BARELY MADE IT
The Book Of Real Snowboarding
Patrick ‘Brusti’ Armbruster's Archive
“It wasn't just a sport anymore, it was something, where a lot of people could find an identity. It was a real movement, a youth culture.”
I’ve known Patrick ‘Brusti’ Armbruster for over 20 years through my involvement with snowboard filming. He was one of Europe’s pioneering snowboard photographers and later the head honcho of ‘Absinthe Films’ and especially in the late 90s and early 2000s our paths crossed at the same snowboarding events around the world. When I heard about his ‘Barely Made It’ book project, I knew it was time to sit down with him to talk shop about the heady days of snowboarding’s golden era.
Brusti, what is it that you barely made in life?
“Well, right now, of course, I barely made the book a project that has been haunting me for years. You know, I've been documenting snowboarding for half of my life. Firstly, my photos in the 90s, like all the analogue photography for all the magazines and brands, and then we founded ‘Absinthe Films’ and about 10 years ago I stepped down from my producer and management position at ‘Absinthe Films’. Because of the massive pain in my ankle, that I broke in 98, the arthritis got really bad and I needed time to take care of my ankle at that point. And while I was recovering, I started scanning my analogue archive and slowly working towards this book idea that was lingering in my head for so many years. I just really wanted to produce and make a book contributing to those times, that we were living in snowboarding, and I knew it was going to be such a massive undertaking that it was really hard to tackle this project. And to really put pressure on myself, I launched a Crowdfunding campaign a year ago, so that gave me the needed push to do it. And the more I got into this project, the harder it got. The last few months it was just really day and night. No private time, no time for the family. Even on my vacation with the family, I was working day and night trying to finish this deadline. I can't believe it's finally done.”
How did you – a young skateboarder from the Zuerich suburb of Dietikon – end up becoming one of the first proper snowboard photographers in Switzerland?
“I was like 12, 13 years old when I discovered skateboarding. That became everything in my early teenage years, and already at that time, I would always carry my photo camera with me. I always took great pleasure in documenting anything really. So with skateboarding that just came naturally, you know, filming and taking photos of us skating. And then one afternoon we ended up at an older skater friend's house, and he put in a VHS of ‘Snowboarders in Exile’. Until that moment, I'd never even heard of snowboarding and I was just blown away that there was a sport similar to skateboarding, but it would enable you to launch bigger. It really was like skateboarding on snow, and from that moment on, I soaked everything in; snowboard magazines, videos, that I was able to get my hands on. In Switzerland when you're 16 you usually start an apprenticeship and that's like jumping into cold water. Your protected life from being at home and going to school every day, all of a sudden you go into work, get up earlier in the morning, come home later at night. And yeah, it was just a really drastic life change and something I couldn't really relate to because I was doing something that I had no passion for. I remember going to work in the crowded train, reading snowboard magazines and just envying those guys that - instead of me going to work they were travelling the world, partying and snowboarding and that was really what I was looking up to and cherishing very much. It was my biggest dream to spend my time doing what they were doing, rather than doing something in an office every day that you had no passion for it. I was so enthusiastic and such a fan of snowboarding, and never had the chance of going to see a contest or anything like that. I felt like I had to become a snowboard professional myself to get that lifestyle. And so in 1994 I entered a snowboard camp. I saw a halfpipe on snow for the very first time. And I knew I only had seven days to get my skills up to the level where, you know, that eventual lifestyle could become a reality. But then on my very first hit, I dislocated my shoulder, so that dream came to an abrupt stop. But I stayed the entire week, because I'd met like-minded people. And then it really was like a scene out of a movie. We were about to leave the camp in Italy to go back to Zurich. I was so depressed, like ‘ah, this dream is not working out for me’, and the coach from the camp came running after our car. We were already rolling away from the parking lot and she knocked on our window, waving and she was like ‘We just got a call from ‘Snowboarder’ magazine. They want to make a story about our camp. We saw you taking photos’, because that's what I was left doing with my dislocated shoulder. They saw me shooting photos, and she's like ‘Hey, can you please call that magazine, submit your photos and make sure we get a nice story in that magazine?’ And that's what I did, and then two months later, that magazine had my photos and my story in it. And I remember getting, like 350 Swiss francs, which was the exact same pay cheque I would get for a month’s work in the office for the apprenticeship. So I was calling the magazine up, like ‘Hey, what else do you need?’ I was just looking up snowboard competitions in Switzerland, would go there myself and slowly start to meet all the Swiss snowboard scene. That’s when one thing led to another. I met Michi Albin on one of those first trips, and his snowboard style was exactly what inspired me to take photos. And we also met on a friendship level and slowly started to travel together to contests. Then he got bigger sponsors, I met other people, my first photos got published for brands and advertisements and at that point photography was not such an accessible thing as it is today. It was all analogue, there were just a few people that would actually do that, so people that had good snowboard photos were a hot commodity for magazines back then.”
Soon after you got a job at Monster Backside Snowboarder magazine, and then a few years later you met the one and only Drew Stevenson and became the staff photographer for Onboard – were those the first two big stepping stones in the early part of your career?
“Yes, definitely. I basically had my first photos published in the Swiss snowboard magazine and then, one afternoon on a Sunday, the phone rang. It was Wolfgang Block, the owner of B&D publishing house, who owned ‘BMX’, ‘Skateboarder Monster Backside’ and ‘Snowboarder Monster Backside’. He asked me if I would like to join their crew, which I did and I worked in a kind of Swiss editorial office together with photographer Siro Micheroli for three years. Simultaneously I would meet Drew and contribute pictures to ‘Onboard’ as well. But then in 1999, I switched from ‘Monster Backside’ magazine to ‘Onboard’ and became a senior photographer at ‘Onboard’. It was around that time when I broke my ankle. Drew came to visit me in the hospital, and we ended up on a paddle boat ride on the lake in Zurich. We both were already fed up with the routine of just making a magazine every month and shooting kickers every day every week. It already became a bit sterile, so we were looking for the next challenge and making a dedicated European Snowboard movie was our project. With Drew running ‘Onboard’ it was an ‘Onboard’ initiative at first and that was the main reason why I switched from ‘Monster Backside’ to ‘Onboard’, to start approaching that video production together with Drew.”
What happened then? How soon after Drew and you laid the foundation for ‘Absinthe Films’ was your first movie, ‘Tribal’ released?
“I had the knowledge of shooting analogue photography and shooting 16 millimeter film is not that much of a difference. So we both jumped into cold water, got ourselves 16 millimetre cameras and lighting, framing and all that came natural. ‘Tribal’, the name originated from the ‘Tribal Gathering’ that Drew and ‘Onboard’ organised in 1998 in Meyerhofen. It was a gathering of European wide snowboarders and industry to figure out where professional snowboarding is going after the FIS basically sanctioned snowboarding to be under their wings. So ‘Tribal’ was the name for our first film production then, unfortunately, ‘Onboard’ ran into some legal problems with their workers based in Austria and they basically packed up everything overnight and escaped Austria with the ‘Onboard’ office. That was the time when ‘Onboard’ also was sold to an English publishing house. At the same time, Drew ran into some visa issues and broke his arm before our very first season really kicked off. So I found myself alone with this massive project, unsure if the new ‘Onboard’ owners would continue financing this production. Luckily they did, and by accident, I just ran into Justin Hostynek on one of our first film trips to Chile. I knew his name from all the magazines, as he was an acclaimed snowboard photographer. And funnily enough, when I told him that we’re shooting one of the first European Snowboard movies and that I was from Zurich, he answered back to me in Swiss German telling me that he grew up in Zurich as well until he was 12 years old. That seemed to be like a wink from destiny. So then Justin came on board and that's the foundation of Justin and me working together for ‘Absinthe Films’ for many years.”
How much did the halfpipe-and park set-ups as well as snowboard camps in places like Davos, Laax, Les Diablerets and Saas Fee help in the mid-to late 90s to really push the scene in Switzerland?
“You always need something to spark a new elite or generation and the camps on the glaciers in Switzerland definitely helped to do that. Especially Laax - which had put on the first event of the season for the ISF Snowboard World Tour since the early days - gave young snowboard enthusiasts a place to go to and actually see their idols and progressive snowboarding and that always is a breeding ground for the next generation. Those guys, that created those camps and contests, gave snowboarding a platform from which it could progress. Right at the beginning you had people like Jose Fernandez and Reto Lamm off course, who won the very first Air&Style and made a name for himself with the Willy Bogner films. Right after that it was the next generation of freestylers like Fabien Rohrer and then Michi Albin. They got to know Terje Haakonsen at a very young age who then invited him to film for ‘Subjekt Haakonsen’ and all these little factors put Switzerland on the map and it snowballed from there.”
At that time the first big European snowboard events like Air&Style, Burton European Open and freestyle.ch also helped to grow the sport, and all of a sudden snowboarding really was booming, wasn’t it?
“It was amazing. It was just like that perfect moment in time. It was pre-fast internet, pre-social media, pre-smartphones, but it had passed the point where it was a niche sport. Big brands like Nokia or Nescafe would come in and bring in big prize money and yeah, it was huge. I remember Air&Style, going there in 1998 and seeing that full stadium and also the freestyle.ch at the beginning of the season here in Zurich, there were like 100,000 people, music skateboarding snowboarding. Those events really became pilgrimage sites for the fans to see their idols live. It’s hard to describe that feeling when you would enter one of these arenas or stadiums and between 30,000 and 50,000 people would just go off, have the passion and fire, all for the same thing. They’d be screaming the names of the riders and I guess some of these riders probably had a hard time adjusting to that level of stardom themselves. It wasn't just a sport anymore, it was something, where a lot of people could find an identity. It was a real movement, a youth culture.”
One vital part of that youth culture were the parties. We’ve been to a few of those together and back then it felt like there weren’t any rules, and there was just a lot more freedom and mayhem - something that you also liked to capture and that’s an important part of ‘Barely Made It’ as well, right?
“Exactly. I guess that was really what inspired me to leave my sterile job in Zurich. I was searching for the adventure and the freedom and I found it with these guys that became my friends, but also, like my biggest muses or inspirations. You know, Romain di Marchi, Michi Albin, Nicolas Mueller - their style, when I shot a photo with them on the mountain, it was something I just loved to live as much as these guys and being right in there was inspirational. Basically, the youth, the freedom, that living in the moment was just coming out of them - and seeing that, motivated me to document it all.”
It certainly helped to have the access, because as you can see in the book, you were always right there, in the midst of all the mayhem…
‘…yeah, it's almost like, you'd go into nature, into wildlife and start to live with lions or gorillas. You can’t just go there and hope to be accepted right away. You basically need to move up the ranks, show that you are credible. The whole constellation, it was like a bit of a wolf pack and everybody that was entering that pack, needed to prove that he's kind of viable, or deserves his spot within the pack. I guess sooner or later it shows whether you're in it for the short money, or trying to take advantage, or if you're really in it for the love of the sport and the culture and everything that goes along with it. We put everything into what we all love so much to challenge the American productions with our videos, and of course eventually everybody knew that you can trust that guy. That's also why I was able to have such close access to all these personalities, whether it was on the mountain or at night, in the hotel rooms or at the parties.”
You’ve mentioned Michi Albin, who was one of the first riders that you became friends with, but which other riders were your friends?
“Michi was really like my mate that I would travel with and share all of my snowboarding and private life with for many years. I remember once saying to Michi, that if he stops his professional career, I'm probably going to be out of it as well. I really meant that actually, because I couldn't really see who else I could have that much fun with. And then, by complete coincidence I met Nicolas Mueller at a very young age, and when the time came around to rally a line-up for our very first movie, Nicolas was right up there as the youngest one. Bringing him out on the mountain and shooting with him was like the extension of Michi’s style and riding and it was so much fun to shoot with Nicolas. It really fuelled the fire for me once again. And for all these years, shooting ‘Absinthe’ movies, like being out on the road with Nicolas was always a highlight. It was probably also one of the reasons why ‘Absinthe’ had such a long-lasting success because it was really the riding that Nicolas embodied, which was how I’d see myself how I’d love to ride. You know, the style, the tricks - Nicolas was just the pinnacle of all that. And with Nicolas there was always that mutual understanding and trust that you grow when you as a filmer would bring in suggestions that then actually worked out. The riders basically see ‘Oh, wow, he understands the subject as much as I do’. They have the skills that I don't have, but I then can turn it around visually. So those were the most joyful moments you know. Gigi Ruef off course, was also right up there, and Wolle Nyvelt and Steve Gruber. Also from a personal side these Austrians had a hell of a time you know. It was always clear that once we got off the mountain, we were ready for the next thing which was having a good time at night.”
Is it fair to say that an ‘Absinthe’ rider needed to have good style and know how to party - otherwise they wouldn’t make the cut?
‘Totally. Off course riding style was the main drive and motivation, but for me it was a necessity that we just didn’t part ways once we were off the mountain, that we could actually go and have a beer together and have a good time. With Steve Gruber in particular these factors were right there off course and in these early years Wolle was always a bit in Steve’s shadow. But over the years Wolle ended up being the longest-lasting rider in the ‘Absinthe’ movies and there’s maybe only one movie Wolle wasn’t part of in those first 20 years.”
There are some beautiful black&white party pictures in the book, guys like Xaver Hoffman, Giacomo Kratter, the aforementioned Aesthetiker crew, I mean who for you was the hardest party animal in those golden days?
“Romain di Marchi obviously stood out amongst them all because he wasn't just partying the hardest, but you could always rely on him, whether it was a competition or in places like Whistler, going out shooting in the backcountry. We’d come home from the party at 4, 5 o’clock, totally smashed, but if there was a set time, an obligation to get out there, you could always rely on Romain. At 6 o’clock, we would gear up the sleds on the trailer, enter the gas station, it was still dark, and he was ready. Other riders were like ‘Oh my God, not today, I’m not coming. They would make excuses, like ‘Last night was just too hard for me. I can't’. But Romain, you could always rely on him. I mean, even though the night would not always end in a good way because he had the tendency to stir up a drama, whether it was with a bouncer or amongst friends. And, you know, he’d take some beating or distribute some beatings. But the closer you got to Romain, you always knew, that it wasn’t meant personally, but that it was just his attitude. So yeah, Romain definitely stands out. But most of the guys that I was travelling with or taking photos and filming with, had a tendency to send it pretty wild. Probably intuitively that was part of the reason why I selected those guys to be my travel dates. But I have to say, we were all professionals in sending it but also in delivering,”
Another larger-than life character, and one of the most influential snowboarders of all time is Terje Haakonsen, who’s obviously also featured in a section about his ground-breaking Arctic Challenge event in ‘Barely Made It’. How did you first come across Terje?
“When I first got into snowboarding in the early 90s, Terje was omnipresent. He was everywhere, he was the guy that was on every cover, and you knew that he was just the best in snowboarding. Any halfpipe competition he’d enter, he’d win and he was almost larger than snowboarding. It was in that transitional time – I mean when I was looking through the photos for the book, you can’t even imagine how those halfpipes looked. They were all hand-shaped by shovels, totally uneven, nothing really smooth – and for Terje it was always the biggest priority that the set-up for the riders is on par with their skills. And in the late 90s the consistency in those pipes just wasn’t there, so he was looking to create a snowboard event that wasn’t just driven by the ski federation or timings or strict schedules. That’s when he created the Arctic Challenge, which at first in 1999 wasn’t an official event, but an invitational happening. It had this aura and there were these rumours ‘Ah Terje is creating something up in Northern Norway’, and luckily I had the chance through Michi Albin to be part of this very first Arctic Challenge on the Lofoten Islands. It really was the next chapter of snowboarding that presented a new level of transition halfpipes and quarter pipes, that became the standard for contests around the world later on.”
Based on that first invitational event, a real Arctic Challenge contest was created and shortly after – no one else but Drew Stevenson and a couple of other guys started the Ticket To Ride (TTR) tour together with Terje. How important was that to change the nature of contest snowboarding?
“It was so important! It was always one of Drew's biggest qualities to bring people together, and his idea was to create a counter force to the FIS circuit, which was gaining momentum. If you wanted to be part of the Olympic qualifications, you had to run through the FIS, which until that moment was still not accepted. If a rider would actually ride FIS contests, it was almost seen as a betrayal. But then Drew managed to get all these independent competitions that were run by snowboarders or by the snowboard industry - you know the Air&Style, the Tokyo X-Trail Jam, the freestyle.ch, Burton European Open - all under one umbrella, which formed the TTR, the Ticket to Ride tour. And Terje and Henning from the Arctic Challenge, they played a very important role in that structure of the TTR, which was built like surf competitions with 3-4-5 and 6-Star events and a ranking system that was understandable for everybody. Even riders without sponsorship could work off their ranks and end up getting invited to these 5-or 6 Star events, which also had prize money, the right prize money to attract big-name sponsored riders.”
Would you agree that the TTR saved contest snowboarding by actually looking after the riders interests?
‘Totally. For Terje the main factor was to provide the perfect set-up for the riders, so they could snowboard to progress the sport. And that was the main motivation and theme for the Arctic Challenge, and that’s exactly what. snowboarding needed. Certain competitions had more of an ego approach, where it was all about winning. But it wasn't necessarily so important who was winning the Arctic Challenge. It was more important to all be there and progress snowboarding. But what was interesting back then, sometimes when the riders felt the competition wasn't really what they were looking for, or the setup wasn't really safe for riding, they would discuss amongst themselves to not run the contest and split the prize money. I mean, what other sports do you find where the athletes, the riders, would split the prize money?”
Who was your favourite rider you worked with in all those years?
“Obviously Nicolas Mueller is a filmmaker’s and photographer’s dream. You put so much energy, effort and blood and sweat into getting out there, travelling the world, you know, organising sleds, hotel rooms, waiting for the good weather. And when you’re finally up there, so many times you’d come down from long days up on the mountain and you wouldn’t get anything in the cam. But you knew, if you had Nicolas in your crew, the chances were pretty much 99% that you would come down with something usable in the cam. I’m not saying that with other riders, it wasn't like that. But with Nicolas and guys like Gigi and Wolle, with those three, their riding skills, their eye and sense for creativity and making the most out of the terrain – they were just a filmmaker’s dream.”
How important was the travel aspect for you, the fact that you managed to see the world through snowboarding?
“That was one of the main factors for me. I wasn’t just satisfied staying around Zurich or Switzerland. That was part of my motivation of my initial drive to actually board a plane and see different cultures and go on these adventures with like-minded friends. You know, Japan, China, Turkey, India, Himalaya, Chile, Canada, US, of course, Alaska – I can't believe all the places I have been to. But I haven't just been to these places by myself wondering what I'm doing there. I went to these places with some of my best friends and came back with some of the wildest adventure memories. I had 12, 13 years of travelling the world with my film camera, shooting for ‘Absinthe’. It was very intense, dealing with the sponsorship side, production, post production, filming myself, you know, travelling, organising all the riders, and then we also had a TV show in the States. It was intense but definitely worth it.”
Okay a couple of quickfire questions at the end. What was the craziest party night you ever had on a snowboarding trip?
“That was the night before the finals at the Tokyo X-rail Jam in Tokyo. It was after we’d already been on a bender for five days. We couldn't stand on our feet anymore. It was Saturday evening, 2am. We were almost all falling asleep in a hotel room in Tokyo when Reto Lamm came in and said ‘Hey, let's go out’. Off course the riders had to be fit, so it was just Yubi and myself, who joined Reto for something that turned into an unforgettable adventure. We ended up at some underground bar with some Japanese girls. And then it continued to some people's home and Yubi and me just couldn't believe ourselves what was going down.”
What was the standout film session you had with ‘Absinthe’?
“There are many but in 2005 on our last day in in Alaska in Haynes, we had a session with Kurt Wastell and Gigi Ruef. Justin Hostynek, David Vladica and myself shooting. We had prepared a big step over gap on a windlip up in the natural terrain. And we knew it was the very last day of the season. And Kurt and Gigi just cleared that gap effortlessly. It was insane. It was a perfect day. You know, no wind, not too cold. The job worked out great. It was a standout session and finishing a season on that note was just the icing on the cake.”
Who was the best rider you ever took pictures of or filmed with?
“Nicolas Mueller, because he just had this effortless style, those tweaks and him strapping into a snowboard, is like a match made in heaven.”
What’s your take on today’s snowboarding scene? How would you compare it to the golden years of the mid-to late 90s and early 2000s?
“I’m not so connected to the riders nowadays, but of course, it does feel that it has become a bit more sterile. But then I still see movie parts and video projects that go along the paths that we've been walking on, like the last Beyond Medals film. Then you had this ‘STRT Jam’, that went down in Innsbruck a few weeks ago, so there still are these underground, heavy-hitting, back to the roots, events. I think snowboarding continues to get people out there and motivates and brings like-minded people together to have a good time. I don't think it's all just the FIS and Olympic teams and trainers. But certainly what I try to do with my book is to pay tribute to our times and to have this testament of a time of snowboarding that hopefully sparks the motivation for the next generation.”
Drew Stevenson was always there at the key junctures in your life and I guess he was part of your journey all the way until now, when he’s been editing the ‘Barely Made It’ book. How important a role has he played in your life?
“He was always there in my life and it was great to have him here a few months ago on his Euro trip, spending day and night here in the office. It just felt like back in the old days when we were working on a project. Drew must have seen something in me in those early years when he was in the driver's seat at ‘Onboard’, motivating me to contribute photos to their magazine and introducing me to people when I was very young. You know seeing him on the dance floor at the parties was exactly what I could relate to and was motivating me as well. And approaching these film projects with Drew’s enthusiasm and connection to the scene, you know, he laid the foundation for so many things for me and so many others in snowboarding, right? I’m just really thankful of having met Drew and calling himself a dear friend throughout all these years. It was such a privilege to have him here and he had the stamina and motivation to help me really elevate the book to the next level. It’s just come full circle of where we started 26 years ago. I still can't believe to this day that me, as snowboarding's biggest fan, has become part of that story.”
,Barely Made It’ is available directly at patrickarmbruster.com
Text&interview: Goetz Werner
Photos: Patrick Armbruster