The snowboarding documentary First Descent echoes Stacy Peralta's brilliant doc Riding Giants, in which pro-surfers are towed out to sea to tackle the biggest waves in the world. The film's five subjects ' 40-year-old legend Shawn Farmer, 39-year-old Nick Peralta, plaid-clad Vermont teen Hannah Teter, Norwegian superstar Terje Haakonsen and teen slope rat Shaun White ' are shuttled out to the far back country of Alaska's tallest and most inaccessible peaks via helicopter and then, one by one, rocket down the crag-encrusted gorge chutes like buckshot fired from God's own 20-gauge. In a word, it's gnarly.
With narration from Henry Rollins and music from the likes of Black Flag, Minor Threat and Face to Face, the filmmakers unravel the brief history of snowboarding, including the surreally appropriate incident at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, wherein Canadian Ross Rebagliati very nearly lost the sport's very first Olympic gold medal after testing positive for marijuana use. "He should have been given a second medal for being able to ride stoned," confides one powder-happy wag.
Much is made about how snowboarding is a sport in its infancy. Unlike skateboarding, which came up in a relatively slow progression from street to pool to ramp to corporate sponsorship and the X-Games over nearly three decades, snowboarding moved from a Banned Everywhere status to the Olympics in less than half that time. In many ways, it's more extreme than skating: The jumps are higher and the risks more dangerous. At one point the filmmakers, seasoned snowboarding pros themselves, catch Haakonsen's wild, near vertical riding as it triggers a mammoth avalanche.
First Descent's ace in the hole is its cross-generational quintet, which allows for a cross-section of the sport's best and brightest to be observed as they do what they do best. The garrulous, bearded Farmer, in particular, comes to be something of a big brother figure to Teter's blond, blue-eyed teen superboarder. It's a gas to see the age difference melt away atop a wind-whipped, 7,600-foot-high mountain peak as the chopper lifts off, leaving both filmmakers and subjects with only one way down from what appears to be the roof of the world. Awesome.