Chris Benchetler doesn’t need much of an introduction. The acclaimed freeskier is a legend within the sport, as well as an ambassador for outdoor living. The skier (and surfer and rock climber, to name a few), tackled a new project this year: Completely custom-fit a Sprinter van that he and his filmer would cruise around in to find the best snow, surf and climbing spots, and document the whole thing on GoPros. Living out of a van may sound rough, but wait until you see it. We caught up with the long time Dragon athlete in Pemberton, BC, Canada on a down day to hear about the process behind The Stealthy Marmot.
Dragon: Why the Stealthy Marmot?
Chris Benchetler: The name?
DR: Yeah, did you crowdsource it or something?
CB: [laughs] No, so we [Chris and Scott Smith] were researching a ton of different builds, and a high percentage of them were like, fierce predators. The grey wolf or black bear; this, that or the other thing. And so the stealthy marmot was a placeholder. We went with the most insignificant creature we could. And then it just kind of stuck while we were building it.
DR: And how long did it take to kit out?
CB: 45 days. Scotty slept in a cot next to the van. He worked from like 8 am to 2 am everyday and I worked like 8 am to 11 pm everyday. So it was really obnoxious hours. It was full on. We had a deadline because we went to Thailand for my 30th birthday, and Scotty came. And so that was our deadline. That and he was remodeling Michelle Parker’s house, so he had to finish that before winter, too.
Electrical was huge. That was the hardest part for me. I was just researching, researching, researching. and essentially had to hire an electrical engineer at the end of it [laughs]. I either wasn’t smart enough or whatever it was to be able to see how much amperage was needed. It was crazy.
In terms of other designs I was planning on living in it and slowly figuring things out as time went on—and there’s been a couple things—but in all honestly we’ve so far pretty much nailed anything. Haven’t had too many issues other than a heater malfunction in Oregon, while I was staring in Bachelor. A wire came loose in the fuse box and I had to diagnose it. I was researching online but couldn’t figure out the error code. Eventually, I just chased the wires and figured it out. Actually, that was a huge bonus that i had helped build the entire van so I was there for every step and I knew where everything was located.
Photos: @TheStealthyMarmot & @ChrisBenchetler
DR: Obviously, there is a huge industry for kitting out vans and vehicles. Did you have a specific vision of what you wanted?
CB: We basically researched as much as we could on already built vans and sat down together and talked about each sport and environment I’d be in. What was essential, what I could cut out. We wanted everything enclosed; everything super waterproof and sealed. There’s a lot of venting stuff, but we basically didn’t want any condensation or anything so we went all marine-grade plywood and wiring. We basically made it like a boat. We knew it’d be in the Northwest a lot and it would be shitty and wet and not much sun to dry everything out. That was a huge focus.
And I wanted enough space for all of our sports. I wanted to surf, ski and climb. And Matt [Cook; Chris’s filmer] was going to be with me, and eventually Kimmy [Fasani; Chris’s wife]. So I had that in the back of my mind. Most importantly was electrical. We had to be able to charge gimbals, GoPros, drones, laptops, hard rives, all that stuff. It sucks a ton of energy. It’s worked out that we’ve had a lot of friends open their houses to us. So, I’ll stay in the van and Matt will stay in the house so he can kind of blow up the room and have his charging stations. It worked super well in Oregon and we stayed in the van lots, but while we’ve been up in BC, it’s been nice to have friends so he can dry out and charge everything there.
DR: Why did you choose a van? What’s the impetus behind it? It’s obviously much more limiting on where you can go in one winter.
CB: A lot of it had to do with my future and what Kimmy and I have talked about. Wanting to reduce our consumption a bit and live simpler. That mentality has been growing the last few years and been getting more and more intrigued with the idea. Rock climbing, skiing and surfing… they are all very “van culture” sports and I’ve seen a lot of people just living that lifestyle and being in that location with no commute necessary and it’s been inspiring to me. Just wanting to reduce a little bit the amount of crap I do and trying to play my role a little… that was a big part of it. And also I’d be lying if I said that van —since they are so trendy—I saw it as a good opportunity for a project that people would be into.
But it was just a way to slow down and really embrace each location and not be frantically chasing weather all the time. I can post up there and let the weather go through. And if the weather does go to shit and I want to surf, I just take my house with me and go surf for a few days. [laughs] That was the whole idea. Instead of flying home or flying to the next snowy condition, embrace the bad weather and do another sport I enjoy doing. Stay in that location and access the mountains or the ocean and kind of do everything I love doing.
DR: You’ve been with GoPro for a long time and you and Matt do full GoPro projects… how has it been received?
CB: Committing to it last year was super scary. But something I’ve been missing the last few years is just skiing a lot. Red [cameras] are really slowing down the production process. Just waiting to set up; waiting for this, waiting for that. And I just wanted to rekindle that stoke of hot lapping and skiing more. Just making sure I was enjoying what I was doing.
Matt and I, the year before, at a heli operation on a GoPro trip. He did follow cams with Travis Rice and me and slaughtered it and I thought, “Whoa this could be cool.” I’ve always been into skateboarding so I thought it would be cool to do a whole project with movement and really do something different. Only have follow cams, almost no static angles. That was my idea last year and it was received pretty well. I just wanted to keep that going and it was pretty successful. Trying to think of what was next and this project encompassed everything loved to do and allowed me to slow down my life a bit and it’s the dream project basically. The fact I’ve been able to make a season out of it, is pretty cool.
DR: The project won’t stop just here, as winter is over soon-sh?
CB: The project itself—the video—will be done but the journey in the van will be far from over. I’ll be rock climbing and surfing and utilizing the van a lot. I’m already starting to conceptualize new projects and ideas while utilizing the van. It’s been awesome. I’ll brainstorm this summer and see if I can’t make a bigger project out of the same idea essentially.
I’ve met up with so many cool skiers, ‘boarders and surfers. Some new people I’ve never met and some old friends I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve met up with everyone I could have hoped to. I’ve been skiing with [Sean] Pettit a bunch here in BC. It’s been a great outlet for allowing me to do whatever I want with whoever I want. It’s not a huge production. We grab a GoPro and Matt comes and follows us.
DR: Good winter to pick the West Coast? With the winter that the whole West has had from BC to California.
CB: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve had some other complications and things that have held me back from totally killing it, but that’s life. But it’s been fun.
For more of Chris’s exploits, follow his Facebook and Instagram feeds. Follow Matt Cook’s Instagram feed. And don’t forget to follow The Stealthy Marmot for more of its adventures.
Big thanks to Chris Benchetler, Matt Cook, The Stealthy Marmot & GoPro for imagery.