys that are friends and skiers.”

It’s amazing how easily 130 miles and a plate of poutine can make you forget the frustrations of the day. Yet by the time we hit Ottawa, Montreal was a distant memory. Napier led our crew, consisting of skiers Talkington, Jake Doan, and Khai Krepela and cameramen Tom Arnell and Evan Lai-Hipp. Due to its probability of good snow, density of skiable zones, and low risk of bust from cops, the road between Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto has become a center for the street movement, urban skiing’s own Handrail Highway.

Our first night in new surroundings was spent crowded around computer screens—Facebook chatting local riders and poring through ski edits to piece together a map of features around the city. Google Streetview also became an unlikely tool, providing angles of spots from the comfortable temperature of our hotel room.

Despite receiving local beta, every recommendation had to be taken with a grain of salt. Per street-skiing code, no one was willing to give up spots entirely, and we had to assume any features sent our way had already been hit, and more importantly, filmed. The immediacy of the Internet became the issue, as skiers who hit zones days after us could post an online edit within hours and lay claim to that feature. It was like a twisted game of “P.I.G.,” with social media becoming a strategic tactic to throw other crews off our scent. As if they were photos of a home mountain stash, skiers kept Instagrams intentionally vague.

The Canadian capital acted as my first real glimpse into urban skiing’s calculated chaos. Of 16 spots scoped the day before, eight would make sense with snowpack and speed, and though our skiers had the skills to hit all of them, only one or two would y under the radar of street skiing’s biggest nemesis: law enforcement.

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Urban skiing has garnered the attention of police, security, and rent-a-cops since it caught on in the late ’90s. When you’re trying to hit somebody else’s property on skis, that attention comes in the form of tickets, fines, and nights in jail—speed bumps that can derail a trip’s tight budget. Still, there’s no telling when authorities will shut things down, so urban skiers push until someone pushes back.

In Ottawa, our 4bi9 crew hit three features and bagged five shots in one day, including a wall ride on a veranda at the National Archives. On our drive through Kingston, Ontario, a few days later, we filmed a wall ride outside of a municipal building with no trouble, only to realize we were across the street from the city police station.

To hedge our bets with the law, darkness became our ally. Rolling around the streets of Toronto’s Koreatown bumping Tupac and Mobb Deep, we waited for janitors and security officers to leave their schools unattended for the night, building in-runs and landings in the shadows, and setting up lights out of view. Sometimes we waited past midnight to hit a feature, ring up a generator to power our lights at the last moment, and getting the shot before drawing unwanted attention.

In a sport that requires athleticism, toughness, and a certain degree of crazy, the added unpredictability and frustrations of day-to-day urban skiing are not built for half-assing. “Some people have a real issue with not knowing what the hell we’re doing throughout the season,” says Stept Productions skier, cameraman, and editor Cam Riley. “I tell them I’m going to drive 2,000 miles next week and probably going to drive a bunch more after that. We’re going wherever the snow goes, and we might not be home for a while.”

Another urban crew with East Coast roots, Stept formed from the ambitions of Nick and Alex Martini, who began making edits near their Boston-area home over a decade ago. But when they met Riley at Holderness School in New Hampshire, they started filming in earnest. Through skiing and filming, Nick recruited Clayton Vila and Shea Flynn—two more New England urban skiers—to join the Stept collective. When the inevitable post-high school westward migration hit, Stept followed suit, pointing it toward Summit County’s terrain parks and the University of Colorado.

In Boulder, the crew hosted a slew of couch surfers, including then-high school sophomore Sean Jordan. Shortly after graduating school in Pennsylvania, he moved out to Boulder to film with Stept, while North Carolina native Charlie Owens fell in with the group around the same time. Stepts’ nucleus stayed small, but that was the way they liked it—living together, skiing together, and filming together.

But two years ago, Stept took its street mission a step further, consolidating its crew to just a handful of athletes and spending a period of three months filming on the road. Starting in mid-December 2013, Riley, Flynn, Owens, Jordan, Vila, the Martini brothers, and cameraman Jameson Walter began the long journey from the East Coast back to their home base in Boulder, piecing a film together in cities along the way. The athletes now ski exclusively with Stept, sacrificing the exposure of filming with multiple companies for creative control and a quality product. “They know they have the ability to do whatever they want with their footage, they know they have their say in production, and they know what they want it to look like,” says Riley.

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The Stept crew doesn’t just ski in their movies. More than not, they get behind the lens, too. On a Chicago shoot, one cameraman trains on Riley as he attempts a quad kink rail in the middle of a high-traffic apartment complex. Flynn and Jordan have tied a bungee with a tow handle around a metal post, pulling it back to provide speed, while Owens takes out the group’s spare camera to get a second angle of the action.

Nailing the trick isn’t automatic. As the attempts on the quad kink mount, so too does the physical and mental fatigue. For a perfectionist like Riley, that translates to hurling skis and expletives at concrete. He runs up the icy stair-set in hard plastic boots for hours, turning around to risk his body one more time against metal, pavement, and rock. I estimate that he’s covered a couple thousand vertical feet by the time he gets his shot, but he tacks on five more attempts after that before calling it good. Perfectionism, it seems, has no exhaustion meter.

“Without the fall, trials, and tribulations of the thing, it makes the success a little less meaningful,” says Nick Martini.

“We’re not making money off of these movies, but they’re what’s keeping our sport moving in the right direction, and that’s what’s important,” says Napier.

At 25, Flynn has navigated those ups and downs longer than most in the urban game. A walking warrior that tends to put getting the shot over personal health, he skis fast, goes big, and, as evidenced by the surgical scars on his shoulders, crashes hard. But that’s how the bearded Maine native has made a name for himself in urban circles, filming gritty segments in skiing’s unforgiving streets.

He skis without a ski sponsor, spray-painting over his old topsheets and using severance pay from former sponsor K2 to fund his travels. When I meet up with Stept in Chicago, he was on his last pair of skis, hoping they would survive for the remaining months of his trip—or at least long enough to finish his segment.

“I’m not sure people realize we’re out here making a movie, sleeping on floors with $140 to our name,” adds Owens, who works at Whole Foods in the off season.

Despite the unrewarding appearance of urban ski life, the brotherhoods formed on long road trips keep them going, coupled with a notion that someday doing what they love might yield a bigger paycheck and a chance to ski professionally for that much longer.

Unfortunately, that may not be realistic. Funding has always been a major issue for street skiers (as it is with most young skiers). Brands, like The North Face and K2, pay production companies a stipend for featuring their film athletes, but without the perks, like heli bumps, or bed space, of its peers.

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“I think that unfortunately the money is still going to competition skiing, and that’s the biggest thing that should be changed within our sport,” says Napier. “Tell me who got second in X Games Big Air three years ago? No one remembers. But everyone can remember Tanner Hall’s segment in Session 1242… That segment will always influence people.”

Names like Rage Films, Toy Soldiers Productions, and Voleurz have faded in recent years, leaving 4bi9 and Stept fighting to survive by cutting costs any way they can.

The Martini brothers and Riley use backgrounds in carpentry to outfit a trailer for all their camera gear, keeping the group attached to the traveling set, and saving thousands on plane tickets in the process. For Stept’s latest film, Ten and Two, Nick Martini splurged on an hour of shooting from a sightseeing chopper, scoring aerial shots of Chicago, while keeping his skin covered against negative-20 degree temperatures, to give the film a professional cinematic touch.

In May 2012, one of the more big-budget production companies, Teton Gravity Research, launched The Co-Lab, an Internet video contest where fans and judges voted to award a $100,000 prize. 4bi9’s Talkington won and donated half of that prize back to his crew. “These guys have been my friends for a long time… They helped give me my start,” says the 23-year-old who began his 4bi9 days as a wiry 13-year-old in Vermont. “When I had a little money, it made sense to give something back and hopefully help this thing grow.”

For a production company that produced its 2013 release, All Damn Day, for just over $8,000 (a fraction of the reported millions spent by Red Bull Media House on similar projects), the donation was a huge step in securing the crew’s sustainability for the next few years.

“We’re not making money off of these movies, but they’re what’s keeping our sport moving in the right direction, and that’s what’s important,” says Napier.

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And though tiny compared to the Warren Miller’s of the world, 4bi9 and Stept are reaching the ski masses with their message, showing kids they don’t need a world-class mountain in their backyard to get out on skis with their friends. In fact, the pair’s Internet presence is arguably higher than any of the big names in ski film production, an influence seen on forums like Newschoolers and in the growing number of skiers hitting local handrails with their friends. Though Stept announced they’ll be taking a break from the annual ski film next season, when their movie tours rolled through town, local theaters were packed with young skiers looking to catch a glimpse, and maybe an autographed poster, of their on-screen heroes.

“In the past few years, there has definitely been a significant push in urban skiing,” says Riley. “I’d like to think we played a big part in that.”