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Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Chris Coulter gets SASSy

You could probably learn a few things about backcountry riding from a coach like this, huh?

Chris Coulter has been riding a snowboard longer than I've been alive. (I'm eighteen.) Like many OGs, he made the transition from being a contest jock in his early years to becoming a backcountry killer in the current era. Coulter has been a staple in multiple ">Absinthe Films movies, and can be seen this year in YES Snowboards' video, "YES. It's a Movie." This past August, I had the good fortune of having Coulter as my coach and guide at at SASS Global Travel (SGT) in Cerro Catedral, outside of Bariloche, Argentina. I took the opportunity to sit him down ask him some questions about riding in Argentina and Alaska, avalanches, and what he thinks about the future of snowboarding.

ESPN: How did you get hooked up with SGT?
Chris Coulter:
I originally came down with MFM for a fun trip and we had SASS as our chaperones for logistics because we didn't speak any Spanish. Through that I got to meet the guys there and see what their program was all about. I ended up extending my trip, hanging out, cruising around and tail-guiding some groups. I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in from the first moment. The next season I came down, I was kinda hanging with SASS, kinda doing my own thing. The third season I lost all my sponsorships and I needed work, so I hit them up and they gave me a job. The rest is history.

Was SASS at Cerro Catedral when you first started?
They started at Las Leņas, but they moved down to Cerro because there are less down days.

Why are there less down days at Cerro than Las Leņas? What's the difference in the terrain between the two locations?
In Las Leņas you can get steep long runs using the Marte chairlift -- if it's open. It's lazy man's big mountain riding. But the terrain in Leņas is all above tree line, so when the wind or a storm hits, it shuts the place down. At Cerro Catedral there is amazing tree riding and steeps in the alpine. There's also backcountry tours, an overnight hut, a cool town, and Bariloche nearby to party in. It's way more conducive to having fun on a daily basis. That being said, if you luck out and are in Leņas when a good storm hits and the resort actually opens the Marte chair, it's some of the best boarding in the world.

This is what a good day at Las Leņas looks like.

What is your favorite part of Argentine culture?
How open the locals are. They're very welcoming, modest and humble. They're so happy with enjoying life in the moment and they don't seem to be materialistic at all. The asado is insane. I've made some friends over the years. Last year I helped a friend of mine who broke his humerus bone in the backcountry. Skylar and I patched him up and helped him get out. It created this bond. He just gave me an Argentine soccer jersey. Their culture is amazing. It's very social. They just care for each other.

I think it's hard for the younger generation to appreciate the mountain in its pure form. Kids are after the final product of landing a trick vs. just being in a backcountry setting for the beauty and the experience.

Tell the people who Skylar is.
Skylar Holgate is one of the best snowboarders, and most experienced mountaineers, I've ever met. He's the lead guide at SGT, one of the head guides at Silverton, and a mentor to me. He snowboards more days out of the year then anyone I know. He's somebody you should meet, if you snowboard, because he's pretty much The Man.

Most people don't learn about avalanches and backcountry safety until something spurs them to do it. What spurred you to learn about those things?
I've been interested in avalanche safety since I was fifteen. What motivated me to be a pro snowboarder was because I wanted to ride in Alaska, and obviously to do that you need to know about snow safety.

Speaking of AK, rumor has it that you were riding on a broken board last time you were up there?
[Laughs] I had a beat up board and it was still working good for me, and I even though I had some new boards -- I won't mention what brands they were -- I still just preferred to ride my slightly-cracked prototype YES board. In the powder you don't need much besides a good shape. I love the YES boards and I think they ride amazing. I'm psyched to be on them.

You've been riding for YES snowboards for the past two years. How has that been?
You think he's thinking about how wonderful it is to be able to snowboard almost all year round?
It's ridiculous to ride such good boards that are made by my peers. It's one of the biggest compliments I've ever had in snowboarding to have my peers accept me into their circle.

You said next year you might try guiding with Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures?
I'm indecisive. The transition from going from being a snow bum whose job is to capture images on film to someone who is providing good times for people is an interesting one. My main objective is to stay on the snow and have fun. Also, I think the weight of being responsible for people in the Alaskan mountains is huge. It's something I want to do -- it's something I've been preparing to do, but it's a big responsibility.

What has been your scariest avalanche experience?
I started learning about snow safety at age 15. I got my beacon, probe shovel, started travelling with my friend in the backcountry, doing beacon searches. Filming with production companies, riding with pro riders, I thought we knew what was up. One day I almost got smoked by an avalanche behind Brighton, in terrain that we would ride all the time, build jumps under all of the time, and pretty much underestimated.

I was the sixth track dropping onto this slope. We had been riding smaller runs on that ridge the whole day. I made an acquaintance of mine go first because he didn't have a backpack. I popped out a soft slab, didn't do a Chugach look-back -- which is basically something I'm addicted to now to see if loose snow is following me -- and I just blundered right in front of this snow. It was a very small avalanche and it hit me like a car going thirty or forty mph.

It was a totally avoidable situation. I've had a greater respect for the mountains ever since, and have been reaching out for mentors and people to help me never experience that again.

It's a never-ending process, and the sooner you can start on the road the better. And the more humble you can keep yourself the better. You don't want to scare yourself. Most of the experts know so much that they don't ride the steep stuff. I don't want to be scared of riding what I want to ride, but I want to know as much as I can. I never ever want to get caught in another avalanche.

When you've been doing this your whole life, it's hard to imagine why anyone would ever want to do anything else.

Where do you think snowboarding is going? Do you think people are starting to be motivated to learn about the backcountry or are they just motivated to learn tricks?
The thing is, even the backcountry scenes the kids see in videos are very freestyle oriented. Wedges being stacked in the backcountry and dudes doing double corks is very different from the scenes I was seeing as a kid, who were dudes riding virgin slopes -- no jumps, no tracks, just riding the mountain in a more pure fashion.

I think it's hard for the younger generation to appreciate the mountain in its pure form. What they're seeing is driving them to the park to learn these tricks in hopes of one day achieving it in a backcountry environment, instead of being in a backcountry environment to enjoy being there. Kids are more after the final product of landing a trick versus just being in a backcountry setting for the beauty and the experience.

Who is doing a good job of promoting a more art-based style of snowboarding?
Any company making a movie that doesn't have a competition segment is adding to the art form style of snowboarding -- they're what keeps it our thing. These competitions sponsored by corporations that don't care about snowboarding but just want to make money off it are turning it into a "sport." But people who love snowboarding and want to capture it in its purest form -- like Justin Hostynek and Brusti [Patrick Armbruster] from Absinthe -- these guys love snowboarding and want to keep it pure.

Do you think there is a place for kids in snowboarding that are looking to ride more natural features without building jumps?
In a very limited area. Obviously you're going to have some freestyle capabilities, but you can't solely be in the backcountry and expect to achieve the freestyle level that's happening right now. You got guys like Jake Blauvelt, Nicolas Müller, Gigi Rüf, these guys are in that realm. It's a small window but it definitely exists.