Like surfing and skateboarding, snowboarding slowly evolved through the efforts of early fanatics who didn’t know what they were doing but did it because it was so much fun. And like its wet and dry predecessors, snowboarding exploded in popularity as the mainstream public got hooked, quickly followed by companies sensing that a buck could be made from whooshing down snow on a board.
First Descent brings together snowboard pioneers and teen phenoms who now travel around the world on someone else’s nickel to perform stunts in front of packed arenas.
The documentary by Kevin Harrison and Kemp Curley, who filmed and produced commercials and documentaries for MTV Sports, takes five boarders to the Chugach Mountains in Valdez, Alaska, for some backcountry snowboarding.
The merry band consists of pioneers Shawn Farmer, 40, and Nick Perata, 38, who were among the first to snowboard Alaska’s peaks in the 1980s; Terje Haakonsen, 30, a Norwegian widely considered one of the world’s best, but also outspoken (he refused to compete in the Olympics because he thought the sport was selling out); and two of the biggest names currently in snowboarding, 2006 Torino Gold medal winners Hannah Teter, 18, and Shaun White. White is also known for winning six gold medals at the Winter X-Games and is considered to be one of the most popular snowboarders in the world.
Interspersed with the group’s attempts to whip down the sides of mountains they reach via helicopter is the story of the sport’s evolution: how it started with people trying to slide down snow on anything flat and slippery, to the animosity between skiers and snowboarders, to the sport’s explosion once ski lodges and manufacturers realized people were willing to pay to surf on snow.
The film takes awhile to gain its footing; there’s a bit too much, “Wow, isn’t it cool – we’re three generations of snowboarding getting together to cut lines in mountains.” But once it finally does get to the snow, it’s amazing to watch.
The aerial photography is great, particularly in a scene in which a snowboarder starts an avalanche and boards out of it, and a ride by Haakonsen, who points his snowboard over a precipice and jumps.
“First Descent” might become tedious for anyone wondering what all the fuss is about. But for those who have felt the thrill of carving an “S” down the side of a mountain on a snowboard – or would like to know what it feels like – this movie is cheaper than a lift ticket.