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06.06.2017 Tsutomu Endo

As We Cross an Old Bridge

Tsutomu Endo

Tsutomu Endo started his career as professional photographer in 1998 and has been shooting snowboard scenes in Japan and around the world since. Based in Hakuba in the Japan Alps, he naturally gravitated to the backcountry, shooting in the mountains he has been exploring since childhood. Traveling widely, he has acted as an intermediary between snowboard culture in Hakuba and abroad. His recent work has moved beyond action sports into nature and art photography, searching for the beauty of our planet and highlighting changes to our climate and environment.

The wind swirls in the gray sky. Storms met me as I arrived in Alaska.

There is an old bridge 26 miles away from the town of Haines headed toward the mountain. When you cross the bridge and continue down the path, there is Ryland’s cabin.

Kei and I visited the cabin every morning and met Ryland and his friends, and then went up the snowy mountain from there. The mountain they call “Old Faithful” is located in between the sea and the mountain area, so clouds containing moisture from the ocean are accumulated and let down a lot of snow. It was said that the snowy conditions in Alaska are tough due to a warm winter. We were able to frequent the mountain in between the storms when the sun appeared briefly.

With the frequent snowfall and the shape of the rugged mountain, the environment was perfect for snowboarders to test their competences. As the days passed since our arrival, we learned more about this wonderful environment. Ski resorts do not exist here. In order to slide on this wild terrain one needs to charter a helicopter or is in need of a snowmobile.

However, during storms, helicopters do not fly and the costs are too expensive, so the locals own and ride snowmobiles. That is how local snowboarders get by. I told everyone that I came to take photos of the spectacular mountains of Alaska and the daily lives of snowboarders. Everyone confirmed that shooting from the helicopter would only be conducted when the conditions of the snowy mountain was stable.

“When it comes to heli-boarding, it’s all about patience. Sometimes we cannot get on for three weeks if the weather is bad.” They know the land so well.

They look and approach the mountains in a very slow paced manner that matches in harmony with the great nature. It is quite different from Japan. I was also not used to riding a snowmobile, but I was given a red snowmobile “Betty” and tried my best to ride the vehicle every day.

It is always nice to be exposed to new experiences, but it was not easy to manipulate the snowmobile running at an altitude difference of over 4,300 ft. When the day finished, my body was exhausted, and I could not hold strength in my hands. Furthermore, since we came here, my left calf began to have muscle convulsions and woke me up every morning.

Maintenance of the machine is also troublesome. There is the required replenishment of oil and replacement of expendable parts. Driving bad roads and steep slopes often cause breakdown because of heavy loads. Snowboarding here requires maintenance. “If you go up the mountain 10 times, 5 out of 10, at least one of our rides stirs trouble” Morgan says while laughing. There are 3 or 4 snowmobiles that are no longer used in Ryland’s cabin. For them, snowmobiling is their everyday mode of transportation. Morgan, born and raised in Fairbanks, said he is driving a mobile since he was 8 years old.

Rain transforms to snow from altitude of 2,000 ft and higher. It quietly erases the path we rode the day before. This region, which it reaches 60 degrees north in latitude, has long daylight hours and is bright until around 9 PM. When the weather was bad, we drove the motor-home to a place with a good view and spent the time slowly. I spent time searching for a horn that had fallen off a moose, walking along the river while picking stones, and visiting the village where the indigenous people Tringitto lives. Albert lives on a hill overlooking the Old Bridge; a person who was deeply interacting with late Michio Hoshino, and whom we have visited several times to hear stories about adventures and animals inhabiting Alaska.

There is the sun in the blue sky. The storm which lasted more than 10 days gradually retreated, and a calm spring was about to come at the foot of the steep mountain. From the woods surrounding Ryland’s cabin you can hear a lot of birds chirping. Thrush plays a beautiful tone that reverberates in the forest, and woodpeckers work hard to dig deep. The Bald Eagles dance in the sky. Just like any other day, I descend from the mountain and cross the bridge. I wonder how many times I crossed this old bridge since I came to this place. We liked the texture of the old iron of the bridge which became like a staple of the trip. This bridge will be torn down next year. There is a mineral lode ten miles away from here, and construction of a bigger bridge has already begun next to the old bridge for mining.

On my birthday in April, I was looking at the vast scenery from the peak of the Old Faithful with friends that I had spent the past three weeks with. I have found a new place that I must revisit in future. Among all the snowboarding scenes I’ve visited in the world, this place is undoubtedly special. It is wild and hardcore. This is the story of a small community in Alaska that I was able to see when I looked through the viewfinder. Recording, transmitting, and expressing through photography, I will continue traveling seeking new stories with my Fujifilm camera in hand, and with anticipation of meeting new people and experiences.