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Snowboarding & Suffering: How Zeppelin Zeerip Conquered Misfortune

What does it mean to live the dreamSnowboard and create films for a living, cultivate community, juggle life between Jackson and Salt Lake City: For professional snowboarder and videographer Zeppelin Zeerip, that's the dream he's arrived at—but who would know he waded through hell first to get there. 

By age 25, Zeerip faced more adversity than most will experience in a lifetime. Behind his pyramid of success and level demeanor, he fought rock bottom—murky obstacles of addiction, death, injury, and loss—before resurfacing, humbled and wise beyond his years.

We caught up with Zeerip to ask more about his life challenges, snowboarding, family, and his focus ahead.

MT: How did you get into snowboarding?

ZZ: Out of the blue, my mom and dad randomly bought me a K2 Swinger board for Christmas, when I was six. They didn’t even get me a plastic snowboard to start—it was legit. Our backyard in Michigan was a 10-foot slope and ran out into the lake. That’s how I started.

Snowboarding rapidly progressed to riding at a resort called Pando, which is an 80-foot vertical hill with six rope tows. I started going there at seven years old, and the community that Pando fostered was the hook for snowboarding for me. It has become a lifelong community.

Pando was the essence of snowboarding. You’d have 15 of the best snowboarders in Michigan all riding hard at the most rundown resort—that’s the Midwest mentality of working with what you’ve got and making the best of it: no rails and one jump.

Two winters ago, Pando was bought by the neighboring resort, Cannonsburg, to shut down competition. They have not reopened. I was there in October. The rails are still on the hill and everything is dilapidating at this point—tears were shed.

The name was tongue in cheek, after the “Pando Commandos” of the 10th Mountain Division. It’s been a fundamental namesake in West Michigan for the last 55-plus years. The first-ever snowboard competition was at Pando: Jake Burton [Carpenter] went there for the World Championships of Snurfing and had bindings on his board so they created a new division.

MT: Pando sounds rad and such a bummer that it closed. What was it like riding there as a kid?

ZZ: They had one log rail, one jump and a natural half pipe—and it might’ve been the first half-pipe ever dug into the dirt. It was a snake run maybe 12 feet deep. It’s been there since the early ‘80s. Since there was no true park we all got really good at jumping, because that’s all we did. No one from our home resort was a rail kid.

Zeerip nailing a plant-n-grab. Andrew Meehan photo. 

MT: How did you grow your skills from no-park Pando to gunning for pro-level competition?

ZZ: When I was in 8th grade, I got a full scholarship to go to the Crested Butte Academy during the winter. I could snowboard for a half-day and go to school the other half. Every spring and fall I would go back to school in Sparta. CBA went out of business after my sophomore year of high school. They tried to resurrect it in Heber, UT, and the school lasted one year before it went out of business.

I finished high school in Sparta, MI—but I came up a bit short with credits, so I was really lucky that my mom was a Middle School Principal. She had clout to help me graduate with fewer credits than I actually needed. In Michigan, we have a lot of migrant workers who move seasonally to follow the fruit seasons.

They live in Texas or Florida during the winter months to pick oranges, and in the summer and fall they pick cherries and apples in Michigan. The kids get pulled in and out of different schools, and it’s hard for them to graduate high school with enough credits. Exceptions are made for them at Sparta. I fell under the same rule.

MT: Tell us about your first major park injury.

ZZ: I was riding at Keystone, CO. I’d been living in Dillon on the lake, training, and I was trying to compete in slopestyle. I’d been riding with JJ Thomas and learned a bunch of double corks. He sent a filmer up with me one day, and I’d never had the opportunity to be filmed. I went for the double [backflip] as soon as the camera was turned on. I came up short on 70-foot icy jump and snapped my femur in half. They do a nasal spray with morphine and tell you to inhale and squirt it up your nose. I had a rod put through my leg for a year after that.

MT: That sounds horribly painful. In the aftermath, can you share the other trauma—yet, opportunity—that entered your life?

ZZ: After that injury, I couldn’t snowboard for a year and half. Then, six months after I broke my leg our home burned down. My mom had set aside some of the insurance money for me to go to school. I used some of the fund to sail from Spain to the Caribbean. I earned certifications while getting college credit and sailed across the Atlantic. Then worked on a private yacht for four months among the harbor in Miami so that I could earn back the money. I quit snowboarding for two full winter seasons before going back to Windells to coach.

MT: Following a hiatus, you dove back into riding park?

ZZ: I didn’t quite get it—the risk, yet. I started coaching and doing [park] again and then tore my ACL. That injury forced me to check myself and quit perusing that dream of being an X Games slopestyle athlete.

Over the last four years, snowboarding has transitioned for me into something sustainable. It was competition driven and focused for so long. Now, it’s become about being my true passion and finding a connection with the mountains through it.

Now snowboarding has become a healthy balance that's less about challenging myself, competing and being the best. Splitboarding is an avenue for a deeper connection with the outdoors and spending time with friends—it has a totally different meaning.

Zeerip shredding Wasatch backcountry. Sean Ryan photo. 

MT: When did you get your first taste of the backcountry and splitboarding?

ZZ: When I came out to Utah I got my first splitboard setup. That change has been huge. When you’re riding the chairlift there’s no connection or sense of place. You don’t become intimate with the mountains. Riding now makes me so happy, full and content. I struggle to express how it truly hits a nerve for me.

MT: Awesome. And how did you get into filmmaking?

ZZ: In fall of 2012, I went back to school at Westminster. I graduated in spring of 2015 with an international business degree.

I met this group of guys my first year at school in Salt Lake. We were all 19 or 20 years old and making a student film together: a documentary about snowboarder Brolin Mawejje. It was his story of coming from Uganda, how he ended up in Jackson, and that he is trying to go to the 2018 Olympics.

Zeerip co-founded WZRD, a full-service production company, with Galen Knowles and Phil Hessler. 

We spent three years making the film, produced and sold it to Red Bull for distribution. At the time, Galen [Knowles]—my business partner now—and I were still shooting on a Canon Rebel. The production quality was low from the start. We were scrappy, raised private money, and made a feature-length documentary.

WZRD is our production company, which we—Galen, I and Phil Hessler—started after that film. In the last 1.5 years our projects have included work for REI, Vice and the Wyoming Office of Tourism.

MT: You documentary short, "Fly High, Go Far," digs into deep trials experienced by your family. Can you tell us about your dad, and what your journey has been?

ZZ: My dad was always an alcoholic from since I was young. I learned from a young age that alcohol made him happy—I greeted him with a 40oz when I was a kid—but, I didn’t recognize or understand what was happening until it came to a head. When I was 12 years old, my mom filed for divorce.

The last time I saw my dad was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He called my mom to ask for money to get back to his parents house where he was living in the basement. I don’t know how old he was—I think he was 37 years old. That’s something I have been dealing with for years: being uncomfortable with people who have been caught in the system and are forced to live in the streets.

He passed away from alcohol poising in his parents basement.

Fly High Go Far, is a documentary film that chronicles the incredible obstacles of Zeerip's life. 

MT: So much happened to you in such a short period of time.

ZZ: In the span of 3 or 4 years my house burned down, I broke my leg, my dad died—a lot compounded and I was a very angsty young man. I didn’t realize how much it had affected me until I started writing.

Right after I broke my leg, I took a big road trip from Dillon to L.A. and up to Bellingham. It took me five years to finish the book.

MT: What was it like to write a memoir?

ZZ: I started journaling casually and then realized I should send it. I spent the last six months editing it with my mom, who has her masters in English. I sold 150 copies on Kickstarter, which ended in December. That process was one of the hardest things I’ve done, for sure. To stick with it and not jump the gun before the book was edited well. To open up and be vulnerable was tough. I talked a lot about my leg, dad and house and it resonates with people. People have been coming out of the woodworks in response: once you put yourself out there, I have found that people need to open themselves up, as well.

Zeerip's memoir, Don't Call Me Gypsy, was successfully funded through Kickstarter in December 2016. 

MT: How has all of this adversity changed how you look at the world?

ZZ: I’m far less judgmental than I ever was before. Addiction is a hell of a thing. I was young and had no way of understanding or comprehending what my dad went through. As I’ve grown up, I’ve seen friends and good people struggle with it—it’s truly fighting your own demons. I have come to a better understanding about what he was coping with and that he didn’t want to put our family through this situation that he inevitably did—no one would want that. 

And --though, my Dad wasn’t homeless, because he was living with his parents--having conversations now with homeless people has been eye-opening for me. Once the system grabs a hold of you it doesn’t let you go.

Zeerip soaking up the glory atop Pfeiferhorn, UT. Mat Kestle photo. 

MT: How have these obstacles motivated or changed your drive?

ZZ: I think they’ve all been motivating in the sense that I watched my dad fail a lot at business. That’s motivated me to put a lot into what I’m pursuing: The biggest motivator is to not fail.

MT: When your home burned down what was going through your head?

ZZ: Ken Achenbach, Founder of Camp of Champions, wrote an article in Transworld, called 'Keys of Life.' It was about this guy who moved to the mountains to snowboard. He ended up finding a girlfriend, got a job for stability, and then an apartment because he had a girlfriend. He recognized he wasn’t snowboarding as much as he once had.

When our house burned down, it was actually freeing. My family has never been cemented through material objects, but to have everything taken from us was a chance to reinvent ourselves from the clothes we wear to the things we own.

We went to Walgreens to get toothpaste and stayed at the Marriott. We would never stay at the Marriot, but now, fuck it. We went out to eat at an Olive Garden with the whole family.

My mom’s ongoing joke is, at least I don’t have cancer, because we’ve been through so much. The family motto is always, be the buffalo, because a cow will put its butt to the storm and not move. The buffalo will put its head down and walk through the storm, so it’ll get through faster. You just need to keep on keeping on.

MT: What has your mom taught you about approaching adversity?

ZZ: Really, my mom has been the biggest influence in my life, because I’ve watched her deal with so much, including having her jobs cut with budget costs in the school system. She’s been an amazing example of how to cope with adversity. That’s rubbed off on my sister and I. My mom is the strongest woman I know, and so is my sister.

Zeerip on the summit of Kings Peak. Sean Ryan photo. 

MT: What are the greatest lessons you’ve taken away from these moments of hitting rock bottom?

ZZ: The greatest lesson I’ve learned is that nothing else really matters other than the people you surround yourself with. You become the company you keep. That’s really all you can hope for, is amazing company. I am hyper-conscious about the five people I surround my self with: my business partners Phil and Galen, my mom, sister, and then my dog is a strong number five. And that is your support system.

When we rebuilt our home our neighbors collectively sued us for the sand trucks, which laid the foundation, cracking the cement on the road. They didn’t win the lawsuit, but we moved. We had this beautiful new home, but we couldn’t enjoy it because the company was sour.

MT: What are your goals ahead?

ZZ: I really the film that we’re making right now [undisclosed] to get a nod for an Academy Award. That’s what I’m placing my focus on. It’s no distractions if that’s what we’re aiming for.

Zeerip throwing down in Argentina. Ben Girardi photo.  

I want to create films with actionable results and community around them that walk out and feel empowered, to keep writing books, and I want to keep snowboarding.

There’s a quote from when Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar. To the question, “who are your heroes,” he said, “my hero is myself in ten years.” Then ten years later, he said the same thing. That resonated so much with me. You’re always inspiring to be your best self. If you choose a hero, you will eventually surpass them. If you look to yourself, then you will always be constantly striving to better yourself and who you are. 

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