At the end of May 1996, snowboard history was defined in Riksgränsen, a small one-hotel ski resort about as far north as you can travel on the Scandinavian mainland. Sitting on top of the mountain at the Sweden-Norway border — you can see the ocean — but whether it’s the Atlantic or the Arctic is debatable. This remote place at 67° north is one of Sweden’s oldest ski areas, but globally pretty much unheard of before pro snowboarders found it in the early 90s. Over time, it has become a household name among winter’s in-crowds. Unfailingly each spring now, snowboarders, skiers, filmers, photographers, and hangers-on gather to get creative with the polar terrain.
That memorable spring day, some 25 years ago, most of that era´s top international riders had hiked across the mountaintop (and the border) into Norway and down through backcountry slush to a massive wind-shaped feature. Snowboarding was booming – the mid-90s was prime time if you were standing sideways in the snow –so following them was possibly the largest-ever gathering of freeriding media. Cameras were everywhere. Somehow, everybody knew something significant would happen at this very modest event at one of the smallest, most remote ski areas you can imagine.
The hot May afternoon nudged beer cans open among those unbuckling for the day. After all, even decent riders had difficulty making it up to the lip of what was in fact, a beast of a quarter pipe. By today’s standards, most pros would likely consider it an unrideable rut. Yet at this moment, two contenders realized this feature could make it possible to escape existing gravity-related barriers — if one could survive the seriously shaky in-run.
The first was Jan Aiko, a mogul skier from Kiruna, a nearby Swedish mining town. He had known these sculpted wind lips since childhood and schooled waves of foreign visitors who didn’t understand their secrets. Long before skis had tails, rockers or a width beyond 90 millimetres — Aiko earned everyone’s respect by throwing huge airs and innovative spins — years ahead of time. A photo of Aiko’s highest air landed him on the cover of Powder Magazine in the fall of 1996, and his career as one of Sweden’s first professional freeskiers took off.
But a snowboarder was sizing up the big lip too. Twenty-year-old Ingemar Backman hailed from Gällivare, Sweden, about five hours away. He had re-defined “big” and recently made an international breakthrough after winning some of the most significant events in snowboarding, ensuring wide publicity and financial success. Now, the quiet Swede with a unique style was being tracked by the most prominent media houses globally — all of whom were there that day.
He spotted an opportunity, screwed his bindings onto a longer board, and hiked higher than Aiko. With added speed, Backman launched massively higher than anyone else, and it felt like time stood still for a moment. His historical backside air method – about 8.5 meters off the lip and a world record at the time – was massive, graceful, and filled with style. No wonder snowboard magazines — around the world — put Backman’s record air on their covers, and most films released that fall had a segment from the session.
As cameras were analog back then, it took me a few hours to digitalize my clip and begin uploading it to one of the Internet´s first snowboarding websites. During the 10-minute upload, I even poured myself a second beer. Here is my video, in the same low quality as when it started to spread worldwide.
Just as my second beer started to kick in, one of the professional cinematographers tasked with tracking Backman rushed into the hotel lobby, looking quite pale. It was Todd Hazeltine from the American snowboard film company Mack Dawg. “I ran out of film a few seconds before… Did you … get it?” He appeared so desperate that I agreed to trade some electronics in return for my tape. Eventually, Todd got a better-quality shot from Pierre Wikberg, then a friend of Backman’s and an up-and-coming filmmaker who later established himself as one of the world’s top cinematographers and directors in action sports. His shooting location was similar to mine, the videos looked almost identical, but Pierre´s video had much better quality.
Yet today, one still asks, was Backman’s air massive enough to change our definition of “big”? After all, memories twist and turn and melt away, just like slushy tracks. Almost all memories are lost in time, but some live on in our collective memories. In this case, proof exists on many carefully stored-away magazine covers and the perhaps unforgettable Internet. However, the stories we tell are even more eternal.
Recently, in the fall of 2022 — at a rave deep in a Swedish forest, in one of those strange morning hours — Backman and I found ourselves unintentionally catching up. We do this once in a blue moon now, reconnecting in seconds after many years on the pro tour together. Suddenly, a middle-aged guy walked up — all I knew was that he was a big snowboarding fan, so I introduced them. After recovering from the shock of meeting one of his heroes in person, he bellows: “You are Backman? But you are bigger than ABBA!”
Between us Swedes, this is as big as it can get.