FEATURE: Unbreakable Bonds

By on January 10, 2017

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – The first time Alpha Barrie clicked into his snowboard bindings, the wind was howling from the west, blowing snow that coated his goggles in a white film. Barrie, 23, shivered, unable to see more than three feet in front of him as snow danced in the cool morning light. He stood up slowly on his donated Nidecker snowboard and pulled his buff closer to his face. The expert surfer had never been in temperatures below 70 degrees, let alone on top of a mountain.

Almost two years ago, while researching his next surfing destination on the internet, local snowboarder Adam Towle fortuitously connected with Barrie, of Sierra Leone. A longtime bartender at the Knotty Pine, Towle is an experienced international surfer. To date, he holds 30 passport stamps for his surfing sojourns alone. Barrie, on the other hand, lives in a tent on the beach of Bureh in Sierra Leone. He has no material wealth, little opportunity to make money, and had never been outside of his country.

In 2015, Towle traveled to Sierra Leone, just as the small West African country was recovering from a massive outbreak of the Ebola virus. While he was there, he learned Barrie wanted to learn to snowboard. In an unlikely turnabout, the two athletes would help each other.

To help Barrie obtain a visa and visit the Tetons, myriad folks banded together. It is a tale that highlights the generosity of people in this area and the way passions centered on nature and outdoor exploration, like that of catching waves and riding snow, transcend cultures. “Really, it is the unity of sport that can bring many communities and different walks of life together,” said Marvin Howard, Towle’s friend.

Swimming against currents of despair

Surfing has become a vehicle of happiness and healing for the people of Sierra Leone, a country that has endured massive turmoil. It is a place rife with wounds from an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002. The war was waged over diamonds, mined mostly to fund the purchase of weapons, and the conflict was made famous in the movie Blood Diamond. It claimed 50,000 lives, and more than one million people were displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.

Now surfing serves as a means toward economic stability for the people of Bureh, Barrie’s hometown. An hour and a half south of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s bustling capital, Bureh is a seaside enclave of about 400 people. It boasts a small emerging surf community surrounded by verdant mountains, coconut trees and two rivers. Here, Bureh’s people eke out a meager living as fishmongers and tourist guides.

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Barrie connected with Towle through the Bureh Beach Surf Club website. In 2012, Bureh locals established the community-run outfit, with the help of German NGO, WeltHungerHilfe, which works to eradicate hunger and poverty in developing nations. NGO members constructed the surf club’s building, and distributed donated surfboards to Bureh’s residents.

Locals work for the surf club on a volunteer basis, offering tourists surf lessons and boards, and serving food and drinks. Though volunteers are not paid, they can accept tips. For them, it is a place to call home, and a source of pride.

In addition to teaching surfing lessons, Barrie also serves as the club’s secretary. He maintains business records, documents the number of surfboards used per day and records transactions. He hand writes the information in a notebook and enters the data into a computer at the end of each month.

But the surf club struggles to survive. With no reliable transportation, no electricity and no governmental support, its future is uncertain. “It would be nice to have electricity,” Barrie said. “We could get more tourists that way.”

But with more tourists comes more demand for accommodation. Roofing is poorly constructed in Bureh, including the roof of Barrie’s family home. “There is no money to fix the structures,” Barrie said. “When it is raining, some people can’t even sleep at night.”

Still, the surf club remains a glimmering light for Bureh’s young population, especially since 70 percent of the nation’s youth is unemployed or underemployed, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Before the surf club’s inception, the young people of Bureh Beach, known as the Bureh Boys, had no real occupation. Since Ebola, the Bureh Boys have again found themselves in this predicament. The 2015 epidemic left the beaches of Bureh empty.

Barrie said Towle is the only tourist who has made the journey to Bureh since the outbreak. He wishes more people would consider traveling there now. “The sunsets are incredible. The plankton glow in the water, and shooting stars reflect off the surface of the waves at night,” he said.

For youth who lost their parents to war, Ebola or another disease, the beach, and the gift of surfing that it bestows, has made it a home. “It’s a place for kids to go where they can have a family,” said Tressa Allen, Towle’s wife, who has welcomed Barrie into her Teton Valley home for three months.

Towle said he was moved by the plight of the Bureh Boys, and impressed by the generosity and warmth of Bureh’s people, especially Barrie. “He immediately struck me as a thoughtful and intelligent person,” he said. “I wanted to give back.”

And he did. Towle painted the beach’s restaurant, and stood firm on his word to Barrie when he left. He promised to help him find a way to visit America; just as Barrie had coached him in surfing, he vowed to share his passion for snow with the 23-year-old Sierra Leonean.

Citizens of the world

With help from valley locals, Towle arranged for Barrie’s travel visa to the United States, a $160 expense—roughly equal to half the yearly income in Barrie’s homeland. More than 72 percent of the population there lives on less than one dollar per day.

Towle wired Barrie the money, though he remained uncertain of what would happen next. To acquire an American visa for a Sierra Leonean citizen, especially someone who has no bank account and does not own a business, is no easy feat.

“I was on the fence,” Towle admitted. “I wondered if I was sending the money for nothing, but I had given him my word.”

In June, Towle wrote a letter to US immigration: “Just like surfing has been healing, snowboarding could give a broken nation something to be proud of.”

But Towle knew he could not orchestrate Barrie’s visa alone so he partnered with Lance Pitman, head snowboard coach at the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club. Pitman’s letter referenced the club’s 80-year history of supporting and training budding athletes. “Barrie’s visit would provide us with a unique opportunity to introduce a Sierra Leonean to the joys of snowboarding, and help us further our goal of making snow sports an inclusive activity for all to participate in,” the letter read.

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Back in Sierra Leone, Barrie was nervous but hopeful when he traveled to Freetown’s immigration office one morning in October. He watched as the four people ahead of him were denied visas.

“It didn’t discourage me,” Barrie said. “I explained my desire to learn snow sports, and that I intended to invite everyone I met [in the United States] to visit my country.”

When immigration officials asked what would keep him from staying in Idaho, he replied, “I don’t think I can handle the cold for more than three months.”

In the two-minute interview, officials scanned the letters and granted Barrie a three-year visa; his case was the first of its kind in his country.

“He is the first Sierra Leonean with no assets, no bank account, no real job, no business, to be granted a visa for the purpose of learning to snowboard,” Towle said.

Indeed, he had overcome a major hurdle. Next came the cost of the overseas journey. Towle decided to send Barrie a plane ticket out of his personal savings. “Alpha doesn’t have the option to earn money in his country like I do here,” Towle said. “Life just doesn’t give you many opportunities like this.”

A veritable global citizen, Towle, from a young age, learned the importance of helping people who are struggling no matter their home address. His parents sponsored a refugee family of four from Rhodesia who were trying to escape the civil war. After hosting them for three weeks, Towle’s parents got them settled in his hometown of Topeka, Kansas, and helped them get jobs and housing. Later, they became American citizens. 

Growing up in Topeka, Towle craved the culture and diversity absent from his small town. “My parents took my sister and I on many trips in the US and abroad. From an early age, traveling and adventure was what I wanted to do.”

A prodigious journey

Barrie’s journey to a foreign land came with a host of new experiences. He had never been on an airplane, had never left his homeland, and had no idea what to expect.

“At first, I only saw uniformed security and immigration officials, so I was a bit scared,” Barrie said. “But I felt confident because I had my visa in hand.”

Barrie flew into Salt Lake City on December 7. It was 8 degrees and Barrie had no winter clothes. Luckily, Towle had thought ahead. He outfitted Barrie with an expedition weight North Face jacket, donated by “Dave the Wave” from the Jackson Hole Air Force, and head-to toe-clothing donated by Teton Valley resident Dom Santiarese.

For the Sierra Leonean, the four-hour road trip from Salt Lake City to Idaho was an adventure in itself.

“First I saw all the snow in the valley, and I thought it was just incredible. I felt really excited to be here,” Barrie said in perfect English, one of four languages he speaks fluently, along with his native Krio and two tribal languages.

“Everything was different,” Barrie continued. “I had never seen an overhead bridge with cars on top, and I was nervous because there were so many white people.” It was the first of many new experiences for Barrie, and he had yet to step out of the car.

Later, Barrie, who spent his first 15 years of life in a war-torn nation, says he was overcome by the myriad differences between his country and the US. “People here live in nice houses, have jobs, and so many kinds of food,” he said. “They have money to go snowboarding and pay for things like going to the doctor and dentist.”

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In Sierra Leone, health care is scarce. Barrie struggles with unresolved health issues such as a problem molar tooth. Central Intelligence Agency statistics for 2010 listed less than one doctor per 1,000 people in Sierra Leone. Due to such grim statistics, average life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 46—one of the lowest rates in the world, according to 2015 World Health Organization data.

In addition to the dismal health care situation, during the civil war people in the country endured horrific cases of rape and amputations inflicted by the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel force that started and ultimately lost the war.

“Chopping off the hands and limbs of the farmers was crippling for them because our people farm the land, growing vegetables, nuts, cassava and rice,” a Sierra Leonean was quoted saying in a BBC News report.

Due to these and other hardships, nearly half a million refugees have fled Sierra Leone, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Still, Barrie urges foreigners to see his homeland in a different light. “Sierra Leone is peaceful now. There is no war and there is no Ebola anymore.”

Although peace is finally a reality in Sierra Leone, Barrie admitted that life will be difficult for him when he returns. “With no work and no money, it can be hard to enjoy the beauty of Bureh.”

Settling into snow culture

Barrie adapted to life in the Tetons quicker than he expected. “I liked the mountain town culture almost immediately,” he said. Accustomed to eating rice three times a day, Barrie reported a new love for bacon, chicken noodle soup and hot cocoa—all firsts for him. In the comfort of Towle’s home, he ate steak for the first time while watching huge snowflakes fall from the night sky.

One of Barrie’s first stops was the National Elk Refuge, where he watched the snow sift through his fingers. “I have never seen snow before. It is so light. Not at all like sand on the beach,” he said. “Everything I saw that day I had never seen before. I was mesmerized when I saw my first elk.”

Barrie strapped into a snowboard for the first time at Grand Targhee. One of Barrie’s instructors, Watts Barden explained: “Here, instead of surfing waves, we surf mountains. It’s almost indescribable—a pure love of sport that brings people together.”

Barrie was surprised at the unique nature of the sport. “I thought snowboarding would be like surfing, but it wasn’t,” he said. “It’s totally different standing on top of a mountain than paddling out to catch a wave.”

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Getting Barrie on the hill was a joint community effort. Teton locals rallied to outfit Barrie with snow gear.

“I had a set of snowboard boots and bindings that would fit Alpha, and I was very happy to donate those,” Barden said, adding that Barrie was “completely trusting right out of the gate.” Equipped with a used 155-centimeter board from Towle, Barrie’s infectious smile spread all over the ski hill.

In less than two hours on the mountain, the expert surfer, who had never experienced altitude or cold weather, was linking turns on a snowboard. “Once he was able to see the mountain as his wave, it really began to click for him,” Barden explained.

Through Grand Targhee’s “1-2-3 Start Me Up to Ski or Ride” program, Barrie quickly excelled. At $349 during the month of January, the program offers beginning skiers or snowboarders three days of lift tickets, daily rental equipment and two-hour group lessons.

“The opportunity creates lifelong skiers and snowboarders,” said Jennie White, Grand Targhee’s marketing and social media manager. “It is a way to get them into the sport, and help the sport grow industry wide.”

Barrie is the first person from a developing country to reap its benefits. With the help of instructor Kate Robey, he aced the program. “He was so excited to be out there, learning to navigate the mountains on a snowboard,” she said.

When Barrie told Robey he wanted to be more confident on his toe edge, go on steeper terrain, into the trees and hopefully learn a few tricks, she wasn’t surprised. “The foundation was already there for him being a surfer,” she explained. “Barrie’s body mechanics and muscle memory allowed him to progress quickly. He picked up ollies right away.”

He even landed his first and second 180. “I max out at switch 180s, which he also mastered that day,” she said.

Robey plans to ride with Barrie a few more times this season at Targhee. “To see someone genuinely appreciate this sport makes me step back and realize that I am a truly lucky individual to live where I do,” she said. “This is a gift that is literally in my own backyard, one that is not accessible to everyone.”

Snowboarding with Barrie was a magical experience for Robey. “Whenever Alpha got whitewashed in the trees, he just laughed,” she said. “Falling was just as much fun as landing his first trick. Nothing could squash his enthusiasm. I can see him being able to rip Corbet’s by the end of the season.”

Targhee rider Gary Hansen pointed to the bridge Barrie has helped to build in the valley. “We live in a bubble here. It’s heartwarming to see the enthusiasm people have for Barrie as a first time snowboarder from Africa,” he said. “It’s beyond race or culture or ethnicity when we are in the mountains.”

Legendary Lance and Big Red

The Grand Targhee Resort community has shown remarkable interest and support for Barrie’s quest, and many recognize him at the resort. Nine-year Targhee employee Cart Wheel Huette enjoys seeing Barrie on the slopes. “He is riding with some of our mountain’s best, and we’re not stopping the lift for him,” he said.

Given his rapid progression, on his tenth day on a snowboard, it was time for Barrie to sample the goods at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort with the goal of riding the tram. As the sun rose over the Tetons, Barrie met one of his most important benefactors, Lance Pitman, for access to JHMR’s early gondola.

Under a bluebird sky and standing in six inches of fresh powder that had fallen overnight, the two exchanged heartfelt handshakes and hugs. Barrie thanked Pitman for the auspicious letter from JHSC that persuaded US Immigration officials to grant him a visa to visit the Tetons.

Pitman, a local mountain legend, would be Barrie’s escort for the day. Former owner of Illuminati Snowboards and co-founder of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine, Pitman is known for carving big lines in the Tetons and expertly navigating the backcountry. At age 14, he was one of the first snowboarders in the JHSC, and is now ushering a new generation of groms into the craft as head snowboard coach and assistant director of JHSC.

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Recently, Pitman was a panelist at SHREDtalk, a gathering of industry experts. Jeff Moran, JHSC’s advancement director, told The Planet: “Pitman is one of the first people to really put Jackson Hole on the map.”

For him, snowboarding is a teacher and a healer. In response to Moran’s compliment, Pitman was humbled. “If anything, Jackson put me on the map,” he said.

Under Pitman’s guidance, Barrie quickly advanced from gondola runs to the expert-only tram in just a day and a love for snowboarding forged a fast bond between Barrie and Pitman. “I feel like Lance is my brother,” Barrie said. “It’s not easy to find someone so kind and friendly. He is very funny and an incredible snowboarder. He’s done so much to help me.”

Barrie glimpsed the possibilities snowboarding holds watching “Legendary Lance” launch cliffs. At the end of the day, Barrie compared the two ski resorts: “Targhee is like secondary school, but the village is like going to university.”

All turns must come full circle

Before long, Barrie will grace the Grand Targhee website and social media platforms as one of the resort’s spokespersons for the 1-2-3 Start Me Up to Ski or Ride program, which has seen a couple hundred participants over the last four years.

The program, alongside the overwhelming generosity of the Teton communities, opens the door to host more unique candidates like Barrie, and introduce them to the joys of snow sports.

“The more we get to interact with people from other cultures, especially in each other’s environments, the better we can understand that we are all human, and we are all just here trying to figure out how to get along,” Pitman said.

“Barrie and Towle have not only shown us how people from extremely different cultures can get along,” he continued, “but also how we can connect through sports, and help each other in a way that impacts the world.”

In the meantime, stay tuned for Barrie’s drop into Corbet’s, which is soon to come. PJH

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