Erik has been killing it since before Newschoolers even existed and yet continues to fly under the radar to this day. I have to confess to being a little excited when he agreed to this interview as he's one of my all time favourite skiers. Not just because he can ski anything and everything with style, but because he's not afraid to speak his mind and do things his own way. Over the course of the next few weeks his answers challenged some of my perceptions of skiing and the ski industry, while reinforcing others. One thing is for sure though, he's one of the most interesting and articulate skiers in the the game. Without further ado, Erik Olson.
I'll start with some background, you grew up skiing a tiny hill in Western NY, what was that like?
I grew up skiing your stereotypical mom and pop ski hill. The rope tows were always breaking down, it opened around christmas, closed the first week in march, no terrain park, and it smelled like cow shit. The nice thing was that it was less than a ten minute drive from my home. This meant that I could ski pretty much every day after school. At the time, the owners didn't really know what to make of the whole terrain park movement. There wasn't an official park so I was always building jumps around the hill. I think this was an important factor in what shaped my skiing. Having control over your environment while learning is important in any setting.
How did you go from there to deciding that skiing was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
As a kid, the first big thing that grabbed my attention was when Johnny Mosley did the 360 mute at the Nagano Olympics. The second and most important was finding Freeze Magazine at a rite-aid in my home town. Freeze connected a lot of dots for me. It was like having a big brother show you the way. Although I’ve focused much of my life around skiing and know that I will always be a skier, I also know that skiing does not define me as a person. I have other passions and interests in life that I’m excited to pursue.
What would you say inspires you both in and outside of skiing?
I think my main influence would just be the people I normally ski with, friends. I don't try to emulate anyone or anything through my skiing. When I was young I did but don't feel that anymore. Outside of skiing I'm inspired by music the most. The process of creating it and recording it is pretty awesome. I like bands that do it all themselves and don't care if something isn't up to some bullshit standard.
Erik in 2009, when he was living in his car. Photo: Ethan Stone
I’ve heard from Sami that you’re pretty amazing at baseball. What made you pick skiing over a career in a more ‘established’ sport?
This story may have been lost in translation. My grandfather played for a New York Yankees farm team in the 40’s. I was super into baseball when I was younger but I could have never made a career out of it.
Many younger NS’ers might not know this, but you were the first guy to land a switch 10 in the pipe, how did that go down?
The previous year (‘05) I had placed at the same event and I felt a little bit of pressure going into it. I wanted to prove that it wasn't a fluke result. The pipe was 20ft+ which at the time was a new thing. It made transitions smoother and also allowed you to go much faster. The switch 10 was a bit spontaneous. I just took a ton of speed into my last hit and it just came around. Comp skiing was loose then. It was a different era.
Given that you were pushing the limits of skiing, what made you pick the ‘ski bum’ life over the (somewhat) more comfortable route of becoming a contest pro?
During that time I was finishing my university degree and still living on the East Coast. Bottom line was that I didn’t have the money to travel all winter trying to be a pro skier. It wasn't really an option. The East Coast scene was actually pretty awesome though. There were local comps just about every weekend with cash purses and I was doing a ton of filming with Meatheads. I was having a good time, I didn't feel pressured.
and in 1999.
You’ve been in the game a while now, what would you say have been the biggest changes in the ski scene and industry over the years you’ve been involved?
I think the original feeling that captivated the early generation and what fueled the development of this movement is nearly gone. It was skiing's revolution. In the 90s skiing as a whole was NOT cool and I felt that we were fighting for our place on the hill. I remember many instances of being kicked out of ‘snowboard parks’ and being told I wasn't allow to hit features. Now, our type of skiing is commonplace and accepted as the norm. It's now marketable and commercially viable to the mass media. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here. Change is inevitable and natural.
You’ve always seemed to actively avoid media attention and shied away from the ‘pro skier’ label, why is that?
Personally I think I have always wanted to feel that I was out there doing whatever it was purely for myself. Once the PRO label gets attached, I can’t help but feel a little like a stuntman or something. I also never really made it a goal of mine. Every year my goal has been to come out healthy and have fun with it. I’m on my own program and it’s still going strong.
It seems to be working for you, I can’t recall hearing of any major injuries you’ve had. What do you do in the off season to keep yourself healthy and fit?
I try to live an active and balanced lifestyle. I don’t have a workout schedule, diet plan, or anything like that. Maintaining a consciousness allows for healthy choices to be made naturally. Our physical bodies are vehicles for the duration of our lives. You have to treat them right.
Over the years you’ve had to earn enough to buy food, gas and passes, what are the best jobs you’ve worked to keep skiing?
The best are seasonal jobs. Work a ton in the off season and leave your winter wide open. Jobs that give you discounts on gear or at the mountain are always good as well.
You spent a good while living in your car, how long was that for and what are some good tips for the aspiring ski bum?
I lived in a small compact car for 4-5 months while ski bumming at Hood. My best advice is don’t be a dirty gypsy scumbag. Respect the people and things around you. If you manage your money the trip goes on.
In that episode of TC your housecar is lined with books, what have you read recently?
I haven't been reading much lately, last thing I read was Neil Young’s book, Waging Heavy Peace.
Nowadays even a 4 minute edit is too long, a page long article is too much to read, how do you feel about the move towards shorter and shorter format media?
As long as it is quality I don’t think length really matters that much. Our society in general is just moving toward a faster turnover media. It is what we are becoming used to.
You appeared in Meathead’s films for years, but as far as I can see you didn’t film for Neo, is that in response to the change in format or simply moving on to other things? I know it’s never been your priority, but did you film with anyone this past season?
I just live on the other side of the country now. It’s just hard to plan on the east with such dynamic weather. I did shoot with them this winter, just by chance. I was helping Andy with his Tell A Friend Tour and was able to get a few days in.
Erik handplants while Rob Heule Airs. Photo:Rocky Maloney
In a previous interview, you talked about how you thought the Olympics were going to change park skiing. With the games now in the past do you still see things developing the way you predicted?
I’ve seen skiing change over the last 20 years. I know where its been and where its headed. The Olympics themselves didn't do much. What is and will continue changing is at the grassroots level. Organization in a big way. Every kid on twin tips is a membership fee to the USSA and similar organizations. The goal of these organizations is to instill an olympic dream into everyone of these kids. Training, coaching, traveling, memberships, etc, all cost money and these organizations are the main beneficiary. It comes down to jobs and money. The local comp scene on the east coast is nothing what it was like when I grew up. The majority of events are now USSA events where kids compete for points and plastic trophies. This sounds like little league. I was drawn to freeskiing because it was the farthest thing from an environment that is now taking over the grassroots/entry level of our sport. You don’t need coaches and you don’t need organization. All you need is to ski with a group of friends and have fun with it.
Will Wesson once said that, in his view, freeskiing cannot be competitive. And that once it becomes a competition, it's no longer freeskiing. Do you agree?
Yes, I think modern day competitive skiing is more of a specific discipline than it is freeskiing.
Where do you think skiing will be in 5 years time?
In 5 years I think finding a half pipe to ride will be limited to Olympic training areas or areas that hold top level events. I think park skis are going to get fatter and possibly shorter. I think ski touring is going to continue to grow. I think powder days are going to be tracked out even faster. I think straight skis might make a legit comeback.
A straight ski comeback is something I’ve never really considered, what makes you think that?
It’s just a different style of skiing. It takes more technique, finesse, and style to ski a straight ski. I think it forces you to be more engaged with the mountain. Modern day skis are very easy to ski and do a lot of the work for you. I think as skiers we naturally do things that are more difficult and I believe that would be one of the appeals of a straight ski come back.
Doing stunts for the kids on the Tell A Friend Tour. Photo: Dan Brown
On a completely different note, you’ve been running the Yoke Collection for 2-3 years now. How is that going?
Yoke turns three years old this summer and I’m excited to see where I can take it. The company was started on a very small amount of money and it was made back in just a few months. From there we have relied on 100% organic growth to expand the company. This will be the first year I can fully focus on the business by making it my full time job. I would like to thank everyone who has ordered over the years. I think skiing needs more brands that have people in charge who have actually lived and breathed it.
Why the name Yoke?
It resonated on a few levels. I see it as a tool for change. The ox takes up the yoke to turn the soils. Skiing needs the soils turned every once in a while. It needs brands that support skiing and brands that give back. Yoke is committed to supporting and producing media. As we grow I look forward to supporting and giving back to our team riders on a more substantial level.
I recently wrote about the corporations involved in skiing, what is your take on how brands act in the industry?
I judge brands by their actions not how they identify themselves legally on paper. Brand size does not predetermine intention. Most importantly, brands need to re-invest into the industry regardless of their size. Without supporting media or team riders they should have no business in this industry and as a ski community we should not support brands that are not committed to giving back.
How do you think a brand should 'give back'?
I think giving back is mostly an energy thing. I know in my life I was highly influenced and motivated by other skiers, brands, films, magazines, websites, etc. Those things played a huge role in the direction my life has taken over the last 15 years. As a brand, I think it is important that you keep the torch burning. Keep the stoke for the next generation. There are brands out there that do a great job at this and there are some that don't. Ultimately it is up to the consumer to decide (or care) and I think this is something that the ski community should be more pro-active about.
At Yoke, you make all the hats and screen all the tee’s/hoodies yourself, how long does it take you to put a drop together? Would you consider outsourcing?
It’s hard to say. Doing most of your own production is time consuming but it saves us a lot of money. Most importantly I’m developing my skills and knowledge to make decisions if I choose to have our products manufactured elsewhere. I’m open to outsourcing eventually and understand that as we continue to grow this will most likely be necessary.
Shutting down Chad's Gap. Photo: Yoke
Will we ever see a new Wiglaf album?
I don’t think so.
Three Ben and Jerry’s flavours?
I haven't had ice cream in a long time! My cravings are gone, don’t know what happened??
Three favourite skiers?
Dudes on the Yoke team, originators not emulators.
Cortez the Killer, Neil Young
Down by the River, Neil Young
Cow Girl in the Sand, Neil Young
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, Bruce Tremper
Green mtn of Vermont
Cascades of Oregon
Swiss Alps of Glarus Valley