Words by Kade Krichko
JUST INSIDE THE APARTMENT DOOR, the smell hits. Passing the bathroom lined with dozens of battered park skis, it gets stronger, as if pouring directly from the reggae-laced speakers in Henrik Harlaut's living room.
Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep CDs litter the shelves, interspersed between X Games medals, Dew Tour trophies, and a World Cup Big Air Crystal Globe.
Harlaut and three friends engage in a fierce video-game battle; framed magazine clips of Phil Casabon, Tanner Hall, Mickael Deschenaux, and Travis Heed hang on the far wall. Harlaut's friends lounge on the couch, but he sits apart, manipulating his Xbox controller as he pedals a stationary bike. He only plays if he can sweat out a few miles at the same time—justification, he says, for sitting still off the snow.
The smell continues to circulate, not from the table strewn with rolling papers and energy drink cans, but from the kitchen. Garlic. Two years ago, Harlaut adopted a vegetarian diet in an effort to get stronger and leaner for ski season. He's been hooked on the bulb ever since.
From competition to films like Slamina and BE Inspired, to every backcountry booter and urban wall ride in between, Harlaut has redefined what freeskiing is supposed to look like over the past half-decade, putting emphasis back on style when the sport was destined for Olympic spin-to-win monotony. But while it's impossible to forget Harlaut's domination of our sport, his uncharacteristic appearance makes it easy to overlook the steps he took to get there.
At 27, this is a man who just capped the season with a Dew Tour win, two X Games golds (and a silver), and an Olympic appearance. It was almost May when I met up with him in Andorra where he out-built, out-hiked, and out-hit everyone on a step-up jump for nearly nine hours in the backcountry. Now, he was biking.
"I just want to keep going," he explains after dinner. "When I love something so much, when I know that what I'm best at in my life is skiing, I just want to take advantage of every opportunity to see how far I can push it."
Since Harlaut moved with his family from Stockholm to Are, Sweden, as a wiry 9 year old, he has poured everything into the sport—studying ski movies as if they were SAT prep courses, and chasing idols around the world just to breathe the same mountain air. Yet skiing has never really known what to make of him. A dreadlocked, perma-smile Swede that speaks like his favorite old-school rappers, Harlaut is often cast as a caricature rather than competitor.
Out of sight are the eight daily hours of self-driven, off-season gym time. Overlooked is the choice to live thousands of miles from friends and family to train year-round in Andorra—a country barely on the map between France and Spain. These are the types of moves that have made Harlaut one of his sport's most recognizable stars—and that have isolated him in the process. As he pushes further and farther away, Harlaut—for better or worse—is skiing in a world all his own.
"I THINK HE’S ALWAYS KEPT TRUE TO HIMSELF," says Casabon, Harlaut's long-time friend and ski partner. "It might have held him back at times from the heights he could have reached, but now he has made people accept it."
Casabon has witnessed Harlaut's rise firsthand. For over a decade, the introspective Quebecoise and energetic Swede have formed the most dynamic yin and yang in skiing, their skate-influenced urban style inspiring a whole new breed of park and street skiers.
Dropping classic online videos such as Muddy Winters, the duo honed their craft in parks and local hills, proving that progression didn't need a heli bump or a film budget. In 2012, they galvanized a grassroots following with the Inspired Demo Tour, traveling by van to 50 small ski mountains between Maine and South Dakota in just 66 days to hit rails and butter small kickers with local kids.
In the middle of that tour, Harlaut caught a plane to X Games in Aspen. After traveling endless highways and skiing icy molehills for the past month, he stepped into the big air arena and landed a nose butter triple cork 1620—a trick he'd never attempted until that night—to win gold. That’s right, Harlaut performed an unprecedented trick on the biggest stage in freeskiing just a few days after sessioning 300-vertical-foot ski hills in the Midwest alongside tall-T wearing kids obsessing over his and Casabon’s unconventional style.
"He's on this stage where every fucking athlete is a straight arrow, and he's a zigzag type of dude," explains Casabon. "I think he's a person with the greatest willpower I've ever seen in my life."
And yet, with all of this success, by his own volition, Harlaut doesn't even have an outerwear sponsor. While ski apparel has moved on to flexible fabrics and lighter construction, he still prefers the baggy pants and oversized T-shirts made popular by freeski royalty like Hall and Deschenaux in the early 2000s. Nowadays, that means the most decorated athlete in freeskiing chooses to buy most of his gear on eBay.
"He doesn't want things he doesn't stand for," explains Erik Harlaut, Henrik's father, who handles much of his son's sponsorship deals in between running his family's champagne business in Are. He says Henrik has a different set of values when it comes to business.
Instead of a souped-up mountain truck, he drives a 1987 BMW sedan with a ski rack. Rather than switch-out broken skis for a new pair midseason, he'll adjust his stance or tweak an edge back into place.
As the youngest of three brothers, Harlaut grew up playing hockey and skiing slalom outside of Stockholm. While trying to keep up in those early years, he developed a strict competitive side. And though his parents pushed him to pursue his talents in slalom, Harlaut latched onto freeskiing after fellow Swede Jacob Wester showed him his first videos of Hall and the Poor Boyz crew during a summer race camp in Italy. Days later, the then 10-year-old was landing his first backflips.
He returned to Sweden a skier possessed, watching and emulating any ski movie he could get his hands on. By 11, he was landing cork 900s.
"He was a very observant and listening kid," says Deschenaux, the Swiss freeskier known for his own novel style who befriended Harlaut at a Zermatt summer ski camp in 2006. "You'll watch him scalpel out every little thing to learn—the move, the rotation, the takeoff—and then he'll put his own style on it. He took the best, and made it better."
Harlaut studied Poor Boyz hits Propaganda and Happy Dayz with so much fervor that he not only learned new tricks but a new language, picking up English from the skiers in the segments, and then from the movie soundtracks. The young Swede was particularly drawn to hip-hop, remembering the sounds of the lyrics, and then eventually putting sentences and songs together.
It was music that brought him together with Casabon in 2007. While competing at the European Open in Laax, Harlaut and Casabon kicked off a friendship steeped in Redman, Method Man, and the Wu-Tang Clan. They even adopted their own hip-hop monikers: Casabon as “B-Dog” and Harlaut as “E-Dollo.”
Known as "B&E," the pair gained the recognition of childhood hero Hall and producer Eric Iberg, eventually teaming up on films like 2012's The Education of Style, and 2016's BE Inspired.
"When you see Henrik, it's just him, he doesn't get told what to do," says Hall. "It's pretty amazing to see a kid come out each year like that…it's going to be a long time before anyone comes along like this again."
As Harlaut was realizing his dream of skiing and working with Hall, his competition career was also taking off. Where most struggled to balance competing with a demanding film schedule, Harlaut found fuel. In addition to his 2013 X Games gold, Harlaut cruised his way into slopestyle's first Olympics, qualifying for the finals for Team Sweden.
It was there that Harlaut enjoyed his most recognized competition moment. After landing his second slopestyle run at the Sochi Olympics, he took the opportunity to salute his favorite rap group on live television, yelling, "Wu-Tang is for the children!"—an ode to the late rapper ODB. Harlaut eventually finished sixth, but became an overnight media sensation.
Within a few days, Wu-Tang's Method Man had reached out via Twitter, and news stations around the world picked up the story. The outburst wasn't planned, but the call created an unlikely and direct line between skiing and hip-hop that has endured for years to come (Wu-Tang's Masta Killa even emceed Harlaut and Casabon's B&E Invitational ski event in Les Arcs, France, in 2015). More importantly, as freeskiing was looking for its Olympic footing, Harlaut thrust it into the collective mainstream.
"He basically won the first Olympics," says Casabon. "He was the most talked about in [Sochi] in terms of press and coverage—he reached the target."
FOR ONE OF SKIING’S MOST VISIBLE CHARACTERS, Harlaut is hard to track down in person. He's not dismissive—he just prefers to ski and allows outside communication fall by the wayside. After four months of WhatsApp messages across a handful of countries, I finally tracked him down in the parking lot of Grandvalira. It's the largest resort in Harlaut's adopted home of Andorra, minutes from his apartment, and totally empty.
"I like that I can go a bit under the radar here," he smiles. "It's not a scene. People are stoked on skiing, but everyone is doing their own thing."
Due to steep income taxes at home in Sweden, Harlaut took a detour to Andorra in 2014. Applying for and earning an official invitation from the government as a professional athlete, Harlaut completed the legal path to becoming an Andorran resident, finding not only tax leniency, but a country with more miles of ski slope than actual road.
Like Black Sabbath recording in Clearwell Castle or Muhammad Ali training in the secluded Pennsylvania woods, Harlaut has developed his masterpiece largely away from the world, tucked into the Andorran Pyrenees. From April until early July, he'll sled uphill to build and hit kickers with a revolving crew of skiers and filmers. When the snow melts, he'll spend his days strengthening with physios, hitting the gym, and training in Andorra's ski-specific ramp and trampoline facility. Next season, he'll ski in Sunset Park by Henrik Harlaut, the terrain park Grandvalira named after him. The country has become Harlaut's personal mountain incubator—no distractions, just skiing.
Over the last few years, that singular focus has paid off in trophies and accolades. Last season, after winning the Dew Tour slopestyle and a double gold in X Games Slopestyle and Big Air, he was even nominated for Best Male Action Sports Athlete at the ESPYS (halfpipe skier David Wise ended up winning the award).
But it's also come at a personal price.
"If you want to be the best of all time, you have to set aside a lot of things—friends, family," says Casabon. "I think it has isolated him."
Instead of traveling back to Sweden to visit friends and family, Harlaut offsets the craziness of his travel schedule by staying in Andorra. While his ski circle makes time to come to him every year, he spends many days alone. He doesn't party, but uses that time to push himself physically, maintaining a laser focus on eating well, training, and skiing.
It's a cycle that has elevated him into the elite of the sport, and just when it seems like there's nowhere else to go, Harlaut has continued to get better.
Still, while he dismisses any feelings of burnout, those around him wonder what the future looks like.
"I'm looking forward to the day—and I know it's going to come—when skiing is going to take less of a place in his life," says Casabon. "Hopefully when he's done with his goals, he can focus on some other aspects of life. He's a genius and he can do everything, it just depends where his focus is. Right now, it's skiing."
It's a day that will likely stay on the distant horizon thanks to the one prize that continues to elude him: an Olympic medal. Harlaut planned to give up competition after the Sochi Games, but failing to podium relit his competitive flame. With his eyes on PyeongChang, he won every event there was to win leading up to the Games, but again, missed gold at the Olympics. Now, Harlaut talks openly about 2022.
"To represent Sweden [has always been] a dream of mine," says Harlaut. "Skiing has always been individual, not country. Now that they want countries to win, I know there's a lot of people in Sweden that want me to do well."
Yet with that shot at Olympic gold still on the far horizon, Harlaut has started directing his talents into other realms, and the results are already bearing fruit. On his first trip to Alaska with Hall this past spring, he turned heads in heli camp, infusing his freestyle pedigree into steep Alaskan faces and scratchy snowpack.
"The kid just slayed it," says Hall, adding that instead of taking it easy on his first trip to harrowing terrain, Harlaut was throwing double corks off mid-run wind lips. "He went through the whole process like he'd been doing it for years."
Harlaut says he doesn't look too far into the future. Though he imagines spending the rest of his life in the mountains, he chooses to carve out his legacy one day at a time, without "skipping steps." He created his own clothing brand, which, as of now, is primarily lifestyle apparel, and started hosting ski camps in Andorra. He hopes he can add a few more next season to connect with skiers from outside of Andorra, but hasn't locked down any plans yet.
But if the Alaska trip is any sort of preview into Harlaut's next chapter, Hall knows it could be a long time before his friend ever slows down enough for the rest of the world to catch up.
"Henrik is on a mission right now," says Hall. "The lonely work that that man puts in all the time, I think he really enjoys it. He's just getting started."
This story originally appeared in the December 2018 (47.4) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.