Being J.P. Walker
Age, adversity, and tragedy have made The Don's second act his pièce de résistance.
You haven't lived until you've dug your own grave.
Sound like the beginning of a Western? A line out of a Wu-Tang song? Perhaps ... But an oath to an exclusive snowboard club? Really?
Somewhere in Utah's Wasatch Mountains -- and I say 'somewhere' because, you know the old adage, 'If I told you, I'd have to kill you'? Considering the ever-present arsenal of Harleys and weaponry up there, I think I'm basically a goner if I spill any more beans than that.
J.P. Walker Retrospective
A photographic tour of J.P.'s past ten years. Gallery »
Somewhere in the woods outside of Salt Lake City is the ultimate snowboard training ground. For some, Shaun White's Project X is the epitome of Ultimate. For others, it might be DC's Mountain Lab, where rally cars routinely share air time with snowboarders.
For J.P. Walker, some steel and shovels dragged up into the backcountry is all the training facility he'll ever need. And with his 15th and most progressive video part out last fall, you'd best believe him.
Take the tenets of every snowboard spot you've ever heard of, add a level of exclusivity that rivals the most regulated of Legion posts, a DIY aesthetic unmatched since Burnside, a ranking system on par with the U.S. military's and other 'members' who happen to be a handful of the best snowboarders on the planet -- and you have The Spot.
What was originally conceived as a preseason haunt, The Spot has evolved into a cult-like obsession for Walker and crew. In five years, one rail has turned in to 15-, 20- and 30-foot straight rails, two picnic tables, a 30-foot double kink rail, a wallride up a tree, a couple log rides, multiple makeshift shelters, fire pits, various character challenges, a complex ranking system and merit badges. Yes, it's Boy Scouts on shred.
Spot Bosses include J.P. Walker, Jeremy Jones, Seth Huot, Pat Moore, Jon Kooley, Mitch Nelson and Brock Harris. Each Boss can have one Prospect; current Prospects are Will Tuddenham and Alex Andrews. Prospects need to prove themselves Boss-worthy by exhibiting a series of specific traits that encompass what The Spot stands for [SEE SIDEBAR].
The Spot Merit Badges
The Spot's list of merits is just shorthand for how Walker has approached his entire career.
|Pride: Wear The Spot logo.|
|Skill: Prospects start with a black diamond patch (black diamonds = expert). The patch turns to red when a Prospect gets broke off on a rail. Red's a freebie, because it's going to happen.|
|Dedication: Sherpa-ing in new features up the mountain, cutting down trees to make room for them: Patch gets an axe.|
|Hard Work: Shoveling, ground leveling, cleaning up rocks and shrubs: Shovel icon added.|
|Oversight: Kids find their way to The Spot all the time; stuff gets stolen and broken. Prospects give them the boot and earn a skull for the patch.|
|Fortitude: Shelters at The Spot -- dug into the dirt -- are called graves. You've spent the night in your grave; you can survive in the woods; you get a snowflake.|
|Bravery: Reach Lone Wolf status by spending the night alone at The Spot and the red patch turns to grey.|
This list could easily be compounded into a motivational speech for anyone in need of a life lesson, but for Walker, it's because of these principles that he finds himself in the place where he is today, as one of the most long-standing, influential pros in snowboarding history.
John Paul Walker was born in Salt Lake City on Oct. 16, 1976. For all you young'uns running out of fingers and toes to count on, that makes him 33. He's 5-foot-5, 150 pounds, and he is instantly recognized by his signature surfer-blond hair that's now cut short, and by his caricature-esque chin.
Walker started skiing at Alta with his mom, Pam; dad, Guy; and little sister, Whitney, when he was 3. But it wasn't until he started skateboarding and moved north to Farmington that snowboarding came into the picture.
"I met these other kids who skated," he says, "and when winter came, they all broke out their snowboards. I showed up with skis and thought, 'This sucks; I want to do that.'"
Skateboarding propelled Walker's progression from an early age. He spent entire falls skating and watching skate videos with friends Jeremy Jones and Mitch Nelson. So when filmmaker Mike McEntire (Mack Dawg) went from making late-'80s skate classics like H-Street's "Hokus Pokus" to creating early snowboard gems like "New Kids on the Twock" (1991) and "Upping the Ante" (1993), Walker found new inspiration.
"All of a sudden, these Midwest guys were on this jib stuff, riding cars, shopping carts and logs, and I was so intrigued. This was skate-influenced and not so neon Mohawk backflip hard boots. I was handrail training from the first year without even thinking about it."
Walker was "kind of a bad kid," he says. He went to an alternative high school where "You could smoke between class and all the chicks were pregnant. I was all into being a stoner."
His dad was an alcoholic, and his parents divorced around the same time Walker started snowboarding. After being separated for a couple years, they got back together, but "the whole alcohol thing made it so hard for everyone. We tried everything you can do," he says.
Walker's first year on a snowboard was 1994. He rode a 163 Morrow Free Pro, a board 14 centimeters longer than he normally rides today. The next year, he was pro.
"It was so young," he says. "If you got free stuff, you were pro. It's a lot harder now, but some companies still give out pro models like they're nothing, even if the guy hasn't really earned it."
In 1996, pro rider Mikey LeBlanc saw Walker and Nelson riding around Brighton, and he asked them to film with him for that year's Kingpin video, "Warriors." Walker got the closing part and the cover.
"I didn't realize what it meant to close a vid back then. I didn't even see my part until I went to the premiere."
He was riding for Rev Snowboards (the same company that Roberta Rodger, his girlfriend of 12 years, rode for -- they met at a photo shoot) and Special Blend outerwear at the time. Under the Four Star Distribution umbrella, the Special Blend guys embarked on a new snowboard brand in '96 and Walker was under consideration for the team. Peter Line, arguably the most progressive rider at the time, and shred video pioneer Mack Dawg were spearheading recruitment.
"Peter and Mack Dawg knew it. They've seen snowboarders for years, saw J.P. and knew they could have this dude build a team off of talent alone," says Jones.
The thing that stands out about J.P. is his style. He does everything his way and you can spot him a mile away on the hill. There are legions of J.P. clones worldwide, but he does not copy anyone.
-- Mack Dawg
Line recalls his first impressions of Walker: "I heard about him through Mikey LeBlanc, and then I saw a couple of his video parts. He had the capability to put together a part and seemed to have the same creative direction for his riding that I was into. He was doing switch tricks and switch backside spins that not a lot of kids were doing at the time. Dawger invited him out on a shoot with us, and we asked him that day if he wanted to ride for [Forum.]"
With his signature inflection -- always on the verge of speculation -- Walker describes the same day. They were going to Grizzly Gulch -- Walker's backyard, basically -- and wanted him to show them around. "I was tripping out. I couldn't sleep the night before. It was fully storybook to go audition with your idol. I knew what they looked like from videos but I'd never seen them. I remember the car pulling up and looking at them in my rearview. I planned my exit: Don't jump out. Be cool. Be patient. We hiked up and filmed two jumps. I got two tricks that made it into the video that year."
That night at dinner, they asked him to ride for Forum. He would join Line, Bjorn Leines and Chris Dufficy on the original roster. Two years later, Jones, Devun Walsh, Joni Malmi and Wille Yli-Luoma were added to the team, and the Forum 8 -- at the time the best team in the biz -- was born.
"It was one of the best times in my career and one of the coolest times in snowboarding," Walker says. "I had so much stoke for it. I always had this desire to bring it back to what I grew up watching, and when Jeremy got on, without knowing, we reset that off at a time when it was completely dead. To have that whole thing blow up with us and with Forum made it so huge. Me and Jeremy were holding down the rail aspect, Peter and Devun, stomping every single thing, there wasn't anywhere else where you had to look to find good snowboarding. It was all Forum, all right there."
In skateboarding, a spot is a good find. It's a special place, a place you don't want anyone else knowing about, where you go to meet friends and shred the living daylights out of.
In snowboarding, there have been hot lap-able terrain features in the backcountry and in-bounds at resorts since the sport's inception, but it wasn't until Walker and Jones started handling urban features with the love, affection and annihilation wrought upon features in skateboarding that spots became legitimized in snowboarding.
In 1998's "Decade," there was a shot on a Mueller Park handrail in Utah that ushered in a new era in snowboarding. "There were handrails in the old videos, but they were always buried. We got there and dug all the snow off the stairs to make it look big and legit -- dry concrete looks so much gnarlier. At the time, we were doing tricks on rails that were high-level. No one was doing that, and it kinda became the standard. Other stuff didn't really count after that," Walker says.
Urban riding snowballed. Around Salt Lake, spots that were once frequented by a stealthy few soon got blown out by legions of J.P. and Jeremy protégés, skiers and city kids looking to make a name for themselves. Property got damaged, kids got hurt, cops were called, spots were shut down. New spots had to be forged.
Some of them, like a big gap-to-rail at the front of Salt Lake's Olympus Park, took three years and misdemeanor-level crimes to "build."
"We were getting cocky because we had all this gear: cordless grinders, police scanners, night vision goggles, everything -- full warfare," Walker says. "We put on tactical vests and headsets with radios, masks so you can't see your face, goggles for all the sparks.
"Usually we'd go at midnight or 2 a.m. This was on a main street and we went at 10 [p.m.]. All of a sudden, a cop comes into the parking lot. We bury our stuff, then hide out for three hours and wait to escape. Cops at all the exits. Mack Dawg buried himself in the park. We eventually found a hole in the fence and made a run for it. Then we came back and [sawed off the knobs] in broad daylight. I had the cover of Future on that rail."
Walker is by no means a contest rider (he got the boot from both Crested Butte and the X Games in '98 for jumping off the lift to get to the top of the Slopestyle course), but if he's proven one thing in his prolific career, it's that he can hold his own. At any place. In any time. It just so happens that this is most evident on film.
"The thing that stands out about J.P. is his style. He does everything his way and you can spot him a mile away on the hill. There are legions of J.P. clones worldwide, but he does not copy anyone," says Mack Dawg.
Walker rode for Forum for 10 years -- longer than any rider on the team, save Peter Line. In that time, with amazingly talented riding, creative ad campaigns and heavy media saturation (propelled by cutting edge documentation by Mack Dawg and Rob Mathis), Forum quickly catapulted to the forefront of snowboarding's focus.
As fast as the brand was to rise, the honeymoon ended nearly as quickly. Beginning with Mack Dawg in 2001, everyone quit. Politics abounded. Money problems surfaced. Snowboarding took a backseat to partying. Burton bought Four Star in 2004, and none of the original players made any money off the deal. Feelings were hurt. After the departures of Jones, Walsh, Lauri Heiskari and Ikka Backstrom, and following another closing part, this time for the Forum "That" video, Walker quit the team in early 2007.
"It was a completely different company when it started. I didn't back a lot of what the new guys in charge thought for direction. None of the O.G. guys were on the team except Peter, and at the time he was completely removed. Especially coming from how it was before, so tight, so focused on one thing only, for me to continue to progress and grow, it wasn't going to happen there," says Walker.
He and Jones -- who by then had found a home on Burton's Global Team -- remained tight. "Watching him deal with that was rough because it was brutal," Jones says. "I watched J.P. be hurt by that. It was harsh politics ... one of the great legends of snowboarding being dealt with like he was some kid off the street."
Around the same time that his professional life was being shaken up, Walker's personal life underwent tragedy, too.
Packing for one of his first trips of the season, Walker's dad showed up, yellowed by jaundice. "He looked really bad for a while leading up to that, but it was hard to talk to him about it because he was a harsh alcoholic."
J.P. took him to the ER where he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on the spot. "It was just so gnarly to hear that," J.P. says. "I basically stopped snowboarding."
Walker's folks had been divorced for a long time at that point, with his dad's alcoholism at the center of the split. "Near the end, he had to stop because he couldn't get out to get it, so I guess you could say he sobered up for a minute."
Guy went through numerous surgeries and chemo treatments. Summer came, then winter. Walker filmed for "Double Decade," hopping in and out of sessions around Salt Lake between visits to see his dad in hospice. Guy passed away on Jan. 2, 2007.
At his house in Salt Lake, where a big portrait of Guy sits above the fireplace, Walker, visibly saddened, talked about how he was able to move on. "I wasn't going to sit and die. It was good for me to keep riding. I got out of Salt Lake so I wasn't around all that. I finished up the year and I was happy with how my part came out."
Many riders would have thrown in the cards at this point, moving on to work in other parts of the industry, or quitting snowboarding altogether. But a sponsorless Walker, freshly in his 30s and grieving, doubled down.
"I read on [StepChild Snowboards'] 'Child Support' video box something like, 'We grinded so hard, we lost our girlfriends making this movie, etc.' I'd so been there. It reminded me of the early days at Forum. It seemed fun," says Walker.
"Many companies try to look core but are far from it," says Sean Johnson, founder of StepChild Snowboards. "I've always respected what J.P. has done in snowboarding and how dedicated he has always been to the sport's progression as well as his own."
It was harsh politics ... one of the great legends of snowboarding being dealt with like he was some kid off the street.
-- Jeremy Jones
He signed on. He also got part ownership of the company.
With two 2007 black Toyota Tundras, a 2007 black Harley Nightster (motorcycles and wrenching on them are another passion among his crew), a new board sponsor, backing from etnies and 32, Oakley and Dakine, as well as some perk sponsors like a winch company, a fruit bar startup and a golf club company, it was on. Again.
Walker has more first tricks than any other snowboarder. The list progresses from 14 firsts on straight rails, including technical wizardry like switch frontside 450s to boardslides, to 21 other firsts on kinks, gaps, wallrides and -- this is where he differs from 99 percent of urban riders today -- airs in the backcountry. But his most jaw-dropping first yet came last fall, at the ripe young age of 32, when he debuted the first all-switch video part in the 32/StepChild collab "This Video Sucks."
"Not many people in snowboarding today could fill a four-minute section with all switch riding. We were all tripping. Everyone on StepChild stepped up their game," says Johnson.
Says Jones: "People don't treat videos the way that J.P. treats videos. Video kids now haven't fully grasped the idea of what a video part is; they're just out getting clips, which is kind of entry-level of thinking. J.P.'s at an advanced thought process when he goes into it."
Says Walker: "The biggest thing was that nobody had ever done it, and that's been a big motivation for me all along. It's getting harder to find tricks that have never been done or hit spots that haven't been hit, so I looked at it like, why not just do a whole concept part? I wanted to make the whole thing a statement rather than trick-by-trick statements."
Says Mack Dawg: "He is a lot more calculated now. He knows what he wants to accomplish each season, and for the most part, he has gotten it done. The dude is way pickier then anyone I know. He is really focused, and bit-by-bit, he takes the video parts down year after year. It's poetry in motion -- each part is amazing for the time in which it came out."
But where does he go from here? With Mack Dawg having thrown in the towel on filming last season and no StepChild video coming out this year, did Walker buy into the Olympic hype? Not a chance. He's been filming -- in Europe, Tahoe, British Columbia and Minnesota with People, his ultimate crew: StepChild teammates Joe Sexton and Simon Chamberlain, along with Seth Huot, Jones and Aaron Biittner. Early in the season, he didn't have any definitive plans for his part, but also wasn't dwelling on topping his last part.
"You can't ride at the gnarliest level every day," Walker says. "It takes more than the physical. You have to be amped, and you can't be that every single day. I've thought about being done snowboarding, about putting both my houses up for rent and packing up my huge truck and driving down to Mexico to camp with Roberta for a year."
But for now, he'll continue to spend his summers in Encinitas, Calif., surfing, skating, eating sushi and doing yoga. He'll spend his winters in Salt Lake, near family, The Spot and Brighton, and in Vancouver, where Roberta lives and runs Infamous Management, representing athletes like Walker, Huot, skateboarder Chris Haslam and big-wave surfer Keala Kennelly.
He'll continue to progress, mentor up-and-comers and define style and versatility. He'll keep lugging steel into the Wasatch backcountry until he finds another ambitious prospect who's up to the task. And he'll still show snowboarding, after all these years, that age is a number and that numbers only count when it comes to video parts and tricks that you invent.
Walker's just the latest installment of ESPN Action's "Being" series. Check out the rest.