4bi9: Fostering the future, one wall ride at a time. PHOTO: Mike McLeod

WORDS: Eliel Hindert

Eight winters ago, a young man began his adolescent pilgrimage across the United States. Like so many who came before him, he drove away from an upbringing in the East and towards the unknowns of the West. The wheels turned, and rolling hills gave way to the expansive fields of America’s breadbasket. Just as the endless skyline was torn apart by the beginnings of the Rocky Mountains, he did something few expected. He turned around and drove home.

A.J. Dakoulas wasn’t running from anything. He returned home to ski with Andrew Napier and a core group of friends who still had a year of high school to finish. He returned to enjoy the simple pleasures of pursuing a passion with his friends. To spend all their money on a camera and point it at each other for no reason other than to share an underage beer at the end of it all and maybe break a window or two along the way. That mentality of camaraderie and responsibility free passion dictated the direction and actions of this tight knit group of skiers. A group that would grow, stumble, and morph over the next decade to highlight some of the more unique skiers our sport, while remaining an honest and unfiltered voice in the freestyle ski scene. This is the story of 4bi9.

Fast-forward seven years after that first cross-country drive to the fall of 2012. A.J. and Napier sit down with the core members of the group to discuss the future of the company. They have produced seven movies, been nearly arrested and fined more times than they can count, sustained more on-hill and après injuries than they can recall, and are completely broke.

Both A.J. and Napier have Bachelors’ degrees and the weight of student loans that go with them. Napier is starting to pursue a Masters in English Literature, and A.J. has just been hired on as the associate editor with local production company Camp 4 Collective. Having just come off the worst snow year on record in Utah, and a support system for the company having crumbled at their fingertips, they discuss calling it quits for 4bi9.

The group’s defining trait has always been that anyone involved is still sharing highs and lows once the record button is off. A simple enough idea, but one that is all too uncommon in an industry dictated and funded by assembly line companies, whose teams are composed of practical strangers who have hardly met each other outside of photo shoots or industry events. A trait that has allowed their films to possess an authentic feel reserved for the few, the talented, and often the penniless.

Animal T's and beer-bong cups. Same university experience as you, they just took better photos. PHOTO: A.J. Dakoulas

Luckily, when the group first arrived at the University of Utah in 2006, they were met with freshman dorms spilling over with like-minded individuals who were quick to bond over the winter oasis, a series of raging house parties, and the idea of making their own film. That initial assembly included Tom Wallisch, Tim McChesney, Steve Stepp, and a whole cast of others who would become household names in the world of skiing. It’s easy to assume that they simply chased the hottest talent that they could reach, but if you ask them, they simply hung out with the people who were as stoked on skiing as they were. It just so happens that the two traits seem to go hand in hand.

But like any farm team that is fostering future big leaguers, they would eventually have those key players get bumped up, while top-tier industry support was reserved for media companies who were willing to play ball with industry demands. As a result, funding largely had to come from within, both out of pocket from a core group of sponsors, and, of course, DVD sales. A situation that resulted in constant and relentless self-promotion over the years, and Napier selling copies of their earlier films from a literal cardboard booth around university campuses and nightclubs around town.

A continued university setting allowed them to move up from the student dorms to take over a former frat house on campus. A site that would host an endless stream of parties, cop cars, and industry personalities, becoming an underground landmark of sorts in the Utah ski scene. However, the pattern of passion over provisions continued to trend. Sticking with their same cast of riders out of respect for the time they had spent together, as opposed to grabbing big names with bigger backers to fit the tried and true industry models for media companies.

Favoring creative and stylish riding and venues, with a dash of making fun of both themselves and the industry at large. A trait that often backfired since they don’t take themselves, or there alleged ‘gangster macho’ actions, as seriously as everyone else does. Even a young Henrik Harlaut was shocked to learn that the then college sophomores didn’t carry guns, knives, or simply act way more ‘hood’ on a day-to-day basis when he first arrived from Sweden to start shooting with them.

So it went into their last year of university that although talents were at an all-time high, both snow levels in Utah and support for their film was at an all-time low. A mere three or four days shooting in the streets of Salt Lake was compounded by an inability to travel and a film that nearly never saw the light of day. Survival of the company came from their web series “Wednesday’s with Wallisch,” “4bi9 House,” and athletes Dale Talkington and John Ware making big waves in the Nike Chosen contest. Still, scraping by wore thin for the production team, so it was time to make some big decisions.

Before the six-figure deals and world recognition, Tom Wallisch is just another 4bi9 friend pumped to head out and do work.

“We have an awesome group…with a unique skill set that they’ve been practicing for the past seven years, and to just throw that all away is pretty insane,” says Napier. It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll meet another group of people in your life who are equally as passionate about pursuing something.”

That ended up being the deciding factor in choosing to keep the company alive at the dawn of the 2012-13 season. With A.J. splitting his time between Camp 4 and 4bi9, they brought Mike McLeod into the fold. A perfect fit to the subtle over-qualifications that dotted the crew already, as he’d just come off a year that included a political science internship with the Utah Attorney General and six months spending nearly everyday with Eric Iberg and Tanner Hall for their Education of Style project.

The new energy of a “now or never” mentality collided perfectly with one of the best Utah winters in decades. Free from the responsibilities of splitting time with school and a rider roster coming into its own, “All Damn Day” was born. Done almost entirely out of pocket, the fuel came from the riders motivation and D.I.Y. mentality extended from urban setups to the creation of the self-made Guacamole park shoot after an atypical park shoot was amongst the dream items on the budget list. A visual testament to what you can, and need, to do to exist and hopefully flourish outside the mainstream.

Today, survival comes in the form of the production team contracting out its talents to third parties: a new clothing designed by long-time athlete Ryan Wyble, and a realization that refusing to waver in your passions comes with a trade off. From Madison Avenue to web mini series, the 4bi9 production team has taken those years of fostering their abilities through passion and applied them to commercial settings outside the ski world. With A.J. back on board full time, and Tom Arnell rounding out the group, the hope remains that there will eventually be a broad demand for a voice free of inhibitions in the ski scene. A drumbeat that reminds both those inside and outside the bubble that we’re not here to sell our sport, we’re here to enjoy it.