I’m going to be the first to admit it – short of the Jamaican bobsled team – I’ve never seen the appeal of winter sports. Though I work in an office filled with skiers and snowboarders, all of whom hit the slopes more than once a season to revel in the snow (and all of whom happily give me plenty of stick about my lack of sporting prowess), I have never liked the idea of the cold, I’ve never understood the desire to slide down a hill, and I’ve never managed to stomach the exorbitant costs involved with the hobby. Give me a Piña Colada and a good book on a beach any day of the year.
That said, when the opportunity arose to visit Mount Hotham to get a lesson with Alex “Chumpy” Pullin, my curiosity was piqued, if not for finding out whether or not I could actually carve up the powder myself, then for the fact that I got to spend some time with Chumpy, one of Australia’s more colourful Olympians.
I should start by explaining the significance of Mount Hotham to this story. One: it’s where Chumpy trains. It’s also where he won his first ever medal, a memory he holds close, and to which he attributes his many successes since.
“I won an event here when I was 15. Open Men’s, and that was kind of something like, ‘Whoa, man, this is getting somewhere.’ Little did I know there was this whole world beyond it. Our sport wasn’t actually an Olympic sport until 2010, which was well after I actually started competing.”
The sport to which Chumpy is referring, specifically, is boardercross, one of the fiercest winter sports for high-speed and high-risk. With four to six competitors flying down a narrow course filled with twists, turns and jumps at breakneck speed, there’s no great margin for error, and as much time spent in training as possible is crucial.
The second thing to note about Mount Hotham is its unique layout. Where other ski resorts lie at the foot of a snow-covered mountain, allowing easy access to the peak via lifts, Hotham Heights is at the top of the mountain; skiers and snowboarders can hurtle down from their lodge’s front door.
The bulk of my interview with Chumpy is conducted in a ski lift heading to the very top of the mountain, and time is of the essence – it’s a six minute trip. Though he’s carved out a name for himself as one of the best in the business, some rudimentary research suggests there’s more behind his distinctively Aussie, cheeky grin than just top-tier snowboarding.
I’m wearing my very best Rastafarian striped tracksuit. I’ve heard from multiple sources that Pullin is also the lead singer in a reggae band, and I hope my outfit will curry some favour and convince him to open up more than usual (also, Jamaica did have a bobsled team, so I’m gunning for common ground). Though he needs no convincing, he’s quick to point out that his musical career has gravitated towards more solo work these days, mostly due to time constraints.
“I feel like it’s such a good switch off sometimes. I’m not one to sit there and, sort of, meditate too much. I can focus on just playing guitar, or writing a song or something for any extended amount of time … it’s just a creative little thing I can have always around, doesn’t matter if it’s a guitar, or ukulele, or a banjo, whatever. And music is probably the best international language. You could pick it up anywhere. At a bar in Austria .. you know, end up doing a jam with the local guy there. Anybody.”
Being a citizen of the world is a requirement for a winter Olympian – people are seldom aware that Australia even has a culture for snowboarding – or they’re quick to confuse us with Austria. Being on the world circuit means traveling far and wide to chase the freshest powder, and staying in top form for those comps back home is a constant occupation.
“I get my hands around anything else I can. Surfing; mountain bike riding. Training is something that’s really important. I try to keep that not too regimented … just strict training regimes, skill base as well. Obviously, you’ve got to put the miles in at the gym, and get the strength and the control. Incorporating some mental stimulation in there so it’s actually exciting, too.”
One theme that runs through our conversation is his continued use of the word ‘culture’ to describe what’s happening below us. While growing up in the city might shelter a young writer from the daily ins-and-outs of what happens at the ski fields, Chumpy’s been there since the very start of snowboarding as a sport in Australia, and can shed a lot of light on the nature of the pastime when the boots come off.
“I grew up at the foothills of the Australian Alps, which is a beautiful place. I grew up in Mansfield, and rode all the mountains. My parents had a ski and snowboard shop, so I just was pretty much born into that scene. Snowboarding hit the scene [at the same time as] Nirvana hit the scene. People who were working at the shop were cooler, and older, and I wanted to hang out with them; and they were snowboarding [instead of skiing].”
While the scene is famously international and very competitive, there’s a comradery that exists between boardercrossers. Chumpy’s done his best to incorporate a distinctively Australian ingredient to the sport, specifically: his way of managing rivalries on the podium (yes, it’s exactly what you’re expecting).
“[Last year] I had a friendly rivalry with this Swiss guy all season and we had a deal that if I podiumed he had to do a shoey out of my snowboarding boot – but at the end of the season. After I’d been sweating into it for months. It was gross.
“I podiumed with him so he had to do it, but this French guy, Pierre, who’s my main rival and usually not as friendly, came over to me about half an hour later and asked if my other boot had been used yet. It hadn’t, so he did it too. We got him in party mode in about half an hour. As competitive as it is, it’s great that we all party together.”
Chumpy’s back at Mount Hotham, as he is every year, to keep on top of his training regime. Hundreds of people are flying down the slopes below us on a sunny Sunday. He tells me that it’s perfect conditions, and is probably the best day of the season.
“It’s always been home for boardercrossers. Like I said, I had my first win here, so it’s got a lot of history for me. But, they still consistently put up a track, allow us to get up here, every season, [and] train. It’s a really good, strong community up here, and the track is unreal. We can do everything we need here.
“On long days, like today, when you’re up here, and the weather’s perfect, I think you’ve just got to pump out as many laps as you can while the weather’s good, crush another Red Bull, and just get back in there.”
At his not-so-subtle nod to the brand who sponsor not just him, but countless other sports idols, I’m curious about whether or not it’s an actual ingredient in his training toolkit. When I probe him on the branding and sponsorship deal that is extreme-sports juggernaut Red Bull, who, to their credit, have paid for my ticket to the slopes too, he’s the perfect salesperson: refreshingly honest.
“Absolutely we drink it when we’re training. The thing I like is that it’s liquid. You can open a can, have a bit, come back to it later – the last thing you want when you’re training, especially in the morning, is a full stomach. And there’s no questioning it gives you energy and focus and all that. So yes, I really drink it – we all do – in sensible doses.”
The last thing to note about Mount Hotham, which is most apparent as we approach the summit, is how stunning the landscape is. Soft slopes drop off to steep declines and ravines; white caps adorn the sides of mountains covered with Snow Gums and Alpine Ash trees, dipping into valleys that run to the Dargo River in the south, and the Cobungra River to the east.
The village that sits atop the mountain is small and remote; the tight-knit community of locals are proud of this and it shows in their hospitality; warm and welcoming – people are genuinely happy to be here – in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere. It’s an infectious attitude. While I’d still gladly reach for the Piña Colada and the Penguin Classic on an island somewhere, I don’t find myself wanting once in my time on the mountain.
As we eventually jettison from the ski lift, my ridiculous outfit having rendered me near-frostbitten, Chumpy offers to race me to the bottom. I politely decline, but ask for one last parting word. Given his love of reggae and winter sports, I tell him I need to know if Cool Runnings is, indeed, the greatest film of all time.
“Haha of course it is” he says, as he begins his descent, shouting back in a not-so-great Jamaican accent: “Kiss my lucky egg!”
Man of Many travelled to Mt Hotham as a guest of Red Bull.