Steve Klassen turns back the clock at the Freeride World Tour finale
Steve Klassen executed a revolution on March 23.
When the 54-year-old snowboarder leapt off a cliff at the top of the Bec Des Rosses, in the culminating competition of the Freeride World Tour, Klassen forced onlookers to redefine the limits that they associate with age. His jump pushed at the margins of human endeavor.
Hanging there, in the air above Verbier, Switzerland, Klassen stripped some meaning from the word “old.”
Klassen wanted to discuss his trip to Verbier at his office in Wave Rave surrounded by some of the employees that took the trip with him. Klassen goes to Verbier every year, though he hasn’t competed in years. His employees can earn points throughout the year that give them the chance to come along. Alex Carlson earned his ticket by being the top salesman at Wave Rave. Marcus Cassidy got his spot on the trip by winning a competition in the Hemlocks on Mammoth Mountain. Also hanging in Klassen’s office were Devin Tubbs and Joaquin Sahagun.
Klassen wanted to meet this way because, he said, “I couldn’t have done it without these guys, and that is the real truth to this whole thing.”
These bearded, tattooed guys are Klassen’s employees, but they are also his friends, his fans. He is clearly the mentor.
Klassen has long hair and a cool southern Californian steadiness on the surface. He speaks passionately and sentimentally, but his voice stays slack. His electric serenity gives him the energy of a snowboarding sage. He seems to emit a vibration, a low hum. His crew snaps onto his frequency.
He says exactly what he means, sometimes repeats himself when the insight is vivid, then stops short and lets the words hang in the air. The room hangs on these sparkling silences.
The story of Klassen’s ride at Verbier starts with surfing.
The organizer of the Free Ride World Tour, Nicolas Hale-Woods, wanted to go on a surf trip that Klassen was organizing. Klassen said he would get Nicolas on the trip in exchange for a wild card spot at the Verbier Xtreme.
The Verbier Xtreme is the culminating event of the Freeride World Tour and has been the pinnacle of free skiing and snowboarding competition since 1996. It takes place on the Bec Des Rosses, a mountain towering over Verbier with some of the toughest terrain in the world.
Nicolas agreed to the deal. It was worked out that there would be a masters division for Klassen to compete in with other retired riders.
Then Klassen got a hip replacement in the Fall of 2018 and lost his confidence. The Bec Des Rosses is dangerous for a rider at his best. For a 54-year-old coming off a hip surgery it’s just foolish.
“Sometimes when you go into uncharted territory it’s hard to believe in yourself because there is no precedent,” Klassen said. This is where the help from his team came through.
“Alex [Carlson] during the season was the most influential person to me in terms of getting my head where it needed to be and truly believing in me.”
Klassen was told by his doctor two months after surgery that he could ease back into snowboarding, and after three months that he could do whatever he wanted. After three months and one week, he did a contest in the Hemlocks.
That’s when Alex Carlson started to put the pressure on him.
“This dude’s not that far off a hip replacement and he sent the big cliff,” Carlson said. “It started out as something just like, ‘All right dude, take that wildcard spot.’”
“You were the only one that really believed that I could step in that starting gate,” Klassen said to Carlson. “You pressured me, big time. You made me feel like I’d be a coward if I didn’t.”
Klassen had two other things motivating him to get back to Verbier. The first: he wanted to beat Travis Rice. Rice has consistently been considered one of the best snowboarders in the world. Klassen said that he’s challenged Rice to come to Verbier to compete before but Rice has never showed. “I think it’s lame that he just relies on camera angles and budgets for his professional career and refuses to get in the start gate at the biggest show,” Klassen said. “I was prepared to go head-to-head to beat Travis Rice.”
The second, and more important, Klassen had a cliff on his mind. “It had been eating at me.” The cliff in question is a 50-foot drop near the summit of the Bec Des Rosses. Only a few riders have ever successfully cleared it, and Klassen can name them all. “I tried to do it 7 or 8 years ago and rag dolled off it… I just really wanted to not die someday having not landed it.”
With these things bolstering him, Klassen started training seriously to get ready for Verbier. He rode the hardest lines at Mammoth Mountain. He dropped off The Egg Rock on Top of The World twice, “doing it with the intention that if I can do that it’s pretty similar to that big rock at the top [of the Bec Des Rosses].”
That kind of training put a lot of stress on his body. He’s noticed that his ability to recover has gotten slower as he’s gotten older. “It’s not that many times you can jump The Egg at low tide. It puts a big toll on your body,” Klassen said. He uses three things to help him recover during training: yoga, cannabis, and Ayurveda. His girlfriend, Erin Koehler, has helped him get into Ayurveda, which is a “sister science” of yoga aimed at healing.
“Yoga and Ayurveda, those two things really make it so that I can move that stuff around. Recognize where it’s at, and get back to training,” Klassen said.
Klassen and crew arrived at a town below Verbier called Martigny on March 17. Martigny was on a Roman trade route at one point in time, and the Romans built a coliseum there. As a tradition, the newest members of the trip each year must battle in the coliseum.
Joaquin was one of this year’s gladiators. He was blindfolded and led into a holding cell under the coliseum, next to a deep pit once used to dispose of corpses after battles.
Joaquin and another newbie removed their blindfolds and shirts and entered the coliseum. They battled to see who could take the other guy’s beanie off his head first. Joaquin quickly lost.
This is a silly tradition, but it is also a reminder of the stakes that riders are walking into in Verbier. Klassen said that the coliseum and dead body pit are an early exposure to the mortality he faces on the mountain.
“I feel life and death when I’m up there,” he said. “The mountain has feminine energy to it. It wants people to have courage… The mountain wants to see gladiators. It wants gladiators. It is part of the history there.”
In Verbier, Klassen is a legend. He won the first ever Xtreme Verbier in 1996, and went on to win three of the first four competitions. Xavier De La Rue, a former Verbier champion and announcer at this year’s competition, said, “There is no greater legend than him on this mountain. They should put a statue with his face at the top.”
In the past, the Wave Rave crew had a more laid back approach to riding the backside of the Bec Des Rosses. Carlson recalls that on his first trip to Verbier, Klassen went to the group and said, “Here’s some sandwiches, here’s some joints, let’s go ride some sweet lines.”
This year was different. Klassen went to Verbier ready to show what a 54-year-old could do. He was high frequency, and like in his office, his crew snapped onto his frequency, and raised it higher.
“Everybody started pushing it,” Klassen said. From the first day they were there the team was sending big off the cliffs on the back of the Bec Des Rosses.
“We’ve done this trip many times, and this was by far the rowdiest most excited vibe we’ve ever had,” Carlson said. “Everybody is so juiced and feeding off each other. I’ve never been a part of anything that just has that lightning in a bottle kind of vibe… Every member of our team was a catalyst for stoke.”
Two things happened leading up to the competition that would make Klassen’s run even more spectacular. The first was that the two other Masters riders decided to drop out. Klassen came to compete, and his competition didn’t show. So Klassen and the organizers decided to put him into the main contest. He wouldn’t be competing against the retired guys, he’d be mixing it up with the best free-riders in the world.
The second came the day before the competition. Klassen learned that, due to snow conditions, he would be the only rider choosing to start from the summit of the mountain. All of his younger, fitter competitors would be starting on a shoulder on the side of the mountain, but Klassen was dead set on his cliff. Riding familiar spots on the back side gave him confidence that the approach to his cliff would be soft enough, not consistent, but soft enough.
Since he was the only rider going to the summit he asked if he could bring Devin Tubbs, who was not competing, along with him. Normally only competitors and officials are allowed to hike to the top, but the organizers said it was fine. It wouldn’t be crowded up there.
The day before the competition, the guys went to look at the conditions one last time. They were approached by an official who was keeping the public from hiking the mountain. The official asked them which one of them was competing, and when Klassen said it was him, the official exclaimed, “No! Steve Klassen competing on the Bec Des Rosses again!”
The hike up the Bec Des Rosses begins with a single boot pack. Riders, whether they are going to the shoulder or the summit, take the same line up. Having others hike the line for you makes it easier because you can follow in their steps.
When Tubbs and Klassen got to the fork in the road where riders either go to the summit or the shoulder, they found that there was no boot pack to the summit. It was blank snow.
“I was a little panicked,” Klassen said. “We gotta get up another 700-800 vertical feet from where we’re at and it’s a gnarly hike… I personally don’t know the easiest way cause its been so long… The guides will usually put in that boot pack, but the wind had covered it up the Knight before.”
There was no other option. Klassen and Tubbs started to put the boot pack in themselves. Klassen, in his impatience to get to the summit, started to lead the ascent, but realized that he was working himself too hard.
“I had to pass it off to Devin. I had to pass it off to a younger stronger, more fit man to get that boot pack in there. I had to use him for that.”
Tubbs led Klassen in the fastest direction he could think of, straight up the ridge. It was not the safest way to climb, the mountain dropped off on both sides of the ridge, but it was the fastest.
“I felt like I was just in the sky,” Klassen said. “I don’t want to ever forget that. We knew that it was unique. A once in a lifetime experience.”
The ridge led them right to the side of the cliff that had haunted Klassen for so long. He sized it up.
Klassen said that there are two aspects to preparing for a big jump. The first is research. Klassen had calculated the angles, checked the snow conditions, thrown rocks in the right places. He’d dreamed about this jump. The research had been done.
The second is psychological. Klassen chose Tubbs to come with him to the summit because Tubbs understands the psychological preparation the same way that Klassen does.
“We both recognized the need for keeping it positive and keeping that vibration where it needed to be,” Klassen said. “We have to act a certain way and be a certain way to get ourselves to that positive mental frame to be able to send it… So when you leave it, you know you got it. You know you have that landing.”
When Tubbs and Klassen approached the cliff, the first words out of Klassen’s mouth were, “I got it.”
The ride down to the cliff rides through what Carlson described as a shark’s mouth of rocks. “This is the kind of man who thinks that’s doable,” he said.
Klassen started down the dog’s leg that gets to his white whale cliff. He traversed the shark’s mouth, and straight-lined to the cliff.
“When I landed the air, I heard the crowd. This like, ‘Blaaah!’ You’re so far away from it but it hits the wall of that thing and it echoes. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard them from riding there 25 years. It was incredible.”
The revolution was televised.
“We changed paradigms,” he said. “We took a belief that people had about what you could do as someone in your mid-fifties and we completely shattered what they thought was possible.”
“We changed the way that people have to think. People had to step through a door and slam it behind them, and put their old beliefs behind them, because they could not believe that anymore.”
Walking around Verbier after the run, Klassen knew things had changed. He could see it in people’s eyes. His legendary status had been further cemented. People would come up to him on the street and say, “Oh my God, you’re Steve Klassen. That was so awesome.”
In Mammoth, things had not changed. Klassen was invited to a Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation dinner after he arrived back in town.
“I wondered if they would mention it, because it was, in my opinion, a big enough deal that it’s a community dinner that they should go ahead and let people know.”
“Tom Cage was the presenter, and he goes, ‘Well yeah I know you did that big air, and I had thought about saying something, but I just couldn’t find a spot to fit it in.’”
“What we just described, that community, that group of skiers or whatever you want, they just couldn’t find a spot to fit it in.”
“What we just did, it just isn’t worth their time.”
Klassen said that his gang of riders gets pushed down by the community at Mammoth. He believes that Mammoth can learn something from the Freeride World Tour.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re riding down the hill. That’s just a tool… It’s about the spirit and the line and the acknowledgement and the props. It’s about how you act within that culture, and they don’t, so they don’t get it. They won’t ever be a part of it. They can’t be a part of it because they don’t act appropriately according to the culture’s rules…
“The group of skiers that I hang around, our lives are in each other’s hands, so we treat each other appropriately like that. This older group of skiers in Mammoth, they don’t. They don’t get that part. I wish they would. As soon as they do, our community will be a whole lot better.”
Until then, Klassen and his Wave Rave disciples will continue pushing it.
“We are our own island of positivity,” he said. “We’re just gonna keep doing it how we do it, and it’s magic here. It’s totally magic here.”