Feet Banks Robin O'Neill

It’s a typical October afternoon in Whistler: blowing leaves and rain, not quite Halloween, but still too warm for snow. It’s a time of year best suited to taking a surf trip, and most local ski pros do just that. Not Eric Hjorleifson though, he’s at home rebuilding his chairlift. Later on, he’ll probably go down to the workshop he built in his Whistler townhome’s storage locker and tinker with the future of ski touring boots. If all goes well, he might be down there all night.

 

“I’m really good at not going to bed,” Eric admits. “I remember as a kid my parents would have to come up to my little loft bedroom at three in the morning because they could hear me rooting through my Lego with a flashlight.”

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Hjorleifson built his first working Lego chairlift at age 11, the version he’s re-building today comes from his teen years and includes complex dual-cam gear systems and tension adjust systems for both the top and bottom towers. “I was fascinated with chairlifts,” he says. “If you are into tech and machines, and you ski, a chairlift is a pretty amazing combo.”

Born, raised, and skiing by age two in Canmore, Alberta, Eric spent his early years chasing his parents and race coaches around Lake Louise before his natural curiosity (and old-school RAP ski films on VHS) drew him beyond the race gates. By his late teens, Eric was skiing with big mountain icons like Andrew Sheppard and Kevin Hjertaas, and gaining a healthy respect for ski touring and the backcountry.

“I remember a very sheltered, naive, extremely talented young kid,” says Andrew Sheppard. “The first time I saw him was on the cover of Rocky Mountain Outlook — a local newspaper — doing this huge, laid-out, crossed-up backflip. Who the hell is this kid?!”

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That kid and Sheppard ended up on a Mike Weigle heli-ski trip together shortly thereafter. Next was five weeks in Argentina when Hoji was just 19 years old. “That was the breaking-in of his innocence,” Sheppard laughs. “We went straight from the bar to hike up and ski Torre Cillas (3,771m/12,372 ft.), the crown jewel of Las Leñas. After that, we went to Alaska, I always stressed the importance of mountain sense, but he also has a natural ability to put himself in all the right places at all the right times. He’s highly organized and intelligent. He surrounds himself with the right people and just absorbs information, and has a relentless drive for improvement. He’s a genius really, even if all that Lego meant he never got laid in high school.”

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THE CAGE
These days, Lego is strictly nostalgia and Eric exercises his creativity in “The Cage,” an 11-by-5-feet storage locker in the basement of the Whistler townhouse he shares with fiancée (and three-time IFSA World Champion big mountain skier) Jen Ashton. In amongst his neighbours’ outdoor gear, off-season tires, and Christmas decorations, Hoji has constructed a tiny workspace to tinker with the future of skiing.

“Cell phones don’t work down here,” he explains while unlocking the wire-mesh ceiling and sliding it back on a custom rail set-up. Tools hang from every wall, and space is fully optimized. “There are no distractions, so it allows me to fall into these work marathons — the longest has been about 20 hours or so, a few of those back-to-back. It can be hard on the relationship, or I miss people coming over or phone calls, but I get stuff done down here.”

“I think he gets these ideas in his head of how to make things better and he has to do it,” Ashton says. “It’s like he has tunnel vision, obsessed, focused. He’s very brilliant at finding ways to make it work.”

That focus has led Eric to some remarkable innovations down in The Cage: from bicycle ski racks so he and Jen can ride to the lifts (“it’s literally faster than driving and you’re warmed up when you get there”), to a new tail clip attachment for touring skins (“simple, but it surpasses everything else in my opinion”), to the Renegade, the first ski he designed for 4FRNT Skis and the project that initially brought attention to Hoji’s off-mountain skills.

RENEGADE DESIGNER
“We called ourselves a ‘rider-owned’ ski company, but a lot of that was marketing,” explains Matt Sterbenz, an ex-pro freeskier who founded 4FRNT in 2002. “None of us were engineers, but Eric possesses that mindset — he was born with it and he developed it through ingenuity. He has his own vision of skiing and he wants to build it into a reality.”

After visiting ski builder Endre Hall in Norway in the fall of 2007, Hjorleifson had an epiphany moment. “I was hung-over on the journey home and suddenly I knew I wanted to experiment with a gradual, fully rockered ski design and began playing with the rocker profile matching the sidecut radii our ski engineer had sent.”

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After building his first ski prototype out of cardboard to help visualize the shape, Hoji pressed the first-ever 4FRNT Renegades at a factory on Vashon Island, Washington and took them to Alaska to film for his video part. “They were too soft and a bit dangerous for the terrain,” he admits, “but I skied some good lines and was immediately addicted to skiing on skis I actually had a part in making. That was the beginning of real product development for me, rather than just giving feedback on other peoples’ designs and complaining about stuff.”

The original Renegade ski took over two years to perfect and launched in 2009. Hoji has been fine-tuning the design ever since. “He is a known tinkerer,” Sterbenz says, “but he has one of the most diverse and mature skillsets in the game. Not only can he conceive of an idea and evolve a product into something more intuitive, but then he can go and perform its function at the highest level with an extreme amount of what appears to be ease. That puts him in a very elite league.”

MAN OF THE MOUNTAINS
Strong, fluid and smart, Hjorleifson’s on-snow style is as admired as his tech work and he’s been filming with top ski movie companies for over a decade, travelling the world in search of adventure, terrain and perfect snow.

“I’m definitely not skipping film or pow days to work on gear, yet,” he says. “That’s part of the enjoyment of what we do, you can’t do it all the time and there is a search, you realize how rare those perfect days really are and it keeps you hungry. I still enjoy skiing and the opportunity it presents to push my skiing as hard as I can.”

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“He is a known tinkerer,” Sterbenz says, “but he has one of the most diverse and mature skillsets in the game. Not only can he conceive of an idea and evolve a product into something more intuitive, but then he can go and perform its function at the highest level with an extreme amount of what appears to be ease. That puts him in a very elite league.”

Eric admits he is at a point in his career where crashing is not something he wants to do, but says he draws inspiration, and a lot of enjoyment, out of watching younger rippers like 4FRNT teammate and born-and-raised Whistler skier, Kye Peterson.

“Last year was the first major team trip I’ve been on with him,” Hoji says. “We were at Golden Alpine Holidays and it’s funny, I’ve filmed in that zone for ten years and it was awesome to see him come in and start charging into stuff I had never really seen or acknowledged. There are a lot of great skiers out there, but it’s the same with every generation, there are some naturals who just do it the way they do it with pure athleticism that can’t really be judged and keeps the sport artistic. Kye changes people’s perception of skiing, and then he’ll go off on his Yupis and hit lines on a NoBoard all day. Very worthy lines, stuff I’ve filmed on skis.”

 

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For the past five years, Hjorleifson has also hit up Golden Alpine Holidays every December as co-coach of an early-season Freeride Touring Camp aimed at teaching valuable backcountry skills and safety. “Back when I was kid, backcountry skiing was not a mainstream thing,” Hoji says. “It was less popular, the equipment wasn’t as available and there were no Internet avalanche bulletins. Basically you had to know someone to get out there.”

Times have changed, backcountry use is the fastest growing snow sport demographic, and Hoji believes these camps are integral, much like the Capow camps Marty Schaeffer runs out of Revelstoke or the Altus camps here in the Coast Mountains. “If the industry keeps promoting backcountry skiing without these kinds of camps, it’s like selling Ferraris to kids without driver’s licenses.”

THE FUTURE
It’s possible that Hoji’s campaign for backcountry safety may stem from the fact that he is literally altering the future of the sport, or at least the technology. Working with Dynafit over the past half-decade, Eric had a hand in helping create the revolutionary Vulcan touring boot, as well the new Beast binding.

“I didn’t design the Vulcan, but I feel like they listened to me,” he says. “The Beast was really funny because I had been working with Dynafit for a few years and had all these ideas to maybe improve their bindings for downhill performance. They had a Swedish guy, Fredrik Andersson, who is a ski bum but also an engineer. He’d been working on the Beast in total secrecy and it was right along the lines I had been thinking, but also so far advanced. We became instant friends. His ideas were the first real improvements on Fritz’s original designs in almost 25 years, so it was super exciting to be a part of that.”

“I think he gets these ideas in his head of how to make things better and he has to do it,” Ashton says. “It’s like he has tunnel vision, obsessed, focused. He’s very brilliant at finding ways to make it work.”

‘Fritz’ is legendary Austrian skier/inventor Fritz Barthel, who conceived of the first Dynafit Lowtech touring bindings in his basement workshop in the early 1980s. Still involved with the company, Fritz met Eric and took an instant liking to him. It was in Fritz’s workshop that Hoji was able to evolve his most prized concept from tinkering to true creation.

“This next boot I’m working on is where everything clicked for me,” Eric says. “Fritz invited me out to his place for a couple weeks. He is an excellent machinist as well as engineer, and has classic Swiss and Austrian made machines. He loved my enthusiasm and drive, and the way I ski. Fritz is like a fairy tale story of a guy who invented something and put twenty years of his life into it and didn’t get left behind when it took off.”

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Under Barthel’s wing, Hoji was able to learn to machine his own parts from scratch and bring his wildest ideas to life. “That was the turning point, transitioning from piecing together scrap buckles and boot parts, to Fritz taking me in and showing me how to take an idea, make a drawing, engineer it and piece it all together. I owe him so much; I want to bring him over here. He’s a great skier and super passionate guy.”

After two years of his own hard passion and hundreds of hours in The Cage, Hoji’s boot works perfectly. Dynafit has already signed on and the unnamed, top secret touring boot will one day be a game changer for hard charging, backcountry skiers around the globe.

Back at home, Eric says he’s looking forward to the next phase of his relationship with Jen and counts himself very fortunate to have someone so solid in his life. “She makes sure I eat and sleep when my brain is exploding with all these projects.”

He’s also looking forward to more ski days with his fiancée this year. “We both travel a lot,” he admits, “but there’s no place like home. I have a hit list of lower-mountain skiing I haven’t been able to check off lately, so yeah, let it snow.”

Until then, if you need him, Hoji will probably be down in The Cage with the roof open so the ideas can float in and swirl around like the fat coastal snowflakes that have kept him inspired since those first few bricks of Lego snapped together so many years ago.

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