Ken Achenbach needs no introduction. Recognized as one of the founding fathers of snowboarding and the man behind Camp of Champions, Achenbach also runs Powder Mountain Cat Skiing, opened the world’s first dedicated snowboard shop, rode for Barfoot in the ’80s (he helped design the first twin tip snowboard) and was also a key contributor to International Snowboard Magazie (ISM), the world’s first snowboard mag.
An entrepreneur who’s never lost his passion for the freedom of snowboarding, Achenbach will be telling his story of growing up a skateboarder and BMXer, and how it shaped his life (and consequently the lives of countless snowboarders who have gone on to the world stage) at this year’s MULTIPLICITY at the World Ski & Snowboard Fest.
Interview: Brian Peech
Welcome to MULTIPLICITY. Give us a hint of what you’ll be talking about?
How growing up a skateboarder fosters creativity and makes you not believe in other people’s bullshit so you can live the life you want, and create things without being scared of committing or people thinking you’re crazy. Learning a Frontside Ollie over the channel on vert, hooking up your back truck five times in a row, slamming on the flat bottom is commitment. Committing to a business or a relationship just doesn’t seem all that big a deal compared to that. But hey, what do I know? I’m the guy who’s single, having been married twice.
“When you’re hated, you can do anything because they already hate you any way.”
I’m sure you encountered people thinking you were crazy as you started pioneering snowboarding in Canada.
I never really noticed it because I liked snowboarding so much. When you grow up skateboarding and BMXing, with cops and other people calling you a little piece of shit and a stupid kid, you realize—because you’re smarter than they think—that everything they tell you is a lie. And when you’re hated, you can do anything because they already hate you any way.
So it’s safe to say that skateboarding and BMXing shaped your attitude towards the world?
You look at the world in a different way. It makes you creative. You can look at a concrete curb and figure out how to have fun with it for hours. So when you’re given more than that, this whole palette that’s life, you can create incredible things.
It’s a pretty liberating feeling.
I think about that all the time. When we started Camp of Champions, of course we played music with swears in it, punk rock and Slayer. If you’re gonna hate us, we’re gonna give you a reason. And we’re gonna have a lot of fun doing it. Maybe that’s why people think I’m a perpetual 15-year-old. I’ve never grown up, so why start now? It makes for a really fun life when you realize you can be or do or create anything you can think of.
“I’ve spent my life trying to date girls where all I could see was their top lip and their nose—the rest was covered by a neck gaiter and goggles. That “holy shit, she’s hot” moment when she drops the face mask and goggles is the best.”
You started Canada’s first snowboard shop at a time when most resorts didn’t even allow snowboarding at the time.
I started the Snoboard Shop when I was 16. Mostly because no one said I couldn’t. Growing up skateboarding, I learned that I could do what ever the hell I wanted, and if people didn’t like it, so what. There’s a freedom that you get from not caring what people think. I laugh that growing up skateboarding also made it impossible to be racist. As the outcast in school, you end up with all the other outcast kids and it was the best. My friends were the Pakistani kid, the Nigerian kid, the Chinese kid and the white kid from down the road. You learn to look at people and think of the way people looked at you for being a skateboarder. Muslims in hijabs? All good. I’ve spent my life trying to date girls where all I could see was their top lip and their nose—the rest was covered by a neck gaiter and goggles. That “holy shit, she’s hot” moment when she drops the face mask and goggles is the best. So I get it. All because of skateboarding.
Tell us a about the Canadian Snowboard Instructors Alliance.
We went to Sunshine Village after Hugh Smythe kicked us out of Fortress Mountain. Neil Daffern and I went to try to get them to let us snowboard, and they were like, “How do we know you won’t kill someone because you can’t turn and stop?” So on the spot, I made up the CSBIA. CSBIA issues people competency cards/ID cards that stated you knew how to snowboard. And they were like, “Who issues the ID card?” So we told them we do, as the local reps of the CSBIA. We told them we have a manual that teaches people how to snowboard. So they agreed that after they looked over the manual to make sure it was a real thing, we could ride.
“At one point, Lake Louise would only let the Snoboard Shop pro team snowboard there. So our shop team went from 10 people to over 40. Everybody was on the team.”
Then what happened?
Well, we got home, and it was like, we better write this thing we just said we had. I’d just kind of thrown it out there as a joke on the spot. Neil’s parents were publishers so we threw the instruction manual together on their computer that night and gave it to Sunshine. Game on. We were relentless in hassling the resorts to let us up. I remember the Sunshine manager saying, “We’ll look at allowing you on Teepee Town again in the New Year.” So we went to the Sunshine New Year’s party and at 12:00:01, we hit the area manager up. “It’s the new year. Can we ride now?” It worked. Then after Sunshine let people snowboard, we worked Lake Louise to let everyone do it, then Norquay. But the real joke was that we just gave everybody cards. We didn’t check anyone; we had better things to do than hang out in the parking lot checking if people could snowboard. The whole lesson we gave people was “point your hand the way you want to go.” Thirty years later that’s the same lesson I gave both my kids. It still works.
And then snowboarding took off.
Snowboarding’s not like skiing, where from the time you start, you’re taught that you suck and the only way you’re going to get better is with an instructor and coach. With snowboarding, it’s the skateboard attitude. Basically, if you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. That’s why snowboarding took off so hard. It was fun and there was no one wiping the smile off your face by telling you you’re doing it wrong. That’s why it was so fun starting the Camp of Champions Ski Camp: teaching campers if they’re having fun, they’re doing it right. We were the first park anywhere to allow skiers in. I didn’t quit skiing because I hated skiing; I hated politics. Freeskiers shook off the shackles of FIS and stole their sport back and made it fun again, and not all about everything that snuffed it out in the first place. Now they’ve just handed the reigns back to FIS to kill the magic, again.
“Basically, if you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. That’s why snowboarding took off so hard. It was fun and there was no one wiping the smile off your face by telling you you’re doing it wrong.”
I’ve heard the Snoboard Shop had a pretty big team.
We had an amazing pro team. I worked super hard to get everyone hooked up. Pretty much everyone ended up with a pro model from someone. We got more covers and photos in the magazines than Burton and other brands got most months. It was amazing. At one point, Lake Louise would only let the Snoboard Shop pro team snowboard there. So our shop team went from 10 people to over 40. Everybody was on the team. Then Fernie gave us free season passes for the shop team, so everyone became a shop rider.
How did the Camp of Champions come about?
When you take away the fear of commitment, it sure makes it easy to commit to start companies, and do crazy things, like starting the best summer camp ever when you’re 24 because you want kids to be able to live their dreams of going pro. “Yeah, send me your kids, I’ll take care of them, I promise.” Who sends their kids to a 24-year-old? Thank goodness they did and Camp of Champions ended up writing the blueprint for the action sports summer camp that every camp out there uses as their master plan.
But what made you say, I’m going to start a camp?
There was a camp in town called the CSBA Camp that we called “Completely Supervised By Alcoholics” and kids would come in the shop and moan about how lame their camp was, how their coaches were always drunk, how they weren’t learning anything. So I said, “Give me your name and address, I’ll start a camp next year and it will be awesome; I’ll get all our team to be coaches.” I made Don Schwartz our head coach. Camp incorporated The Snoboard Shop team attitude that you got better by riding with people that were better than you in a relaxed, fun, jam session format. Emphasize the good times and by having the best pros as your coaches, the learning takes care of itself.
“If Camp of Champions had been listed as a country at Sochi we would have been 8th.”
It’s safe to say it’s worked.
Since the start of the Olympics allowing snowboarding and freeskiing, campers have won 99 percent of the medals. We swept the podium in Slopestyle for Men’s Snowboarding and Skiing and won the Gold in both Slope and Pipe events for men and women at Sochi and Vancouver. Campers pretty much owned the X-Games and the FIS tour podiums as well. If Camp of Champions had been listed as a country at Sochi we would have been 8th. After the first four or five days at Sochi, we were third.
Imagine that, COC, a nation of misfits.
A big part of the reason Canadian snowboarders still slay it, is because there has always been so many good snowboarders here. To stand out you have to be really, really good. First you had to beat me. Then you had to beat my brother Dave, Don Schwartz, Jon Boyer, Alex Warburton, Sean Johnson, Doug Lundgren, Sean Kearns and Dano Pendygrasse, and so many others. The shop was this feeder system of awesomeness. The only way to get on was to impress the riders on the team. That progressive attitude made the level of riding so high in Canada. Everyone is standing on the shoulders of the amazing riders that packed in the in-run for them, which is just how it should be in any sport. That’s why Seb Toutant, Mark McMorris and the Manboys are so good. It’s not just Canadian riders either, the camp has riders from 20 countries every summer and what I love the best about camp is how everyone gets to be such good friends with all the riders from around the world. When you come up and get on tour, you’re already friends with half of them.
There’s a community feel to it.
It’s not just riders; it’s photographers, filmers, writers, board designers, magazine editors, team managers, marketing managers, reps, distributors, etcetera. You might come to camp to become a pro snowboarder or skier, but you meet all these amazing people and magic happens. Next thing you know you’re starting brands like Capita or 4FRNT, or something else you never dreamed about.
Is it weird for you to see snowboarding in the Olympics or other big-money contests?
I’ve never cared about the contest side of snowboarding; I’ve just cared about the progression of snowboarding. It all comes from that. At COC we only care about progression, no matter what that word means to you. Progression personally, athletically, socially, artistically, whatever. I love how camp and the coaches bring kids out of their shells and make them into these amazing people that rip, can travel the world, treat people with respect and have friends no matter where they go and spread the magic that camp gave them. Especially when they come back and pay it forward to the next generation. By putting the focus on enjoying the sport and the friends you make, and the crew you end up having, it progresses snowboarding and skiing in a way that’s totally real and that no one can take away from you.
“Snowboarding hasn’t changed since the day I started. Get out of school, move to the mountains, live like a dirtbag with a dozen people in a crappy house on spaghetti and perogies and go up every day and have the time of your life.”
So, the inevitable question: where do see the state of snowboarding in the next 10 years?
Who cares? Go snowboarding. That’s the best thing about it. Just go snowboarding. So many people are worried about what snowboarding is going to be, but really, who gives a shit? Snowboarding hasn’t changed since the day I started. Get out of school, move to the mountains, live like a dirtbag with a dozen people in a crappy house on spaghetti and perogies and go up every day and have the time of your life. You either get super good, or broken off, or both and are super stoked either way. You either end up a pro snowboarder, or washing dishes or both. Twenty years later you look back at it and you wish you could do it again. So to me, snowboarding hasn’t changed at all. The contests, the money and all the other stuff that clutters the landscape are just things to do to pay the bills. What I loved about snowboarding when I started was there was nothing at the end of the rainbow—and you knew it. You just did it and got stoked. Then I go and get second in Pipe at the first World Championships and wrecked the dream. Oops.
Did you ever imagine snowboarding would grow to what it has?
I remember taking a breather one day when I was riding vert on my BMX in 1980 or so, and my friend asked me, “What do you think the year 2000 is going to be like?” I said snowboarders, skaters BMXers and surfers are going to be on TV all the time, be millionaires and their sports are all going to be the raddest sports ever. Then I dropped in and forgot about it. On New Years Day, 2000, I woke up in hotel in Blue River at Mike Wiegele Heliskiing and my friend Boy Aggro turned on the TV and the first thing I heard in the new millennium was, “We’ll be right back with more vert skateboarding after vert BMX.” I flashed back to that split second on the platform 20 years earlier that I had completely forgotten about and thought, “Holy shit! I work up in the future!”
The crazy part was I had never thought about how much I’d helped make that future happen through dogged determination, spending every cent I ever had and just doing it. You make the future you dream of happen. So make sure you dream a good dream. But I will admit, it’s way bigger than anything I ever dreamed of.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your presentation?
“Ken Achenbach opened for Brett Tippie. What a double bill.” When I look back on my life I think, when I rode vert BMX, I don’t have a single picture of me sending it. That’s why I started taking pictures and making movies. I didn’t want people to not have a photo of what could be the raddest day of their lives. What “day” that day is, is something you don’t realize until 20 years later. So make every day as rad as you can make it. So take this away: enjoy happiness.
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Aaron and Hawkeye Huey