The Inertia Mountain Contributing Editor
matty1

Alpental Backcountry Photo: Sam Kosola


The Inertia

I grew up in a small drinking town in western Wisconsin, blue collar and rough around the edges. It was the type of place where dads start sneaking their boys beers before they reach double digits in age and DUI’s start racking up by senior year in high school.

Don’t get me wrong, I had some profoundly-good times growing up. We were young and we were free. One of the perks of growing up in the country is that when there were no house parties to be had, there was an empty field to throw down in. And there was always a well-stocked garage fridge to raid.

With the good times came the bad as well, by 10th grade I was frequently in court due to truancy issues and was constantly on the verge of getting the boot from my family. Every weekend became a cat and mouse game with our local law enforcement, and by the time we hit legal drinking age they knew us by name and we’d all been processed–as we’d all been arrested for one thing or another by then.

Pre-sobriety madness, circa 2002

Pre-sobriety madness, circa 2002

Throughout this time I was snowboarding when I wasn’t too fucked up to make it to our local hill. I was also obsessing over the latest snowboard media, which at the time was the monthly mags and a dozen VHS tapes every fall. There was something romantic about snowboarding at the time. We had to wait patiently every year for the best footage to be released and instead of watching a new web edit everyday, we wore out VHS tapes watching our favorite parts over and over again.

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Ask anyone over thirty and they’ll tell you that the mid ’90s was the golden age of snowboarding. It was a young and invigorated youth lifestyle sport that was born out of surfing and skateboarding, but starting to form its own identity. It was less established than its sibling sports and still felt energetic and punk rock. Of course this was pre-Olympics.

This was also before the Midwest became a snowboarding hotbed due to its abundance of snow. Snow that of course made the handrails and city features a freeriding Mecca. To become a professional snowboarder from the Minneapolis Metro area (which my small town was part of, as it was situated just thirty minutes east of the Twin Cities), meant that you had to make a pilgrimage west to the real mountains.

In the ’90s we had a handful of pros who had emerged from our region, but every single one of them had moved to either Colorado or Utah. At one point it felt like Breckenridge, Colorado, was a mountain town made up primarily of Midwestern transplants.

So for a young man in his teens, it was clear that to live my dreams of snowboard glory, I’d have to leave home. And dedicate myself to riding big mountain lines and waist deep powder.

But what actually transpired was a sad case of someone who talked incessantly of plans to move out West, but actually pissed away all of his resources on drugs and alcohol. There was of course a constant justification of my time and resources being allocated to getting high and drunk. I was young and also used the hard-partying lifestyle portrayed in many snowboard magazines and videos as a valid reason to not only drink heavily, but also act like a complete maniac. I was even Boozy the Clown from the infamous Whiskey videos every year for Halloween.

This type of powder will set you free. Stevens Pass 2009. Photo: Jeff Baker

This type of powder will set you free. Stevens Pass 2009. Photo: Jeff Baker

I ended up getting kicked out of my parents house a week before my senior year in high school, and subsequently ended up homeless and a dropout before the year was over. I skipped watching my friends and long-time girlfriend graduate to get wasted at a local music festival. Things were deteriorating rapidly.

Everything changed in the late summer of 1999. After a particularly rough few months I was sent to treatment via an intervention staged by my family. I ended up not only going to a primary treatment center for 30 days, but was also sent to Washington state to attend a six-month recovery based outdoor program. I’d made it out West. Not exactly the way I’d expected. It was here that my limits would be pushed in the outdoors and I would have my first real powder day at the legendary Mt. Baker.

I spent Y2K in a small town in Washington and flew home to Minneapolis four days later, as I had completed my program and at seven months without a drink or drug, had compiled my longest stretch of sobriety since the age of 12. But within a month of being home I was smoking pot and drinking again, while still playing the sober role model in my sober-living home.

I soon moved over to Dinkytown in Minneapolis from the Twin Cities. A number of my friends were living there as they attended the University of Minnesota. It was during this time that I would become friends with some of the local up and coming snowboarders and also develop a budding friendship with the owner of Minneapolis’s only core snowboard shop, Cal Surf.

Cal Surf Scott and Vanatta at a trade show party in 2009.

Cal Surf Scott and Vanatta at a trade show party in 2009.

Cal Surf was the homebase for many of Minnesota’s most talented snowboarders, and I was lucky enough to be brought into a tight circle of elite ams. It was also during this time that Minneapolis was starting to emerge as an epicenter of urban snowboarding and even the most epic street shredders like JP Walker and Jeremy Jones started to show up to pillage the goods.

My drinking at this time, while still alcoholic by any normal standards, was something I could mostly control around my new peers. This would eventually dissolve as even my closest friends in this circle would find me a liability. I’d drink to blackout and be a complete nightmare to be around. I even drunkenly elbowed one of my closest friends squarely in the face, breaking his nose and ultimately altering the course of our friendship forever.

There were some good times and I somehow didn’t burn every bridge to the ground. However, my dreams of moving to the mountains and riding epic lines until my legs burned and my heart was full, still seemed a far-off fantasy never to be fulfilled. Even though I was partying with local, and traveling, pros and was riding the coattails of the in-crowd, my snowboarding hadn’t progressed in years and I was no closer to moving than I had been at 14.

After years of damaging my liver, ruining relationships and another failed treatment I hit absolute rock bottom. On a June night in 2005, laying face down on my small, dirty studio apartment floor crying uncontrollably and hammered drunk I reached out for help, calling some close friends who had been sober for years and my always-supportive parents. I had already been through numerous treatments and after talking with friends and family I knew that going through another one wasn’t going to teach me anything new. Instead I started attending 12-step meetings and white-knuckled it through my first two weeks of sobriety until I found a sober house that allowed me to move in. I continued to attend meetings, living with other newly-sober men. Thankfully, I haven’t had a drink since.

I can’t really summarize all of the amazing things that can be attributed to my sobriety. I’ll have to save that for the book. However, in terms of my snowboarding, my sobriety completely changed my trajectory in terms of both my own ability level and career in an industry that I had obsessed over since 1989.

Thankfully some of my friends who had been witness to my destructive behavior were there for me when I turned my life around, no one more than Cal Surf-owner Scott Oreschnick. Scott went out of his way to support my new sobriety and not only made the shop an inclusive place for me, but also introduced me to a lot of his young team riders as I had picked up a camera and was interested in shooting some of the local up and comers.

If it wasn’t for Scott vouching for me I doubt I would have made a connection with the next generation of Minnesota talent, but because I was a longtime friend of both Scott and the shop, I suddenly found myself shooting with guys like Joe Sexton, Jake Olson-Elm, Zac Marben, and the Michilot Family who treated me like an honorary sibling.

Left to right: Zac Marben, Jake Olson-Elm and Jonas Michilot, outside Seattle in 2007

Left to right: Zac Marben, Jake Olson-Elm and Jonas Michilot, outside Seattle in 2007

Over the next two years my love of snowboarding would only intensify and I spent hundreds of days on snow for the first time in my life, allowing me to progress faster in two years than I had in the previous ten. I was also witnessing some of the most progressive street riding on a daily basis by tagging along on filming missions with this new crew of young rippers.

Scott saw my new energy and willingness to ride all day and shoot all night, all while going to college (I made the Dean’s list after not being in a classroom since the day I dropped out of high school), working full time, and staying sober. Because of this he made me the honorary Cal Surf Team Manager and introduced me to people who could help nurture my creative abilities within the snowboard industry.

Even with all of the epic changes and my personal progression I still dreamed of riding in the mountains and after a week-long trip to the Cascades where I rode endless fresh powder under bluebird skies I was determined to move to the Pacific Northwest to have my winter of glory.

In June of 2007, two years into my still-fresh sobriety, I packed all of my things into the back of my Jeep Grand Cherokee and headed west. I was finally living out a life-long dream. Something I could never piece together while drinking.

Because of the connections I’d made after getting sober in Minnesota, I was quickly introduced to the guys at Signal Snowboards, and through them met a crew of powder hungry young snowboarders to ride with. The 2007/08 winter was so good that I eventually had to set a “6 inch of fresh rule” for the month of January and February, meaning if it didn’t snow over 6 inches I didn’t go up because I needed to rest. I still rode on average five days a week.

It was also around this time that my writing started to get more attention than my photos, as I was amateur at best behind the camera, but had always had a way with words. I started to contribute regularly to Snowboard magazine and eventually developed a relationship with Snowboard mag founder and Publisher, Jeff Baker. Baker seeing my ability and eagerness took me under his wing and eventually helped get my first magazine story published, an interview with Minnesota pro Zac Marben. It was all coming full circle.

Vanatta, at work with Johnny Lazz and Tim Eddy at The 2008 Downtown Throwdown.

Vanatta, at work with Johnny Lazz and Tim Eddy at The 2008 Downtown Throwdown.

Even through my own personal struggles with alcohol and also seeing the negative effects that it has had on my friends, family, and even some of my favorite snowboarders, I don’t harbor a disdain for booze or those that drink. I’m fortunate enough that through working on my sobriety I can comfortably be around those that drink without feeling any temptation, all though it took me some time to get there.

I will say this though, there is a perception that snowboarding is synonymous with hard partying. That is complete bullshit. I’ve never been so connected with the mountains and snowboarding as I have in my sobriety, and while my sobriety has probably kept me out of some social circles within the industry, I have received nothing but praise and respect from those that are in the sport purely for the love of riding.

Today I’m celebrating 11 years of sobriety and live on the West Coast, spending my days surfing, climbing, skateboarding, and writing about what I love. I’ve met and worked with the majority of pros I idolized as a kid and none of it would have been possible had I continued drinking and using drugs.

I can only hope that if anyone reading this is struggling with addiction and wonders if they can continue contributing to things they’re passionate about in their lives while sober, the answer is a resounding yes. You’ll be able to contribute and put heart and soul into what you love with clarity. I’m thankful everyday that I made the decision to stop drinking, and it’s a constant reminder to cherish every moment I have whether surfing, skating, or deep in the mountains.


Special thanks to Nate Deschenes, Mike Basher, Anthony Cappetta, Dave Grigsby, John Makens, Mike Thienes, Melissa Larsen, Kim Stravers, Dave Lee, Krush Kulesza, Zach Weisberg, Duffy, My Seattle Crew, and all of the Minnesota homies, for having my back and supporting me through annoying demands, existential breakdowns and general madness.



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