Words by Michael Goodwin
I approached Denver International Airport on Monday, March 9 with great anticipation. What would a virus-braced airport look like? Would it look like a cut from Soderbergh’s “Contagion”? Would I be the recipient of incredulous stares, the only idiot without a mask? Temperature guns and extra checkpoints? There were no such scenes. Though the airport was relatively empty, there were still plenty of travelers. I saw only a few face masks and no glaring signs of an approaching pandemic, save for an uptick in the use of hand sanitizer. The same was true when I landed in Salt Lake City.
When I left the seclusion of the Whisper Ridge backcountry operation, reentering cell service and society just a few days later, the bottom had completely dropped out. In the sporting world, the NCAA had initially announced the March Madness college basketball tournament would be held without spectators, before cancelling it altogether, the NBA and MLB had suspended games and spring training, followed by the NHL. Travel from Europe to the U.S. was banned. Music festivals, theme parks, Broadway plays and more were cancelled as cities outlawed large gatherings. The Austrian state of Tyrol announced the early closing of all ski resorts. North American resorts were not far behind. There was pandemonium in grocery stores and physical altercations over toilet paper.
The world, and the U.S. especially, had descended into chaos, our inability to deal with a viral outbreak laid embarrassingly bare. Take me back to my yurt - to that other world - I thought as I jumped in a cab outside DIA.
Yesterday, just short of three weeks later, I took a walk down Colfax Avenue, Denver’s historic drag. The original measures taken just weeks ago were a mere preamble to the almost complete shutdown of public life and the stay-at-home orders now being implemented across most of the country as administrations struggled to slow the spread of COVID-19. In Denver we were within the first few days of state ordered lockdown. On a normal sunny 60 degree afternoon, Colfax would be bustling with foot traffic. Today, most of the people on the street, lived on the street, and cops woke those sleeping or camped out telling them to move along. My recent excursion seemed not just cut from another world, but a distant memory from a long-gone era.
Just a few weeks ago I was carefree, camped out at Whisper Ridge, a 70,000 acre private backcountry operation tucked between the towns of Eden and Paradise in Utah’s Wasatch range. I was invited out for a two-day mission by the fine folks at Giro Sport Design for the unveiling of their latest backcountry helmet and goggle combo, the Grid (men’s) and Envi (women’s) MIPS helmets and the Contour goggle.
I touched down in Salt Lake City on Monday afternoon and after a quick coffee and taco mission - and a round of welcome beers and light snacks at the Bower Lodge - we boarded Piston Bullys at Powder Mountain and set off through a light snow for the Whisper Ridge base camp.
After a two-beer ride we arrived at the Whisper Ridge Yurt Village, a handful of well-outfitted yurts anchored by a massive fire pit sunk into the snowpack, where we were greeted cheerily by our host Nicolette Valentine (hell of a name, btw). I joined a group of selected media, buyers, Giro athletes, product designers, engineers and more. The crew skewed ski-heavy, but Pat Bridges from Snowboarder Mag was there and a number of the Giro dudes snowboarded (and ripped). Harrison Fitch, one of the riders on Giro’s snow team was with us as well.
Whisper Ridge bills its operation as a “premier luxury adventure backcountry resort,” and given my experience there, I’d say this is spot on. I am not sure exactly what I expected when I ducked inside the yurt that served as a kitchen, dining room and lounge, but it definitely wasn’t an hors d’oeuvre spread of charcuterie, seared tuna with seaweed salad and goat cheese stuffed peppers. Tubs of craft beer and wine dotted the campus, and before long they had us seated as plates of sea bass and buffalo short ribs slid across the tables. Nor did I expect to sleep on one of the most comfortable mattresses I’ve ever laid my bones on. For real, the pillow tops they’ve got in these yurts are next level. Even the cacophony of snoring couldn’t keep me awake!
The plan was to max out the next two days, using cats to explore as much of Whisper Ridge’s expansive 70,000 acres as we could with, perhaps, some heli time on Wednesday to round out the product test. It’d been a little while since the last reset and we were looking at warmer, spring conditions. Our concerns about the absence of light pow were assuaged however by the acute knowledge of our guides, who were able to pinpoint aspects and zones that were still pretty prime.
What the terrain we accessed lacked in steepness, it made up for in natural features. (Though we did score some quick, steep burners later in the day Wednesday. To be fair, the guides were accommodating a variety of skill levels, and did a damn fine job with that balancing act). Run after run we descended through an amusement park of pillows, small cliffs, rollers, gullies and gaps. We only got to ride a small sliver of their terrain, but we did end up getting a few heli laps on Wednesday morning that offered a broader view of what they’ve got stashed at Whisper Ridge. And it looks epic. I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of this place. As Harrison and I discussed, someone should go there for a week or so and put out an edit.
I have never been much of a gear head, and I didn’t have a whole lot of concerns about the product coming into the trip. I’ve always operated by the motto: “just fucking ride it.” Above all, I hoped that the helmet wasn’t uncomfortable and didn’t make me look like Toad from Super Mario Bros, and that the goggles didn’t fog.
I hadn’t worn a helmet since I was a kid at Mountain Creek, and then I was just using a Pro-Tec skate helmet. To say that helmet tech has come a long way would be an understatement, and Giro’s Grid leads the field in a number of ways.
In designing their latest backcountry helmet, the Giro team surveyed backcountry guides and the general concern they received in response was that, above all, the helmet should be light and easily packable. “Weight was a big concern,” Product Manager Zack Leader tells us during the welcome dinner product presentation.
I’d say they nailed it. I received a black model to test, and it was sleek, low-profile and super light (400 grams). It’s cliche to say, but after a while I forgot it was even there. The helmet features MIPS Spherical Technology, a “best-in-class protection against high and low-speed linear and rotational impacts” that was moved to the Grid from their high end race helmets. It was impressive to learn that their helmets are tested in the same facility in Santa Cruz, California where Easton hockey and baseball helmets, and Riddell NFL helmets have been tested. The Grid also sports a secondary liner, which allows you to remove the main liner when touring or if you’re just too warm and not have the foam sit directly on your head. Pretty key.
For the Contour goggle, the aim was to achieve a wide field of view and ensure swapping lenses remained as simple as possible. “What does the field of view look like from inside the goggle, not just how big can we make the frame or lens,” says Leader of the thought process behind the Contour’s design.
The Contour features Expansion View Technology, which is a new frame design that “optimizes a massive spherical lens, providing peripheral vision and an unparalleled field of view.” In fact, it offers Giro’s widest field of view yet. What makes this goggle unique from many other spherical shapes is its pairing with an injection-molded Toric VIVID lens that minimizes the distortion you’d get in a thermal-formed cylindrical lens. It’s a cool looking blend that offers an insane field of view without the fishbowl look. And it fits seamlessly with the Grid.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings we had debating these vent patterns” says Rob Wesson, vice president and general manager of Giro about the goggles top vent patterns. He remembers it as an exhaustive debate that is probably lost on most people, but so important, both functionally and aesthetically.
I certainly appreciated the effort, as it checked my most important box: no fogging. I don’t think I had an issue the whole trip, even in the warm temps, or when getting in and out of a cat. The details that Graphic Designer Tyler Grobowsky added for the straps were the clincher for me, incorporating influences from the Salem witch trials to Creature skateboards.
My notes got a little sloppy at one point in the product presentation, and I forgot to attribute this quote, but someone from the Giro team - perhaps Rob - made a joke about people thinking that Giro was an Italian cycling brand. Like a lot of good jokes, it hinged on a bit of truth: many people in snowboarding don’t perceive Giro as a snowboarding brand.
Overcoming this prejudice will be the main obstacle for Giro in commanding a larger presence in the snowboard market, specifically the core snowboard market. They’ve got other key aspects covered: the people behind the product are legit, and their product is excellent - the view through the Contour is incredible, and if I was going to wear a helmet (what would be the wise decision) I’d probably where the Grid. But like always, we encourage you to see for yourself.
The Grid, Envi and Contour will all be available Fall 2020.
Big cheers to the Giro family and our Whisper Ridge hosts for what turned out to be an apt taste of freedom before the lockdown.