Interview Vítek Ludvík - Love Alaska
Who are we dealing with here?
My name is Vitek Ludvik. I love nature, the ocean and the mountains. And traveling. I've been taking pictures for years. A few years ago I added guiding splitboarders in the winter and paragliders in the summer.
How long have you been snowboarding?
In 1987 I started riding a board I made at home in my garage from a photo printed in TWSkateboarding magazine.
As a photographer, how did you get into splitboarding?
Ten years later, I went snowboarding in Alaska with a friend for the first time. We also happened to stop by a snowboard shop in Anchorage. There was a splitboard leaning against the wall. The guy, the owner of the shop, Jay Liska, introduced us to the thing as the best thing for snowboarding in the cosmos.
I didn't get my first splitboard until 2001. I was spending a lot of time in Canada at the time and freeriding a lot with skiers. Keeping up with them on snowshoes was purgatory. With the split, they were almost too much for me then.
Getting to splitboard for the first time in Alaska? You couldn't have done better!
Going to Alaska gave us - me and my friend Karl - the idea while having a snack during the high altitude. We were painting cement silos at a concrete plant over the holidays. They had piles of sand there, too, and we were looking at which way the hills could go if they were fifty times bigger.
We thought we'd better stop looking at it and go somewhere. And if we're gonna go, we'd better go to the best place. Everybody knew where the best place to snowboard was back then.
Less than a month after the aforementioned part-time job, I left college, where I only lasted a few months, and went to Hawaii to surf with the money I had saved. From there I went to Colorado for the winter, where Karel finally joined me and we were able to go.
In the end, what got me the most was how easily we made this huge dream come true and all that preceded it. It only took a year and a half and we were sitting on a plane from Denver to Anchorage.
It was the greatest adventure we've ever had. We were only 21, too.
"Spring 1996. After a year of surfing in Hawaii and a winter season in the mountains of Colorado, our big dream became a reality... My buddy Karl and I are leaving Colorado Springs for Alaska."
I was going to ask you a few questions, but there's nothing left to say but... Please continue!
"Thompson Pass, just outside the fishing town of Valdez. We missed winter by about a fortnight. Still, we were riding in powder in the upper parts of the surrounding mountains."
"They ruined my board during transport on the plane. I didn't notice it until we were going up the hill for the first time. So we stripped back down and went to Valdez to find a new snowboard. We found the guy who made the Bamer Alaska guns. He promised to fix my board and loan me one of his creations while the glue dried."
First we drove to Thompson pass near Valdez and then took a plane to Denali.
Our plan was to go down Mount McKinley. Denali, that's a serious mountain. From the airport in the village of Talkeetna, you fly to the first camp and then on your own, for several days, until the last high altitude camp, where you wait for weather suitable for climbing the peak.
"At the end of April we flew from the village of Talkeetna to Denali. While it was already spring in the valley, the temperatures on Mt Mc Kinley were below -40."
"Unloading an aircraft on the Kahiltna Glacier 2200m. The pilot rushes back to the valley, the forecast was bad and an hour after his departure the weather deteriorated. If he had delayed, he wouldn't have taken off. For the next seven days, visibility was only a few metres due to a snowstorm."
We must have looked like aliens to all those climbing expeditions. While everybody was stomping up without a break, with the vision of the summit, we often left all our stuff beside the track and climbed the surrounding slopes with our backpack boards to get some stuff here and there and then continue on the track.
Pochod ze základního tábora od letadla do výškového tábora pod vrchol, trval asi pět, šest dní. Tam jsme pak další dva týdny bydleli ve sněhový jeskyni a čekali na hezčí počasí vhodné k výstupu na vrchol.
"First vertical camp 4300m. Here we are waiting for the weather to climb to the top. In the background, right in the middle, are the traces of our arches. Each day during our ten day wait we managed one beautiful ride in the morning before the weather regularly broke after noon. Below the ridge, the Orient Express roundabout, where our ascent route led, continues."
Every day we did an acclimatization climb of about a thousand meters and then a descent back to the camp. As we were getting ready at the top, all the climbers in camp came out of their snow holes and tents and looked at us with binoculars. When we made it down, they applauded us and crawled back into their holes. We were their only diversion during their boring wait for the weather. It really wasn't in our favor. It was always nice in the morning, then at one it got cloudy and started snowing. By 9:00 p.m., it cleared up again.
But at least we had a great ride, while others in the camp just milled around tents and snow holes and waited. After ten days, the forecast said it would get a little better.
"Sometimes when it cleared up during the climb between the progression camps, we would leave our packs on the trail and hit some of the slopes in the vicinity to make the day more interesting with powder arches."
We set off early in the morning. We climbed the Orient Express route, which is a really huge couloir. There were two Slovenians climbing up the Messner Couloir next to us. We each had crampons and one ice axe. We agreed that what we didn't climb with one ice axe we probably wouldn't climb, so we didn't need two. Plus, the ice axes were expensive for us. Up to about three quarters of a pitch it was fine, even though the gully had a brutal slope and exposure.
"The weather was forecast to calm down. We left the camp at three in the morning. The metres were gaining fast, and in a few hours we were in the middle of the exposed face of the Orient Express at 5600m."
I still shudder when I think about it. But at the top, the snow turned to ice. We decided to leave the boards in place and climb to the top without them. Then come back the same way.
It didn't take long before my old strappy leather crampons started falling off my boots in the ice. There was nothing I could do about it. The worst moments followed, not only of our trip to Alaska. We backed out and somehow I managed to get back to my board. But then the downhill was unreal.
"I came back to Alaska in 2005 with the Quiksilver team. As a photographer. The fishing town of Haines."
It certainly didn't just happen on one visit, did it?
I've been to Alaska six times since then. I go there whenever I can. I didn't go there for the first time until last year. But this time, we were 100% on it. Until then, it was snowshoes and airplanes.
I guess you can't do without flying on an AK, right?
Flying by helicopter, but especially by airplane, belongs to Alaska. You can fly almost without exception on Denali, as well as under Mount Saint Eias, where I've also been. We got dropped on a glacier in Denali, but then everything was on its own there.
Axel Naglich, Peter Resl, John Johnson
Is it even possible to describe what goes on in a person's head?
It's hard to approximate the feeling when you're standing on a big hill on AK. Everything there is much bigger than it appears from below and the snow sticks to slopes that probably wouldn't exist in Europe.
Tommy Brunner, Tomahawk
You're looking down into that hole underneath you and you're feeling all kinds of funny. You can't believe you're gonna be down there in a few moments on a surfboard. It's almost against nature. But there's no other way down.
In the first arc you don't know what's happening to you, your heart's pounding and you're squinting, but soon you realise it's working, the edges are holding, everything's working. Then the second arc, when the terror leaves you and the euphoria comes and then it takes off. You can't feel anything but the board under your feet and the g's in the corners.
"Tommy Brunner, Martin Černík and guide at the top of the most beautiful hill I have ever seen. I had a huge dilemma when dropping the team off. To get off, take pictures at the top and ride it, or stay and take pictures from the heli. Tommy's photo from that ride got me a bunch of photo awards and probably a lot of work. Still, it's a hill I won't forget, I'll have to go back."
The ride is endless, unreal. It is something that a person who loves freeride, whether on a board or on skis, should experience. I've only been up the hill a couple of times where the spins we know from the videos were. The conditions, weather and snow came together in a way that was unbeatable.
But I guess not everyone may want to experience such a cauldron of emotions.
And riding for the common man?
I think everyone enjoys it where we go. No need to scramble up the dirtiest hills. There are also incredibly long, quite gentle plains that even the average ski mountaineer can get down.
What kind of riding do you personally like?
It was several long, steep Alaskan lines, the kind of which I would hardly be able to find in the Alps, that made the strongest impression on the disc in my head. Still, I probably enjoy riding long flats like on Silvretta and a steep couloir here and there.
"Even though I was taking pictures, I had the opportunity to ride some beautiful hills."
What about the people, the mentality, the food, the beer?
Getting to know people is one of the best things about travelling. We met a lot of great people in Alaska. It occurs to me now that people there are friendly to each other maybe because one never knows when they will need someone's help. And in Alaska, there are damn few people and plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.
We went fishing at the pub. I had the local salmon, which tastes completely different to the salmon from Lidl. Alaskan salmon is dry and tough as a boot. Hardly any fat at all. I really like that. But other than that, it's nothing special... unlike Japan. We rarely eat anything that's common back home.
We were a great bunch during our last trip to Alaska. One of us, Mushroom, is an excellent cook. So we ate a lot of great food. It was topped off with homemade mayonnaise for the fries.
American beer? In Alaska, we bought the local brand, Alaskan. They make several types and it tasted really good. But I don't normally need beer to live.
Camera! Do you keep it with you all the time, or do you put it away? What do you wear?
I always have my camera with me. As well as a beeper, a scoop and a probe. Still, I enjoy the ride. On the other hand, it has another dimension for me. I don't feel like I'm just messing around on the hills. I'll take a picture for my mates who are there with me and they'll be happy.
In my backpack I have an Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mk III and 12-100 and 8mm lenses. That's enough for 90% of my shots. The Olympuses are smaller than the competition but the results are excellent. Then there's the Gopro.
Speaking of gear... Tell me, what do you ride?
I had a Garu and an LTB 159 in Alaska. I also have a Jones Hovercraft 159. Each of those boards has its own thing. The Hovercraft is kind of a cruiser for everybody. It goes easily from edge to edge and glides easily over the snow through the woods or plains. But at high speeds, it's a little unstable. I've had a couple of times where I needed a foothold when hitting harder snow, but there was nothing to lean on.
In the LTB, I have that support. It's an extremely versatile board, which is Green's doing. Great in powder in the woods and in the groove, high speeds and short turns. It won't let you down, even in crust. The wide tip works well in powder, but gives you a hard time when you need to get down a steep ice wall or a long frozen traverse.
The Gara is a precise, accurate and reliable splitboard. It's a fine-tuned, sharpened garage board. I get that feeling from this board. It's great for steep, high-speed grooves. It handles well in powder, too.
I use Spark bindings. I enjoyed riding the Union, too. It's softer and feels like a normal snowboard. But I have a 30+ degree angle on my front foot, and the Union goes up to 25.
Black Diamond and Jones poles, Contour skins.
Perfect! Anything in conclusion?
I'd also like to mention that we're doing splitboard camps
And I would like to thank GARA, LTB, Smith and Snowbitch for their support.