It's funny how it all comes together sometimes. Such is the case with DC pro rider Lonnie Kauk. Son of Ron Kauk, one of the most famous rock climbers in the history of the sport, his roots run as deep as his father who conquered these same mountain faces that Lonnie now serves up on his snowboard. See, Lonnie is from these mountains. Literally.
Indeed, there are few who can claim they live in their peoples' homeland, but Kauk, a Native American, is a direct descendent of the Last Great Chief Tenaya, the Ahwahneechee tribe leader when Yosemite Valley was discovered in 1850. It's this background that connects Kauk to the mountains of California, a rider whose riding instinct stems from an upbringing in the outdoors. As Kauk explains it, he was groomed from day one in "the style from way back."
And now he has landed a pro contract with DC and a buzz in the industry as a man with immortal endurance, the tenacity of a badger, an other-worldly ability to land on his board and, rumor has it, the closing part in Standard Films' upcoming release, "Black Winter." As for his rock climbinghe is certifiably insane.
In this interview Kauk looks at his snowboarding from the early days to this past winter and realizes that some things, as odd as they might seem, might just be destined to be.
From the beginning please. Share a little history with us.
I grew up in Yosemite Valley riding Badger Pass and ski raced until I was probably 15 and then I randomly started snowboarding because my dad gave us this snowboarding video. As soon as I watched the video I thought it was just the coolest thing. I was very intrigued and just needed to try it. The first few times I went snowboarding I had this funny feelingI don't know how to explain it but it was this feeling. I liked the way it felt; I liked the way it looked. I just liked standing on a snowboard.
I started riding over on the west side, places like Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley until I was in high school and it was about then that I started coming to Mammoth. Back then they always had the best jumps and it was just perfect everyday. So I thought, "Why don't I just move there?" So I did. I moved to June Lake first and worked at the mountain my first year as a custodian. I just had a deep passion to ride everyday and with that job I was able to, so that felt really good.
So I got in with DC and they gave me two years to start. Two years to do what I do. Two years to bring something to life. And man, I was pretty shy at first.
That's the classic job!
I know. I have met so many people over the years that have done that as a stepping stone, guys like Eddie Wall. We have our secret janitor handshake. [Ed. ESPN Snow Editor Tracy Anderson served three years on Mammoth's night crew.] So I just kept riding Mammoth all those years. I remember seeing Kevin Jones and Tara Dakides ride the park a lot and that was really inspiring to me. It was around that time that they randomly built these big jumps on this run Gunsmoke. These things were perfect and there was just one after another. I was like "What!" That right there was one of the big sparks in my snowboarding. I just took my time and worked up to them but those were the jumps that started it all.
Back then I obviously didn't have any sponsors and wasn't filming anything so when it would snow I would just hike all of the peaks in the backcountry around Mammoth and June. And when it wasn't powder I would just go ride the parkand jump and jump and jump. There was no one out there back then either. That happened for a few years.
But as far as getting my break or whatever you want to call it, all of it happened very slow. I had crossed paths with Mike Hatchett from Standard Films and my name was slowly getting thrown around to him by some other Mammoth locals like John Jackson. Then the connection started to build when he learned who I was, because Mike had actually filmed my dad in his old climbing movies. So it was like, "Oh, that's Ron Kauk's son...".
Then there were the Superparks, right? All people were talking about was this one kid who hit the jumps all day, and didn't crash once. I know you got the standout rider award at least once and turned some heads for a few years.
Yes. Those were huge for me. Then a couple of years ago Hatchett called me and told me that he was going to have a filmer down there to work exclusively with me. I thought that was so cool. So I went out and just did my thing. I wasn't trying to prove myself or anything like that. They ended up be psyched and not long after called again and asked if I would like to go hit this jump with a heli filming it! I was like, "No way..." I couldn't believe it. But I went and did it. I didn't have any sponsors or anything so I bought my own plane ticket out and did it. Then they used some of that footage. That's when I was like, "Yes! Now I have some ammo!" Now I could actually approach somebody or a company and show them something to see if they wanted to help me along.
After that it was Hatchett who really put the word out and helped me with getting on DC. So big thanks to him for all of the work he has put into me.
What is this now, your third season with them?
Yeah, going on my fourth.
So get into it. Tell me how was this winter different than years past, at least filming wise?
Man it's been interesting. So I got in with DC and they gave me two years to start. Two years to do what I do. Two years to bring something to life. And man, I was pretty shy at first. The thought knowing that other people are going to be watching and expecting things is a different feeling for sure and I'm not sure I was feeling super good about that. It's like now that I signed a contract, I had to go out there in front of a bunch of people and just do it!
Did you feel a little intimidated?
A little, yeah. Because before it was, you know, whatever! I just like to snowboard! I will try and do anything I can to be snowboarding... I don't care. I know what it is to me and that's all that matters. Because there were a lot of years where I was searching it out, trying to break through right. But then when I stopped caring, that's when it all came together. Then it came so fast I was kind of in shock. Like, I've never been on a plane anywhere and now they are sending me to Europe! It was a big expansion for me and really hard for me to understand the moment, at least the way I wanted to. That was the first year, and I had a little stage fright maybe, but now... Now, it's just awesome. This past season was amazing. I learned a bit how it works and things were a little more open. I kind of have an idea of what I want to do and who I want to work with and how the dynamics of how it all works. A little experience has made me a lot more comfortable with this whole thing.
Where did you end up doing most of your filming this past season?
Terrace! I had this trip lined up from the beginning and I was psyched because I went last year but everyone knows you have to pay your dues when you step to something like that for the first time. Everything from working with the other riders, to jumping in and out of the heli, to getting into the rhythm with the filmers; there are all of these other things that play into it before the snowboarding even goes down.
I ended up with Mark Landvik and Johan Olofsson, which was just like...I mean...I couldn't believe I was going to be there with those two guys. That was one of the coolest things ever to happen to me. I mean, Johan!
So after working out the kinks in last year's trip I was really hoping I would get to go back and realize my potential there. It worked out perfect because I ended up with Mark Landvik and Johan Olofsson, which was just like...I mean...I couldn't believe I was going to be there with those two guys. That was one of the coolest things ever to happen to me. I mean, Johan! That's the guy who I looked up to when I was a kid in those movies my dad gave me! I was always pumped on the big mountain stuff that he did, and that's probably what got me hiking around Mammoth so much. It was people like him and seeing what they opened up to snowboarders.
So there I was with him and Mark. It was very relaxed, very funny, nothing too serious... just perfect. Then all of a sudden it happened to be blue for nine days straight! We would wake up and be like "Damnit! Blue Again! Ha!" We were trippin' on that, but what it amounted to was getting a lot of shots. But Mark is the perfect guy to be out with because he is always on the level, not too serious where you're, like, sketched and scared. As soon as it would get a bit critical Mark would just say something that would have me dyin' on the ground laughin' my ass off. So I would end up dropping in on something with a smile on my face. It's awesome how the dynamics of a crew can work out sometimes. When people are just themselves and there is no competitive stuff going on or any tension, that's what makes a trip. And that was the best part of my winter right therehow that trip played out between the three of us.
I heard that trip is pretty much your part in "Black Winter." I also heard that you have the closing part.
[Laughs.] Well... I don't know, maybe. I am just honored to be in the movie at all man. We'll see. I'm psyched that these two years with DC I have shown a little something of what I can do. I am just really grateful to be a part of it. To be seen, to be a voice of snowboarding, all of it...I love it.
I think that is pretty cool. Johan was the guy that used to get that closing part, now it's your turn. Is that weird for you?
It is all weird! I remember being in school and when the first pair of DC shoes came out, or at least when they started getting real popularthey had the ones with the big DC on the heel, remember? I wanted those so bad. I used to wear the Droors pants too. I loved that stuff. And then watching Johan... Man it kind of messes with me, but it's just funny how things pan out in life. What a coincidence things are sometimes...or maybe not...maybe this is the way it should be.