Wolle Nyvelt is no stranger to powder. From his home in the Zillertal Valley all the way to the spines of Alaksa, he’s pretty much seen and ridden it all - both with bindings and without. Alongside AESMO, he’s now channeling his years of skating, snowboarding and surfing experience into the Hillside Project. When it comes to shaping boards for the powder, there are few people more experienced and knowledgeable. Wolle was kind enough to spare us a few moments from his busy schedule in the workshop and talk to us about what it takes to bring these boards to life for the team, and also for the rest of us.
Extracted from Method Mag issue 22.3
Hey Wolle, let’s start off with an introduction to the Hillside Project. What exactly is it?
They are a quiver of powder influenced boards that I help design and make for the Salomon team. Each year, another rider gets a board. They are designed by the team, and the prototypes are built by myself/AESMO. We do all the development processes here in Zillertal [Austria]. We really work out what is best for the riders. They usually get four to five prototypes, and then the molds are launched into production.
So these boards that are really personalised to what the team riders want, and then get produced and are available for anyone to buy?
Exactly. It’s strictly rider focused on what they want, and we do almost everything before the brand and marketing people even see it. That was Salomon’s choice, and they were really cool not to hinder innovation. I just work with Riton [Henry Rancon] and the riders. It’s always a test for every technology, like our Quadralyser sidecut or flexes and whatnot. The riders can really choose what they want, and all of these concepts get put to the test each year.
How did the Hillside Project start?
The roots of Hillside go back to AESMO. Salomon always supported it, and they never saw it as a threat or something like that. They always saw the benefits, even when I was fooling around on those boards and not devoting all of my time to them. After ten years, it went full circle, and they said that I should make a snowboard with them. So we measured a board and worked out what measurements would be in the tolerance of their production capabilities. How I do the prototypes is pretty unique in the sense that there are no mold costs. Whereas in China, each mold costs a few grand. So you can’t quickly or easily just change the sidecut, change the flex or whatever. That’s the benefit that having the workshop here in the alps brings to the table.
Is it a difficult process?
Somehow what we’d taught ourselves with AESMO was good enough to transfer into making snowboards. Salomon was always very open with us from the beginning. They would really explain what’s going on and how things go together. Take a board that has a 7.5-meter sidecut, and you just love 7.5 meters. But that sidecut is always going to change with the flex of your board. So a board with that radius that’s fairly stiff isn’t going to turn as well as a board that’s soft. It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty simple to build a snowboard, and anyone can do it. But to really find out what you want is something else. Salomon was always very focused on gathering data from the team, knowing who is riding what. They’ve always been a very good company in terms of R&D and testing products.
How long does it take to make a board?
The longest process is doing the CAD work. You put the design down and let it sink for a week. Same as an edit. Then you come back to it and see if you get the same feeling for it. Once all those files are done, I can make it pretty quick, in two or three days. I’ve obviously got faster and changed my techniques over the years too.
So you have a role as both a team rider and also a product developer and tester. That sounds like a pretty nice combo.
For me, it’s just awesome to find that role within snowboarding. To lengthen my career, so to say. I don’t like to call it a career at all, but you know what I mean. I love snowboarding, and I always want to be involved in snowboarding. To have the chance to do this is really a pleasure. What I love in this role is being able to cater to the riders. I know how picky I am with what I like, and I might not necessarily know what the rider wants, but I always put them first. Working with Riton on this project, he thinks the same way, and the whole team at Salomon are really supportive of it.
That’s cool that they give you the space to do this.
It’s not totally out of the box, though. Look at Gigi [Rüf] and Travis [Rice]. A lot of riders know what’s up and are really involved with their companies throughout their careers. It’s not something totally crazy. But it’s cool that a company as big as Salomon really cares about that. They treated AESMO well, and they treat it with respect. They really support us with materials and with knowledge. AESMO started with the Salomon Powder Snowskate. I was skating before anything else, and I started making skateboard decks for that. I’d get tips from Riton about how to do this and that. They always saw the benefit that it would bring back to snowboarding. And that creativity came full circle and eventually found its way back into these boards.
How do your mindset and design approach have to change from making AESMO boards compared to the Hillside Project?
It’s more precise. With a powder board, you can pretty much do it in centimetres, and anything is fine. Snowboards are fine-tuned to perfection. Seeing how things shift with a few tenths difference in the mold layup and stuff like that. It’s much more precise. So the approach is different in the sense that you need to take care of little details way more. But there can be more pressure too. You don’t want to fuck up boards for these riders. They’re at the top of their game. Out of respect for them, you don’t want to fuck it up!
How does the design process start with the riders?
In general, the design approach is different every time. The conversation with Louif Paradis will go very differently from a conversation with Josh Dirksen, or Annie Boulanger. Taka Nakai actually has his feedback translated from Japanese. We also do a lot of R&D outside of the Hillside Project. We test different materials and build prototypes for Nils Mindnich and Victor Daviet, which ended up being boards in the main range. So what we do can go a little further than just Hillside. The next task is to redesign the Sick Stick. This year is its 10th anniversary and is where the Hillside Project kind of started. So I have free hands on the board and can do it how I want it. But you also have to respect the history of that board, what its role is and where it needs to fit into the whole Salomon quiver.
With the Hillside Project, are there some riders who know exactly what they want and others who are happy to let you surprise them?
Who really knows what they want? Remember that you’re talking about their second boards here. These aren’t your main boards that you’d go and ride the Baker Banked with or that Louif would hit street on. So the rider’s mindset is already a little bit freer. Dirksen knows everything down to the millimetre, and he’s really set on numbers. He’s fast as fuck in a turn. If he says he’s not getting speed, you’d better listen. Then someone like Taka is just talking in terms of feelings! So when Riton and I get his messages we try to decipher what he’s saying into numbers and put down the CAD drawing. Taka’s feedback is very different, and we a lot of fun discussions trying to figure out exactly what he means!
"We also trust in making mistakes, which can sometimes be the raddest part."
That’s cool that you have such a variety from the team - both extremes of the scale.
Yeah. But I’m also a student to Riton. He really knows a lot. I thank him for that chance, and he really trusts me. We also trust in making mistakes, which can sometimes be the raddest part. Fucking up this, or fucking up that. Then it turns out that the mistake has a sick attribute or it helps you understand something better for the next time. Riton is the kind of guy that’s super open to that. It’s not strictly numbers. He also understands the emotion of the riders.
I know that I’m not very good at taking criticism on my work, especially if it’s something I put a lot of time into. How do you handle it yourself?
A lot of the time, it happens when I’m out riding. I’ll get a message saying ‚something sucks’ about the board, and there isn’t always a lot of sensitivity about how much work gets put in to arrive at the point! But blunt feedback like that is also a strong point. I want the riders to tell me what sucks, and I can only work with that feedback. If they just say that everything is cool, that’s even worse. I’d rather have someone tell me that they like something about it, but there’s also something that sucks. That’s perfect feedback because you know exactly what that rider is feeling. You can get closer to understanding them and how they feel and try to understand more for the next prototype.
How different are the Hillside Project boards from each other? Buri’s setup looked pretty rad at the back.
His has a short swallowtail. We put him on that board, and he just clicked with it. I think where the boards are similar is that we pay attention to the details a lot on contact points, sidecuts and flex patterns. We have that pretty dialled. It’s just plus and minus things. You tweak some attributes, and you might lose or gain something here and there. So I’d say the basic DNA is the same, but the boards do ride completely differently. There’s a super-wide 157 in the range, which rides completely different to Taka’s board, which has a lot of entry rocker in the front. You just need to adapt your stance and approach to riding each one. But what you might lose in one area, you gain on traversing or surfing because it just cuts up really well, or is good in bottom turns, if you want to look at it like that.
So I guess you’re with the riders as much as possible when they’re testing the prototypes?
Yes. You can follow them and really see how they ride. Talking about Buri, he’s such an amazing talent. He has his own approach to snowboarding and is really sensitive to his environment. You can really see when he clicks with everything, and his magic happens.
There’s definitely a lot of surfing mentality in your approach to making and riding boards.
To me, it is like surfing. You have to read the terrain, and you need the eye for it. Knowing how conditions come into play, being at the right place at the right moment, and being spontaneous.
"Whatever dude, just do a fucking turn!"
I guess the surfing mentality also integrates pretty well with your partnership with Billabong?
Billabong goes way back. I was pretty much raised by those guys. Reid [Pinder] and Derrek [O’Neill] from Billabong Europe sponsored me as a shop kid. I got my first ad with them. I’ve never had another outerwear sponsor, and I’ve been with them for twenty-five years now. They’ve always been loyal, and I always found my place there. For me, it’s one of the realest brands out there. Seeing the connection to surfing, that’s where our roots are from, you know? I owe a lot to them. They brought me to my first shaper and got me my first board. All the surf trips I got to go on was all because of them. They definitely listen to their people. Back in the days, they always had a sick team, guys like Noah Salasnek, Kevin Jones, Axel Pauporté. You might view them more like a surf company, but they always put the work in with snowboarding. From the technical side, the clothing has got really good in the last four years. They’re using the best materials, and I’m stoked to ride it. It’s like family for me.
So what is the Adventure Division?
That actually started in France with surfing. Guys like Francois Liets and Benjamin Sanchis just wanted to have the best equipment. That whole story opened the door for them to apply the same focus and approach with technical products to snowboarding as well. They are really making gear for people who shred all the time and working with materials like Sympatex and stuff like that. We want quality before design. From when they started the Adventure Division, they really stepped up their game.
Is there a video in the works from the team this year?
Yeah. COVID split us, though. The US guys were in Idaho and did a backcountry hut trip with Bode [Merrill],v Worm [Garrett Warnick] and Maddie Mastro. Unfortunately I couldn’t go, but I filmed a little edit here with Vlad [David Vladyka], just shredding at home.
Last question, and I’ll let you get back to the workshop. What’s the secret to a good spray? Yours are some of the finest and always seem to have some extra height to them.
Just don’t do a hockey stop, do a real turn and slash it in the end. It’s about the slap and not the hook. We all like to come through a spray, but whatever dude, just have fun! We turn on a skateboard, and we turn on a snowboard. Just do a fucking turn!