Canada’s veteran pro snowboarder Victoria Jealouse is on an urgent mission to save the world. But do not expect her to be on time.
She’s over an hour late for our meeting and, to be honest, it’s not looking good.
I should have known something was wrong the day before when, above the hum of scribbling on paper, she muttered down the phone: “Three-thirty, Blenz coffee house. Got it. But… you may have to call to remind me.” I didn’t. Clearly I should’ve, because as I sit here, watching my phone and frantically clocking every face that walks through the door, it’s becoming more than obvious that Victoria Jealouse, big-mountain queen and female snowboarding hero, is about to stand me up.
I’m pretty bummed. After all, Victoria is that rare thing: a legend that actually deserves the title. For sixteen years, the Canadian maverick has led a one-woman crusade into the backcountry, conquering every big line from the wilds of Whistler to Alaska’s steep spines. She is arguably the single most consistent force in women’s snowboarding, without a doubt the only to truly progress its big-mountain strand. She’s not just a female icon, but a pioneer respected around the world and across the gender divide.
As I sip on cold latte, high on caffeine and low on frustration, the phone finally rings. It’s Victoria. A few apologetic words are thrown about and a new arrangement, a better meeting place, is set. “Tomorrow morning, it’s an amazing spot,” she says, before singing, “Don’t worry, I’ll be there.” I put the phone down, scrawl in my diary, drain my coffee and leave.
It’s 7am in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. The sun is still hiding behind the mountains, and I’m supposed to be meeting Jess, the photographer, in fifteen minutes. We’re going to drive out to Pemberton and make this rendezvous with Victoria happen.
As I hustle across town, Whistler Village is quiet and desolate, the calm before the storm as awkward ski-booted commuters have yet to arrive in their flocks. Even the sleeping gondolas seem to lie in wait, silent reminders of man’s insatiable need to colonise nature.
At this pristine hour, resort boundaries fade into the vast and open mountain range. My mind turns to Victoria, and I wonder at her ability to carve out a life in the backcountry. Only a handful of pros earn their keep beyond the contest scene – and even fewer females make that first descent. I can sense the appeal – the solitude, the rush, the lack of man-made paraphernalia. What I cannot grasp, nor barely comprehend, is how it feels to stand at the apex of the world. Haines, Alaska – land of vertigo – makes no sense in my head.
Just then Jess arrives. I snap from my daze and hop in her car. The drive over to Pemberton, Whistler’s sleepy neighbour, takes thirty minutes. We arrive on time, but Victoria is nowhere to be seen. Could she have forgotten… again?
“Hey guys, sorry I’m late, I started doing something, and before I knew it…” Victoria’s voice ambles over from her muddy Smart car. Her tiny frame is the first thing to strike me; the second is the darkness of her eyes. She’s bubbly and open and calm and sweet. And when she looks at you, it’s with curious intent. She’s as interested in me as I am in her: that wonderful nature that puts you instantly at ease.
We’re standing at a secret lookout in the shadow of Mount Currie. From here Victoria can take in the serenity of her home, Pemberton Valley, which lies nestled in a ring of snow-capped mountains. Her and Jess decide to tackle a pile of boulders, convinced the peak will make for a great shot. Victoria attacks each rock with effortless grace as I stumble around like an awkward fawn and hit her with the obvious question: how did she find success in the backcountry, where contest results count for shit? She takes me down what seems to have been a natural path – but never replicated since.
“I had a small window of opportunity to make it my job as I only had a small amount of money to compete,” she begins. “I got in as a wildcard as I was usually the only Canadian girl – like the Jamaican bobsled team. Because I was new to snowboarding, I’d get excited, go too hard and just crash. I started containing myself and pulling off results, I was in debt, and that’s when I got picked up by Burton.”
Once sponsored, Victoria gained a freedom that has since become something of a rarity, moving into filming and away from the podiums – a shift many female pros have difficulty negotiating to this day. Her gravitation towards big-mountain lines hinted at an addiction to virgin territory that would come to define her career. Riders like Bryan Iguchi were filming and not disappearing – but a female success story simply didn’t exist. Girls had to prove their worth, and the backcountry was a dubious place to start.
“I wasn’t sure if it would ever be truly recognised,” says Victoria. “But if big mountain had a place, just a small piece of the pie, I was going to be completely happy and fulfilled to make a living doing my favourite kind of snowboarding and filming in the most beautiful places.” Her videoed exploits with the likes of Teton Gravity Research and Standard Films have been blowing minds ever since – and show no signs of abating anytime soon.
The media’s fickle support has clearly never stood in her way – but it’s also never strayed far from her mind. “There was a time when, not only were girls almost completely ignored but big-mountain riding was totally uncool,” laughs Victoria, with self-deprecating charm. “So I was in two really bad categories. I squeezed through some tough years where riders were dropping like flies all around me. And it’s really sad because a lot of them would still have their spot today. Luckily, Burton kept me at a time when the industry wasn’t sure how many girls they should support.”
I ask if she ever felt pressure to pander to demand and hit the park – what with her sex being unalterable and all. “I liked competing,” she says. “But I sometimes felt that it didn’t tell much about you as a rider. With a film part you work so hard – it’s so hard to get one, especially with backcountry. Lots of big, long, early days, wet clothes, sweating then freezing – it’s a lot of work. And when it happens, even if you get a small part, it’s not nearly as good as you wanted or wasn’t what you planned. But it’s still forever and it showcases what you think is fun. And if I can make a job of that – that’s the dream, right?”
Looking up at Victoria instinctively balanced on a precarious rock, her break from the prosaic world of competition seems predestined. She just makes more sense out here. Placid yet powerful – her and the mountain are a perfect fit. Time, people, snowboarding, life – she approaches it all with a patient finesse (long, idle down-days in Alaska spent waiting for Mother Nature to give the go-ahead have, clearly, had a lasting impact). Yet beneath those ebony eyes, a rare tenacity lies ready to charge: “I like the serenity, the diversity and, although it’s very exciting and ultimately challenging, it’s also very peaceful. Sometimes when you’re around a lot of people it’s easy to be distracted. And when you’re alone it’s easier to be focused and relaxed in the moment.”
With that focus, Victoria made her dream a reality – even when it meant being the only girl holding her own in Alaska or Tulsequah. Annie Boulanger, a fellow Whistler native, is making serious inroads into the BC backcountry – and said recently of Victoria: “When she talks I make sure I listen.” But no one has come close to carving out her niche.
“It’s difficult being a girl following some dudes up there, tagging along. That part’s hard,” says Victoria. “But I am surprised that more girls didn’t do it because the rewards, to me, are so great.”
Difficulties aside, support for women is definitely on the rise. Victoria agrees but reckons bottom lines have driven the interest from both industry and the media: “When the snowboarding companies stopped growing, they were like, ‘Which segment is growing fastest? Oh, women and kids.’ So even if they didn’t believe in those markets before, they’re willing to put the dollars into it now. Now girls are riding together, it’s more competitive and they’re going off, right? Maybe women wouldn’t be so behind the men all this time if they’d had all this support back then.”
Victoria is refreshingly uninhibited – about everything bar her age, a statistic she keeps somewhat under wraps. I find this bizarre – simply because if I had helped mould the very heart of snowboarding’s history, and was still pushing the frontiers of progression, I’d be shouting those double digits from a rooftop. Question is, do the jibbing park bunnies appreciate what she does?
“Snowboarding went through a stage where there was none of that going on. It was all about who’s coming up fresh, who’s the new kid pushing the limits. The older pros are starting to get more respect. Because to be a good big-mountain rider, you have to be doing it a while. You could be a ripping talented rider and go to Alaska and just go crazy. But most people know you’re just rolling the dice. Experience counts for a lot, and the older I get the more I appreciate that.”
With our stomachs the only check on time, we decide to grab lunch before heading back to Victoria’s house. Bumbling along in her eco-friendly Smart car, the conversation naturally turns green. By the time we reach the café, order and eat, it’s turned to the impending peak oil crisis – a plausible theory that oil will run out in our lifetime. Pushing her salmon burger aside, Victoria gesticulates an air-borne diagram that precisely depicts the point at which demand will outstrip supply.
She is genuinely freaked out, but she is also genuinely ebullient, even at her most serious. “Sorry for talking about the coming economic collapse!” she laughs. “I’ve just been reading a lot recently.”
I ask where this awareness stems from. “I grew up in the country,” she says, “so it was always quite shocking to fly in over big cities. I’d look down and go, ‘Wow! Where does all the shit go? And where does all the water come from in this desert? I always wondered why people don’t talk about it – why everyone isn’t super concerned and freaking out. It’s always been puzzling for me. The older I get the more I understand – it’s not a fun subject and nobody really feels they can make a difference. It feels discouraging, like a useless battle, when some things are going on to counteract you by millions of miles. But there’s been this huge turnaround in awareness. Whether people have watched some independent films or are reading more, everyone is picking up on the vibrations in the ether. The vibration that there’s big change going on right now.”
When Victoria’s tiny car pulls into her driveway after lunch, it’s greeted by a monster SUV with a gas-guzzling sled strapped to the back – essential armour for backcountry exploits. Victoria is the first to acknowledge the paradox: “Snowboarding is a healthy thing for humans, but travelling to snowboard can have its toll. It’s a very touchy subject – kind of like animals in zoos; it’s so bad, but at the same time they’re champions for their species. Snowboarding’s the same. When I get dizzy in my life and have a bunch of things to do, I know snowboarding’s really good.”
At this point she’s on a roll: “We’ve been living in the gravy years – not everyone, obviously, but especially in the West. And very soon we’ll almost be forced to make concessions, big lifestyle changes. Hopefully we’ll all have the initiative to do it ourselves, out of care, regard and respect. I’m guilty, everyone is.
“You look at the political climate around the world, there’s so much separateness – and promotion of separation amongst people. I think that’s the biggest problem in all our societies, is the notion and the belief in separateness. When you have a people separate from another people, nation separate from another nation, it makes you feel different or alone and that’s where all the problems come from. In reality we’re not separate at all – we’re all energy, and we’re all here together.”
Inside Victoria’s cosy home I brave the question that’s been bugging me all day. How does it actually feel up there, as you’re about to drop in?
“A lot goes into choosing a line, the days and weeks before. We don’t just get in a helicopter the day after a storm, slide up to what looks good and drop in. I think some people think that we’re just rolling the dice. It’s more like days of progression, digging pits and testing slopes slowly. So by the time you’re actually about to drop in, a lot of the emotional curve that you go through is kind of over. When you’re standing at the top of your line, looking down, you already understand its full potential.”
It gets better: “I guess one thing I can say is that sometimes the helicopter can’t quite get you to the beginning of the line. You may have to hike up some really dangerous ridgeline. You’re huffing and puffing, you know someone else is being filmed right now, you can hear people on the radio, you’re letting them know how you’re doing. You get to your spot, you look over the edge, you figure out how you’re going to drop in, and as you’re putting your board on you hear: ‘Okay, we’re coming to shoot you now, you ready?’ And you know the helicopter is flying around, like, very expensively in circles. The whole group is waiting for you, two people are dangling outside the heli, and it’s super freezing…
“That moment, just before you’re about to drop in, can be quite hectic, when the clouds are coming in or the heli’s already in the air and logistically it would help everyone if you just hustled and dropped in fairly quickly – although no one expects you to do anything stupid. You may be like, ‘Look, I don’t feel good right now. I can’t see my line. I want you to put the heli back down on the ground, everyone just chill I need five or ten minutes to catch my breath.’”
She goes on: “To me it’s almost surreal. But it’s my goal, my dream – all year I wait for those lines. When I’m about to drop in, I always make this little peace with myself, like, ‘Well, I’m dropping in, I’m doing it. So you might as well calm down and enjoy it’. And then, as you’re riding, you’re thinking really fast. It’s very much instinct – you can’t tell yourself how to ride, you just have to time your sluff, make it to a certain spot left or right, look over your shoulder make sure nothing’s coming.”
The next obvious question on my vicarious ride is the one of danger. Victoria tells me she’s had some close calls but never been buried: “I’ve been caught in an avvy and one of the things I did straight away was go for another run on a slope that was not likely to slide – just because I was really shaky and wanted to go home. I had to get back in the saddle just so I didn’t leave Alaska with my tail between my legs.”
Just then, Jess interjects to remind me it’s getting late and we have to get going. We reluctantly turn down another cup of tea and make our way back to the car, back to Whistler, back to the ski-booted buzz.
I hadn’t looked at my watch all day.
On the drive back, something new swims through my mind. I used to pride myself on punctual time keeping. I also used to feel suffocated in the days and weeks and months before any one of the many fictitious yet apparently critical events I’d diarised in red ink came sprinting towards me.
Victoria leaves that shit to a higher force.
“I have a pretty unique relationship with time,” she said before we left. “To me it doesn’t really exist…’cause we’re always living in the now, right?”
I like her style.