Sam Smooth and brothers Xavier and Victor de le Rue decided to do the seemingly impossible: ski and snowboard down a live volcano on Tanna Island, Vanuatu. We caught up with trip leader, Sam Smoothy, what went down and how they even came up with the idea.
Who came up with the idea and where did it come from?
Basically I was at Xavier’s house in Capbreton and had been chatting about a summer surf trip to some tropical paradise…Xav had put me to work painting his house so I had plenty of time to think. I had seen this footage of this Kiwi guy skiing on ash before and it just sparked me right up. Like me, Xav lives for travelling and exploring new places and finding fresh perspectives on our sports, so when we talked about it whilst in France once it all came together into one trip this seemingly silly, impossible dream made a lot of sense. So we came up with a plan and managed to convince The North Face to make it a reality. Which I still really can’t believe.
How was the trip to the island? And who organised all the logistics?
Even from NZ, there wasn’t a lot of flights to catch and getting surfboards and skis out to Tanna Island turned out to be pretty hard and expensive. But as soon as I was in that little Cessna flying through these huge clouds and seeing the island pop out of the blue, I knew we had nailed it. Logistics was a pretty massive team effort. Xavier and Beanie (De Le Rue) organised a bunch of stuff and brought heaps of gear over. Will and Jase from CoLab Creative put in tonnes of time trying to work out filming there, permits and such things. Victor just had to get himself there from Scotland but that turned into a huge mission and he saved the day by picking up Xavier's gear that was lost by the airline en route. And I flew over a week early to try and work out locations to shoot, sort accommodation and basically trouble shoot what might go wrong.
What was the island like where the volcano was? And what were your first impressions of the volcano you’d have to go down?
Tanna Island is incredible. It’s so raw and aggressively beautiful, I was definitely picking up a Lost World kind of vibe, especially once we got out into the jungle where we spent a lot of time. The jungle is so lush and green and grows so virulently. But around the volcano all the green is a bit muted by a thin layer of ash on everything. I was sitting on the back of a pickup truck and we came out of the jungle and there it was, this huge, black pile of doom sitting in the middle of this ink-black plain of ash, just spewing ash clouds and rock into the sky. It was pretty intimidating and I knew right then this was not going to be as easy as I thought!
How did you feel before the first ride?
My first ride I was pretty nervous, which was kinda hilarious. Xav and Victor’s gear had been lost by the airline, so I went up alone. There was this howling wind which made walking really tiresome and the volcano was exploding, like it always does we found out later, and I was super nervous of being clipped by some flying molten hot rocks – which would have really messed up my day! It was such a primeval place to stand alone on the lip of the crater, looking down on such beautiful violence in the crater, then turn, click into my skis and ski away.
What does it feel like to ride down the volcano? Who was the best/worst out of the group?
For me it was so surreal, like you just shouldn’t be doing this. It's the ultimate fish-out-of-water type situation. Your skis just don’t run the same at all, so physically you're tensing everything trying to hold it all together. And there's the whole mental side of things – hearing the volcano explode into life while you stand near the summit, the ground shaking as you stare up into the storm of ash and rock that starts raining down on you, whipped on by wind and try to see any rocks that might smite you. It's pretty biblical in a sense.
I’m going out on a limb here and saying Xav was the worst as he crashed a few times, I just think his board seemed to get the most friction and catch the most, but he would just roll and keep ripping, as you know he's Xavier de le Rue and he’s a pitbull. Victor really impressed me. He flew all the way from Scotland, missing flights, finding Xavier’s gear at the airport and then journeying further to this random island, to get on a truck with some locals who dropped him off in this crazy, explosive landscape and we made him boot up right away, hike to the top and ride an exploding volcano. Not many people just go along with such a stupid plan.
How does it compare to snow?
Sadly it is nowhere near as good as snow, so there goes that solution for climate change. Everything is slower. You have to be careful not to catch an edge as that’s pretty easy and also you have to dodge the rocks, which I guess is kind of like skiing. But yeah just slow from the hugely increased friction on your ski bases. It was also really hard on your legs to hold everything in control. My thighs would just be burning from halfway down and screaming at me to stop.
What did you wear for the riding?
I was trying to channel Hunter S. Thompson from that scene in Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas where they ride around in the desert trying to cover the motorcycle race in a huge dust storm. So camouflage buff over the face, black Giro goggle helmet combo for stealth, yellow and red rose print hawaiian shirt and my trusty Freethinker bib pants in orange from The North Face. I skied a pair of Volkl One skis, thinking rocker might slide better on ash. My results....were inconclusive.
What kind of damage did it do to your equipment?
Oh man, it was so tough on everything! My skis were totally ruined, ground down to the core. I left them with Fred who ran our camp near the volcano, as he thought they were neat. Goggles were hard to see through, as they were totally exfoliated by the windblown ash. The drones got pretty beat up trying to fly through ash clouds but the worst were the cameras. The lenses got scratched, all the focus rings were barely turning, just stuck hard with grit and ash and everything had to be sent away to be cleaned as they were nearly stuffed.
Did you meet any interesting characters on the island? If so, who and what were their stories?
We met a true legend over there. He was called Fred and was building a campsite on this hill in the jungle overlooking the volcanic plain. I showed up to check out the camp to see if we should stay there and he seemed a little nervous. But when we showed up he was the best! Anything we needed he helped us out with. He was super friendly and I was really stoked we got to meet him.
He was working really hard to make the camp, Yassur Roaring, good so people could enjoy it to the max when visiting. We planned on being there a couple of nights but we spent most of our trip there with him.
He had his whole family there, his mum made us amazing food fresh from the jungle garden and his kid Frankie was hilarious! He followed us around the whole time, even coming half way up the volcano in bare feet! He would go throw our stuff, walk around in our shoes and just made everything so funny! When we left he was bawling his eyes out and I was super sad to leave him. I would honestly just go back to Tanna Island to hang out with Fred and his family and camp with them. Watching the volcano throw red lava every night from the little hut Fred had built to eat in was so awesome, in the original sense of the word. It never got old watching that volcano lose it’s rag every night.
Any funny stories from the trip?
I think my favourite story from the island was when I was living solo on this beach owned by Chief Jack. He came down one day and asked if I had breakfast, which I hadn’t because I had run out of supplies. He climbed this tree above my tent and threw down a bunch of these avocado looking things, then showed me how to crack them open with a machete and eat the nut inside. He then picked up this homemade dive gear; a length of sharpened steel and a rubber band for a speargun and went swimming for a few hours. He returned with this writhing octopus. Cutting a tube of green bamboo he stuffed the octopus in one end followed by some green leaves. I made us a fire and he threw the bamboo tube on the coals. He then dug up three large sweet potatoes and threw them in as well before gathering a brown coconut from nearby. It turns out I was living in his garden. A few of his mates arrived, who passed me cigarettes made with just regular paper wrapped around dry tobacco leaf of some sort. I couldn’t understand much of their pidgin English but we sat and smoked and feasted and it was one of the best meals of my life, just sitting there with these hilarious guys, telling stories neither could really understand and laughing at these other locals who were unsuccessfully trying to load a large pig onto a tiny boat and paddle it off the island to another one. They got stuck on the reef on the way out and all hell broke loose. Best. Meal. Ever.
Growing up on the South Island of New Zealand, he was hitting the backcountry from an early age. Always injecting positivity and energy into anything he does, Sam believes every day on the slopes can be rewarding if you tackle it with the right attitude. With good friends and good fun, he reckons even a carpark full of dirty snow can be enjoyable. But that doesn’t mean he’s not serious when he gets down to business. In recent years he’s enjoyed memorable Freeride World Tour victories in Andorra (2015), Austria (2014) and France (2012). Ever since he was a kid Sam has enjoyed back-to-back seasons in Europe and New Zealand and he is now looking for new directions and new challenges.
Voted French Rider of The Year in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and recently named one of Snowboarder magazine’s Riders of the Year, he has wowed the snowboarding community with his attention-grabbing roles in movies like Dopamine and Heavy Mental. In Origins he unleashed some memorably epic lines and one-foot tricks in Alaska.
The younger brother of big mountain legend Xavier, Victor has adopted his brother’s daring approach but added his own freestyle colour. He’s happiest when in front of a lens, travelling the world and producing features in beautiful locations few people have seen before.
Being incredibly successful in competition - winning multiple snowboard-cross world championship titles and X-Games gold medals - cannot be ignored. Three years in succession Xavier was the snowboard Freeride World Champion, and was twice awarded 'best line' of the Freeride World Tour (snowboard and ski).
This snowboarding racer and freestyler background combined with his love for the mountains give him the feeling and technical abilities he needs to ride natural terrain to the full - whether pillow, minigulf, cliff drop or tight couloirs.