words: Mary Walsh
photos: Ryan “Huggy” Hughes, E-Stone, T. Bird, Aaron Blatt, and Mary Walsh
Nine years ago, The Launch presented by Volcom began as event to celebrate and spur on the rides under the age of eighteen who were already emerging as driving forces in snowboarding despite the fact that few, if any, actually had their licenses yet. For nearly a decade, The Launch has provided an annual incubation for the rising talent who prefer to stand sideways and send it toward jumps, rails, and transition that more often than not dwarf their stature, though their abilities are generally enormous.
But as often as we talk about the fact that the riders have attended the shoots at Bear Mountain, Mammoth, Seven Springs, Keystone, and the like are the new vanguard of winter talent, the ones poised, ready and willing to take over the top as they drive hungrily to ride alongside their idols, in many instances now in 2016, the invitees to The Launch's return to Bear Mountain are undoubtedly already some of the best in the world on their preferred terrain. Casually, yet decisively lapping at SoCal's park paradise was Brock Crouch, who recently dominated the field at the Olympic slopestyle test event in Korea; Hailey Langland who garnered her first podiums both at Dew Tour and in X Games this winter; Benny Milam, a Midwest web video veteran whose rail chops earned him a spot in Burton Rail Days in Japan early season; Brandon Davis, the victor at the World Championships in China last month; and Judd Henkes, who took first at the US Open Junior Jam and ran all the way into men's pipe finals, where he earned a very respectable fifth place. And of course there are plenty of video veterans, whose names are the very stuff of google searches and Facebook shares due to their prolific riding and attention to filming on park lines, at street spots, and beyond: Benny Milam, Kyle Kennedy, Zach Zajac, Finn and JJ Westbury, Jed Sky, Jared Ellston, Parker Szumowski, Reid Smith, Red Gerard, and more.
On Day 4 of The Launch, conditions were perfect. The sky was bright blue, the sun was beaming down, and the air was a little chilly still, so the snow stayed fast. After three days of wintery conditions that failed to slow the crew down, the final day of the event was no-holds-barred boarding.
The youthful snowboarders took advantage of the pristine park conditions right away, warming up with long laps on Chair 9. Justin Phipps and Mateo Soltane went one foot but two at a time into the quarters on the wallride, and Jack Coyne blasted overhead on its transition. Kix Kamp, Dru Brownrigg and Gabe Ferguson sent lofty airs over the bmx jump. At the very top of the park, Hunter Murphy and Zach Normandin, among others, stacked some heavy tricks on the gap to rail set up next to the trees.
Midmorning, conditions were idea to open up a concentrated session on the wedding cake, a three-tiered snow platform on rider's left at the top of the park, made up of a hip and hitching post on rider's right, two gap-to-down rail options on the back right side and a two-option step up (jump or pole jam) to butter pad to step down tree bonk. While the hip and rails had seen a bit of play earlier in the week, this was the first opportunity for this gang of boarders to really send it over the top. The feature attracted a crowd as both jump connoisseurs and rail destroyers lined up to drop in. The drops were fast and the riding was good. The plentiful options allowed for a bevy of impressive tricks, especially exciting if viewed from the dicey wide-angle zone on the second tier, where photogs and filmers scampered back and forth to snag shots and avoid lingering in the blind danger zones too long. It was a bonafied snowboard party, fast and loose yet fully controlled. Red Gerard, Jared Ellston, Jusin Phipps, Judd Henkes, Jed Sky, Valentino Guseli, Toby Miller, and more pointed it toward the tower of snow. Nik Baden was the first to put base to tree on the step down, and Zach Normadin, Ryan Wachendorfer, and Grant Giller happily obliged to tap wood, too. Milo Malkoski landed a hairy one-footer step up to step down. Maddie Maestro represented the fairer gender, landing 180s over the up and the down. Benny Milam had arguably the trick of the session as he sent it out and over from the top platform blind into the down rail. What seemed like a board-breaking trick left this Minnesotan phenom unscathed, riding away NBD from the heavy gap.
Once the cake had been consumed, so to speak, it was mid afternoon. The Launch crew is affected by unbridled energy, so while many continued lapping, a small crew quickly moved on to the lower jump, their eyes set on opening up the hip for the first time. Brock Crouch, whose jumping talent was honed on the transition of Mammoth's Main Park was the guinea. The take off for the hip had been sessioned during Day 3, but only as a transfer to the landing of the jump; the right side hip had yet to be touched down upon. Under the bluest of Southern California skies, Brock beelined it for the take off, lofted an easy 360 and touched down. The hip was open for business.
Even though it was the final day for The Launch park to be ridden, Mother Nature had set things up perfectly for a sunset shoot. At 5pm, a crew headed back up hill to session the lower zone as the sky transitioned from bright blue to rosy hues. It's impossible to overstate the amount of drive and energy these young riders possess; even after four full days of open-to-close boarding, they showed no signs of slowing. Red Gerard floated backies over the gap. Judd Henkes, Markus Kleveland, Drayden Gardner, Reid Smith and Grant Giller shot the gap and put on a show as the sky was emblazoned with pink and yellow. Massachusetts-born Zach Normandin, whose powerful riding always raises the bar, was sending it over both the jump and the hip.
Luke Winkelmann was easily one of the most explosive riders of The Launch. While this North Carolinian native has always been somebuddy, this year he emerged as a force to be reckoned with across the board at Bear. With little light left in the sky, he boned out a few proper methods on the hip before dropping into triples on the jump, hip transfer and QP with Red Gerard and Toby Miller. Jared Elston was also a humble yet powerful force each day of the week. The Bend, Oregon local has an impressive edging ability and very smooth style and quietly destroyed everything in his line of sight. Brock Crouch was another force on hill all week; every time the Mammoth local dropped, heads swiveled to see what he was going to do. During the sunset shoot, young Brock put down trick after trick on the jump and hip, loaded in-air style bleeding into the sky each time he launched off the take-offs.
The light was gone before the crew had finished riding. The Launch is a hectic, fully loaded week, but even when the bell tolls on the last day, it's apparent the crew wishes they could continue on, and it's also clear that they're very able to do so. As darkness set in on Thursday night, the boys cruised down hill, job well done.
Thanks to all the riders who came out and sent it all week at Bear Mountain and congratulations to Brock Crouch who was awarded The Launch 2016 presented by Volcom Standout award and to 10-year-old Valentino Guseli who earned the Super Grom award for hitting almost every feature in the park with the voracity of someone at least a few years older than the mini grom.
Thank you to Clayton, Missy, Ryan and the crew at Bear Mountain, Oren, Pat, Jeff, and Seth at Volcom, and every rider that showed up and threw down during The Launch 2016. It was one of our favorites in years, so thank you. Stay tuned to @volcomsnow, @bear_mountain, @snowboardermag, @snowboardervideo and #TheLaunch2016 because there are plenty more hammers that are still dropping. See you next year.