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Part Seven

Johnny Collinson Continues TGR’s Alaskan Heritage

Story by Jonathan Desabris

In the mid 90’s, the course of skiing was changed when Doug Coombs donated heli-time to two young skiers from Cape Cod. TGR co-founders Todd and Steve Jones had just made their first pilgrimage to Alaska, one of the last frontiers in the ski world. What they found was steep maritime powder, spine lines, and a map that was yet to be filled with first descents. When TGR's first film “The Continuum” premiered in Teton Village, the crowd went crazy when they saw this unbelievable footage of their hometown boys shredding a raw and untamed landscape.

Fast-forward almost 22 years later and Alaska still holds the same lore to today’s skiers and snowboarders. Every year, without fail, TGR has made the journey to Alaska and a new tradition has emerged. With more areas of Alaska thoroughly traveled by helicopters, TGR wanted to go further into the remote wilderness. The concept that emerged was fairly simple: set up a remote camp close to the mountains with all the creature comforts of home, an ideal base for exploration. With that, Fantasy Camp was born.

Johnny Collinson is pretty familiar with the lore of Alaska and Fantasy Camp. At 25, he has already climbed the Seven Summits and is an accomplished ski mountaineer. Reflecting on his time spent filming in Alaska, he says: “It’s just pure excitement to get the call from TGR to go to Alaska. For any big mountain skier, it’s a dream. To be invited to Fantasy Camp is an extension of that ultimate dream. TGR invented filming skiing in AK, opening up all these spots in the process. Now, at Fantasy Camp, it’s a step further. Exploring new zones that you couldn’t access before, pushing on the new frontier of what skiing can be. It’s pretty exciting to be apart of that.”

Download TGR's new film Rogue Elements

Johnny would not be alone in this Alaskan adventure; joining him would be style-master Nick McNutt, New Zealand crazy-man Sam Smoothy and his own sister Angel. The four met in Juneau and flew via tiny prop planes to Petersburg, a small fishing village in the Southeast corner of the state near the Canadian border. With a population of just over 2,000, Petersburg is a bustling hub by Alaskan standards.

“The guides met us at this tiny little airport. We shuttled our gear over to the dock where Captain Bob had his boat waiting,” says Johnny. Captain Bob and his boat "The Island Pride," would serve as the gateway to the raw untapped landscape of Alaska. For weeks Bob and his team had been shuttling gear and supplies to his fishing cabin three hours away in anticipation of the athletes' arrival.

“Captain Bob was a full character. I would say most Alaskans are kind of characters in their own right. There were a few instances where I thought this was kind of a loose program. Like when Smoothy was driving his fishing boat around the bay. I asked him if he ever has driven a big fishing boat? He said “hell no.” I think he just trusted us and we realized that we were all in this together. He was pumped to show us his world up in Alaska.”

After the first introductions and loading of personal gear, they finally cast off to Fantasy Camp. “We spent about two hours on the boat cruising inland and saw humpback whales breaching and baby orcas. It was pretty crazy, the full Alaska experience right off of the plane.” That evening Collinson and company slept on the boat, waiting for the Alaskan tides to cooperate. It’s not unusual for the tide to swing 16 feet in Petersburg. This meant only a half-hour window in the morning to unload all the gear. “It was this hectic duffle shuffle. Getting gear on the boats, unloading it. Smoothy and I ended up trying to take this amphibious ATV from the boat inland. We ended up getting stranded in the ocean and had to paddle it in.”

The scene that greeted the team could be described as a redneck Shangri-La. “Our main home base was Bob’s hunting cabin, which had a big kitchen area with a couple rooms with this lofted area that we all camped out in together. Outside we had four or five canvas tents set up for media storage and members of the support team. We had two helicopters parked right outside of the cabin with this little river by it. We had a couple of little boats to take out in the river to check out the crab and shrimp trap pots and stuff. It was right on the edge of this forest and marsh by the edge of the ocean.” Local Alaskans know the mountains surrounding Fantasy Camp as The Devil’s Country, with names like the Devil’s Thumb and the Witch’s Cauldron. It’s earned its namesake.

Download TGR's new film Rogue Elements

Turns out it didn’t take long for Johnny to find one of his favorite moments of the year. The first day out on the helicopter, the Utah based skier landed one of the heaviest the lines of the year. “We went to this zone and thought it would be a good warm up. We hadn’t skied yet or anything. I ended up hitting this line that was one of my favorites. It was a pow field into this edge that I did a left three transfer off.” This is where Johnny had a bit of a rude awakening. The funny thing about Alaska is the terrain is so massive that it’s difficult to understand the size and scope of the mountains from a helicopter. “I thought it was going to be 10-15, but it ended up being 30-40 feet. That was when we realized then that this stuff was humongous.”

With a month at Fantasy Camp ahead of them, the entire experience wasn’t just relegated to the high peaks. When you watch the full segment in Rogue Elements, what isn’t showcased are the countless down days due to inclement weather. Those slow periods allowed the team to explore their new home. “We had a lot of downtime, which isn’t unusual for Alaska. We had shotguns so we could skeet shoot, fishing rods, and a couple of jet boats. On my favorite down day, we were all just hanging out on this rainy, drizzly day. We broke into beers a little earlier than usual and everyone in the crew mobbed into the forest to dance around.”

What surrounded Fantasy Camp was a collection of jagged peaks, filled with spines and lines just waiting to be skied. TGR had briefly explored this area for one of its earlier films, but there was much to be discovered. “We had a basic idea of what the good zones were for morning and afternoon light, but learned pretty quickly that nothing was the same as six years ago. We ended up flying around a lot looking for skiable terrain. We would see these big insane lines that just ended in death cliffs or crevasse fields. The terrain was so intense; we had to find other options. It was the gnarliest place.”

With the terrain variable and the conditions less than ideal, groups can deteriorate or become selfish about their own filming. Fortunately, this was not the case. “I was impressed with everyone’s ability to stay cool all the time. Nobody ever got super frustrated or mad. We never got any bad vibes, which is pretty unique for the cards we were dealt. It was pretty bad conditions and frustrating stuff. Everyone kept a good attitude. Once we did get into the skiing, nobody had a bad feeling or was fighting one another for the lines. That made it so nice to be up there.”

During our conversation, Johnny shared a memory from when he was a little grom growing up in the shadows of Little Cottonwood. He was watching an old Alaska segment that TGR filmed with Jeremy Nobis. It was the year that he gracefully skied the first descent of Pyramid at a racer’s pace, which led Powder Magazine to dub Nobis as the next ski superstar. “I just remember seeing the stuff they were riding and thought what is that? I want to do that.” Now, almost twenty years later, Johnny is learning the lessons that his predecessors encountered. Conditions can be difficult and snow will be variable, but if you have a solid family up in the mountains, you can find your Fantasy Camp. 

Photos by Nic Alegre

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