ROMI KRISTL

EURO TRIP

In all my life, I never thought my splitboard would take me back here. I remember the people, the buildings, and even the funny smells, but now I can hardly recognize any of it. In January of 2015 my good friend and filmmaker, Tommy Penick, and I set out on a mission to go snowboarding in Slovakia.

We knew this Euro trip was going to be one for the books, but we had no idea that it would leave such a profound impression on our lives. Our main goal for the expedition was to explore the unknown terrain of the Carpathian Mountains in Slovakia; however, what we ended up getting was much more emotional and unique than any one of us would of expected.

The first half of our Euro trip took place in Switzerland and was full of steep lines, a few blower face shots, and enough Swiss cheese and salami to feed a small army of angry Italians. Bloated and drained of cash we decided to make a drastic change in our itinerary and headed east toward a smaller, yet more familiar country. Slovakia was a small nation tucked discretely in the center of Europe. It was also the birth place of my father, and home to his side of the family. The decision was made! The next day we packed our bags, checked out of our upper class chalet, and said bye to the gargantuan mountains there in Switzerland.

“At the time the snow in Europe was lacking volume, but we gathered a game plan and decided to explore a small part of the Carpathian mountain chain that created a natural border between Slovakia and Poland.”

After three trains, two major cities, and a bomb threat that almost took us off course, we had finally arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia. This was the place of my ancestors. I had visited this city almost over a decade ago. I’m not sure if it was just my young age that blinded me from the harsh realities of this country, or if it really had taken a turn for the worse since I had last visited. The first few days in Bratislava were mostly consumed with eating, a little drinking, and more eating. Lets just say the Vodka never went dry! Tommy and I dove right into research as we tried to pick the brains of the local people. The funny thing was, there was not many backcountry skiers or snowboarders in Slovakia. Most people just looked at us like we were crazy Americans!

After dragging my feet around my grandparent’s tiny one bedroom apartment looking at nothing but maps and the Internet, I thought it would be fun to head out with my cousin one night. Our first stop was at a little bar called La Chiquita. I know, I too laughed at the name, as it seemed more fitting for a southern California dive bar. However, after 20 minutes of driving I found myself deep inside Petržalka drinking a Corona and listening to Hotel California. It seemed a little like home, but it definitely wasn’t! Petržalka was a small outcrop on the outskirt of Bratislava. It was speckled with dark alleyways, poverty, and other small reminders of what life was really like for the majority of people who live in the struggling country.

euro trip splitboard

This was taken from in bounds at the Tatra Ski Resort, Slovakia. Photo: Tommy Pennick

As the night progressed the horror stories of people getting the shit beat out of them and robbed for no reason became more and more real as I became more thankful for my life and the opportunities I had been given. I never in a million years thought that my snowboarding career would take me a place like this. As I silently reflected on the situation at hand, my cousin’s friends started to chat about their version of the great American dream. To them the big dream out west was filled with endless money, aviator sunglasses, and fancy white Cadillac’s. We all laughed at thought of it and ordered another round of shots before heading off into the night.

“The snow down in the Village was super low tide and the access to the Upper Tatra’s (Vysoké Tatry) was limited, but we hadn’t traveled half way around the world for nothing.”

Although we did almost get into a couple fights by the end of the evening, I can truly say that those teenagers’ lives were far different from anything I had ever experienced growing up in the USA. I must say, I was a little culture shocked!

However, it dawned on me later that my cousin and his friends were in this together. There was an unspoken bond between them that could not be broken. It reminded me of going splitboarding with my closest buddies. You are always counting on the guy next to have your back and save your life when the shit hits the fan. Luckily for me, the shit never hit the fan, and we eventually stumbled back into my grandparent’s apartment around 4:00AM.

Powder slash in the Tatra mountain range in Slovkia. This was out on our first day there. Photo: Tommy Penick

At the time the snow in Europe was lacking volume, but we gathered a game plan and decided to explore a small part of the Carpathian mountain chain that created a natural border between Slovakia and Poland. Little was known about the Tatra mountain range, or what sort of backcountry access it was holding. We scrambled to gather as much supplies and local knowledge as possible before setting out for the cabin. From my experience not many people have ever filmed, or explored the area.

Although we had heard the snow pack was very unstable, I thought it would be a better bet then sitting around Bratislava any longer. Naturally, I was stoked to get out of the city and back on my snowboard.

“I never in a million years thought that my snowboarding career would take me a place like this.”

After about four hours of driving in a tiny two door VW’s, we had arrived at the base of the mountain range in a town called Nizna Boca where my grandparents owned a small cabin they had bought in 1974. It had once again been ten years since I had seen the place, but for a change it was just as I remembered it. The blackened wood-burning clay fireplace and stove were centered in the middle of the house to keep the whole place warm while my grandma cooked. Old creaky wooden stairs led you down to a one room shower and bathroom. There was a loud separate generator to pump and supposedly heat the water. Realistically, the shower only managed to squeak out a slight bit of warm water for about fifteen seconds before getting extremely cold! And for the toilet, lets just say that most number two’s needed at least three flushes! But hey, we couldn’t have been any happier to be back in the mountains.

euro trip splitboard

This a picture of my whole Slovakian Family (Minus little Tommy). Photo: Tommy Penick.

We centered ourselves around the old wooden family table and played cards while we discussed the game plan for the rest of the visit. The snow down in the Village was super low tide and the access to the Upper Tatra’s (Vysoké Tatry) was limited due to a very unstable layer in the snowpack that seemed to be claiming lives all around Europe. We had gotten ourselves into a little bit of a predicament, but we hadn’t traveled half way around the world for nothing. We needed to figure out a way to get some footage out of this place without risking our lives. My grandpa, who was sipping a rather large glass of home made vodka in the corner, suggested going to a spot that had a few old and fallen down log cabins. It actually wasn’t a bad idea coming from a guy who knew almost nothing about the sport, or what we trying to accomplish. I guess sometimes drunk thoughts are the best thoughts though, right?.

“Our spirits were low from the overpriced commodities in Switzerland draining our funds and the lack of snow in Slovakia. But now, with the power of good friends, solid food, and some drunken brainstorming our trip was finally paying off.”

The next day we set out armed with camera gear and a couple Jones snowboards ready to attack anything that came our direction. We ventured through the village sliding on old hand rails, steps, and ledges. I managed to ruin two snowboards in the first day due to the lack of snow in the village. It was a sad site, but we had to do it!.

Eventually we found an old unique firewood shed and managed to build a jump over it. The whole crew joined in as we transformed the shed into a park like feature with all of two inches on the ground. Although it wasn’t truly backcountry riding or splitboarding, the experiences and memories we made that day will last with me forever. It was like connecting the past to the present, and seeing my grandpa’s eyes light up every time I did a trick had me fired up. We thought we had gotten skunked on this trip. Our spirits were low from the overpriced commodities in Switzerland draining our funds and the lack of snow in Slovakia. But now, with the power of good friends, solid food, and some drunken brainstorming our trip was finally paying off.

We found this magical little woodshed in the middle of the Boča wilderness. Photo: Tommy Penick.

As the tail end of the trip neared we finally got a break in the weather and heard the snowpack was settled enough to spend the day in the high Tatra’s. We packed our day bags, checked our beacons and safety gear, and set our alarms for a bright and early 4:00 AM wake up. The next morning we set off. The Tatra mountain range reminded me of a rougher looking Sierra Nevada, or even a miniature Alaska with steep lines, couloirs, and huge jagged peaks. The backside of the faces had long rolling hogbacks that made it easy to split up one side and ride down the other. And did I mention that no one was there! It was like a backcountry paradise that had yet to be tapped into. If only we had more time to explore! We knew that the High Tatra Ski Resort would act as a decent entry point.

“The Tatra mountain range reminded me of a rougher looking Sierra Nevada, or even a miniature Alaska with steep lines, couloirs, and huge jagged peaks.”

Europe was far different from the states. They don’t really care where you went, or if you left the ski resort’s boundaries. As long as you paid, you could go wherever you heart desired! After we heard the persistent weak layer in the snowpack had just claimed the life of the well-liked and respected American extreme skier, Dave Rosenbarger, we decided that taking it easy and playing it safe was the right call. We arrived at the base lodge, paid our dues, and set off for the gondola that would take us to the highest vantage point. The upper lines were frozen with a sheet of breakable ice that was no fun to ride. After nearly sliding all the way down the first couloir I attempted to ride, we decided that the southern facing mid range snow actually provided more options and lines to ride. I broke out my snowshoes, and ditched my Jones Solution Splitboard for a Jones Aviator. This board could handle more of the tricks and quick takeoffs that I had to navigate in the lower range.

The mountain was alive and unreal! A wall of rock nearly 1,000 feet tall was wedged into the base behind us. I scurried all around, back and forth on the large boulders that had probably broken away from the wall over the years. Being able to be just outside the ski area boundaries and have access to all these different unique features was amazing. I was back in my happy place!

Last day of our trip in Switzerland. My legs were tired, but the clouds in the back and the open snow in the middle made me want to go do it!. Photo: Tommy Penick.

Last day of our trip in Switzerland. My legs were tired, but the clouds in the back and the open snow in the middle made me want to go do it!. Photo: Tommy Penick.

Later that day as the sun started to sink behind the looming rock wall, I couldn’t help but to think that just three hours away someone was fighting for their life, or trying to find a job. I on the other hand was lucky enough to be shredding fresh powder, stacking lines, and doing some backflips! Life works in funny ways. Even though we all share the commonality of being human, ones socioeconomic status at birth can ultimately change the outcome of a person’s life and the opportunities they are exposed to. Although I was overwhelmed with stoke from that day session, the impression Bratislava left on me had imprinted a new outlook on my life.

“Life works in funny ways. Even though we all share the commonality of being human, ones socioeconomic status at birth can ultimately change the outcome of a person’s life and the opportunities they are exposed to.”

Although the steeper lines and good snow in the high Tatra’s had us feeling hungry for more, we decided to hang around the village with my grandparents and cousins for the last day. Sometimes, I think it is more important to leave an impression with the ones you love rather than risk your life for something you think is cool. That day we managed to do both! Tommy and I found an old wooden barn door and set it up on a pile of frozen bushes above the road. We propped that sucker right up and made a makeshift jump that could launch me over the road next to the cabin. I made my cousin drive his VW underneath the gap and invited my grandparents out to watch. I came in hot and jumped right over the whole road landing on the other side by the river. Family and friends from all around the village gathered around the old road near my grandparents cabin to see what all the fuss was about. It was so special to share a little piece of my life and what I do with this side of my family. In the end, the day was a success and I was beyond stoked to share my love for snowboarding with the same village my grandparents had lived in some 50 years ago.

Overall my experiences in Europe were varied and far stretched. I was submersed into several cultures that have long been forgotten by much of the world. I hope that one day I can go back with more knowledge and more boards to spread my love for splitboarding. No matter where we start or where we end, we are all people in this world fighting for our own existence. Even though I never thought my splitboard would take me to such extremes, I’m glad it did. From almost being beat up in Bratislava to riding blower powder in the Carpathian Mountains, I was just glad to feel alive and am counting down the days until I get to go back!