It was a normal spring day at Northstar-at-Tahoe in 2009. This was my fifth consecutive winter with a season pass to the mountain, so it was just the typical snowboarding adventure of finding my favorite lines and hanging out with my friends. It was a Tuesday, so we had the whole place to ourselves (yes, I skipped a lot of classes in college for my snowboarding addiction) and we rode up to the empty chairlift behind a lone-snowboarder wearing all black and long red hair.
That’s right. With a nearly empty park and a beautiful sunny day, my friends and I realized we were sharing the mountain with the snowboarding Olympic Gold Medalist and all-around extreme sport icon Shaun White.
For those that don’t know Shaun White, he is one of the top extreme athletes on the planet. He holds the record for the most X-Games gold medals and most Olympic gold medals by a snowboarder, and has won 10 ESPY Awards.
I grew up loving to skateboard and snowboard. I spent my summers riding around town on my skateboard and my winters cruising the powder on my snowboard on Mt. Shasta. I always paid attention to the professional snowboarding scene, as these were the people I idolized.
I’m the same age as Shaun White, born in 1986. I learned about him while watching a snowboarding video at the age of 11 years old. He was pretty incredible even back then:
So I’ve followed White throughout most of his career. And today, I got to follow him on the mountain. As a team rider for Vail Resorts, he spent a lot of time at Northstar back then. For years, they even named their halfpipe the “Shaun White Halfpipe.”
So here’s my story:
Back then, we were terrain park junkies, so we rode the Vista Express most of the day at Northstar. That’s where you’ll find all the best jumps, rails and their legendary halfpipe. Naturally, that’s also where Shaun was.
He got off the lift in front of us, strapped in quickly and started heading down the less-populated run below the lift, featuring smaller jumps and rails. We followed. He flew down the hill with ease, throwing 360’s and cab-270 front boards on anything that got on his way. Flawlessly cruising through the smaller terrain park, he made his all the way down to his specialty – the halfpipe.
This was the point of the day I learned the most about Shaun White. He didn’t enjoy the mountain like anyone else there that day. He rode down quickly to the halfpipe, slowly trekked down the right side 3/4 of the way down and waited. He waited for everyone to clear out before he dropped in and…
THREW A DOUBLE-CORKED 1260 AND LANDED IT!
To this day, it was the greatest trick I’ve seen in real life and he landed so smoothly. After I saw that it became clear to me – 99 percent of the people on the mountain were here for pleasure. Shaun White was all business.
Each run down the hill was a practice for his soon to be two more Olympic Gold Medals in the snowboard halfpipe. The guy was there to get better, plain and simple, and put on a show for onlookers in the process (with the right timing, you could watch him huck on the halfpipe from the overhead view from the lift).
We followed him at a distance for a little bit longer before we went back to our regularly scheduled pleasure snowboarding. Because there were only about 20 people consistently riding that lift on that day, we were able to watch him launch that trick probably 10 more times, once right in front of our faces from the lift.
It’s too bad this was before smart phones took hold of society, because I would have a ton of footage to share. But it’s a moment I’ll be able to keep with me for the rest of my life. I assume that’s what it was like watching Michael Jordan in person in the 90’s.
Just three years later, he scored a perfect 100 on his run at the 2012 X Games:
It’s been a fun ride to watch Shaun White grow as a rider and a human being. A true inspiration for us snowboard junkies. Cheers to you, Flying Tomato.
Zach O’Brien is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Active NorCal