Mark Abma: Man On A Mission

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At first Mark Abma's story appears to be that of so many other professional skiers: a mogul and park kid who, through a combination of skill, opportunity and passion rose to join the ranks of skiing's elite. But the typical elements end there.

Arriving on the scene shortly after a crew of ex-mogul skiers changed skiing forever, Abma was part of the first wave of young talent to follow in the founders' footsteps, a wave that included Pep Fujas, Simon Dumont and David Crichton. What's special about Abma and his contemporaries is that in the shadow of giants they managed to leave an indelible impression in their own way; an ability to push the boundaries of what's possible on skis that is just as great or greater than anyone who came before or after.

As a skier, what's most uncommon about Abma is his natural ability to ski big mountains. This, blended with his park and pipe background, have made him one of the best all-around skiers in the world. As a person, what is uncommon about Abma is his big heart, humility, and calm preference for leading by example. SKIER sat down with him to discuss the arc of his career, his new environmental charity, and the critical importance of luck.

You've risen from humble origins, growing up skiing at Hemlock [in the Fraser Valley] and in its freestyle program. At what point did you know skiing was what you wanted to pursue?
I think it was while I was going to school. I was just a weekend warrior, so during the five days each week that I was in school, I was basically staring out the windows towards the mountains. School bus ride… staring at the mountains. It was infatuation. I didn't know how I wanted to do it, but I was like, As soon I get out of school, I'm going to get a VW van and ski bum it. It was that passion, and then things just kind of unfolded. My coach from Hemlock spoke with the B.C. Freestyle team coach and I got the chance to ski with those guys, and move to Whistler, the epicentre.

When did you decide to move on from moguls?
I did moguls for three years, and basically it just got to a point where I'd be locked into this whole mogul schedule from November through March. I'd be on the tour, and I'd be in icy Quebec watching the snow report for Whistler and see it pounding, and it started driving me bananas. That's when the whole freeskiing thing happened. The New Canadian Air Force came out, along with the Three Phils, and they were doing all these new tricks that I was trying to learn. But I was kind of a year behind, so I eventually pulled the pin to catch up and found a couch in Whistler for $200 [a month].

Your girlfriend Kristi Richards took a different path, stuck with moguls, and has had success as well. What are the major differences between the life of a professional mogul skier and a professional freerider?
Her training program is very regimented. She had her whole four years planned from 2006 to 2010, and knew what she was going to be doing every week. She's got coaches pushing her in the right direction and getting her in super-good shape, whereas I have to be self-driven. There's nobody to get me into shape or teach me new tricks; you have to do everything yourself and create your own schedule—which is what I love so much about it. It's funny when we come back together at the end of our respective seasons because I've just been floating, following storms, and she's been grinding on this regimented schedule; it's a bit of a head butt at first.

You've talked about the importance of being self-driven. What's the other indispensable quality that separates guys like you from the thousand other guys that come to Whistler every year ready to make a name for themselves?
I'd have to say luck. There's so many people doing it exactly the same. Lots of other guys out there skiing every day—living, breathing and eating it. Everybody's situation is kind of different, and I think it's a lot of being in the right place at the right time.Take Ian McIntosh for example. He competed in big-mountain freeskiing, put his time in there. I put my time in doing slopestyle and pipe
contests. I was lucky. The second year after I quit mogul skiing, [Anthony] Boronowski invited me to live with him, Julien [Regnier], J.P. [Auclair] and one of the Poor Boyz filmers in Whistler, and he paid my rent for that whole year because I didn't have any money. Hedragged me down to [Powder magazine's] Superpark and introduced me to K2. I have toattribute where I am now largely to Boronowski helping me out.

These days, most pros are busy releasing re-edits, updating blogs, tweeting, etc… But you've stuck to a more traditional film-and-photo-shoot approach to promotion. Are you comfortable with that, or is there pressure on you to be more "social?"
I'm not getting a lot of pressure, but I I'm putting some on myself like, Alright, it's time. I finally got a Facebook page this winter, [laughs] not that I've been on it very often—maybe four times in six months. But I think that's the next step for me: dedicating more time to promoting myself online. I guess I'm kind of old school; I just like to go out and ski, but obviously times are changing.

Yeah, and it must be tough to sit in front of a computer when you own a helicopter.
Well, yeah, [laughs] exactly! Who wants to sit in front of a computer when you can go fly around in your private heli? [Abma does not actually own a helicopter, but a certain group of skiers has jokingly spread the rumour that he does.]

Speaking of which, your star really took off after your first heli trip
to Bella Coola in 2004. At the time, did you realize how important that trip would be to your career?

No, at that time I just viewed it as my first heli trip. I'd been looking at photos and footage of Bella Coola for years and since I was going to be skiing with [Shane] McConkey, Hugo [Harrisson] and Ingrid [Backstrom], I knew what I was getting into. But I can't say that I rolled up super-amped. I definitely knew those mountains could work me but I didn't really have any expectations. I just figured I was tagging along with those guys and trying to learn. Andthat's what I did, I asked a lot of questions. Those guys were basically picking the lines and I was taking table scraps.

Those scraps ended up being pretty amazing. You walked away with "Male Performance of the Year" at the Powder video awards.
It was a trip for sure. I really lucked out again, because MSP was up there for six weeks. There was a crew there before us for two weeks and they got skunked. I was up there for two weeks, we sat for 10 days, and then got three good days and walked away with all that footage. Then the next crew came up for two weeks and got skunked.

Was that your first opportunity to ski with Shane McConkey, and was he influential?
He was one of the guys I always watched in movies, but I think what impressed me most was watching him ski-base. We're all just trying to piece our way down and stay on our feet, meanwhile he's looking at a completely different part of the mountain… It's hard to describe what it's like to see somebody ski off a 250-metre cliff, pull a parachute and land smiling and screaming and just having the time of his life.

You've also filmed with C.R. and knew of Arne [Backstrom] through Ingrid, and now all three of those Squaw guys are gone. How does a guy like you who's out there skiing really intense stuff, make peace with the dangers?
[Extended silence] I've definitely faced the concept of hurting myself really badly or passing away and being OK with it. Obviously, you don't want to pass away, b
ut it's not being afraid of it and not allowing it to rule over you, and just allowing things to happen as they're going to happen that allows you to do what you do. You can never really control everything.

You've started a charity called 1STEP. What's the goal?
Essentially to raise awareness within the ski community about our current environmental situation. Within that we're trying to help ski resorts start using their waste vegetable oil to power snowcats and fleet vehicles, and essentially start using what they have on-site to create a more sustainable operation. This August I'm heading down to Bariloche [in Argentina] to work with South America Snow Sessions. We're going to run their shuttle vehicles on vegetable oil to get the campers up to the hill. If that goes well, the resort will adopt it and start running their snowcats the same way. While we're in Bariloche, we're going to try other things: there's the resort end with nice First World living conditions for tourists, then you around the corner there's a big garbage dump with a whole Third World community. So we hope to build greenhouses for them from waste plastic water bottles, and in turn allow them to grow some of their own food.

Was there something that really motivated you to start 1STEP? Was it being surrounded by natural beauty so often, or was it a book, a movie…?
Actually, it was Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. As controversial as some people say it is, it definitely struck me to the point where I was l
ike, "I've got to do something. What?" I could keep just doing things within my own home, or go out and be a bit more vocal about it and utilize my position. It's been a big learning experience for sure, starting at the place in my heart where I want to help, then trying to figure out how to do it. But I think I'm starting to hone in and realize 1STEP's direction.

Pro skiing is pretty carbon intensive with all the jet travel, helicopters, snowmobiles, and trucks. Does it work against you that most skiers consider the opportunity to emit that much carbon the greatest thing to ever happen to them?
Yes, it's a tricky place to be for sure. Without these conveyances we can't explore and get to the beautiful places we get to experience. We're also putting down a carbon footprint by just going up the ski hill, so where do we draw the line? We can't stop everything we're doing, but I think we can improve what we're doing: obviously my snowmobile isn't good for the environment, so I got the cleanest-operating sled I could; I've got my big truck running on waste vegetable oil, and this year I basically switched up my cat-skiing time for ski touring, which really is an amazing experience.

Are there any more steps you've taken to reduce your own carbon footprint?
We're switching our household over to micro-hydro, and reducing a lot of impact that way. Just being aware of when lights are on, what the temperature's at—all these small things add up when combined amongst everybody. That's what a lot of people overlook, they're like, "Well, it's just me doing this." Whereas if everyone stopped throwing plastic grocery bags into the garbage, well then… I mean, when you go to a garbage dump that's the one thing you see everywhere—fucking plastic!

Is there anything else you want to say?
I still hear a lot of people say that going green is just a fad, but I don't think that at this point in the game it can be anymore. Obviously we have a lot of issues in our world right now, but it's about caring about our planet more than trying to join a green cult.

Mark Abma is sponsored by Salomon, Dakine, Smith, Whistler Blackcomb, and Magic Potion.

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