The Van Clan

Skipping school to learn life lessons on a skiing road trip

It wasn’t exactly the spoils of victory.

After the fanfare subsided from winning his division of the Canadian Open Freeride Championships, Matthew White, 18, retired not to a tricked-out hotel room, but a lone van in the parking lot at Rossland, B.C.’s RED Mountain Resort—a smelly, 40-square-foot Volkswagen Vanagon shared with two buddies and their damp ski gear. But the top bunk was his this time, which meant not sleeping head-to-toe next to a dirty spaghetti pot on the pullout below.

Welcome to stop number two of the self-dubbed Van Clan tour.

While their schoolmates are watching the clock on the wall during their final semester of high school back home, White, Nick Simon, and Jack “JV” Vanderbeek graduated early and headed out mid-January for the ski road trip of a lifetime, competing on the big mountain circuit while hitting world-class resorts along the way.

Life lessons learned on the road: eyes on the road. PHOTO: Nick Simon
Life lessons learned on the road: eyes on the road. PHOTO: Nick Simon

Over the span of three weeks, the crew hit Bridger Bowl, RED Mountain, Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Crystal Mountain, Mount Hood, and Squaw Valley, before heading home and making smaller trips to other events the rest of the season.

“It was JV’s idea initially, but then Matt and I realized it would be pretty cool so we decided to graduate early also and join him,” says Simon, who’s not afraid to boot a double back flip.

With the help of JV’s dad, Bob, the trio spent the fews weeks before fixing up the van with a new 2.5-liter Subaru engine for double the power, new tires, and a custom propane heater and insulation so they wouldn’t have to spoon to stay warm.
Vanderbeek says of all the work that went into the van, the hardest part was convincing their parents that graduating early to go on an epic ski road trip was a worthwhile endeavor. Perhaps this is why they also promised to visit and tour colleges along the way. While all three have other plans for their gap-semester as well. White and Simon are heading to NOLS courses, and Vanderbeek plans to tour Argentina—the skiing-out-of-a-van portion was the primer to escape the clutches of school.

To help fund their trip, they saved money working odd jobs in the fall, lined up gear sponsorships from Grass Sticks and Harvest Skis, and got a lesson in crowd-funding by raising $5,000 through Kickstarter. While most of the donations came from family and friends, the process taught them life skills far beyond what they might have learned in the classroom.

“I was happy to contribute,” says Realtor and donor Cam Boyd, who kicked in $150 for their cause. “I think it’s great to support that kind of trip; they’re going to learn a lot from it. Plus, I’m just jealous. It’s the kind of trip I want to go on.”

Admitting that they got the Kickstarter idea from another van full of skiers that used it to help fund a ski trip to South America, they were surprised how successful it was. “We probably should have asked for more,” says Vanderbeek. “The campaign was fully funded in five days.”

Nick Simon left high school a semester early and isn't looking back. PHOTO: Courtesy of Nick Simon
Nick Simon left high school a semester early and isn’t looking back. PHOTO: Courtesy of Nick Simon

The adventure proved so unique that it also convinced Bob’s colleague Troy Onink, a writer for Forbes magazine, to pen a story about their adventure as it relates to preparing for higher education.

“It gives them some real life experience and networking practice, which is what colleges are looking for,” says Onink, whose blog gets 2 million unique visitors per year. “Plus, they’re learning about social media, crowd-funding and other life skills—some of the characteristics top schools are looking for. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s close enough and is a rich adventure with a good story to tell.”

As if on cue, Simon mailed off his final college application as they were rolling out of town. Vanderbeek also plans to use the tour’s website (www.steamboatvanclan.com) as an application project for Reed College.

The real selling point for their parents, however, was the skiing. “It just fuels everyone’s stoke of skiing,” says Simon’s father, Dan. “We all wish we could be doing a trip like that, even at our age. And I wish I was half as good at fundraising as they are.”

As well as utilizing their website, the van clan is documenting their journey via video, Instagram (@stmbt_van_clan) and their Kickstarter page, with plans to enter a film of their trip into festivals next year.

It didn’t take them long to start getting fodder for the film. After their first stop—the floor space of a college buddy in Bozeman and an obligatory campus tour of Montana State—their video camera broke, forcing them to dip into their funds to buy another. Then they put their old one in a bag of rice and got it to work again, meaning a visit to eBay to re-sell the new one. And then, of course, they cooked and ate the rice.

Aside from that, they say, stop number one was a resounding success. “The Bozeman leg couldn’t have gone any better,” says Simon. “We nailed an incredible powder day at Bridger and also got to see the school.”

Filling up the tank, they then headed north to RED and their first competition. Their good juju continued as they ran into their former coach Kerry Lofy, who now coaches at Squaw Valley and treated them to a couple of free dinners and showers they didn’t have to poach off college friends’ dorms. In keeping with Onink’s networking theory, they also made a slew of new big mountain skiing friends. And best of all, like their visit to Bridger, they nailed it on one of the biggest powder days of the year.

Tucked in for the night at Red Mountain. PHOTO: Nick Simon
Tucked in for the night at Red Mountain. PHOTO: Nick Simon

“It was full-blown BC pillows all over and face shots all day long,” says White of the trio’s first-ever taste of skiing north of the border. “On our last run we were still getting hundreds of yards of untracked.”

If the snow was untracked, so was the area around their sleeping quarters. “It was a little weird because our van was the only car left in the parking lot each night,” says White. “But it was cool because we did run into a fair number of Vanogen enthusiasts who were eager to talk to us.”

On the ferry to Revelstoke, their “networking” paid off again in another fortuitous encounter: a Revy local who told them about a “secret” hotel door that was always open at the mountain’s base. Bingo! Their ticket to showers, hot tubs and wi-fi for the next few days while ripping the most vert in North America.

“We’d all dreamed of skiing Revelstoke since we first started watching ski movies,” says Simon. “When we got above the clouds on our first day and saw the mountains, we were blown away.”

Ten days into their journey, van living had become second nature. Go to the bathroom before climbing in, awkwardly change clothes in the tight quarters, dry gear under the bed, squish into a submarine-sized bunker and throw a mid-sleep pillow at Vanderbeek to stop his snoring. They’d take turns cooking basics like pasta, quesadillas, oatmeal and eggs; cleaning the dishes; driving and route finding; and filling the tank with Kickstarter funds. “We got lucky because the nights never really dipped below 20 degrees or so,” says Simon. “It could’ve gotten pretty cold.”

Instead, they continued getting cold smoke, hitting yet another dump at their next stop at Kicking Horse. And by now they had no trouble saddling up to strangers as they would a fresh line on the slopes.

“It was cool because we met some dudes who were also living in their cars and had them over for pasta one night in the parking lot,” says White. “One was from Belgium living out of an old Land Cruiser and the other lived in his truck and was skiing on the big mountain circuit. There are a lot of good people in this world.”

Kicking Horse schralped, they drove back over Rogers Pass, cooking more pasta while stopped for four hours during avalanche control. A few days later they made it back stateside to Bellingham, where they crashed on a friend’s floor and made a quick tour of Western Washington University, before skiing Crystal Mountain farther south.

kicking horse

After fixing the van’s emergency brake, from there it was off for a quick tour of Lewis and Clark College before strapping on their skis to shred Oregon’s Mt. Hood Meadows. Then they headed for a few days of much-needed chill time on the beaches of Oregon.

“It was definitely a fast-paced couple of weeks,” says Simon, who, like White is also an avid surfer. “Watching all the waves break, we were able to reflect on how sick the trip was. We’d emerge out of the haze each morning in our boxers to tourists wondering what was wrong with us. We were just skiers living the dream.”

When the Oregon rains paid a visit, the cramped quarters got even dingier. “One night, in fear of mildew and leaky canvas, we decided to sardine it inside with the top down,” says Simon. “So we went with the ‘696’ approach. JV got lucky and scored the ‘nine’ position.”

After getting their van towed out of the sand by a neighborly passerby, it was off to their second comp at Alpine Meadows in early February, but not before more car troubles. “At one point our wheel almost fell off,” admits Vanderbeek. “It was wobbling, so we stopped and found that the lug nuts were loose and the studs stripped. Luckily, we were able to rethread them.”

At Alpine Meadows, the clan moved onto threading couloirs, but not well enough to land another podium spot; Simon finished 19th, White 21st, and Vanderbeek 29th. But their old coach Lofy met them with open arms again, hooking them up in the swank condo of a team member’s parent. After the comp, they freeskied with 40 or so other local big mountain skiers, in an air-filled scene even TGR would want to get its hands on.

But, as with all their other lessons picked up in life after school, they also learned that life sometimes call the shots. With plans to hit Alta on their way home, they arrived dog-tired in Salt Lake City at 1 a.m., where Simon and White crashed in the van and Vanderbeek racked in his brother’s dorm room. Forgetting to lock the doors, their van got broken into in the middle of the night, with the perps making off with their camera equipment and White’s ski gear. “By the time we got up and realized what was happening, they were gone,” says Simon, chalking it up to another lesson learned on the road. “It was a pretty frantic night. But it doesn’t take away from how sick the trip was.”

With all their footage safely on Vanderbeek’s computer, the only thing it really derailed was their plans to ski the Wasatch before heading home, which is where they are now, 6,000 miles, eight resorts and five college visits later.

And they’re not about to let the blemish at the end of their first leg affect the rest of their van clan spring. Legs two and three are coming up in Taos and Crested Butte.