WHITE DREAMS: McNab - Man of the Mountains
Pictures courtesy of McNab
Interview by Sam Baldwin
Published February 2007
The White Dreams series takes a look at people who have taken a line less ordinary in life, and make a living from snow. This month, we speak to the legend of Chamonix, Neil McNab - former pro-rider, entrepreneur, student of the mountains and mentor to many a snowboarder.
You've been involved with the snowboarding industry for a long time now, but how did it all begin?
I've been riding now for just over 20 years and have been a known face in the industry for most of that period. In the early days the snowboard community in the UK was made up of a pretty close group of like minded riders all pushing each other and the sport forwards; much like it is today, but today obviously on a larger and broader scale. I picked up a few good competition results during my competitive career and then moved forwards into the 'pro freeride' arena where I continued to explore my personal development. In turn this along with my climbing background has led me to where I find myself today.
How did the idea for your snowboarding camps, clinics and courses come about?
The idea for the snowboard camps, clinics and courses came to me way back when I first quit the competitive circuit and started travelling around with some fellow pro riders just filming and doing photo shoots. I decided that other people would probably like to be out there doing what we were doing but just needed riders like us to show them the way. At first it was just an idea, I let the idea out and before I knew it we had the first 'Kommunity camp' in the bag. Things developed from there and slowly 'McNab Snowboarding' was born.
I chose Chamonix as my base simply because it's my favourite place to climb and ride. Everything is just right there on the doorstep and I've been coming here for years both as a climber since I was a kid and a skier and boarder as I grew up. It's a great place to live as it's more than just a winter ski resort, it's a town that lives all year round and I enjoy the summers just as much as the winters here.
What kind of problems did you face when trying to get the business up and running?
The business kind of grew over time. Initially I knew nothing about running camps and courses. I worked for many seasons as a ski teacher gaining my international qualification when I was 21. I also went on to develop the technical content of the BASI snowboard teaching system and became an international snowboard teacher and trainer so I've always been well qualified to do what I do.
More recently I trained as a high mountain guide here in Chamonix and so that too has opened lots of doors and created further possibilities in terms of what I can offer and where I can take people in the mountains. It's been really helpful to have the qualifications to back up my reputation as a professional freerider and so as I've developed, the business has too. In the beginning my sister Shelagh helped with the admin of running the business, she now runs the chalet side of things as an independent business and Mel McIntosh works with me running the McNab snowboarding office. Mel has been a part of the company for years and her husband Keith runs the courses with me and is head of our 'McNab junior development' program.
Do you spend all year in Chamonix?
I've recently moved with my wife Ruth and my little daughter Manon to the lower end of the Chamonix valley, Les Houches, where I live all year round. In the summer and autumn I run snowboard camps in Les Deux Alpes and Zermatt, so I am away a bit of the time. In between I work as a high mountain guide here in Chamonix and climb for myself when I have time.
Are there any plans to expand to other resorts?
Over the past few years I've been developing our backcountry program to include courses in different locations. We've hosted a couple of heli weeks in Russia that have been amazing and have become a permanent addition to our program, as have our backcountry 'Voyager' courses where we visit different resorts and areas each season, in a constant search for the best terrain and riding that the planet can offer. We've only been running this program for the past few years and I'm pretty excited about it taking us all over the world in search of the perfect descent!
What kind of clientele do your courses attract? Is it mainly Brits?
We mainly attract English-speaking clientele but we're getting people from all over the world now, so the word must be out.
Where are the most unusual places in the world you've ridden?
I've spent quite a lot of time in the southern hemisphere riding in Chile, Argentina, NZ and Australia as well as in the northern hemisphere, Russia, Japan, the States and Canada and most of Europe. I think the best places I've ridden have been Russia (on our heli-boarding trips), Chile and Argentina, and the strangest place has to have been Australia for sure.
What and where would be your perfect day on the slopes?
My perfect day out would be a kind of mixture of everything; a small group of friends taking a heli-drop-off high in the mountains before hiking to a majestic peak and then riding perfect powder all the way back into the valley below, with a few jumps and jibs along the way. In the perfect world I'd have someone along to carry all my kit for me, the weather is perfect, the snow amazing and we'd not see anyone else all day. In actual fact this sounds like an average day on a 'McNab snowboarding' backcountry camp (except for the kit carrier) so I'm more than happy with my current situation.
Do you ever miss the days of competitive snowboarding?
I competed for about 8 years, four of them full time as a World Cup rider. I enjoyed it but felt that I was definitely missing something. To me snowboarding was about more than riding a set discipline within a set of rules against other riders. For me the greatest competition I can experience is with myself. I'm constantly trying to better my experiences and myself and that competition will go on for my lifetime.
We like to hear about people who chose a different path in life. What advice would you give to people wanting to set up a business in the mountains of a foreign country?
There is a very significant path that has led me to where I find myself today. My early days as a climber taught me about working with nature, the wild outdoors and the mountains. This link with the mountains then introduced me to skiing and the world of winter mountaineering. In turn skiing led me on the pathway to snowboarding. I have made significant choices along the way and if I want something then I get out there and find out what I need to do to get it. My best bit of advice would be to choose the pathway you want to follow and don't look back. Along the journey there will be many turns, ups and downs and many branches to choose from, make your choices and follow your heart and instincts. You only live the once so give it your best shot.
I speak a little French. I studied for my mountain guide's qualification here in Chamonix and had exams and practical work to do for that. I've been in the valley for over 10 years and so with that in mind my French is pretty poor but I can normally get by. I don't think I'll ever be fluent but I'm working on it. Manon my daughter will grow up bi-lingual and so maybe she'll be able to help out her dad, as she gets a little older.
Running your own business, amongst stunning scenery sounds idyllic, but are there any downsides to the mountain lifestyle?
I have to say I love my office. When the weather and the conditions are good there is no finer place to be. When the weather is bad I kind of also enjoy the moody feel that the mountains have and the challenges the bad weather brings. When the riding conditions are just bad and it's icy and bumpy everywhere I get a little frustrated and can think of better things to do. It can get a little full on after a few months of riding 6 days a week non stop with only one day off and if you get an injury along the way you know it's not going to go away until you stop at the end of the season and that can be frustrating too. All in all though, things are never too bad!
What is the best thing about living and working in the mountains?
I just love the mountains and getting up high away from the crowds. I'm not too into riding around the resorts so much anymore. I enjoy the pipe in the summer but when the snow is good I'm outa there. The best thing is just getting out there away from the hustle and bustle and flowing with the best terrain the mountains have on offer.
If you had to live an eternal winter, or an eternal summer, which would you chose?
A difficult one for sure. I love the summer, I love mountaineering, climbing and bouldering, and I love the feeling of moving on rock, ice and the technicalities of mixed climbing high in the mountains. It's in my blood, I grew up on this stuff and so it would be hard to give up. I also love my riding - on a good day there's nothing better than flowing down the mountain powering off windlips and slashing deep carves in fields of untracked powder. I love skiing again now, with the new fat skis it's become really good fun and I can have a snowboard on each foot. The mountains are good for climbing too in the winter so the choice would be a hard one. I love the sun and the warm weather of summer but then again the winters are getting warmer so maybe I'd go for the winter. I could always head south for a bit of sun and rock when I needed it.
Are you worried about the predictions for climate change that might result in less snow and shorter winters?
There's a lot of talk about the climate change and the winter disappearing and just in my short time living in the mountains the changes are plain to see. In just a few years one of the descents that I use to ride from a heli-drop down the Trient Glacier has changed completely as the glacier has receded so much.
I figure these glaciers have been receding for some time; the ones here in Chamonix apparently used to reach to Lyon some 3 hours drive away, so I figure this warming has been going on a while. Things are definitely speeding up and yes of course it's a big worry but then things seem to come and go in cycles, so lets do as much as we can to not destroy our world and hope it can look after itself better than we can.
What would be a typical day for you at McNab during winter?
A typical day in the winter involves me getting up at 5:30 am. I work on my laptop for about an hour writing and catching up on things, as I'm too tired in the evenings. I then go for a run with the dog, come back and do some weights and training for climbing (I try to keep my upper body strong through the winter and have a significant bouldering wall in my garage).
I'll do a stretching session and then have breakfast, leaving the house at just after 8am, heading up to the hotel to meet the clients and sort out the day's events. We'll normally leave the hotel at around 9am and ride until 4ish. The daily schedule depends upon which courses are running and obviously the weather. I normally get back to the hotel at around 5ish, organize the next day's agenda and get home around 6pm. I'll play with Manon for an hour, then boulder for a bit before eating with Ruth and vegging out in front of the telly. I'm normally in bed by 10 and up ready to do it all again all too soon.
Do you ever miss Britain?
I kind of miss the ease of communication that you have when the country you live in is also your mother tongue. It's nice to visit the UK every now and then and up in Scotland on the west coast where my parents live it is amazingly beautiful. On the whole though I can't say I miss that much to be honest. Bizarrely enough I miss some of the climbing areas I grew up climbing in such as the Peaks and the Dales. But apart from that nothing really.
Jib stick or powder gun?
I very much like a board that can do everything and I ride a stance that can do everything too. I ride a Salomon Patrol 167 for pretty much everything with a 26+ inch stance set at -6 rear, 21 front. If I'm riding pipe and park I'll use my Salomon Patrol 163 with -9 on the rear foot. For Russian heli-trips however I go powder gun all the way!
Are you living the dream?
I'm happy with my life and the choices I'm making. I'm pretty much following my instincts, choosing to do what I want to do and offering these choices to others like me who share my passions for the mountains and the sports that I practice in them. In my ideal world McNab snowboarding would be a multi-million pound operation and I'd just get to ride, climb and play all day long. Well I've got half the dream so that can't be bad!
Neil McNab runs McNab Snowboarding based in Chamonix, which offers specialist snowboarding courses and clinics, from backcountry awareness to technical pipe and park coaching. His book 'Go Snowboard' has just been published.