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How This Surfer From Sierra Leone Ended Up Snowboarding in Wyoming

Alpha Barrie and mentor Adam Towle climb up the Mt. Glory boot pack. Sam Morse photo.

Sitting on a chairlift, wind ripped at Alpha Barrie’s face. Halfway through one of the most challenging months of his life, the 24-year-old Sierra Leone native was beginning to wonder if he’d ever see the sun again.

But that morning, Grand Targhee’s fog lifted, and upon reaching the top of Dreamcatcher, Alpha beheld the full majesty of Teton Valley illuminated in golden light.

“When the clouds cleared, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Alpha Barrie repairs a surfboard at his home shop in Sierra Leone. Bureh Beach Surf Club photo. 

Alpha Barrie came of age in a small oceanside fishing community called Bureh Beach, where, by his own admission, life was tough. As a young man, Barrie had to leave school because his mother could not afford to pay his tuition, and he eventually turned to fishing as a means to subsist and support his family. 

Unbeknownst to Barrie at the time, Bureh Beach also happened to be a superlative surf spot, and gradually the community began to see expat surfers come to pioneer the clean, uncrowded swell. But, like most undiscovered spots, word got out.

“There aren't that many locals surfing in Sierra Leone,” Barrie said. “I started when surfers began to visit my home, and I wondered what it was. A friend who worked for UNICEF brought us our first board. Early on, we all shared it. If you rode two waves, you had to come in and swap.” 

As Barrie's surfing skills grew, so did Bureh Beach’s international surf profile. Riding the public interest and surge in tourism dollars, the community founded the Bureh Beach Surf Club, and Barrie managed to secure a job as one of the club’s secretaries and surf instructors.

Alpha rips a turn during a mellow Bureh Beach surf session. BBSC photo. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, 20-year Teton Valley resident and consummate boarding enthusiast Adam Towle was preparing for yet another surfing expedition. But, having chased his passion to over 30 countries already, Towle was stoked to try something different.

“I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been,” Towle said. “I investigated Sierra Leone, l knew there were good waves there, and I figured that after the ebola crisis that ravaged that country in 2015, I wouldn’t find any crowds."

During his research, Adam learned about the Bureh Beach Surf Club, and upon calling the listed number, Alpha Barrie answered the phone. 

“I asked him if there was anything I could do to help when I came down, and Barrie was like, ‘Well, we need board shorts, rash guards, wax, fiberglass, repair stuff...' "

Towle’s travel instincts, it turned out, were on point. The Ebola epidemic — while sparing Bureh Beach — had managed to scare away a large majority of western tourists, so that by the time Towle arrived in Sierra Leone, he was the first surfer to make the trip in a while.

Alpha and Adam take an outrigger to another of Barrie's secret surf spot. Adam Towle photo. 

Barrie met Towle at the Freetown airport and they drove down to Bureh Beach together. Over the next two weeks they explored the coast, doing some exploratory surf missions only accessible by canoe and motorbike. During those adventures, Barrie became more than just Adam’s guide, but also his friend.

“He kept me out of trouble,” Towle said. “It was a special experience because Sierra Leone has seen a lot of difficult times — civil war, Ebola, poverty and a lack of opportunity — the surf club provides a home for the surfers.”

Snowboarding, surfing, they’re kinda selfish sports, it’s all about me, the powder, fresh tracks, getting ahead of that guy and this — I really wanted to give back.

After a couple weeks exploring secret spots and developing a friendship with the local, Towle was surprised when his new friend confided he wanted to come to the US and learn to snowboard, but Towle agreed to help Barrie manifest his long-shot dream.

“Him coming was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I figured, If I could change someone’s life through snow sports, it would also give something to the world,” Towle explained. “Also, snowboarding, surfing, they’re kinda selfish sports, it’s all about me, the powder, fresh tracks, getting ahead of that guy and this — I really wanted to give back.”

Alpha gets ready for the coldest hour of his life at SLC airport. Adam Towle photo.

In his sponsorship letter, Towle noted that Barrie was coming to learn to snowboard and would become the first Sierra Leonian snowboarder ever. 

But Towle also enlisted the help of Lance Pittman, the head snowboard coach for the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club. Pittman wrote a supplemental letter saying that Barrie’s entry would further the goal of Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club, which is to make skiing and snowboarding inclusive to all.

The day of his visa interview in Sierra Leone, the four applicants in front of Alpha were all denied. When asked what would keep him from staying in the US illegally, Barrie insisted the North American cold would eventually drive him away. 

Sold on the young man’s passion, as well as Towle’s determination to welcome him, he was granted a visa.

The boys ready the hammer for more fresh turns. Sam Morse photo.

When Barrie finally arrived in Salt Lake City, the initial blast of arctic chill almost turned him around. The frigid temps were shocking to the West Africa native, and once back in Teton Valley, Towle reached out via social media, and quickly got all of Barrie’s gear donated.

“Friends donated everything,” Towle said. “Boots, bindings, boards, clothes. I even wrote a letter to Grand Targhee explaining the situation, and they donated a season pass! That really says a lot about our community, and how much people care about the world!”

Alpha rips a satisfying heel-side turn somewhere in the Tetons. Sam Morse photo. 

Now, with three months of storm riding under his belt, Barrie has begun to reflect on his stay in America, and also why board sports are such great incubators for cross-cultural friendship.

“I think surfing and snowboarding are some of the most social sports,” Barrie said. “People meet in different places in the world, and the passion connects them, no matter where they’re from.”

Surfing and snowboarding are some of the most social sports. People meet in different places in the world, and the passion connects them, no matter where they’re from.

After watching Barrie’s progression from a never-have-done to being a skilled rider, Adam Towle admits he feels incredibly proud of the Sierra Leonian shredder, and what he’s accomplished.

“Both surfing and snowboarding are best enjoyed with friends,” Towle said. “The greatest moments, whether it’s on a wave, or in the powder, are the ones that are shared. Knowing where he’s from, and knowing how opposite his life has been from mine, to see him progress to a point where he’s not just following me, but riding with me, it has been incredibly rewarding to be a part of!”

Brothers from another mother. Sam Morse photo. 

From The Column: Mentors

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