When you see Elf Ellefsen, it’s not difficult to imagine him as a snowboarder. He has those ruffled good looks—a little dirty and disheveled—snow riders wear well and a slight edge that accompanies the historically rebellious snowboarder.
Above Photo: © James Kay
He’s sported everything from a chest-length braided goatee, a 10-inch mohawk, and a reverse mohawk (clown-style, proof of which lives on an old driver’s license) to a horseshoe mustache and Sammy Hagar curls—things only a guy with boyish looks would dare. Even when he gets gussied up for the opera (yes, the opera), he wears black-and-white wingtips.
When the guy is excited about something, he makes full-on eye contact, and his eyes bore into your skull. Or as his friend Patrick Robinson puts it: “He’s got the bug eyes.’” When you talk to him, it’s easy to imagine those bug eyes scanning the mountainside for their next big line. But Elf doesn’t snowboard anymore.
In downtown Salt Lake City, 40 minutes from the mountains, Elf might be found sorting through garbage bags full of the recycling from his auto shop, Streamline Industries. He organizes the trash wearing yellow gloves. He plays ball in the park with his two dogs Whirly and Sargus and rants about environment-killing oil companies and cruelty toward animals; and although he once brought veggie burgers to a barbecue and put them straight into the freezer (asking, “Where are the ribs?”), he’s pretty much vegetarian. He drives a Supercharged Audi A6 Quattro Avant like he’s Senna.
He’s a friend. “The greatest thing about him is how much he cares about people,” says Robinson. Elf also nurtures and supports today’s snowboarding stars. Shannan Yates-Cochrane, two-time The North Face Masters champ, gains more than sponsorship and encouragement from him. She says, “I don’t think anyone could ask for a better friend.”
But rewind. When Elf was a kid growing up in Wisconsin he says he was “little, worthless to team sports.” That runty kid who’s regularly left standing, always picked last? That was Elf. So he found an outlet in art. It was a solitary endeavor, and so was skateboarding, which he also picked up and which was his precursor to snowboarding.
In 1991, a few years post-Blizzard of AAHHHs, he moved to the Rockies to ride that deep, steep, gnarly stuff in the movie that made kids all over the country wet their pants. If the aim wasn’t to become a pro rider, it was at least to rip the same terrain. Snowboarding had hit its heyday by that time, and riding-wise it was a free-for-all. “Crazy styles were coming out of the skate world,” says Gareth Van Dyk, the ’98 U.S. Extreme Snowboard champ. Boarders were jibbing and everything was extreme. In 1992, the first World Extreme Snowboarding Comp was held in Valdez, Alaska. Van Dyk says, “All the legends were being born, doing first descents, making their marks.”
His lines were creative; “Elf always thought outside the box,” says Lori Gibbs, a pioneer on the women’s side. “Elf would just go a little faster, bigger, and farther than most,” says Benny Pellegrino of Milosport. He says that after a few years of riding in the West, “Elf didn’t turn a lot, just huge, blasting airs off every little launch pad up there. Elf had the style I loved.” Matt Whitlock, who worked at the mountain as a nighttime janitor with Elf and whom Elf calls “The King,” calls that style “Midwestern.” Buddy Otto Blum says, “He was good at going straight, going big.” But, he adds, “He was low-key, non-braggadocious; he let his riding speak for itself.”
Elf made a video of himself riding those big, fast lines and took it to a trade show in search of sponsors. One vendor asked him if he could keep the tape and started taking gear off the walls and handing it to him. Eventually Lib Tech, Bamboo Curtain, Bollé, and Vans, among others, backed him. In 1993, SnoBoard magazine launched with Elf riding deep pow on its cover.
When Ian Reilly moved west and first met Elf, it was after Reilly had popped off a diving board into a chute and butt-checked the landing. Elf rode up to him and said, “Nice line. Don’t ever butt-check. I’m Elf.” As if they were two boys on a playground, Reilly says, “I was so flattered that he talked to me—he gave me a compliment and advice, and introduced himself!”
Forrest Reynolds says that you could not deter Elf. One day when Elf told him he was building a kicker over the canyon road, Reynolds was incredulous. But Elf wasn’t joking, and he and Robinson built the jump. Robinson recalls, “The head of the Department of Transportation came and told us to take it down; it was illegal to jump a highway.” So while the man watched, the two feigned compliance. “We were ruining it slowly and laughing—we knew we were gonna do it when the ****face was at home eating dinner.” Robinson went first, came up short, and broke his back. “It wasn’t bad, though.” Of course not: it was a mere bone wound. That was the mentality in the ‘90s; sometimes you got hurt, but you always went big. Just up the road Chad Zurinskas, who had made the westward move with Elf, was eyeing the 120-foot gap that would become Chad’s Gap.
When you do something on a daily basis, there is knowledge behind the potential danger. “Everything was somewhat calculated,” says Blum, “but all that stuff was crazy.” Did Elf consider the risk? According to Whitlock, sometimes too much: “He would stand on top of a line and look at it and fix his goggles. Like, is he coming or what?”
Elf bought a ’69 Volkswagen Bus with his buddy Glen Doherty. The bus was in bad disrepair, so Elf worked on it and in the process took a crash course in auto restoration. This budding interest took him to Huntington Beach to learn engine-building when the snow melted. In the summers, he worked on VWs; in winters he rode. This was life for 13 years.
It was a bluebird day after a two-foot storm when Elf told Reilly and Tyler Greene to check out this line he’d planned. Elf said the adrenaline was pumping so hard his legs were shaking, but he’d done the line before, so while the two went around to the runout he pointed it.
The line was steep, starting at the top of a cirque, and situated in between two chutes. It entailed a double air, the first one a glide off a hanging snow pillow, and the second required a slight left turn on the landing to avoid a pointy rock band at the bottom. Elf landed the first air, but the landing was hard and shot him into the second air out of control. He hit a rock on the takeoff and pinballed through the rock band right above Reilly and Greene. When Elf came to a stop, severe injuries apparent, Greene’s first thought was, Is this guy gonna make it? Eric Anderson was on patrol and first to respond. He says, “It was one of the most shocking things I’d seen at the time. It caught me off-guard. I could see all of the internal anatomy of his knee, it was flayed open … [His knee] was destroyed.” Anderson called for life flight, and they flew out from the bottom of the cirque.
Above Photo: © James Kay
There were two holes in his skull above his eyes, a torn trachea, and an exploded kneecap. He says his head swelled up like a balloon and his eyes crossed. He underwent 11 surgeries and had three staph infections. Surgeons tried to put the kneecap back together, but one of the pieces of bone died; it didn’t take.
That summer love of pimping out engines had already crept into the winter months. Elf would sometimes opt for the two-car garage he rented in the valley rather than the mountain if the snow wasn’t great. After his accident, he invariably went to the shop. It turned out Anderson was right: Elf’s knee was destroyed. He could no longer snowboard—or run, bike, or even swim. He “can sort of bowl or golf, but both suck.” He says, “You don’t have a lot of choices, but you have to figure out how to keep going and keep going, and that’s your choice.”
“I really love the artistic aspect of personalizing a car, making it faster, making someone feel completely satisfied with my artistic vision,” he says, which makes abundant sense when you consider the snowboarder whose “favorite thing was raw speed” and the puny kid in Wisconsin who doodled in his notebook while the rest played football. His shop specializes in German autos and has been successful enough that he’s in the midst of opening another in Huntington Beach. “It’s pure luck. I enjoyed it so much, it became a love for the art of it, and that love became a livelihood.” He laughs a big belly-laugh, “If it had been a Chevelle, I would be broke right now.”
Elf attributes the transition to something innate. “I don’t think the wiring changes. I was wired with that daredevil gene … I had to transfer all that passion into something.” And by “all that”—if you ask anyone who’s ever met Elf—he’s talking about an incalculable sum. “He had a lot of passion, as much as I’ve known anyone to have,” says Blum. Robinson says, “Well, Elf is crazy—he’s a crazy person. But it’s out of passion.”
Not that this passion slides over and easily obviates the other. “Pick the greatest thing in your life. Then imagine life without it forever,” he says. “[Snowboarding] was everything to me. It made me who I am today. A part of me is gone.” To his riding buddies, although none of them spring chickens, the predicament is almost incomprehensible. “He can’t ride anymore—what’s worse than that?” asks Matt ‘Ox’ Maloley, who won last year’s Mt. Baker Legendary Banked Slalom, where Pellegrino also competed. Blum, who is now a family man and private chef, doesn’t get out much, but he says, “It wasn’t taken away from me. If I get a stick up my ass, I can go take runs.” Whitlock says, “He committed his life to it—we were there every day. Someday when Elf gets his leg fixed I’ll be right there with him.” After nearly a decade of searching all over the country and finding no surgeon who will touch the hollowed juncture of his leg, it’s possible that will never happen.
Here, perspective is key. If Elf had hit the rocks a few inches lower or higher, the result could have been much worse or fatal. He says, “I’m lucky to be alive.” That fact is clear to Robinson, who says, “He’s meant to be alive today—he’s an inspiration to anyone who wants to live life to the fullest and chase their dreams.”
When Elf rented that garage, he would go around town to acquire old wrecks, knocking on doors of people he’d heard had vintage gems wasting in their backyards. Faced with a broken-down engine, there is optimal opportunity. “I would get to recreate something that was completely dead; I would rebuild it and bring it back to life,” he says. “The end result, it’s a very beautiful thing—you open the hood and watch the organs play and the lights come on, and it’s art.” As the saying goes, art is imitable.