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Nick Russell is a member of the tight-knit tribe of progressive freeriders that call the Lake Tahoe area home. He lives life on his own terms and has quietly been making a name for himself in snowboarding over the past few seasons. His style is his own as this unmistakeable heel-side slasher gracing the cover of the Patagonia catalog this winter will attest. If one is judged by the company they keep, I’d say Nick is doing alright as he spends his winters riding with the likes of Gray Thompson, Eric Messier, Jeremy Jones, and the ever elusive Wyatt Stasinos. He’s fought back from a life-threatening illness, believes in fact, that splitboarding is the answer, and has independently co-produced a film worth watching with Wonderberry called, “FREE”. I caught up with him recently between the storms cycles that have been relentlessly pounding the Sierra this year and here’s what he had to say. — Paul Bourdon
Vitals – Who are you? Age? Where are you from originally? Where do you currently call home? How many years have you been involved with snowboarding? Who do you ride for? Nick Russell, I am 28 years old. I grew up on the east coast in Connecticut and Vermont and now call Truckee, California home. I’ve been snowboarding for 20 years. I ride for Jones Snowboards and Handout Gloves and am also supported by Patagonia, Electric, Karakoram, ThirtyTwo, and Arcade Belts.
What draws you to freeriding versus freestyle or urban? Have you always been into freeriding or were you into other forms of riding in the past? I grew up riding icy halfpipes in southern Vermont. You are a product of your environment, and in that era, it seemed pipe riding was the only way to “make it” in snowboarding. I tried doing the contest circus into my late teens, but realized pretty early on that it wasn’t for me.
After high school, I moved to Utah where everything started to fall into place. I slowly began riding outside of the resort boundaries and discovered the joys of powder. After a classic epiphany moment atop Pioneer bowl at Brighton resort in 2007, I could now progress into learning how to properly ride the entire mountain.
While freeriding undoubtedly has its dangers, the risks can be mitigated and calculated. For example, you’re never forced to drop in. If I get up close to a line I’m planning to ride and the conditions don’t feel right, I can always back off. No one will give me shit for not riding something. The only pressures in freeriding are internal.
Splitboarding lets me choose my lines based on the natural flow of the mountain and conditions for that particular day. I love that the mountains are always changing, a day out touring is never the same. You’ll see the snow change with each elevation gain, movement of the clouds and rotation of the sun. It’s a never ending search to get to the best snow out there before it’s gone.
No one will give me shit for not riding something. The only pressures in freeriding are internal.
What do you think people don’t understand in regards to being a freerider or filming a freeriding part? That is to say, what goes into filming a freerider’s part that people might not realize? So many variables come into play when trying to shoot in the mountains. Doing it on foot increases those logistics tenfold. Patience is paramount and you can never force it. Being in the right place at the right time has a lot to do with it and that comes with experience and luck. Filming via splitboards is hard, no question. More often than not, you only get one chance. The entire crew has to be on the same page in terms of objectives, safety and physical endurance. There are so few cinematographers out there that can actually hang, simply because their packs are so heavy. Then add in the fact that they sometimes have to wait several hours in the freezing cold for you to climb up to your line. If it was easy, you’d probably see a lot more freeride-specific films each fall. I think that’s why I haven’t really put anything out that I’m totally satisfied with. You learn more and more each season and advance from one’s mistakes. Maybe when I’m 40 I’ll have a part that I’m truly stoked on…
Talk a bit about your approach to riding in the backcountry. I’d love to hear your thoughts on heuristics, group dynamics, planning, etc. It’s a methodical process that requires the right crew and a lot of dedication. If I’m going out for a tour, I usually like to be out there as early as possible. I prefer to have a smaller group, 2 to 5 people. This is due to safety, group communication and also leaving more lines untracked for us to ride. Depending on the day or where I am, I usually don’t like to go out with people I don’t know that well. Confidence is necessary, but ego’s and ignorance will take you out. It’s comforting to have a tight knit group of riding partners that you can trust to have your back.
Things don’t always go as planned in the backcountry. Sometimes the snow isn’t stable, or equipment can fail. How do you deal with setbacks when you’re out there? Never on schedule, always on time… Very rarely does everything go how you plan. I believe it’s all of those various hurdles that can knock you down which make the successful moments in the mountains special. I can’t tell you how often we get skunked by less than ideal conditions after walking for several miles to get there. The more you put yourself out there and try to make it happen, the odds usually catch up and you’re bound to score.
You battled a serious illness in 2015. What happened? How did that affect your relationship with snowboarding? Yes, at the start of the season in January 2015. I was diagnosed with a rare infection that caused a grapefruit sized abscess in my liver. The doctors never quite determined the cause of illness, but it placed me in the hospital in SLC for a month and nearly killed me. I was brought down to the lowest physical level you could imagine. My immune system and physical strength were non-existent. Snowboarding was the one thing I had that kept me positive and motivated throughout the nightmare ordeal. My first and only priority was to get strong and healthy enough to be able to get back into the mountains. I recovered much faster than predicted and a fire was lit that hasn’t seemed to burn off since.
Your new movie, ‘Free’ was an independent film project with almost no financial backing outside of the crew involved with putting it together. I’d love to hear about how you guys came up with the money to travel and produce this film in the face of those challenges. We figured out ways to cut costs along the way to help up make the film. I moved out of my room in SLC and put all the gear I’d need for the winter in the back of Wyatt’s truck. We went to Costco at the start of the first winter and stocked up on bulk food supplies and were pretty much able to live off that and freeze dried meals for three months. Wyatt and Cory’s Mom worked for one of the airlines so they could fly for free and I was able to travel cheaply on standby with a buddy pass. We would bring our tents and camp all over the place: resort parking lots, town laundromats, the dump, trailheads and out in the field.
In the summertime, things like washing windows, landscaping, painting, trimming and other odd jobs refueled the tanks for the each winter.
What motivated you guys to produce ‘Free’? An urge to ride powder. Remove thy shackles and you shall reign FREE!
Discuss some of the pros and cons involved with producing your own film project vs. filming with a larger production team and larger budget. Pros: Complete creative control. No deadlines or obligations. Cons: No designated cinematographer. No budget.
‘Foothills: The Unlinked Heritage of Snowboarding’ was one of my favorite edits to drop this year. I knew that story as it was something I had seen in a magazine many years ago, but that piece really brought the whole thing to life. I’m curious to hear more from you about that trip. What did you learn from that trip? What was it like to be around these other snowboarders that the world largely knows so little about? Our trip to Turkey really simplified everything for me. While our generation is so obsessed with the latest and greatest technology, here is a culture that is riding in wool pants on the same boards that their great grandparents rode. There are different strokes for different folks and when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how you get down the mountain or what gear you use. If there is a hill, snow and something to slide on, we can all have a lot of fun. All that matters is you are outside and making the most out of any particular situation.
You had a few shots in the new Warp Wave movie and it seems as though several Tahoe riders leading the charge when it comes to using natural terrain as a playground. What is it about Tahoe that makes the freeriding there so unique? I’ve been lucky enough to see Tahoe in its prime as of lately, and I understand that these days are something special. Winters are short and mid-winter days are even shorter. You need to be ready to strike when the time arises and power through those early mornings until either the snow warms up or a new storm rolls in. When it’s on, it’s on.
Is splitboarding really the answer? Do you still ride a solid or a chairlift? For me, yes. That being said, the backcountry is a sacred place that deserves respect and awareness. If you are thinking about stepping beyond the resort boundaries, please get educated first. Buy the proper gear, take as many avalanche courses as possible and make sure your friends are on the same page. Seek out peers with more experience than you. Start slowly.
I love to ride the solids that Jones makes. Chris Christenson has made some mind blowing shapes that are insane on the groomers. I’ll definitely ride the resort a few days here and there in the early or late season, but I don’t have a pass this year. I tend to stay away due to the crowds and tracked out snow. My body doesn’t appreciate mobbing through chop much these days. I’m looking for quality not quantity.
Wyatt Stasinos is a favorite rider/character of mine. He’s not really a household name, but I would describe him as a snowboarder’s snowboarder. He is an elusive dude and definitely is on his own trip. What’s that guy up to these days and what fuels him? What can we expect to see from him in the future? Me too. Legend is a term often overused, but that is exactly what he is. The way he lives life is a true inspiration. I think he is fueled by purity. He’ll spend the summer at home in Colorado, stacking money, gardening, hunting- just living. As for snowboarding, I think he’s been in the game for so long that priorities have come into light over the last few years. You need to do what the body and mind feel is right.
As we mentioned earlier, there’s not a ton of money in snowboarding these days. It’s not like it was in early to mid 2000s where travel budgets were extensive and people could make a living off of snowboarding exclusively. What are some of the sacrifices you’ve made to “live the dream”? I wouldn’t call them sacrifices, but it’s just my reality of trying to snowboard everyday. When I was younger, a lot of my friends were pro riders doing the contests at an early age, making a ton of money. I saw that and tried to go route for a little bit, but could never pull it together enough to reach that high caliber trickery.
I’m constantly learning to figure out ways to make a little money here and there and continue to get out as much as I can. You don’t need much to make it happen.
I wouldn’t call them sacrifices, but it’s just my reality of trying to snowboard everyday.
Talk about your relationship with Jeremy Jones. What’s it like to be able to work with him, and have him as a sort of mentor in the backcountry? It’s a trip. Every day I get out with Dr. Jones is pure stoke. From riding serious lines in Chile to pow surfing in the neighborhood, he is like a kid always wanting to ride no matter the conditions. I live down the street from him and the Jones Snowboards office is right down the road. Being able to give my input into his company is a huge honor and I am incredibly appreciative for where I am right now. Testing prototypes and dialing in specs for new boards is something Jones is really passionate about. I’m lucky enough to get invited on these trips and share my opinion.
Jeremy has taught me the importance of seeking mentors out in the mountains. He had guys like TB and Zellers to help him reach the level he is at now and I embrace every chance I get to hang with people like that. This type of snowboarding only comes with experience. I’m usually asking questions about things like line selection, snow safety, gear and film production.
What are some of the things you’re passionate about outside of snowboarding? I started to get more into climbing this past summer with Gray Thompson and Eric Messier. I’m not very good, but it gives a similar adrenaline rush as riding. I also love dogs.
What is in store for you in the future? What projects do you have in the works? I’ll be doing some filming with the Warp Wave broeys and some other friends here and there. Mostly I hope to climb and ride new lines throughout the Sierra late into the spring. I’m also working with the West Wind Collective a little bit, helping to advocate and share knowledge of backcountry safety. If you are interested in taking a course, check out @westwindcollective for course info and custom courses for you and your friends.
Shout outs? Everyone at the companies that support my riding, my family, friends, anyone that I’ve ever shared a day in the mountains with and the entire shred community for keeping the stoke alive 🙂