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AK Initiation

Heli time with the legendary Absinthe film crew

By Erin Hogue

My phone lit up with the familiar buzz of text coming through, it read: 

"Book your flight now before you leave your house.”

The sender—Justin Hostynek, renowned Absinthe Films’ director. It’s 7 a.m. and I’m busy getting ready to roll out for a day of sledding in Whistler. A moment of hesitation quickly creeps in; I want to be all-in but am torn because the only trip I had planned this season was also scheduled for the same week. Quickly I shake off that hesitation. I can’t say no to Absinthe, in Alaska no less—that’s would be crazy! But what about my other plans?

My mind begins to run: How do I make this work? I check the weather—it won’t let me down and will dictate my decision. It’s Friday in late March and Haines is calling for sun Monday and Tuesday before clouding over. I check Golden, BC, the destination of my conflicting plans, clouds until Wednesday afternoon. Perfect… maybe I just can make this work.

Sledding later on in the afternoon, Austen Sweetin says to me, insanely stoked: “You’re going to AK!”

I hesitate and reply, “I hope so.” He looks back and, with a look of disbelief, says, “Erin, you can’t pass up an opportunity to heli with Nicolas Muller in Haines, Alaska!”

I look down, “I know” I mutter, as I reluctantly wait on an okay for the last-minute change of plans from my other crew.

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Book your flight

That evening I am at home and I still don’t have a response for Justin but begin packing. My phone rings and I see his name on the caller ID. I think to myself, Shit! I still don’t have an answer, but go ahead and pick up.

“So, are you coming?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“What’s the problem?” he inquires.

“I haven’t heard if it’s cool to alter my other plans yet,” I reply.

“What?” he asks. “Let me see what I can do. In the meantime, book your flight, either way, you can cancel within 24 hours.”

“I’m on it,” and hang up.

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Manuel Diaz, Frontside 360, AlaskaPhoto: Erin Hogue

Two days and 22 Hours later

Next thing I know, the stars align, my other crew understood, and I find myself in Haines, Alaska, walking into the AK Heli Lodge (a.k.a. the funny farm) with Nicolas Muller, Manuel Diaz, Kimmy Fasani and Justin Hostynek by my side. It’s pretty surreal.

A celebration is in full swing for the owner’s birthday, and we are immediately bombarded by warm hugs and welcoming faces. I am taken aback for a second—I just met most of the guys a couple hours earlier—but that didn’t seem to matter. It felt like one of those too-good-to-be-true family reunions where everyone is stoked to be there, laughter is a plenty, and old stories from the past come to light, and questions flow freely from the party goers:

“How is Romain? What is he up to now?”

“How is Travis’s new project going?’

“What ever happened to Matt Beardmore?”

After dinner, I find Justin in the corner, half cut. “So the most important thing is knowing what the most important thing is every day” he imparts.

“How do I do that?” I ask.

He replies with a short-and-sweet response, “Experience.”

I think to myself, Well, I definitely don’t have that and quietly ask, “So, what’s the most important thing for tomorrow?”

“The pilot,” Justin replies without any hesitation.

Moments later, with a piece of cake in one hand and a beer in the other, our lead guide tracks me down and says, “Grab your transceiver, and let’s get this orientation over with.”

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Nicolas Muller, Method, Haines, AlaskaPhoto: Erin Hogue

Today is going to be dicey

We’re all piled into the car, ripping down the highway, ignoring speed limits along the way as we race to the heli pad in the morning. I hear Justin say to the driver, “There is no speed limit past the airport.”

We’re the first crew to arrive and even though it’s Day 1 for me, it seems far too quiet. I’m immediately greeted with a lingering nervous undertone resembling that of the eerie calm before the storm as the head guide busily gathers the guys. From the expressions on their faces, I can tell… today is going to be dicey. Moments later I find Justin, and remembering our conversation last night, I ask, “So, the pilot?” Justin looks away and says nothing—this is not a good sign.

Nicolas drops into his first line and I start firing. A fracture line creeps through the snow behind him and I keep clicking as it breaks loose and begins to race him down his line. He disappears behind a cloud of snow and I find myself holding my breath instinctively continuing to press down on the shutter. Where is he? I wonder behind my lense when he reappears traversing across the face to safety. I exhale. I look over at Justin, and he radios to Nico. All’s good.

Next up, Manuel makes his way to the top of his line and I quietly ask Justin: “So what do we do if something happens?”

“You saw where we were dropped off, right?” Justin asks, referring to the massive 200 foot cliffs surrounding our 10X10 foot shooting platform. “Yes,” I reply.

“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so… we wait,” he says a matter of fact.

Awesome, I think sarcastically to myself, absolutely hating the fact that I'll be useless. "Dropping in 10," Manuel calls over the radio. As he drops the snow rips with him, almost determined to take him down. I’ve never seen anyone ride so fast in my life. Manuel outruns the slide and disappears from view. “All good,” he calls over the radio from the bottom.

“Hello?” Justin mimics Adele into the radio to lighten the mood. “It’s me,” Kimmy responds in proper form.

“The heli can come up and grab you if you’re not feelin’ it,” Justin says.

“OK,” she responds.

The heli flies past us, returning Manuel and Nico back to the top. As it takes off again I stare up in disbelief, “She’s still up there,” I say to Justin. He doesn’t respond.

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Brandon Cocard, Butter, backside 540, AlaskaPhoto: Erin Hogue

Nico drops into his second line, cutting across the top towards a hit on his left, his track breaking behind him as he launches into the air. He pulls off a Backside 7 but washes out at the end. “FUCCCCCCKKKKK!” echoes through the bowl.

Manuel is next, and he goes for a similar hit. After he gets to the bottom, there are a few minutes of silence and then Kimmy’s voice pipes in on the radio. “I am going to drop in here,” she explains, and confidently goes into detail about the line she’s chosen.

“Copy,” Justin replies.

I’m in shock as Kimmy drops in on a perfect spine. She gets a few turns in before it breaks on either side of her. She stops and lets the snow slide down the face. Disappointed she makes her way to the bottom. Minutes later she is at the top with her arms over her head making the okay dropping signal. One turn, two turns, three turns and just as she is about to initiate her fourth when the whole things rips around her. She starts sliding but manages to dig her hands into the snow to keep from being swept away.

“Hold on, Kimmy. Hold on!” I whisper under my breath, as the snow desperately tries to take her down. My heart stops but my finger remains engaged and my shutter continues to fire. As the dust settles, our guide calls in on the radio, "Good work, Kimmy. Way to hold on."

I can feel everyone in the crew take a collective exhale and think to myself, So… this is Alaska with Absinthe—what did I really expect?

On my last night, I overhear a conversation between Justin and Mark Sollors. “Do you get it now?” says Justin. 

“Do you understand why this is what we live for, what we wait for all year and put everything we have into?” 

and I finally understand.

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Justin Hostynek, AlaskaPhoto: Russell Dalby

Subtitle: Absinthe—the last crew standing

Absinthe is the longest-running film production company in snowboarding and it sure as shit didn’t get here by holding back. This year will be Absinthe’s 16th movie release, AfterForever, which in today’s shrinking industry, is not an easy task. Only a few years ago there were a seemingly infinite number of film crews, the three main heavy hitters being: Absinthe, Standard and Mack Dog. But as of today, it seems as though people have spent the last few years standing backward. Glorifying the past, trying to figure out how to get back there. Instead of busting a way into the future.

Looking back at when snowboarding really began to take off, big corporations were vying for a piece, the creativity we held so close was quickly being masked by dollar bills, and whoever could go the biggest and rotate the most was considered the best. What snowboarding was built on was overshadowed by the endless rotation, and somewhere in the mix, people started to lose interest. Eventually, money grabbers’ profit margins diminished and they took their cash to more lucrative endeavours. The funding disappeared and with it so did the film crews, leaving Absinthe as—the last crew standing.

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Austen Sweetin, Miller flip, Baldface, B.C.Photo: Russell Dalby

It seem like it was just yesterday, where we all remember the anticipation we felt when fall weather took over and premiere season was about to kick off. Waiting to find out what our idles had been up to that winter, and social media had yet taken off—there were no leaks, no previews, no sneaks peeks you could get your hands on in advance. You had absolutely no idea who went where and with who. In order to find out, you had to get off your ass, head to the nearest premiere, buy a beer, see some friends and actually watch the damn thing. Back then, everyone would be in the same room cheering, awing, and losing their minds all at the same time. Those were the days…

But it’s no secret—snowboarding is in the midst of change and it’s up to those who still make it happen, like Absinthe, to decide how they want to take it into the future.

What worked in the past isn’t what works now. The world has changed, as it always will, which is a good thing. It keeps life from getting stale, it keeps things fresh, exciting, and inspiring, and Absinthe has been nimble enough to get to where it is today and releasing to the masses its 16th highly anticipated film.

What Justin and his crew repeat on the regular is this: “Follow your heart, “a common phrase out of Justin’s mouth while filming. Through them he, and the rest of the Absinthe crew, they create a unique space for riders to progress in their own way, ultimately capturing this progress and creating visual displays of awesomeness, like AfterForever, for all of us to enjoy on the big screen, and ultimately fueling our stoke for the season, which is exactly what snowboard movies are designed to do.

Whatever method, design or blueprint the Absinthe crew follows—it works. So do yourself a favour, get your ass in a seat, crack and beer and bear witness to an AfterForever premiere this fall.

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