Ken Achenbach is widely known as the father of Canadian snowboarding. He opened the first snowboard shop ever, was instrumental in getting resorts to allow snowboarding, and has been at the helm of Camp of Champions since 1989. More importantly, he still loves it every bit as much as he did the first time he strapped in. This summer, we headed up to COC for the full Whistler experience and I spent Ken’s daily afternoon commute down Whistler, chatting with him about the past, present and future of snowboarding as well as a few of the lessons he’s learned along the way.
What was Camp of Champions like in the olden days?
We had a lot of fun. It’s funny, it’s changed a lot, but it hasn’t changed at the same time. All the best pros come and coach, kids from all over the world come and hang out and ride with em. Everyone makes a bunch of new friends and pretty much has the best week of their lives. The park has changed for sure, but the experience is pretty much the same.
Tell me about starting the first snowboard shop ever.
Well, I ski raced until I was like 15, but I figured out pretty quickly as one of four kids with a single mom, that I was never gonna make it to the national team because I wasn’t rich. So one October duing dry land training for ski racing, I walked up to my coach and just said, I quit. Winter is pretty long and boring in Canada if you don’t do anything. I grew up here and I don’t even remember learning to ski, I was so young. It was our day care. I skied every single day of the winter. To go from skiing everyday to doing nothing, it was like oh, God – which was is serious? I called up Tom Sims and bought a snowboard, went one run and was just like, this is the best thing ever. I called up and ordered 6 more because I figured everyone was going to want to do this. Nobody wanted to sell them. My original plan was to sell them to ski shops, but nobody wanted to them, so I just opened the Snoboard Shop. Maybe I should have pick a named that was a little more franchise able, but whatever.
How long did you run that for?
I never really ran it, I just sort of had it. I opened the Calgary store in 1980, and we closed the one in Whistler in 96. It was pretty funny. I gave the one away in Calgary and I found out later that the dude sold it for $2 million. I’m not the best businessman. Had one here and Doug Lundgren was the guy running it and he was trained to be a heli ski guide at Weigles and one fall Mike Weigle called him up, “Doug, you wanna be a heli ski guide?” Our lease was up in a month and we were going to move to another location. He was still on the phone with Mike and he looks at me and says, hey, you wanna run the store? I was like, nope, so he took the job and we closed a week later and that was that. We actually closed our store for powder – no lie. In before everybody and out before everybody.
Ken and his empire. Photo courtesy Camp of Champions/Low Pressure Podcast
Do you ever miss having a shop?
Oh God no. I think every day I wake up glad I don’t have a store. I never wanted to be that 50-year-old guy that’s behind the counter watching a video, selling kids snowboards. I sold snowboards, but for me the store was just a way to turn people on to snowboarding. And that’s what camp has kind of transitioned into – just a way to get people snowboarding and get em stoked. Now I don’t have to sell em anything and I just have to keep them excited about snowboarding and now skiing.
When did you add skiing at COC? Was it a tough decision?
No, JP Martin and I both came from ski racing and skiing families and half our friends skied and so we would always get our ski friends asking to ride the park. How do you say no to your friends? It’s like in Alberta when we had the store, we had more ski resorts to ride at than probably anywhere else in North America. How do you say no to someone you’ve known your whole life? Doug Lundgren’s parents used to own Mt Norquay, my mom and dad used to be ski patrollers. Back in the day everyone skied because that’s what you did, so even though we were snowboarding, they couldn’t suddenly not like us. We were kinda lucky that way, and I just didn’t take no for an answer ever when a ski resort wouldn’t let us up. We would hound ya nonstop, and it worked. I can relate to Jake. He did it in the states and we did it in Canada.
Do you think it was easier to get acceptance in Canada?
Yeah, it’s Canada. Just do what you want. Canada is pretty awesome that way. It’s why camp is so much fun as well. When you don’t have to worry about getting sued every three seconds for sneezing or whatever you can do a lot more stuff that’s a lot more fun. It obviously safe, but you don’t have to think about if we’re going to get sued. That’s why our camp is so progressive. We had the first 22′ super pipe, actually ours was 25′, and we’ve had pretty much every rail configuration you’ve seen started at camp. So much park progression and maybe it is because we’re in Canada and we have that freedom of thought so your first thought is “wow this sounds really fun” instead of “well we could get sued.” We always had a more open mind or we just didn’t care.
I know you were not a big proponent of adding snowboarding to the Olympics. What was your objection back then and how do you think it’s turned out?
Every generation of snowboarding takes its own approach and makes it into what they think it should be. I’m some 50-year-old dude now that grew up snowboarding, but snowboarding belongs to the 15 year olds. Who cares what I think. But personally, FIS ruined ski racing and moguls. They ruined skiing basically by turning it into the regimented thing where all the fun and freedom is taken out of it. You have to do it like this and you have to point your pinky. Why would we want snowboarding, which is way closer to skateboarding than skiing, to be like that? Don’t even get me started on the fact they’re a bunch of gangsters.
FIS is run by Gangsters?
Well they’re all gangsters. I remember the first day I started at CBC commentating snowboard contests. Being the mouthy person that I am I asked the producers “since when do you guys give a fuck about snowboarding?’ He goes, oh we got told we had to. This was 95/96, and they had been told by FIS that if they didn’t carry FIS Snowboarding they’d lose FIS ski racing. And whoever controls the media, controls snowboarding.
What do you think of the snowboard media in general?
It doesn’t matter. We used to make movies and go to crazy places too, but snowboarding in the magazines, so much of it is no relation to what real people do for fun, because everything’s ad driven now. In the old days we’d do a trip to Europe but we couldn’t say “Barfoot goes to Europe.” You look at the mags now and it’s all Vans does Europe and Burton goes blah blah. I wish we could have bought the cover back in the day.
Do you think the ad influence has stifled creativity in some ways though?
I don’t know. Snowboarding is always creative because it’s just the way of the sport. I think snowboarding is as creative as its ever been. Look at Capita, look at Lib tech and even Burton. The thing was the creativity back in the day was driven by necessity. When I made the twin tip it was a matter of not liking the boards we were on, and got our asses handed to us by Kidwell, so we thought, how can we make a better board? Me and Neil Defrain came up with the twin tip and now that’s the DNA for all snowboards pretty much. Same with baseless bindings. I wanted a more poppy board and the baseplates made a dead spot in the board. I was like if we got rid of the baseplates and mounted the bindings on the outside it would get rid of the deadspot. That kind of turned into the EST system. The creativity is there, it’s just a lot harder to come up with something new. But you can’t blame kids for not being as conscious of what makes a board epic when the board they’re on is epic. The general wickedness of snowboards these days is awesome, even a piece of shit is epic. We did it so they don’t have to. But luckily there’s the JG’s and the Alex Warburton’s of the world who think about how to make snowboards better so we don’t have to. That makes me stoked when people always push stuff forward. You can always make stuff better. That’s why I laugh when people diss Burton because pretty much everything started with them. Same thing with Lib Tech, it’s such an amazing brand. Mike Olsen, Barrett, Pete Saari are geniuses of snowboarding. The creativity is there, it’s just different than it used to be.
Taking care of business.
Do you think the pro dream is still the same?
Yeah. Everybody wants to go pro. Snowboarding is exactly the same as it was in the old days. I never got paid as a pro! (laughs) The dream is still there. You might not get paid but it’s still pretty awesome to travel around the world on someone else’s dime and make friends all over the world, go to different countries, see things and do things, have people come up to you and ask you for your autograph or say, your section is blah blah was so sick! That’s awesome. Money is just a bonus.
Helps ya buy things though.
That’s what jobs are for.
Who wants one of those, though?
True, I’ve been trying to avoid that shit my whole life. But on the other side of the coin, the fact that there is no money in snowboarding unless you’re one of the few people getting paid is it makes you think of your own stuff. It makes you start brands or create something so you own it and you can’t get ditched the first time you break your ankle or blow your knee. It makes me so stoked to see Blue Montgomery start Capita. That’s what you’re supposed to get out of snowboarding is to figure out your own life. Like you with Yobeat. When you started snowboarding did you ever think you’d start a website and you’d be driving down whistler in the middle of summer doing an interview?
But you did. And the neat thing is when it’s your own you never quit and you try harder and you go up and down with the cycles, but because you love snowboarding at the end of the day that’s all that really matters. And you do whatever you do to keep snowboarding. Maybe I’m still 15 in my head, but that’s all I ever wanted out of snowboarding was to go snowboarding.
That’s funny people always accuse me of having a 15-year-old mentality and I think that’s not a bad thing because I think snowboard media should either appeal to 15 year olds, or remind you of being 15 when you read it.
I’m with you. When you’re 15 everything is awesome and you make the friends that are gonna be your friends for life, and you have more fun than you’re every gonna have, because you have no responsibilities other than to have fun. And that’s what snowboarding should be. I’m totally with you. My wife left me cause I’m basically a 15-year-old kid. What can ya do?
Moments like this aren’t going to capture themselves.
Have you ever considered growing up?
No. No way, I’m never growing up.
What’s your take on Mt. Hood camps and then new ones popping up from Woodward?
The more the merrier. More people getting people stoked on snowboarding the better. I don’t know about their parks, but that’s just my personal opinion. The neat thing about snowboard camp, and I don’t just mean ours is snowboard camps are the churches of snowboarding. The kids that come to camp are the most rapid snowboarders from wherever they live. And they meet the other rapid snowboarders from all over the world and they make the next snowboarding. Mary Rand came to camp when she was 12 and now she’s rookie of the year and a guest pro. Andrew Hicks, he’s working for Billabong and he met his wife at camp when he was 15. The friends you make and the connections you make, you don’t get that anywhere else. I think the media should support camps a little more. If they wonder why snowboard sales are down – give support to the true hardcores, which are the kids that come to camp.
What do people get out of camp?
People come to camp to be pro snowboarders or whatever, but the one thing I really like about camp is you may come for that but when you’re here you realize, oh man, I’m never gonna make it as a pro. But you’ll be like I could be a filmer, or a photographer, or a writer or a marketing director or an editor for a magazine. It’s amazing. You look at the snowboard industry and everyone in it came through camp.
I have to ask, is this the lowest you’ve ever seen the snow?
This is the worst winter I’ve ever had. Me and Don Schwartz and a couple of friends own Powder Mountain cat ski and we cat skied 6 days. We usually go 90. It was New Zealand this year. No snow down low and tons of snow up high. Up until May 1 we had pretty much the same snow we had last year and then it got hot and didn’t stop.
Do you think it’ll turn around?
It has to man, it’s all I’ve got. (laughs) Snowboarding is all I’ve got and I’m not even that good at it! It’s gonna snow. Whistler had something like this in the late 70s where they had three years of no snow and the only reason it wasn’t as tramatic for the resorts is we had all that Olympic snow making. I called this season Colorado good. There wasn’t any powder but it was sunny every day and it was white and you could slide on it. Colorado perfect, it’s what everybody – other than people that live for powder – it’s what you want on your vacation. So it was an awesome year if you like that, but I like powder, so it could have been a little bit better.
Tell me a story about when you were a pro snowboarder.
Well, when I was a pro I kinda transititoned into being a photographer. Back then It’s kinda like you’re the best hockey team in Alaska. Being a Pro snowboarder didn’t mean much, it just meant you got your ass kicked by Terje every year. But snowboarding hasn’t changed much at all. You get a crew of friends the snowboard shop posse was ridiculously talented – we had Boyer, Warburton, Shorty, my brother Dave, Steve Matthews, Keith Duckboy Wallace and Evan Thein, Brushie and Nicole Anglerath. All these people would come and coach in the summer and they were the same people you’d hang out with in the winter. Snowboarding hasn’t changed at all and that’s why I laugh when people talk about it. It’s like my keys to reality story. Snowboarding hasn’t changed, you’ve changed. You’re 12 or 15 and all you do it dream about moving to a ski area and then as soon as you’re old enough to move to a ski area, you either move on your own or with your friends and you get a crappy job as a busboy a pizza delivery guy and you snowboard every day. And you have the best time and you live life simply. Your hungry and your clothes are dirty and your always broke, but you have a season pass and you have the absolute best time of your life. You do that and then one day you decide to buy a car and then you get a job to pay for the car and then girls talk to you because you’re not a loser snowboarder that has no money and all of a sudden you blink and you’re forty years old and have a house and a job and you’re not that kid anymore. I’ll fully admit, I’ve changed, but I still like to think of myself as a dirty little snowboarder. All I’ve ever wanted to do is snowboard and I’ve been lucky enough to make that happen.
You still didn’t tell me a story from the old days.
Ok, it was like 1991 and every pro snowboarder lived in this one house in Whistler. The tour bus would go by and point it out – the snowboard house! Brushie lived in the hallway to nowhere and put up a sheet to keep everyone out. Terje lived there. There was like 25 people. The house was so full I basically lived in my van all summer.
What’s your favorite part about Whistler?
Everything. I think what I like the best about it – there are a lot of resorts that blow the horn, or say we care about the customer experience – but Whistler to me is the only place that I’ve ever been where they don’t even see a box to think outside of. I can’t believe this is my front yard. You end up where you’re supposed to end up so it make sense, but it’s best resort in North America. I’ll call it the best resort in the world, but I’ll definitely say there’s better riding in Europe, but as far as the whole package, there’s nothing better than Whistler. I can’t get bored of this place because if I do I will have to move to France. I’d have to find a French girl to marry like Americans do when they want to move here!
Do you think you missed out on anything by being a snowboard bum for your whole life.
No, not a chance. It’s funny, you get older and you live in Whistler and when you travel and you tell people where you live they’re jealous. And it’s like, you could live there too. There’s not a gate to get in. You get the life you want, so pick a life you like. You don’t have to be an office monkey, you don’t have to have a shitty life. If you wanna live in the mountains, do it. Sell all your shit and move, it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. Yeah you’re gonna be broke and hungry and live with 15 people in a crappy two bedroom apartment and you’ll either like it or hate. If you like it, well there’s a way to find a way to make your dream come true and live there. If you don’t like it, university and real jobs are always going to be there. The stuff you learn being a free person, I think you learn a lot more about how the world works than I think you do going to university. But what do I know, I never went to University.