By Cody Liska
This interview is an abbreviated version of Crude Conversations EP 086 King of the Hill Part 2 with Competitors Julie Zell and Steve Klassen. Listen to the podcast here.
King of the Hill was a legendary snowboard competition held in Thompson Pass back in the 1990s. Three days and three disciplines. There was Extreme Day, where riders competed for the most challenging, but stylish line down a mountain; There was Downhill Day, where a race course was set-up and riders competed for the fastest time. And then there was Freestyle Day, where competitors battled for who could land the best tricks. There were helicopters and airplanes constantly landing and taking off, flying competitors to their mark and other riders to revisit old lines and to pioneer new ones. There was a pervasive feeling of wonder and madness—everyday people pushed the limits of snowboarding and the durability of the human body.
The entire event—on and off-hill—was characterized by an anything-goes, outlaw attitude. Everyday was a party and every night that party intensified. Drugs and alcohol were everywhere. And it wasn’t unusual for guns to be added to the mix.
There were the partiers, the general participants and the competitors. Julie Zell and Steve Klassen were competitors. They were the ones who got up early and made conscious notes of their surroundings and snow conditions. If they partied, they did so sparingly knowing full-well that the next day they could be deep in the Chugach Mountains, surrounded by variable conditions. For their skill and preparation. Julie and Steve both won King of the Hill multiple times. Steve won twice and Julie won three times.
For both of them, Thompson Pass, during those nascent years of snowboarding, was an outlaw world of guideless backcountry runs, heavy partying and the criminality that King of the Hill attracted. It was far from the world Julie and Steve had come from. In many ways, it represented a more primitive order to life where everyone was able to adhere to their baser instincts. Today, you can see the lasting impression King of the Hill made on more modern day snowboard competitions like the Verbier stop in the Freeride World Tour and Kings and Queens of Corbet’s in Jackson Hole. Although the extracurriculars of those competitions are much more tame and less primitive.
Cody Liska: What was your first impression of Valdez?
Julie Zell: My first impression was total terror because my brothers had gone up and I heard horror story after horror story of [Mount] Diamond and WESC (World Extreme Championships, the freeride competition in Thompson Pass that came before King of the Hill). And I just didn’t even think that I had the ability to go ride those mountains. And when I went up there, I was definitely awe-struck, naive. But once I got in them, I guess I discovered that me and the Chugach are pretty tight.
Steve Klassen: Yeah, for me, I guess I saw Greg Stump’s movie Groove Requiem and it had Scott Schmidt and Dan Donnelly going up there, to Valdez. And that was the first time I think any of us really saw skiing in Valdez, was in that movie. That spurred me on to go up there the next season and check it out. I went up there with a friend of mine and we stayed at the Tsaina [Lodge]. I watched the first World Extreme Skiing Championships from the road. It wasn’t until the next year that they had the first snowboard competition, which was the World Extremes. Then the next year was King of the Hill. It was awesome. I mean, my first impression of it was just massive mountains that you could take the heli right to the top of and ride down on your own. You didn’t have to have a guide back then.
CL: What was it like to pick a peak and if the heli pilot thought he could land on it he did with no guides?
SK: Well, you had to pick a peak that you knew you could get back to the road from. That was one of the criteria. Every once in a while, but not very often, you’d pick something where they’d have to pick you up somewhere, back there [in the mountains] somewhere and then fly you to another peak. But you rarely did that because you never were quite sure if they were going to come back and get you [laughs].
JZ: I don’t know if I did any peaks without the guide. My first year, we did the plane. My first run was up above ABA and I was with this friend and my brothers and they said, “we’re gonna meet up at the glacier.” And I was like, “really? Where do I go?” And they said, “oh, anywhere you want.” So I started riding down and I saw this track and then right at the last minute I realized this track went into a hole. So I cut hard left and I sort of looked back over my shoulder and I remember thinking, “that’s weird, I don’t see a track coming out.” And I started hugging more to the right side where the other people had been. And when we got to the bottom, Doug Coombs was back up there and they were pulling someone out of that hole. Could you imagine if I had ridden right in on top of the guy? I didn’t even know what a crevasse was at the time. I was just like, “whoa, that was close. What was that?”
CL: And did that influence your understanding of Thomson pass at all, from that point forward?
JZ: It influenced my fear factor, my careful factor. I still didn’t have great understanding. It wasn’t until, I don’t know, at the end of the week after the first King of the Hill and I found out what a bergschrund was. I mean, I stepped through a cornice on my first year, my snowboard stopped me from going through. Yeah, a fear factor was definitely my learning curve. I knew nothing.
CL: What was the stuff that gave you that healthy apprehension?
JZ: Imminent death [laughs]. I didn’t know at the time, I guess—I didn’t really know what could kill me. And I knew that I didn’t snowboard because I wanted to die anywhere on a mountain. I actually remember a great chat Nick Perata and I had at the bar at The Dome, late one night. And we were going on and on about how much we both hated the expression, “Oh, at least they died doing what they love.” I don’t want to die doing what I love. I want to die of old age in my bed. So we made a pact that if anything ever happened to us—an untimely death in the mountains—to make sure that they took care of the folks that said that expression.
CL: What did the snowboard industry look like back then?
SK: I’m going to tell this, the story that kind of nails that one. It was back in ‘96, probably when I went up to the TransWorld industry convention up in Banff. And Jake Burton was sitting to my left, probably four or five people down. And a guy from ESPN got up and he said, “hey, everybody, we’re gonna start this new thing called the X Games.” And he explained it and he talked about how it was gonna happen. And I stood up and I said, “you know, if you’re gonna do this X Games competition, you’re working off that word extreme from the “X,” why don’t you put big mountain snowboarding in it?” And he goes, “well, we’re holding it at Snow Summit. So, it has to be able to be done at Snow Summit.” And I was like, “you know, if you do this, you could kill this side of the sport, the big mountain riding side of the sport.” And they didn’t really care. So, they essentially took the word extreme and started the X Games and kind of just took it all away. And right around the same time, snowboarding halfpipe got into the Olympics and several of the sponsors that were sponsoring King of the Hill pulled out because their money had to go to halfpipe riders instead. I was fortunate that I was in a good spot. I had won the King of the Hill, and then I won the Verbier contest.
CL: So, is it safe to say that X Games took money away from King of the Hill?
SK: Yeah, because snowboard companies wanted their athletes in the Olympics and in X Games, you know. And they stopped caring about big mountain riding. Luckily, I got in there just beforehand and I was able to get some European sponsors that ended up lasting for a certain amount of time. But there was no money in the United States for big mountain riding at all. Like, you couldn’t find big mountain pictures in magazines. It was all about jibbing. And only what you did in the X Games is what it was about. And there was a long time it was like that.
JZ: Could you imagine if we were in our heyday now in the industry, Steve?
SK: Oh, yeah. Different World.
CL: I feel like the snowboard industry, back in those King of the Hill days, for men and for women were two very different experiences. How do you think it was different for a woman in the snowboard industry in the ‘90s than it was for their male counterparts?
JZ: Well, we can make it pretty simple: Verbier. The very first year, Steve won 10 grand and I got—it was about two or three. But not only that, the second place guy got five grand. So second place men’s got more than first place women’s. Third place men’s got three grand and third place women’s got a basket with chocolates and a bottle of wine. She was so pissed. And that was the discrepancy pretty much across the board for all prize monies. The sponsors were really into the guys.
I have this saying—because I’ve thought that it would be great as a movie or book—that there’s only room for one. There was only room for one female on a team. That was my experience. Maybe some of the freestylers had a different experience, but there was only room for one female in the heli. Sometimes there was only room for one female in the magazines. It was very rare that you’d see a female on the cover. And then there was only room for one in the movies. And the big argument with the sponsors was always, “well, there’s not as many women buying gear.” Well, if you’re not marketing to them, why would they think that it’s a sport for them? You know, I felt like I could have been a huge advocate for women in the sport and a huge asset financially if I had one company listen to me in the ‘90s. Now, there’s a lot more women out. There still doesn’t seem to be as many, but that’s just the nature of the sport or something, I don’t know.
But there were guys that I loved flying with back then, people that I loved being in the mountains with. [Guys] I felt good about and that we communicated well—it was equal. So there were some, what do you call it now? Early adopters. There were some guys that were early adopters to equal rights for women in the mountains. Steve was one of them.
SK: You know, I was at a unique perspective, being a competitor and then also owning a snowboard shop in the industry when it was going down in the mid ‘90s and into the early 2000s. And it was really unfair to Julie and the other big mountain pro girls who were really good, whether it was Ruth Leisibach or Geraldine Fasnacht or any of the the early girls because what would happen is that they were better big mountain riders than the girls that were out there filming and taking photos, but those other girls had their gig entrenched with the filmers and the photographers and they just went out and made nice powder terms. And that’s all that the companies really cared about. It was really unfair to the girls that were the good ones in the sport because they didn’t get recognized. It went on for a long time too. So, I just got to come out and say that.
JZ: Thank you. I appreciate that. It was pretty hard to be on the other side of that.