Steamboat Living: The Van Clan
Eschewing school for life lessons on a skiing road trip
Editor’s note: Last spring, high schoolers Matt White, Jack Vanderbeek and Nick Simon graduated early to hit the road in a Volkswagen Vanagon, compete on the big mountain circuit and ski classic North American resorts, all in the name of higher learning. Here’s their tale…
It wasn’t exactly the spoils of victory.
After the fanfare subsided from winning his division of the Canadian Open Freeride Championships, Matthew White, 18, retired not to a tricked-out hotel room but a lone van in the parking lot of Rossland, B.C.’s RED Mountain Resort— a smelly, 40-square-foot 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon shared with two buddies and their rank ski gear. But he earned the top bunk this time, which meant not sleeping head to toe next to a dirty spaghetti pot on the pullout below.
Welcome to stop number two of the self-dubbed Van Clan tour.
While their schoolmates were watching the clock tick away during their final semester of high school in Steamboat, White, Nick Simon and fellow shredder Jack “JV” Vanderbeek graduated early and headed out mid-January for the ski road trip of a lifetime, competing on the big mountain circuit while hitting world-class resorts along the way.
Over the span of three weeks, the crew hit Bridger Bowl, RED Mountain, Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Crystal Mountain, Mount Hood and Squaw Valley, before heading home for smaller forays to other events.
“It was JV’s idea initially, but then Matt and I realized it would be pretty cool, so we graduated early also and joined him,” says Simon, who’s not afraid to boot a double-back flip.
With the help of JV’s dad, Bob, the trio spent the few weeks prior fixing up the van with a new 2.5-liter Subaru engine for double the power, new tires and a custom propane heater and insulation so they wouldn’t have to spoon to stay warm.
Vanderbeek says of all the work that went into the van, the hardest part was convincing their parents that they were heading out on a worthwhile endeavor (which is why they promised to visit colleges along the way). While all three had other plans for their gap semester — White and Simon later headed to NOLS courses in the Himalaya, and Vanderbeek pursued a sustainable foods gig — the skiing-out-of-a-van portion was the primer to escape the clutches of school.
To help fund their trip, they saved money working odd jobs, lined up sponsorships from local companies Grass Sticks and Harvest Skis and got a lesson in crowd-funding by raising $5,000 through Kickstarter, with the promise of giving donors stickers, T-shirts, credit on their videos and more. While most of the donations came from family and friends, the process taught them skills far beyond what they might have learned in the classroom.
“I was happy to contribute,” says local Realtor and donor Cam Boyd, who kicked in $100 per kid to the cause. “I think it’s great to support that kind of trip, and a great way to support learning about life beyond the classroom. I was also jealous. It’s the kind of trip I’d want to go on.”
They were surprised how successful it was. “We probably should have asked for more,” admits Vanderbeek. “The campaign was fully funded in five days.”
They were also able to convince resorts along the way to give them lift tickets in return for coverage in the videos they were making. In short, it was a high school skier’s dream.
The adventure proved so unique that it captured the eye of Troy Onink, a writer for Forbes magazine who pitched a story to his editors on how their adventure relates to preparing for higher education.
“It gave them some real life experience and networking practice, which is what colleges are looking for,” says Onink, whose blog sees 2 million unique visitors per year. “Plus, they learned about social media, crowd-funding and other life skills — characteristics top schools are looking for. It was a rich adventure with a good story to tell.”
As if on cue, Simon mailed off his final college application as they rolled out of town. Vanderbeek used the tour’s website (www.steamboatvanclan.com) as an application project.
The real selling point for their parents, however, wasn’t the college or life prep, but the skiing. “It just fuels your stoke of skiing,” says Simon’s father, Dan. “We all wish we could do a trip like that, even at our age. And I wish I was half as good at fundraising as they were.”
Posting updates on their website, the Van Clan documented their journey via video, Instagram and their Kickstarter page, with plans to enter a film into festivals this year.
It didn’t take them long to start getting fodder. After their first stop — the floor space of a college buddy in Bozeman and an obligatory campus tour of Montana State — their video camera broke, forcing them to dip into their funds to buy another. Then they put their old one in a bag of rice and got it to work again, meaning a visit to E-bay to re-sell the new one. And then, of course, they cooked and ate the rice.
Aside from that, stop number one was a resounding success. “The Bozeman leg couldn’t have gone any better,” says Simon. “We nailed an incredible powder day at Bridger. And, oh yeah, we also got to see the school.”
Filling up the tank, they then headed north to RED and their first competition. There, their good juju continued as they ran into former coach Kerry Lofy, who now coaches at Squaw Valley. He treated them to free dinners and showers they didn’t have to poach off college friends’ dorms. In keeping with Onink’s networking theory, they also made a slew of new big mountain skiing friends — and as with Bridger, they nailed it on a powder day.
“It was full-blown BC pillows all over and face shots all day,” gushes White of the trio’s first taste of skiing north of the border.
If the snow was untracked, so was the area around their sleeping quarters. “It was a little weird because our van was the only car left in the parking lot each night,” says White. “But we ran into a fair number of other Vanagon enthusiasts who loved talking to us about it.”
On the ferry to Revelstoke, their networking paid off again in another fortuitous encounter: a Rev local who told them about a “secret” hotel door that was always open at the mountain’s base. Bingo! Their ticket to showers, hot tubs and free wi-fi while ripping the most vert in North America.
“We’d all dreamed of skiing Revelstoke,” says Simon. “When we got above the clouds on our first day and saw the mountains, we were blown away. It was way different than Steamboat.”
By now, 10 days into their journey, van living had become second nature. Go to the bathroom before climbing in, awkwardly change clothes in the tight quarters, dry your gear under the bed, squish into a submarine-sized bunker, and throw a mid-sleep pillow at Vanderbeek to stop his snoring. They’d take turns cooking teen basics like pasta, quesadillas, oatmeal and eggs; cleaning the dishes; driving and route finding; and filling the tank with Kickstarter funds.
“We got lucky because the nights never really dipped below 20 degrees or so,” says Simon. “It could’ve gotten pretty cold.”
Instead, they continued getting cold smoke, hitting yet another dump at their next stop at Kicking Horse. And by now they had no trouble saddling up to strangers, practicing Onink’s networking.
“We met some dudes living out of their cars in the parking lot at Kicking Horse and had them over for pasta one night,” says White. “One was from Belgium living out of an old Land Cruiser and the other lived in his truck and was skiing on the big mountain circuit. There are a lot of good people in this world.”
Kicking Horse shrapneled and Ramen pot cleaned, they drove back over Rogers Pass, cooking spaghetti on their stovetop while the road was closed for avalanche control. A few convenience store burritos later they made it back stateside to Bellingham, Washington, where they crashed on a friend’s floor and toured Western Washington University before skiing Crystal Mountain.
After fixing the van’s emergency brake, from there it was off for a quick tour of Lewis and Clark College before strapping on their skis to shred Oregon’s Mt. Hood Meadows. They then headed for some much-needed chill time on the beaches of Oregon.
“It was a fast-paced couple of weeks,” says Simon, who, like White is also an avid surfer. “Watching all the waves break, we were able to reflect on how sick the trip was. We’d emerge out of the haze each morning in our boxers to tourists wondering what was wrong with us. We were just skiers living the dream.”
When the Oregon rains came, the cramped quarters became even dingier. “One night, in fear of mildew and leaky canvas, we decided to sardine it inside with the top down,” says Simon. “So we went with the 696 approach. JV got lucky and scored the ‘nine’ position.”
After getting their van towed out of the sand by a neighborly passerby, it was off to a comp at Alpine Meadows in early February, but not before more car troubles. “At one point our wheel almost fell off,” admits Vanderbeek. “It was wobbling, so we stopped and found that the lug nuts were loose and the studs stripped. Luckily, we were able to rethread them.”
At Alpine Meadows, the clan moved onto threading couloirs but not well enough to land another podium spot; Simon finished 19th, White 21st and Vanderbeek 29th. But their old coach Lofy, now at Squaw, met them with open arms again, hooking them up in the condo of a team member’s parent. After the comp, they freeskied with 40 or so other local big mountain skiers, in an air-filled scene worthy of Warren Miller.
But as with other lessons learned, they also realized that life sometimes call the shots. With plans to hit Alta, they arrived dog-tired in Salt Lake City at 1 a.m., where Simon and White crashed in the van and Vanderbeek racked in his brother’s dorm. Forgetting to lock the doors, their van was burglarized in the middle of the night, with the perps making off with their camera equipment and White’s ski gear.
“By the time we got up and realized what was happening, they were gone,” says Simon, chalking it up to another lesson learned on the road. “It was a bummer and a pretty frantic night; we should have been more careful. But it doesn’t take away from how sick the trip was.”
With their video footage safely on Vanderbeek’s computer, the only thing it derailed was their plans to ski Alta and Snowbird before heading home, where they arrived 6,000 miles, eight resorts and five college visits later.
As for the life skills they learned while their friends were back in school? All of them agree that pushing the gas pedal up mountain passes, skiing North America’s best resorts and meeting fellow skiers proved far more meaningful than pushing pencils back home.
Editor’s note: In September, all three Van Clan members bid Steamboat adieu and headed off to college: White to Santa Barbara, Simon to Cal Poly and Vanderbeek to Lewis and Clark. They plan to ski together when they meet up again in Steamboat over Christmas break.
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