"It’s good to be back in Alaska." Those first words of this film, spoken by Terje Haakonsen, resound throughout First Descent. Sure enough it did look pretty damn good to be in Alaska, especially as the day I saw this film it was over 60¬?F in New York City in late November.
First Descent, somewhat imperiously, declares itself the "story of the snowboarding revolution". In the 110 minutes of this film, narrated by punk rock legend Henry Rollins, they endeavor to do quite a bit more than just that. There are really three storylines for this film. The first and most obvious being the Alaskan backcountry trip undertaken by Nick Perata, Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Hannah Teter, and Shaun White. The movie follows each of those riders home to discuss their personal snowboarding histories. Living up to its tagline, First Descent also tells us the history of snowboarding through interviews, photos and film clips.
The premise of the snowboarding trip is intriguing. You take two of snowboarding’s backcountry pioneers, add in a more modern day legend with proven backcountry skills, and throw in two teenagers who are dominating freestyle competition. Then you put them in a helicopter and send them down some of the gnarliest terrain in the world. It’s somewhat surprising to me that their sponsors would even let the youngsters go on a trip that is so inherently dangerous. You see that their skills apply to more than just the halfpipe, as both Shaun and Hannah go from a tentative first run to charging hard and making the mountain their playground in a couple of weeks under the guidance of Farmer and Perata.
As for the other three, it is a study in contrasts. Perata, as the Alaskan backcountry guru, is watchful, confident and cautious – the mother hen of the group. Farmer, the oldest and one of snowboarding’s original bad boys, is constantly pushing himself. Farmer often abandons caution for aggressiveness, working himself into and out of some hairy lines. Terje is just, well Terje, Zen master of the mountain. He charges the mountain with his signature style and catlike grace.
|Terje Haakonsen – Backcountry Handplant|
The Alaskan trip is more than just a few heli runs, as the weather is king in the backcountry. A snowstorm causes delays and raises the threat of avalanches. This leads to a day spent sessioning an enormous backcountry kicker, and the special guest appearance of Travis Rice. I am most thankful for Rice’s appearance as one of his runs produces some of the most amazing footage I’ve ever seen. You probably saw it in the trailer, but the movie has a different angle that is even more mind blowing. The only first descent of First Descent is epic, but I’m not going to ruin the surprise for you.
First Descent also takes you on a personal journey with each of the riders. We go with Farmer to his parent’s home in Missouri, and with Shaun White as he earns his sponsorship fees at a Nascar race and photo shoots in LA. We head to Vermont to visit the Teter residence where all of Hannah’s brothers are there to embarrass their little sister. We follow Terje back to Norway for the Artic Challenge and some post competition surfing. The longest journey is to the Nissan Xtrail competition in the Tokyo Dome with Travis Rice. In an arena filled with 40,000 people and as Travis puts it "Who Wants to Be a Millionare? lights", one can’t help but be amazed by the level of Japanese fanaticism.
The story we were promised at the beginning of the movie is told in several sections. They cover the early years of snowboarding as the sport takes shape on the east coast led by Jake Burton and on the west coast by Tom Sims. Then the story moves on to the 80′s as snowboarding fought to be allowed at resorts. We hear first hand about their struggles through archival footage and commentary from Jake Burton, Tom Sims, and Chuck Barfoot. Although the clip I most enjoyed was of a skier talking about how some snowboarders cut them in line but they didn’t say anything because they were afraid they might have guns.
As snowboarding gets bigger, the story moves on to films like the Whisky movies and competitions like the US Open and the X Games. They talk about the Nagano Olympics scandal and the rise of the sport after the US’s success at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Todd Richards, Tina Basich, Bryan Iguchi, Jeff Brushie, Danny Kass, Jim Rippey and Tony Hawk are just some of the big names that are interviewed. It is altogether the most comprehensive retrospective of snowboarding to date.
One thing that stands out in First Descent is the filmography – it is simply stunning. The film was shot in high definition bringing a realness to the mountains that only makes them more imposing. The use of aerial photography and other unique angles gives First Descent a different perspective than any shred flick I’ve seen before. While some of the archival footage used is grainy and hard to see, it’s a side of snowboarding that probably most of us have never seen. Overall First Descent is eyecandy that will leave boarders and nonboarders alike amazed. The film does drag about 2/3rds of the way in, with the pattern of showing Alaska trip, personal story, then snowboard history getting rather monotonous. At nearly 2 hours the film could definitely use a bit of pruning.
As a documentary First Descent is probably in the same realm as Dog Town and the Z-Boys, but it never quite attains the sparkle of the skate documentary. However, for a glimpse into, not only snowboarding’s past, but it’s future First Descent pretty much stands alone.
Part of the reason that First Descent came to be is that Mountain Dew discovered that it would cost about the same to produce this movie as a 30 second Pepsi commercial. To that I say‚Ä¶just do the Dew..uh..I mean go see First Descent.