David Benedek interviews snowboarding's anarchic trailblazer about spurning the pro career for the simpler shred life.
In an exclusive interview with HUCK last year, David Benedek explored the thought process that led him to segue from pro snowboarder to publisher in the space of two years. The result of that journey, Current State: Snowboarding, is a massive 450-page, double-volume book that cuts straight to snowboarding’s inner core. Here, he shares a personal highlight – a conversation with Scotty Wittlake that’s about as honest as it gets.
I grew up with snowboarding already firmly on the global map but a long way from being an established sport, so I feel fairly lucky to have experienced such a rapid development in such a short span of time. The reason I started working on this book was because, for a while now, I had been wondering where exactly snowboarding had arrived since then. Where are we, now that we’ve ascended up the ranks of established sports? And, maybe in more general terms, what is left of a subculture when it becomes mainstream?
So, propelled by my own curiosity rather than for the sake of the book’s title, I started to interview people about snowboarding’s current state; people who I thought played or are playing a significant role in establishing and defining what snowboarding culture is or has been. I wanted to know where they think we’re heading and what they feel snowboarding currently is, given that so many disparate worlds co-exist inside of it: a mainstream that’s incredibly powerful – especially at distorting people’s perceptions of what snowboarding can and cannot be; and a core that is certainly very healthy and vibrant, but often blurs the border with its commodified counterpart. What I wanted to create (or curate) was simply a subjective line-up of people that, to me, embody the qualities and attitudes I personally associate with snowboarding, and assemble them – and their opinions – in one publication.
Scotty Wittlake is one of these people.
Having quickly risen to fame in the early 2000s because of both his incredible video parts and eccentric mentality, Scotty surprised the snowboard world by formally retiring just a few years later, at the peak of his career. He lives in Portland, Oregon, still snowboards most winter days, and works on construction sites, Alaskan fishing boats and as a bike courier to pay his way.
David Benedek: Why did you quit being a professional snowboarder?
Scotty Wittlake: [Laughs] Oh, everyone that’s asked me this has probably gotten lots of different stories. I think there are so many different reasons why I chose to do that, and whatever happened to be a more important reason that day is what that person got as their story.
What would be today’s?
Well for me, personally, being a part of this industry – any industry – was already kind of a stretch from what I believed in.
What part of the industry didn’t you want to be a part of?
Well, marketing an image, basically. You’re promoting an idea to make people act a certain way, and that manipulative character I find very repelling. Also, I’d have to say that at some point I wasn’t progressing as much anymore, and I really started noticing how repetitive the seasonal cycle was. You know, I still loved snowboarding, and had a blast every time I went, but I wasn’t really getting that much better, and that made me feel kind of shitty about myself. I never wanted to be the guy that’s just doing the same thing every year and kind of plays it off like hot shit in each new video. I never wanted to be that guy, and I was thinking, ‘I can still go and snowboard as much, no matter what.’ The professional side has absolutely nothing to do with the feeling of riding your snowboard.
But do you really think you were too close to the centre of that manipulation? I’m just wondering, because it felt like you had a decent amount of control over whether the image you personally promoted was contrived or not. It’s not like you were particularly engaged with, or guilty of, replacing people’s dreams with a sponsor’s product.
Sure, people were saying, ‘Man, you were doing your own thing and saying, ‘Fuck it’ to a lot of stuff and really following your ideals.’ But really, coming from my background – and I had already departed from my really anarchist views, you know [laughs] – I was still compromising my ideals just to be mildly involved and become part of the machine. The fact of the matter is that I don’t believe in this crazy civilisation we all live in. At all. And even though that’s probably not going to change today, or even in our lifetimes, it doesn’t mean I’m going to give up and say, ‘Okay, I join in.’
I grew up in the DIY punk scene here [in Portland], and I just never wanted to become that older guy you see around who doesn’t care about his views anymore and says, ‘That shit’s never going to happen. Just fucking give up.’ I guess I needed to cut my ties with snowboarding and tiptoe back into levels I felt good about.
Did those prior uncomfortable levels have a lot to do with snowboarding becoming your job, too? Especially with the pressure that comes along with it?
I don’t think so. You know, I was really young, and I was just like, ‘This is awesome.’ I still thought it was kind of a fluke that I was making it at all, so I think I was pretty immersed in the moment, simply enjoying not having to have a job.
During the whole year I filmed for The Revival [a Kingpin Productions video from 1999], I was still working in the snowboard park at Squaw Valley at nights. It was more that once I wasn’t progressing that much on the filming side anymore, I wasn’t really putting all my heart and soul into it and living up to my end of the bargain. So I was like, ‘If there’s no other reason why I’m doing this other than money, I’m selling out. Am I scared to give up the pay-cheque? I fucking hope not! If that’s what I’m scared of, I hate what I’ve become!’
Weren’t you already donating part of your pay-cheque at that stage, anyway?
Well, I had been giving my board royalties to Outside In [an organisation that works with homeless and marginalised youth]. But I still made plenty to live, you know? Mervin [Manufacturing] gave me a flat monthly cheque anyway, which was way more than I needed to live off, and then on top of that they were going to pay me whatever the pro model incentive came out to be, which was like seventeen bucks [for every board sold] or something. I didn’t need all that money. What for? I found it really bizarre that people thought I was crazy to not be hoarding as much money as I could.
Did they find it crazy?
Oh, yeah [laughs]. ‘You’re being a fucking idiot – you’re ruining your life!’ was a quote someone said to my face. And I was like, ‘How am I ruining my life? Do you realise how much money we all make in snowboarding?’ And I find out now that I was making considerably less than a lot of people, and small potatoes compared to what people make now. I am not trying to say I’m right and they’re wrong, you know – who am I to judge that? Obviously, this is right for them. At least they think so… But really, it was just like some of these people and I were coming from two different sides of the universe, or something. People kept talking about how much money they were making, and how it’s not enough because they need to refinance their second beach home, or something. And I was like, ‘I don’t understand. When is enough going to be enough?’ I doubt anyone will ever get to a point in their life and say, ‘Perfect, I reached the amount of money I was looking for.’ What is it with people having to carry on this absurd and never-ending mission?
[Laughs] Because life… it’s like a fight, man, to get to the top. It’s rooted in our most primal instincts.
To get to the top of a mountain that doesn’t exist? There’s no top.
Oh, yeah. Of course there’s no top. But fighting towards this elusive destination is what gives our lives a sense of purpose. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a substantial qualitative difference between hoarding as much money as possible and attaining your specific goals, but I think both are rooted in the exact same drive to progress – just in different value systems.
Oh, yeah – I’m not saying it’s about the physical aspect of money in your bank account, but much more about this idea of success. What it means to be successful, and why that’s worth pursuing. A funny argument I always hear is the one of ‘providing for generations to come’, which is just hilarious. It’s like, ‘Oh, my kids will have money.’ Great. Who cares if they don’t have snow or trees, or if they all have to live with fucking gas masks on their faces. It just doesn’t make sense. And I don’t know what pro snowboarders did with all that money; they probably bought every PlayStation that ever came out, or a new Apple iPhone every month and a half. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with that, but I personally didn’t feel comfortable living like that.
And seriously, I wonder what the goal is. When I look at our ‘normal’ way of life, it no longer has anything to do with actually living. We all just perform some task in exchange for monetary compensation, which we then exchange for things we need to stay alive, literally. That’s really the best we’ve come up with? I’m not a psychologist, but I think at the bottom of all this irrational longing for material success is a subconscious fear of death that’s engrained in the human nature – of it all ending and us being forgotten. And the more stuff we have our names on, the more we live on after death. People don’t want to disappear thinking they didn’t matter, you know what I mean?
Whoever has the most things when he dies, wins.
[Laughs] Yeah. How about just trying to be a good person, you know? And just for yourself, for your own comfort, I think you need to cut yourself off at some point. At least check yourself a little bit; otherwise, you’ll be chasing these things for the rest of your life.
Since you stepped out of that marketable world of snowboarding, it has arguably developed further towards the mainstream. Do you still see the same thriving culture that attracted you to snowboarding beneath all this?
Yeah, I think so. The good side to a lot of these mainstream things is that they create a backlash – a whole scene that’s an antithesis to it. So, however far something develops in one direction, there will be a current pulling it towards another. Although, I currently do wonder a little who might represent this antithesis… Is it dudes that slide down handrails and dress like they take their silly outfits serious?
I don’t know. If that’s the antidote to jumping into foam pits, then I am not so sure. Generally, I just look at some of the stuff in magazines that’s supposed to be the counter-model to polished and over-produced content, and so much of it just seems fashion-oriented, which can be really gross sometimes.
Do you mean because it’s robbed of actual content?
Yes, but not only that. I mean, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fashion when people have fun with it and laugh about it. But when it gets taken even mildly serious, it really rubs me the wrong way, especially in how it’s so manipulative or creates social stigma. And seeing that much of it in snowboarding is a little weird.
Where do you see that counterculture thriving, then?
Well, maybe you just need to look closer for the real antithesis. Just looking at other parallels in our society, as far as political groups or so go, the people that represent a real backlash to something usually live on the fringes of what’s visible because what they do is not really a marketable, sellable idea, although some eventually might become that. Take the NoBoard movement*, for example. The guys that started that could be seen as one counter-model in snowboarding. Those dudes are badass, and they were just doing their own thing with no ulterior motives, you know? And even now, its potential to be exploited is pretty limited. Hiking in the trees is a pretty hard thing to market; it’s not like you’re selling bubblegum or something.
Or when I look at my best friend Paul [Laca], who lives in Alaska year-round – he’s a perfect example of that. He’s not part of any of those things, but he shreds up there all winter long and works as a fisherman in the summers to be able to afford that. So, maybe, that individual level is now the antithesis.
It’s kind of the same thing that you’ve reverted your snowboarding back to.
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m completely out of touch with any part of the snowboard scene. I go up on the mountain and there’s not really a scene here, you know. It’s stormy days most of the time, and everyone’s just bundled up with their faces covered, riding the trees.
So, did it work out after all? To go just as much and retain what you loved about riding your snowboard?
Oh, totally. I worked a crappy eight-to-five job in the city last winter, and I’d still snowboard three days a week on average, which is a lot for a weekend warrior.
You should see Bryan [Fox] and I when we go up: I don’t know anyone else in the world that has the powder panic that we have [laughs]. It’s ridiculous – we’ll literally be running across the parking lot, just in sheer panic mode, to get to the lift, even though there’s only one person waiting in line and it’s not even open yet. It’s totally irrational how excited we act towards powder days – just total chaos for the first few runs, chasing each other off cliffs and anything we can find. If you had audio of us on some of those runs in the morning, you’d think we were on nitrous or something [laughs].
This ability to have creative control over what you’re doing, and getting exercise at the same time… it’s just such great mental therapy, if nothing else. And it’s a side of snowboarding you don’t get with filming, you know? It’s really fun to film and land tricks that you have been working on – that’s an accomplishment and a great feeling. But it’s really different than just being out when there’s no ulterior motive. When Bryan and I are up there shredding on pow days, it’s like no one else even knows we’re there. No one would know any of that existed besides the two of us. You’re in a peaceful area, with no people around, and the snow sucks up all the noise. It’s that magical silence you’re in that’s just… it’s just not man-created, you know? It’s just snow falling in the wilderness.
*The so-called NoBoard movement is credited to a variety of individuals but is most prominently associated with Revelstoke, BC, snowboarders Greg Todds and Cholo Burns. They began riding binding-less boards in the late-nineties and have fuelled a resurgence of more surf-inspired freeriding and out-of-the-box board shaping.