Originally published in the November issue of SNOWBOARDER Magazine, Ben has since placed 4th in the pipe at the 2018 Winter Olympics and is currently ripping powder somewhere in Japan.
Hooked on a Feeling: The Ben Ferguson Interview
words and captions: Preston Strout
His parents were college students in 1995, at Boise State University when Ben was born. About the same age Ben is today, his father was an unlikely combination of avid snowboarder and NCAA Division 1 football player. "I think when I was born I kinda ruined my dad's plans," jokes Ben. The young family moved east to Indiana where his dad attended dental school. Two more brothers Zach and then Gabe were added—each two years apart—and then the Ferg family headed back out west, with dad now a dentist.
Inspired in part by Mt. Bachelor imagery from magazines throughout the 90s, they settled in Bend, Oregon to raise a family, fix some teeth, and ride some pow. So began the snowboard life of Ben Ferguson, in which Ben has become the unlikely combination of Alaskan line charging snowboarder and competitive halfpipe powerhouse.
During contest season, do you ever have to remind yourself to just go freeride?
No. Honestly, even at a resort, freeriding pow is the most fun you'll ever have, and I'll never lose that side of snowboarding. If anything, it goes in the other direction where I need to remind myself to go ride some halfpipe.
You're 22 years-old now and have earned a spot on the Burton Global Team alongside guys like Terje Haakonsen and Danny Davis. Take us back to that first day on-hill.
I was about six. I definitely cried the first day. It was rough. I couldn't go the right way. The run was slanted to my right so I would always go off the trail into the powder. The first real turn I tried, my edge just locked in and took me for a ride. I was laying on my stomach, carving almost, but I had no idea what I was doing. It was a complete accident, I caught my edge and scorp'd, but my dad was like "Oh yeah! That was how the pros do turns. That was like a carve!"
So day one, 6 years-old, Ben was being pulled towards the powder and the seed for carving was planted in a young mind. Trips to the mountain as dad's little board buddy became a regular activity, as mom, Zach and Gabe also got hooked. Snowboarding became a family of five affair, and before long the boys were entering local contests.
Your parents are cool, man. They always seemed so laid back at contests when you were little. They still do. Did they ever pressure you guys?
My dad just taught me how to work hard. There's no point in doing something if you're not going to be trying your hardest. And it feels good when you work really hard and you accomplish something. My dad was always a pretty competitive guy, that's just his nature. So when we started competing, it was like, "Alright if you're going to be competing, you're going to try to win, or what's the point?" Which is kinda the way you need to look at it I guess. What's the point of competing if you're not at least trying to win? He wanted us to have fun, but also wanted us to work towards something.
How old were you when you started riding with Dave Reynolds (who is now the US Team slopestyle coach)?
I started doing MBSEF when I was 8 years old. Like two years later I went to Nationals. Dave Reynolds was the head coach. I remember him getting me extra runs in on the course. Super sneaky, like "Oh he was gone, can he get one more?" Hahaha. Classic Dave, sneaking me in there.
And you started riding for Burton around then, right?
I got on Burton when I was ten. I won USASA Nationals for slopestyle at Copper Mountain when I was 9 or 10, and then that summer at Hood I met Chaka and Adam Moran. Hans and Nils [Mindnich] were both there because they were on the Burton Smalls team. Kyle Mack, and Ben Watts were, too. I got some gear that first year, and then the next summer I got put on the Smalls team.
Did you look up to any contest guys back then?
When I was really young I always wanted Danny Kass to win. My dad always liked him too, so I always wanted him to be the one on top when him and Shaun [White] were battling it out. As I got older, I really liked the way Danny [Davis] rode, and Mikkel Bang was always a big influence on me too.
When did you link up with James Jackson as a coach?
I stopped doing MBSEF when I was 12 or 13. Dave left and moved to Park City and I started riding with James. We would just go freeride, and I remember that being weird with my dad. My dad would be like, "So what'd you ride today? Did you guys go to the park?" And I'd be like, "Well we went up to Summit and took some Summit laps." My dad would be like, "You didn't ride the park?" Hahaha. Because coaching was about competing and learning tricks, but James just taught me how to ride my snowboard. My dad came around and understood the approach. I just remember chasing James through the trees with the Warbingtons [Max and Gus]. We'd just haul ass and follow him around everywhere and hit natural kickers and look for tranny finders. Unless there was no good snow to be had. I mean, the park was the last thing we would ever go ride.
You might be thinking, "Why the hell do snowboard children need coaches?" Well, they don't. But they do need good role models who have their back. Keep in mind that Mt. Bachelor is the fifth largest resort in the US, with over 4,000 acres of lift-accessed terrain and nearly 40 feet of annual snowfall. In this environment, having a responsible rider keeping little kids out of tree wells and imparting some wisdom isn't a bad idea.
How did your relationship with snowboarding change during your early teen years?
When you're a little kid and you're doing well in all these contests, and then you kinda aren't a little kid anymore, and you're looked at just like anybody else, there's this weird space where maybe you're doing Rev Tours and not doing very well. It's a tough adjustment. I think I stopped doing it just because it was something I had been doing for a while and that I should be pretty good at, and it turned into more of something that I really, really loved to do. I started figuring out how to do it my own way, and really having fun just snowboarding. Stuff started to click a little bit more.
What the hell happened when you were about 16? Don't get me wrong, you were always good, but just one of the many good kids at Bachelor. Then it seemed like in your late teens your snowboard powers kind of just exploded. You started riding on a different scale.
I think I kinda got some man strength. I used to be this pudgy little guy, not very strong or anything. Then after high school I started eating way better and started taking care of my body way better. Before, I was just a kid eating pizza and candy. I started doing that and realized what I could do with my body and started having lots of fun. But really, I was just doing it because it was fun and not just because I thought should be doing it. I really enjoyed doing it. I started doing it more for me.
Were there certain movies that had a bit impact on you growing up?
I watched the Robot Food movies a lot. I remember in Afterlame when [Josh] Dirksen said he didn't really like hitting rails and he'd rather just go ride pow. At that time, with my snowboarding, I wasn't too into rails. Maybe because I was never that good at them. They scared me. I remember hearing Dirksen say that, and I kinda just stopped hitting rails. Just hearing that made it okay for me to just ride what I wanted to ride.
That rules. Any interest in getting back into rails?
I have yet to hit a street spot. Maybe one day? It's not at the top of the list, but there's a part of me that wants to go out and see what it's like, at least.
Speaking of Dirksen, you're never home to do the Dirksen Derby these days, huh?
I got to do the first couple, but then I started doing the Dew Tour which is the same dates. It sucks, hanging out in Colorado and seeing everybody's Instagrams. It's usually amazing snow at home and I'm riding some icy halfpipe, and everyone's having the time of their lives here. It's a tough one to miss.
Was there a point where you realized that this is something you could make a career out of?
I remember when I was a little kid I'd be telling my dad, "I want to be a pro snowboarder," but as a kid you don't really even know what any of that means. I didn't really realize it until recently, where I'm like, "Holy shit, I'm doing pretty good. I need to hold onto this as long as I can."
Defining what a pro snowboarder's job is can be a mystery. Do any of the brands you ride for set specific goals for you?
Well, take Red Bull, for instance. They're very performance driven, and they have your back fully. They want to help you do what you want to do, but if you tell them that's what you want to do, then they're going to push you as hard as they can towards that goal and give you all the tools you need to do that. With that support comes a lot of pressure for sure, because you don't want to let anyone down. I sat down with Red Bull two summers ago and had a conversation about what I wanted to do, and they've definitely had my back.
What'd you tell them you want to do?
I told them that I wanted to go to the Olympics, and that I wanted to snowboard as much as I can and film banger video parts. Right now, they're still pretty focused on the first goal, and so am I.
Right. It's an "Olympic year" again. How much pressure do you put on yourself to try and make the team? To me, with what you have to offer snowboarding, it shouldn't really matter what you do in any one contest.
I just feel like I really want to go so I don't have to think about trying to go again. I want to check that box so I can go and do some other stuff. That's kinda the way I'm thinking about it. I want to go film a video part that I can be really proud of and be completely focused on. I think if I did go, and I did well, then I wouldn't have to compete ever again, really…if I didn't want to. I don't know why it has to be this contest, because some of the best guys might not even be there because of the way you have to qualify, and the way it works with the different countries. But for some reason, this is the big one.
Yeah, I hear you. Do you think that's something you say now, but could see yourself getting pulled back in next time around? It seems like a lot of riders never let the contest thing go.
Maybe. Having that much pressure and nervous energy and focusing it all on one run, man, you almost black out. When get to the bottom—and if you landed it—it is the craziest feeling. The crowd and all the energy. I mean, I fall a lot in contests, so when I land a run, I feel really good.
Can you replace that feeling in the backcountry?
I think it can be a similar feeling sometimes. You gotta land that one trick, deal with that nervous energy, and if you stomp something crazy that you didn't think you were gonna land, that's a pretty damn good feeling. I think it's the same sort of thing. You only get two runs in a contest, but you only get one shot to nail a line filming, and there's really only so many times you can hit a backcountry kicker before the landing gets blown out.
In the snowboard world it seems like there's always some kind of party going on. From movie premieres to contest or sponsor parties. How do you handle all that?
There's just a time and a place to party. You just need to realize when that is. I'm still learning that, but I try not to let that stuff get too important. Last year my body could have been more prepared for what I was trying to do. I was hanging with my buddies and pounding beers, eating whatever, because you don't care what you're eating when you're drinking. You want your body to be in the best shape it can possibly be because then you're going to be able to snowboard that much better. You want to be light on your feet. Look at dudes like Terje, or Nicolas [Müller]. They're all super into eating the right things. Getting to ride with Travis [Rice] and Pat [Moore], staying at Travis's house and seeing what those guys do to recover after a day in the backcountry, too. Those dudes are professional with their bodies, and it shows in their riding.
I heard you guys sent it after your X Games silver medal and caused some drama at the Burton team house?
Hahaha. Well, I've been watching X Games since I was eight. The fact that I get to go is insane, and to get a silver medal there…man. I had just turned 21, so it was the first time really being legit, and one of my good buddies Scotty James got bronze. We met some girls and ended up bringing them back to the Burton house. We were pretty loud in the hot tub, which was apparently right outside of Kelly [Clark's] bedroom window, and we kept her up most of the night. She was competing the next day. I felt really bad about it.
Did you apologize?
I kinda just didn't bring it up. I was a little nervous after keeping her up before a contest. Sorry Kelly!
That would have been the day before you first went out filming with Travis Rice for "The Fourth Phase?"
Well, [Aaron] Blatt and I almost blew it. We stayed in Aspen way too long and ended up getting to Jackson at like 4am, and we were all meeting at the trailhead at 6:30am that morning. We got a quick hour of sleep at some shitty hotel, drove out, and met Travis in person. I had only talked to him on the phone. That was pretty crazy. I was super nervous to meet him, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn't have a snowmobile with me in Aspen. On the drive up, Travis called and was like "So you've got a snowmobile right?" Pat was on the phone too, and they were like, "You don't have a sled? What are you doing? Why are you even coming?" It was just them giving me shit, but I thought I was blowing it, and I was so nervous to meet up with them in the morning.
Ha. Typical Pat. Did it work out?
I wasn't necessarily a super experienced snowmobiler at that time, and Jackson can be heavy. Everyone was super cool, but I just didn't want to fuck up ya know? It all worked out. I ended up renting a sled, which I rolled down a hill and had to pay $3,000 in damages for, which was pretty rough.
You've already been to Alaska three seasons in a row to film, which is really rare for a rider your age. How was this last trip with Absinthe Films?
Last season I went with Kimmy Fasani, Mikkel Bang, and Nicolas Müller. It was a real good crew. Being up there with Nicolas and [Justin] Hostynek was a completely different experience because of the knowledge they have of that place. I think they've been going there for 18 years, and guides were asking them questions. There was no panicking in the helicopter. Usually, you go up there and you're flying around spending tons of money when the rotors are moving and you're freaking out just trying to find something as quick as you can to get set down on and start filming. But with those guys, we were chilling up there. It was insane.
In the backcountry, do you prefer to build kickers or to ride lines?
Ya know, I'm not really a trick guy. I mean, I am a trick guy, but not a real trick-trick guy. I think I like riding lines more. Being on a snowboard, riding it, connecting things, but then that comes with a lot of memorization and planning and knowing where you are, which is the hard part about riding lines.
Very few people have experienced that type of riding. Explain that challenge.
You're looking at what you might ride from a helicopter, and hopefully you've got the window seat. If it's sunny, it's go time. Hopefully you get a good photo of it with your phone and you can study it before you drop, but it always looks way different when you're riding down. Especially with all the spines.
Do you have a bucket list place to ride in AK?
I definitely want to go to Valdez, Alaska. I've been going to Haines for the last couple years. It's super featured, but the runs are all short, for the most part, except for some real gnarly ones. I think Valdez is a bit more open, with big massive spines where it's over twenty turns to the bottom. Something like that would be really fun.
So as the three-time winner of Danny Davis's experimental Peace Park events, which gets voted on by the other riders, how would someone like you want to see contests change?
I think it would be cool to see the halfpipes change, but that's been a topic of discussion forever. That's why Danny has done Peace Park. It needs to be more like a skateboard park contest. Don't even do a separate slopestyle and pipe contest, but have this weird hybrid of both. I think that'd be really cool.
That's actually a genius solution. We try to make slope contests more creative by adding transition features, and try and spice up pipe contests up by adding wallrides and stuff from slope. Let's just blend the two. What's your approach to learning tricks?
Tricks have never been super easy for me. It always takes me a while to figure them out. Someone like my brother Gabe always learns tricks super easy. First try, not having to think about them too much. Watching him learn front double tens, he landed the first one he tried. I remember my first double cork I ever tried in the pipe and I was smacking my face on the coping. Bloody nose, it took me a while. Trial and error and not giving up.
What's it been like to travel and ride with your brother all these years?
I've gotten way closer recently with Gabe now that he's older. Before, he felt more like my little brother, but now it feels like there's less of an age difference. It's always been rad having him to travel with and snowboard with. Just always having a really good buddy there.
Who are some of your bigger influences now?
Nils's part this year really blew my mind. Garrett [Warnick's] part in the Absinthe movie last year was sick, and so was his new part in Pepper. I've always looked up to Nicolas and Travis, but that's kind of a given. Austen Sweetin. He rides really fast, which is cool to me. Manuel Diaz. I've always liked the way he rides, so it was cool to get a few days in with him and to have a few shots of him in our movie. Scott Blum has been a big influence of mine. He does everything super cool. Also A-Lo [Alex Lopez]. Especially after spending time with him in Japan this year. Since that trip I feel like I've been trying to turn like A-Lo.
You linked up with long time friend Tyler Orton to make your own short film last winter, "Hail Mary." How was that process?
We both learned a lot. For me, all the filming I had done up until this year, I was just part of a crew, and the crew already had a leader who decided what we were going to do, what zone we were going to ride, et cetera, so taking charge was super hard. It also taught me a bunch about budgeting because I was paying for Tyler's travel, and then paying him on top of that. I wish I had a few more bangers in there, but I'm stoked on how it came out.
What scares you on a snowboard and how do you deal with it?
Going upside down twice in the halfpipe is always something that you have to get psyched up for before it. But that's good, to feel scared. You need to have a healthy respect for it. Alaska lines can be pretty nerve wracking. Especially convex roll style lines where you can't see anything before you drop in. I think you just need to go into it with confidence and you can't go halfway. I think you can be simultaneously confident and scared. In Alaska you need to make sure you know your line and know your out, and then just send it. Usually you're terrified at the top, your heart is beating insanely fast, nervous as all hell, but then you drop in and you're just snowboarding. It all goes away and turns into this thing where you know what you're doing. You're going off of a feeling.