Winter's a comin' and as I drive across the wilds of Northern Ontario this week, dodging snowflakes and counting trees, I'm thinking about some of the encounters I've had around similar landscapes in the ski world. The first one that came to mind was from a trip to Sweden's Arctic ski area of Riksgränsen a couple springs back. It may be back on the radar these days as the site of the annual JP Auclair Memorial, but Riksgränsen holds some deeper history for the ski world.
To begin, it wouldn't exist without the iron-mining town of Kiruna an hour to the east, and Narvik, Norway's harbour, equidistant west. When an iron-ore railroad opened between the two in 1903, a customs house was erected on the Sweden-Norway frontier, and Riksgränsen — "the border" — was born. While customs officials waited between trains there was little to do but ski, and they were soon renting rooms to other skiers, eventually erecting lifts. Too far off the beaten path for the continent's popular alpine race circuit, Riksgränsen nevertheless became northern Europe's most important ski area — a vibrant hot-dog destination in the 1970s, a snowboarding ground-zero in the 1980s, and host to some of the first ski and snowboard freeride comps in the 1990s — propelled by Jesper Ronnback's infamous leap over an iron train. With its terrain a de-facto alpine playground — a little bit Alaska, a little bit Alps, and whole lot of fun — riders famously made pilgrimage to it every spring to build hits on a host of natural features. When one of these — a quarterpipe — became a world-wide magazine sensation in the late 1990s, I first heard of Riksgränsen. Behind those covers was a story of people and place I'd long wanted to know. Which was how I came to meet Janne Aikio on my own pilgrimage to Riks.
Aikio grew up skiing on a small local hill in Kiruna, but once a road to Riksgränsen opened in the mid-'80s, he'd spent every minute he could there. A dedicated freestyler, he also made spring treks to session jumps with his snowboard friends. Eventually he cut the commute and moved there. "It seemed natural because the season was long and there was so much snow," Aikio told me when I sat down with him in April 2015. "But also because the mountain was a big terrain park with rolls, wind-lips, gullies and steep landings everywhere."
That afternoon, Aikio, now a freestyle coach, led me on a looping journey from the highest lift across rocky, wind-battered summits into Norway. Picking our way down a scary avalanche slope into the Bjornfjell area, we landed up at the spot where it once took two weeks to dig out the notorious quarterpipe by hand. Aikio stared at the hillside where hundreds of spectators once sat. "I can still hear the roar of the crowd," he said with a far-away smile.
In May 1996, a friend asked Aikio if he'd forerun the quarterpipe event for a snowboard comp called King of the Hill on skis and he agreed. Arriving late due to work, Aikio reached the quarterpipe after superstar snowboarder Ingemar Backman and other pros had already warmed up. Without knowing how high they were jumping or where best to drop-in, Aikio hedged by choosing a spot 50 metres above the snowboard start. It would be the hit seen around the world.
"People told me afterward that I put pressure on the snowboarders, but I didn't know it at the time because I was just there to do someone a favour and have fun," said Aikio. "Before I dropped in I remember thinking 'Am I calculating right?' I was nervous and the in-run was sketchy, so I had to jump a little cliff to gain speed into the track. The compression hit me like a wall but I stayed calm and focused in the air. I didn't grab because I just wanted to land. I heard cheering so I knew I'd done something good."
Not just good, unprecedented: boosting seven metres on his only hit, Aikio set the bar high. It took Backman six tries and a longer snowboard to max out at 8.5 metres, a world record. Many photographers had assembled, but German shooter Richard Walch captured the frame that became a clarion call to freeskiers. A world away, in the California offices of Powder magazine where I was Managing Editor, Walch's shot of Aikio at his high point landed on photo editor Dave Reddick's light table. It was our habit to vote on covers shots, and the staff unanimously picked it for the November 1996 issue where we were launching a series entitled "The Next Big Thing," unintentionally guaranteeing that people would forever associate Aikio's feat with that headline.
"I was moving south to Åre that fall," recalled Aikio. "I had a cellphone, and as I drove a friend called and said 'Hey — you're on the cover of Powder!' Of course I didn't believe him. When he insisted, I almost drove off the road. I mean that was the dream when you were a kid and out of nowhere it came true."
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.