There’s more beneath all the fur. A carefully and calculated mind bent on riding, a thoughtful and compassionate soul, a student of the mountains. Turning riding into a career has taken decades, and it hasn’t been easy. But snowboarder Nick Russell has ridden far more because of it, he’s become wiser, stronger and well-travelled in the process.
After finally gaining much-deserved support and recognition in recent years including being a member of the Smartwool athlete squad, it’s all falling into place for him. After all, not many snowboarders turn “pro” in their thirties. He might not be a household name, but for those who’ve been following his feats, he’s been a fountain of inspiration, dreaming big and broadening the view for the rest of us. He’s ridden arguably the earliest concept of a snowboard in Turkey with Alex Yoder, sought rare peaks in Bolivia, rallied the Eastern Sierras via bike and splitboard, filmed with TGR in Blank Canvas, ripped the Grand Teton in mid-winter, and carved lines in Antarctica alongside Elena Hight and Danny Davis. Nick and I caught up briefly as he swung through the Tetons to reveal a bit about his journey.
What's in Nick's Pack?
“Avy gear (beacon, probe, shovel), first aid kit, snacks, at least 1 liter of water, crampons, ice axe, helmet, extra layers, headlamp, multi tool, sunscreen. As for clothes, lightweight and bomber Smartwool baselayers and Patagonia shells. Merino wool just works so well in every condition. Lately I’ve been digging the Smartwool Intraknit baselayers (below), they have compression and articulation and feel like you’re not wearing anything in a good way. Of course, Smartwool socks (below) are crucial to happy feet in the mountains too. I generally carry a bigger backpack because I like to make sure I have a pretty dialed first aid kit, emergency blanket, proper repair kit for my bindings. For fuel, I’ve been on mushroom jerky bars, chocolate, fruit snacks, baby food pouches. Baby food is a nice little backcountry hack because it hydrates you at the same time.”
Turning riding into a career has taken decades, and it hasn’t been easy. But snowboarder Nick Russell has ridden far more because of it, he’s become wiser, stronger and well-travelled in the process. | Leslie Hittmeier photo.
East Coast Roots
Nick hails from the East Coast. Connecticut to be exact. His local hill was Woodbury, his dad was on the volunteer ski patrol. The family would go on weekend rallies to Vermont. “I skied at first, and in typical do-what-your-older-brother-does I started snowboarding around age nine,” he says. He moved up to Vermont for high school and was lucky enough to attend Stratton Mountain School—an institution known for churning out elite competitive snowboarders. Names like Kevin Pearce, Danny Davis, the Mitrani brothers were his classmates. There’s no doubt he honed his snowboarding skill here, but a big sponsorship and competition career didn’t bloom like it did for others by the end of his senior year. “It was a pretty slow awakening for me that I wasn't necessarily good at competitions nor were they fulfilling to me,” he says. “Nick has always been on his own path,” recalls longtime friend Danny Davis. “When a lot of our crew went down the contest path, Nick really took to freeriding.”
"I remember hiking off of the Crest Chairlift at Brighton and riding a run that had no tracks on it, it was like nothing I'd ever experienced before." Now Nick has turned that feeling into a career. | Leslie Hittmeier photos.
After high school, Nick moved to Salt Lake City for college. “When I moved to Utah I discovered freeriding and the mountain as a whole,” Nick says. “That was really what brought me to where I am now, seeing the potential within snowboarding that lies outside resort boundaries.” This was the spark. “I remember hiking off of the Crest Chairlift at Brighton and riding a run that had no tracks on it, it was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. I remember that toe-side turn like it was yesterday, dragging my back hand in snow, having an effortless floating feeling, then feeling surreal at the bottom. Since then I’ve wanted to figure out how to retain that feeling every day I go snowboarding.” That’s been the drive ever since, doing whatever it takes to find those lines that generate that sense.
Dirtbagging As A Means to An End
After college he kicked off a lengthy postgraduate study in dirtbagging. It began with meeting brothers Wyatt and Cory Stasinos, working on the Given movies. “I moved out of Andrew Miller's house in Salt Lake and into Wyatt’s truck. He, Cory and I pretty much lived out of the car for two winters. We would go to Costco before getting on the road in December and get a whole bunch of Nutella, peanut butter, tortillas and bagels and whatever and that was our food for the next two months. We didn't spend any unnecessary money and just lived as frugally as possible so we could snowboard every day. Those were some of the most simple and cherished times. We traveled all around the world just figuring it out as we went. Driving to Wyoming, Montana, Alaska. We went to Japan, Chile and Europe together. There was no checking weather or GPS because we didn’t have smartphones. It was simple and free.” For Nick and his friends, dirtbagging was a means to a much greater end: snowboarding the lines of their dreams.
Nick has forged a unique path in the world of backcountry snowboarding, taking his time, learning to do for what him is the right way. | Red Bull Content Pool/Fredrik Marmsater photo.
“He gained so much mountain experience by just immersing himself in splitboarding, camping at trailheads, and really dirt bagging pretty properly,” Danny says. “He drove to Alaska, went to South America, and really was diving down the path of foot-powered snowboarding. Whether it was popular or not, alpinism was calling his name years ago. Nick wasn't making a lot of money at all. Working at the Olive Garden at one point, or Einstein Bagels while in college. He was genuinely into that style of snowboarding because it was what spoke to him.” Many years went by living like this. Working any and all jobs, seven days a week, from May until December.
A human-powered approach to the mountains needs comfortable socks, and that's why Nick chooses Smartwool. | Smartwool photo.
Each winter Nick’s catalog of mountains and experiences swelled, as did his respect within the snowboarding community. “Nick has really done things his own way with integrity and authenticity,” says legendary snowboarder and Smartwool teammate Bryan Iguchi. “He’s a truly creative rider and has developed such a solid skill set from his freestyle roots to snowboard mountaineering. I think Range of Mystery is one of my favorite snowboarding films ever made, it’s in a league of its own, just as he is.” Elena Hight has this to say: “Nick’s approach to snowboarding is really based in adventure. He is fueled by the unknown and the excitement of pushing the limits on a snowboard to see and experience new places.”
Focusing a career on backcountry big-mountain riding has led to many moments like this. | Leslie Hittmeier photo.
Pushing the Ball Forward
Fast forward to the present. Nick has travelled the world via snowboarding and been a part of numerous movie projects. He’s knocked off descents in Bolivia, Alaska, Antarctica, The Himalaya, Turkey and plenty in the Sierra and Rocky Mountains. He lives down the street from Jeremy Jones, and is one of his closest riding partners. He’s found his place within snowboarding, representing the new guard of snowboard alpinists, transcending from legendary riders Jim Zellers and Jeremy Jones. Sometimes the three even ride together in Tahoe - three generations of snowboarding feeding off each other, in it for the same reason: that sense of adventure in the mountains and that feeling of weightlessness during a perfect turn.
“The cool thing with this passing of knowledge is that each generation learns from the previous generation and moves the ball forward,” says Jeremy Jones. “The student becomes the teacher. I may have helped Nick evolve early on, but now I am learning from him as much as he is learning from me. As he has more and more success in the mountains it is important to stay grounded and focus on being in the right mindset to read the mountains. It is a never-ending quest to have the ability to have patience and humility in the mountains and celebrate turning around while still maintaining the drive and commitment to stand on the summits.” From student to teacher, Nick’s approach continues to inspire fellow riders. “I so enjoy spending time in the mountains with Nick and am constantly learning from him,” Elena says. “I think what really stands out and what I continue to learn from him is the mind space that limits are made to be broken. Whether physical, psychological, or perceived, Nick always approaches the mountains like anything is possible with enough preparation. I love this lesson and it’s so valuable.”
For Nick, snowboarding isn't just an individual sport, it's a pursuit for connecting with close friends in the mountains like Danny Davis, Jeremy Jones, and Elena Hight, to name a few. | Leslie Hittmeier photos.
The next peak, storm and turn still drive Nick, but there’s more to it. He hopes his exploits can inspire others to respect and protect this planet and his growing voice can be used for good. “I don’t want to be seen as someone that just goes snowboarding and doesn't give a shit about the rest of the world,” he says. “I want to spread compassion and love, and bring awareness of our surroundings. I would like to see more people get to experience this world that we are so obsessed with because it is life changing.” All it takes is a toe-side powder turn.