The Way Forward

No hill, no problem, as high-powered winches enter the world of urban skiing

Tim McChesney en route to tossing an air raley (or was it a tantrum?) in Wasilla, Alaska. Photo: ERIK SEO/LEVEL !

We shouldn't be here. The security fence and cameras were one thing, the 30-odd, unmanned, New York State Police cruisers settled in the parking garage are another. But Parker White wants to hit this feature: a 25-foot across, two-stories down, step-down gap over a guardrail to a crude tranny below. In my head, I see this shot making the Level 1 trailer, set to some cool song and that, ultimately, is why we're here. Tom Wallisch and I pull back the bungee cord, stretching it as far as it can go in the cold night, and hand it to Parker.

Three, two, one…

We let go, and Parker speeds off, zipping toward Internet infamy or the hospital. At the last moment, he slides to a stop. We pull back the bungee, and yet again Parker stops short of taking off. This goes on a few more times until it's apparent he doesn't have enough speed to make the gap. Not even close. No jaw dropping, middle-finger-to-the-cops shots tonight. We pack up, feeling defeated and wondering, "If only he had more speed."

From homemade ramp drop-ins to the bungee, achieving the right speed to properly hit an urban feature has been a challenge since urban became an adjective for a type of skiing. With the introduction of gas-powered winches, like the 13-horsepower Honda model, complete with a throttle and go-kart hydraulic brake, features once thought to be unfeasible are now in play. Holding onto a wakeboard handle, a skier is towed into a feature via winch, letting go at the opportune time while the driver hits the break, ensuring the handle doesn't whip back at the driver's head.

Introduced circa 2008-09 and ranging in price, the tool is redefining street skiing. Level 1 Productions paid around $3,500 for a custom-built Heine Snow Tools winch, while Alaskan jibber Logan Imlach built his own—affectionately known as "Bridget"—for $300 worth of scrap parts from a local go-kart track.

"It's given us a lot more opportunity to get away from, 'dude jumping around on rail' shots," says Level 1 Co-Director Kyle Decker, who filmed and used the winch during the making of Level 1's 2012 release Sunny. "I'd say 75 percent of the things we shot in the streets [for Sunny] involved a winch."

By comparison, it takes at least three people to pull back a bungee for what might produce a maximum speed between 30 to 35 mph depending on the elasticity of the bungee. The constant pulling and tugging of the cord also tends to wear people out, resulting in fewer attempts on a feature. A high-powered winch, on the other hand, can usually tow a skier up to 50 mph. Furthermore, it only takes one skier and one driver of the winch for a successful operation.

"Having a winch in the back of the truck is a game changer on a trip," says Clayton Vila, featured this fall in Poor Boyz Productions' We, Teton Gravity Research's The Dream Factory, and Stept Productions' The Eighty Six. "Your eyes are way more open to the things you can find. It was just Cam [Riley] and I in Alaska with TGR, and the winch made it easier and way more productive for us than if we had a bungee."

As for the future use of the tool, the limits haven't been fully defined. Due to the weight and size of the machine, it's difficult to travel with on a plane and the loud humming of the engine is a magnet for law enforcement. Snowboarder Dan Brisse is using a winch to stomp parking garage to parking garage road gaps. Meanwhile, skiers like Wallisch and Ahmet Dadali are getting towed into bigger takeoffs that allow more air tricks to be thrown in a place where rails and wallrides once dominated the screen. Regardless of where they go, speed is no longer an issue.