Professional snowboarder, ski magazine owner, freeride contest organizer, FWT judge, snow safety author and lecturer, husky musher, mountain guide, ski area developer – the common denominator in Jarkko Henttonen´s CV is his passion for the mountains. I sat down with him to talk through his career and current resort project, that will shape his future.
1. How did your professional career get started?
I got into riding snowboards in the end of 80s in the small hills of southern Finland and then during the early 90´s decided to spend a season in Chamonix, which grew into several. In the beginning I was a full-on ski bum and then later progressed into a bit more professional rider during the first half of decade.
It took a couple of years to develop my skills as a rider to a high enough level and to understand what it meant to be a professional freerider – back then that wasn´t really a career plan for that many people.
I´d say that taking part in the first Verbier Xtreme contest in 1996, where I ended up being fourth among the best freeriders in the world back then, was perhaps the main turning point in my career. That was the event that made the biggest difference in the direction of my sports career. I took part in it nine times, but the first one stands out. Chamonix also played a huge role: everything I know about snowboarding and mountaineering I learnt there.
2. Looking back are there any runs that stand out from those days and is there anything you wouldn´t do now?
I guess I´ve had a bit of reputation as some sort of an extreme guy, but that´s not really true. I have always been way more into freeriding than into doing extreme descents. I really like what I would describe as a “japanese style of snowboarding” – surfing the snow.
I have done a few extreme descents, but really not so many, and those were always more a cherry on top of the cake for me than the cake itself. That said, I´m really into mountaineering as well: I´ve always liked hiking, climbing and riding steep slopes.
My fondest memories are from the Le Brevent area in Cham, just playing around on the fantastic freeride terrain there, especially the trees. During the epic snow-year of 1999 me and my buddies enjoyed a 100-day period, from January to April, of riding untracked waist-deep powder with not too many people in sight. It was awesome, and I wish I´d get to have another experience like that before I move on from this plane of existence. Talking of which, I´ve had the misfortune of having been part of a couple of pretty bad accidents, one of them fatal and I really hope that they would not have happened.
3. You participated several times in the Verbier Extreme and did really well there, what kind of memories do you have from the event?
Really good memories, all the way. I took part in it nine times, but the first one in 1996 stands out, as it was the first time I got to meet and ride together with many of the best riders in the world. It was also nice to sort of get my own level confirmed. Before the first event I´d thought for a year or two that my riding level is probably pretty good, but I wasn´t sure if I could hold my ground with the best of them.
Doing better than many of (those generally regarded as) best felt pretty nice, and it also opened up some doors for me, helped me progress in my path. Generally speaking, as far as contests go, I think the Verbier Xtreme is the event that has made the biggest difference for freeriding as a sport. It´s been the most important testing ground for styles and techniques, and it has pushed the level of the sport to it´s current mind-boggling level. It totally deserves to be the final for the Freeride Wold Tour, and I´m happy and proud that I was invited to compete there.
4. Since 1999 you have also organized several freeride competitions in Lapland. The Gilbbesjavri Freeride comp was held in a remote wilderness area – what kind of process was it to organize the event?
The first competition in Kilpisjärvi was organized in 2002, and it was tons of fun. During the first event there were only around 35 participants, so it wasn´t that difficult: getting everybody together in Kilpisjärvi, then hauling them out into the wilderness by snowmobiles and making sure the snow is safe enough for the competition. Luckily the snowpack there is usually pretty solid. In the end you just throw a price giving party – fun stuff.
The second year was somewhat more demanding as we had quite a big bunch, around 70 participants, so the logistics involved got a bit more challenging. But all the people involved were up for the challenge and really willing to make it happen, so it went smoothly.Going out with that many people pretty far into the backcountry in one of the most remote areas in Europe just to go freeriding is kind of crazy, and to have a contest as well is… even more fun.
5. You have also been a judge on the Freeride World Tour, meaning that you have competed, organized and judged freeride events. How do you see the similarities and differences of these roles?
I´d say that judging is by far the most challenging of these three. Competing is pretty simple and ”easy”: you just go to the top, drop in and do your run, and then hang out watch others do it.
I´d say that organizing an event is much more demanding than competing in one. it´s a full-time job with a lot of staff that has to be taken care of, and a lot of it is very boring work. Organizing any kind of a freeride event is very complex, there´s just so many variables you cannot control
And you do not have much room for mistakes. However, I still consider the role of a judge a more crucial and difficult one.
6. There has been a lot of hype regarding the skitouring in the Lyngen Alps in Norway – what´s your opinion?
I first went to Lyngen in 1997, right after my first trip to Alaska, and thought it was pretty similar to AK, only that much closer to home. So, I started going there every spring. I had a super fun time exploring Lyngen and the broader region as well. I think it was only during our third spring in Lyngen that we met another team for the first time. Even with the current crowds on some of the mountains, Lyngen and the surrounding area is the best place in Europe for skitouring.
7. During one of the trips you also discovered the Tamok Valley – what makes it a special place?
Besides Lyngen there´s at least half a dozen of distinct regions, that all have superb touring possibilities and finding a spot with no other people is still pretty easy. Tamok is one of those places, even if it too is getting rather popular now. What sets Tamok apart from most of the other places (in the area) is the valley´s higher altitude and the road running through it.
Even though the valley is only around 250 meters above the sea level, given the northern latitude, it is the equivalent of an Alpine valley at roughly 1700 meters. The higher altitude translates into a longer season and thanks to the road you have easy access. The location is also really central, the lively city of Tromso with an international airport is just 90 km or roughly an hour´s drive away.
8. You are now, together with a local landowner Aadne Olsrud, building a ski resort in Tamok – how much work has it involved so far and at what stage is the project now?
When I first visited Tamok and met Aadne on a mountain top, it wasn´t really much of a destination for skiing, it was completely unknown and there wasn´t many established routes or riding zones. Now our crew has opened up a good number of routes going both up and down the mountains, and we have made many first descents while doing it. We´ve also gathered information, knowledge and understanding about the snow safety, figuring out which zones work on which conditions.
After (the field work) we have put up one small lift for kids and opened up a bunch of trails to be used as slopes. We also have a piste machine and operate a lodge that can accommodate 32 people as well as some guest houses that accommodate about the same number.
The main initiative has been to get part of Aadne´s farm re-regulated from agricultural land into land reserved for tourism purposes. It has proved to be a huge task and has required god knows how many hours of work. Luckily, we have been able to rely on a good team that includes an architect, a city planner, an economist as well as marketing and communications professionals.
9. There must be quite a lot of bureaucracy regarding developing land for a ski area, how have you dealt dealt with it, and how have the locals reacted to your resort plan?
The locals have been positive. There´s not so many of them in the first place, and Aadne is a well- respected member of the ”Tamok society”. His family were the first to settle in Tamok permanently during the latter half of 1800´s. So he´s a core member of the community who does not want to work against the will of the people who have their lives in the valley. As far as bureaucracy goes, yes for sure there is a lot of it.
We´ve tried our best to do everything by the book, not cutting any corners. It seems like it has been a good strategy, even though it has taken a lot of time and required a lot of resources, too. One of our most important guiding rules has been to preserve the fragile high-alpine arctic nature of the valley. When you cut down a tree here it takes forever for a new one to replace it, so we must be really mindful about what we do and proceed very carefully.
All the requirements of the authorities, like different impact studies, are actually helpful in that respect – they prevent us from doing stupid and harmful things. So, even if at times it has felt that it´d be nice if there was less bureaucracy, we still perceive it as a good thing for us.
10. The Tamok Resort plan includes a ski village with some amenities like a restaurant and café, but the lift access will be very limited. Can you tell us a bit more about the resort concept?
I´d say that our concept is pretty basic, not really that different from “normal resorts”. Apart from establishing a little ski village with bunch of cabins and other facilities, having a nice little ski hill with a proper lift or two is one of our main goals. Not only do I love shredding groomers myself – I like it as much as riding powder, but we think it´s essential to have lift-served slopes that are maintained with a snow cat: it is so much easier for new comers, especially for kids, to learn the sport in a safe environment, on a groomed slope.
That said, we think that the goal is to develop yourself as a rider into such a level that you can leave the boundaries of a resort behind and head out into the wild. Touring, hiking and climbing the mountains is the real deal, and that idea is in the core of our concept. So, even if we are planning a family-friendly lift-served slope system, Tamok is still all about touring.
11. You also have a house now in Tamok and you have guided in the mountains surrounding the valley. Are you looking to move away from the city and doing that full-time in the future?
My daughter, who lives in Helsinki, is now 13 years old. Since my number one duty, as well as my greatest pleasure is to spend time with her, and make sure that she´s good and that she grows up well, I will be spending most of my time in Helsinki for some more years. These days I´m in Helsinki for about 6-8 months per year and spend the rest of the months in Finnish Lapland and in Norway. (She´s with me up north quite a bit, so we are not away from each other that much, probably 2 or no more than 3 months – which is still feels like a lot.)
My long term plan is that by the time she is an adult, and does not need me as much anymore, meaning probably in about 5-7 years of so, my calendar will be kind of reversed, and I´ll spend around 3 months in Helsinki and the rest up north.So, I don´t plan on moving away from Helsinki for good – I love the city, too.