High Gear: “Let It Ride: The Craig Kelly Story” streaming now on Red Bull TV
“Let It Ride: The Craig Kelly Story”
What: A feature-length documentary about Craig Kelly, the first true superstar of snowboarding who died in a 2003 avalanche while training to be a guide in Revelstoke, British Columbia
Stars: Craig Kelly, Jake Burton, Tom Sims, Tex Devenport, Ruedi Beglinger and more
Director: Jacques Russo
Runtime: 92 minutes
“Let It Ride” is now streaming for free on Red Bull TV. Load the app to your TV, X Box or Playstation to view. The film is also available for purchase through iTunes ($9.99) and Amazon (DVD, price varies).
The first time I saw a photo of Craig Kelly was in a 2003 edition of Transworld Snowboarding. It showed the Washington native in full soul-surfer mode, slashing a fat, lush, parabolic tail at dusk (or maybe sunrise?) somewhere in the Alaskan backcountry. I don’t even remember what brand it was for, but I remember the effortless style and plain beauty of that full-page ad. The dude was art on a snowboard.
For years as a teen I subscribed to that magazine — just $20 bucks for 12 issues, plus you got a snowboard tool! — and it’s how I discovered most of the pros I still follow these days: Andreas Wiig, Todd Richards, rail Jeremy Jones, his buddy JP Walker, immortal Terje Haakonsen, ill-fated Jeffy Anderson. Kelly popped up in the occasional ad, like that fateful AK slash from the same year he died in a backcountry avalanche, but at that age I was more into rails and urban riders than some aging surfer bro shredding the backcountry. It wasn’t until the magazine went into mourning mode after his death that I started to realize just how important he was to the sport.
Even back then, Kelly was treated like something of a legend-god. He was one of the first true superstars of the sport, like Shaun White before the Flying Tomato even knew what snow was, but Kelly had slowly backed away from the limelight to follow his true love: snowboarding, wherever it took him. He was one of the first big-name pros to choose snowboarding instead of the spectacle snowboarding was turning into — not to mention the millions of dollars to be had competing — and that’s enough to earn respect in this sport. It didn’t hurt that his method was also nasty as hell.
The film “Let It Ride: The Craig Kelly Story,” first produced in 2007 and released in 2013 (now streaming on Red Bull TV), tells Kelly’s life story as a snowboarder, from his early years crashing gates for the ’80s Sims team to his Michael Jordan-esque loyalty to a new team in the ’90s, Burton, when halfpipe and freestyle riding took the sport in an entirely new direction.
The documentary mixes interviews from at least a half-dozen sources, including several powerful and intimate discussions, with plenty of snowboard porn from every stage of Kelly’s career. There are scenes from slalom races in the mid-’80, where the style master made something as lame as racing look cool. There are scenes from the early years of halfpipe riding at the Grand Prix, U.S. Championships and World Championships, where he blew away the competition with nasty lien airs on a neon Burton Air. Then there are scenes from the final stage of Kelly’s career in the late ’90s and early ’00s, when he disappeared from the halfpipe and disappeared deep into the backcountry, slaying lines through Alaskan spines in 1996 and spindly Japanese maples in 1998 — nearly a decade before the rest of the world figured out the riding there is incredible.
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Anyone who knows Craig Kelly knows how his story ends, but director Jacques Russo is deft at building Kelly the character before diving into his final, fateful years. The most powerful moments come from those intimate interviews: thoughts on death, fear and the backcountry, and what it’s like to build a life surrounded by all three. In these moments, Kelly seems thoughtful, poised, peaceful and serene, like an all-wise sensei who talks in frustratingly beautiful riddles.
“It’s kind of a weird balance of things out there…” Kelly tells the camera in one interview. “People lose their lives all the time up there trying to get that peak, and I like the fact that it’s that elusive.”
Then there are interviews with the people who knew Kelly the best: old sponsors (and good friends) Jake Burton and Tom Sims; fellow pros like Haakonsen and Tex Devenport; his backcountry mentor Ruedi Beglinger, the Selkirk Mountain Experience guide who’d been training Kelly when the snowboarder died. Kelly might be a little too ruminative in his interviews, but his friends and family add color to the outline of an honest-to-god legend, and so it hurts even more when we get the inevitable details of his death in British Columbia.
One thing I didn’t know, or maybe didn’t remember: Kelly wasn’t killed crushing some impossible line, but was actually leading an expedition when an enormous avalanche let loose on the group. He was one of six people killed in the slide, leaving behind a girlfriend, Savina, and young daughter, Olivia. We never hear from these two — the people who were arguably closest to Kelly in the final few years — but that’s fine.
It’s spooky that my first and most vivid memory of Kelly is from 2003, the same year he died. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I’ve got a feeling the master of style is happy that I, and so many other people, remember him on a snowboard doing what he did best. And doing it better than anyone else.
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