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Ski & Snowboard
Louie the Xtreme Chimp and the Endless Slope
Article L2. Boarding gone ape! Part 2: On The Snow!
Pictures Air Louie!
article in the Sierra Ski News November 2002 issue
SnoZone and Endless Slope / Adventurous Sports ski and snowboard school
I consider myself pretty darn lucky being able to ski and snowboard at home anytime of the year. Having my own revolving ski deck in a converted garage that is now a ski and snowboard academy called “SnoZone” makes my school quite unique from other traditional snow ski and snowboard schools.
The school covers a large range of students from blind, rehabilitating injured skiers, children as young as 3 years old to as old as 80, professional racers, ski and snowboard patrollers and instructors but mostly people who love the sport of skiing and snowboarding and are serious about improving.
But this was an unusual day as far as student’s goes. A large van pulled along the curb in front of my house and what looked like a young boy hopped down wearing baggy pants and a T-shirt under a light blue jacket. With arms hung low and knuckles almost dragging on the ground, one arm reached up to a tall slender man’s hand. As they walked up the driveway together I could see that the little fellow had a bow-legged walk as he lightly bounced with each step, shoulders see-sawing back and forth. The baseball cap shaded his face as they approached but already the long fingers of the youth became obvious with the black matted hair on the back of his hand. The long disproportionate arms (by a child’s standard) reminded me of Curious George without a tail.
Curious was correct for the little fellow looked around swinging his head from side to side - taking in all he could of his new surroundings. He seemed to approve of the lush green park near by and the tree lined street that framed the individually craftsman designed homes built in the 1920s. He seemed to dance towards me until the tall man halted him at his side.
The beady, but child like eyes stared up at me and right then I knew I was faced with the biggest challenge of my ski and snowboard teaching career. The man Greg Lille was the surrogate father and trainer of Louie the Chimpanzee. Louie was already famous as a movie star having been a hockey player and then a skateboarder in two previous movies (MVP standing for Most Valuable Primate and MVP2 standing for Most Vertical Primate 2.) In his next movie he was to star as a snowboarding chimpanzee.
With a friendly greeting, Greg introduced me to Louie - but was professional in being safety minded - and wanted to make sure that Louie was very comfortable with me before I stepped any closer. Greg told me that chimpanzees grow to become seven times stronger than a human being and if startled might without meaning to - accidentally harm someone. Yes, the little guy could ruin the rest of the day for me if I made the wrong gesture.Louie being six- years - old was only a youngster not even a teenager as far as Chimps go so was considered to be four times as strong as a man. That didn’t make me feel any better having a little Hercules to deal with. Reminding myself that animals have a keen sense of detecting fear, I buried any thought of being scared deep as possible in my mind. I later experienced that Louie was quite the lovable chimp and greeted me each day with a kiss. But the thought that he had the strength to turn me into a pretzel anytime made me grateful and respectful of him. Hey, he’s The Man, or should I say The Chimp!
Then, without hesitation, Greg and his wife Carol mentioned that they had little over a month to turn Louie into a snowboarder. The problem was that chimps are not familiar with the cold white stuff, not having snow as any part of their natural habitat.
They naturally hate the cold - getting pneumonia easily if exposed for any lengths of time – and they do not like holding ice cubes or snow. Of coarse those problems were compounded, as it was very difficult to find gloves that fit a chimpanzee’s hand with their extremely long fingers.
The question both Greg and Carol asked was if we could teach the basics of snowboarding to a chimpanzee prior to getting him onto the snow. My answer that in my mind at the time was questionable – was, “yes.” I reassured them by saying “sure if I can teach a little boy of 3, then why not a 6 year-old chimp.”
So here begins my journey teaching a Chimpanzee on the art of snowboarding. Greg and I immediately got along. Speaking to him on my method of teaching children which is way different from the way I teach adults. I told him children do not care about the technical details of skiing or snowboarding as adults do. Nor do they always listen or even try to understand you. They want to begin by doing something - not listening to someone. Designing appropriate drills and games that naturally develop the correct skills of skiing and snowboarding is the key to efficient incorporation of skiing and snowboarding muscle coordination and memory.
Chimps, I found are physically excellent athletes and maybe more so when it comes to sports dexterity.
It was clear that we needed Louie to select out from his natural abilities those that are essential for snowboarding and have him focus on them in a coordinated manner.
Both Carol and Greg had been animal trainers at Marine World and dedicated their lives to their 16 Chimpanzees. They take care of them as if they were their own children. Louie had been with them since birth and enjoyed ice hockey and skate boarding which Greg and Carol trained him on.
They knew snowboarding would be difficult because of the chimps aversion to snow, as well as the thought of trying to arrange the logistics of several training sessions with four trainers and a chimp knee deep in snow and in the cold. Realizing a dry land solution was needed they began calling around and were soon referred to me. I could imagine my colleagues thinking that Sam - who loves challenges and rarely turned down a student would be fool hearted enough to take on such a project.
As we strategically planned our approach to training we all agreed that it was critical not to have Louie develop any incorrect snowboarding habits as it would take us four times longer to undo the wrong habit as it would to teach the correct habit in the first place not to mention confuse and frustrate the chimp. Time was at an essence and we were worried if there was even enough time for Louie to be ready for the filming. Our plan was a three-phase approach. Phase 1 was to develop the critical skills of snowboarding. Phase two was to purchase a 40-foot long by 20 foot wide carpet and lay it on a hill slope creating a snowboard run. The third was to take Louie up to the snow and try his newfound skills on the snow.
Each phase had its unique problems to over come? Though Chimpanzees are naturally built to perform like athletes, they are solid muscle (and very little in areas of weak spots) the main problem was they have an attention span of a 2 – year - old. Keeping their interest with food as a reward kept Louie fairly focused during our lesson sessions. Jelly fruit loops, a favorite reward staple of Louie’s were used often. In fact I still pull out packets of the gummy candies from my jackets and other training gear.
lettuce leafs was another reward item, which he devoured when he got his
hands on them, but the occasional soft drink was a real treat.
I smile every time I imagine Louie’s excitement when the soft
drink can was introduced to him. This guy would do just about anything
for a drink of the fizzy stuff. However,
it made him hyper so it was kept to a minimum as a reward item.
Although the can was always pre-opened for him, Louie’s head would quickly nod in acceptance and after the lesson he would run to the holder of the drink and push out his bottom lip accepting the flow of the upturned can in his hand. I am sure he could pull open the soft drink can tab by himself. I learned quickly that he loves to pull on things (he tore off all my stomp pad grip tape on all my boards.) But to avoid possible chimp frustration and turning the un-open can into a flying projectile, the can was always opened for him. Always thought he would make a great commercial for the Dew.
It was Louie’s fear of mechanical machines, however, that becomes our first real issue. The first time I turned on the Endless Slope ski deck with it’s whining pitch sound it made Louie scream and jump in panic hysteria. We had to coax him down from the overhead safety bars surrounding the machine. He swung on them as if a herd of elephants were after him. After calming Louie down we had him sit and play on the deck in the stationary mode. We then had him jog with Greg as the machine ran slowly.
In time, Louie got use to the moving deck. Next was fitting Louie for boots. Having a prehensile foot with finger like toes required modifying the snowboard boots to fit Louie. Basically it required removing the inner lining so the wide foot with the prehensile toe could fit comfortably in it.
With a comfortable pair of snowboard socks Louie’s feet were snug as a snow rabbit bedded down in its winter den.
We discovered a step in bindings would work the best for a couple reasons. Such a binding would allow easy and quick attachment of the boot to the board and second the bindings did not have a back heel plate, which allowed the chimp to slip in and out of his boot fairly easily.
Like a fox caught in a bear trap, animals instinctively fight to pull their foot out of anything that tries to hold them. It was especially true with Louie who did not at first understand the concept of having his feet attached to the snowboard. At first he would struggle to pull his foot out of the attached boot on the board. By collapsing his hand-like foot he would try to yank free of the boot and in the process paranoia and panic would set in and then once free would throw the board and shimmy up the safety bars.
To solve this constant problem of struggling to free him we made it easy and obvious for his foot to be removed from the boot. Greg cut away over half of the back of the boot making it a slip in boot.
Because of the chimp’s strength and dexterity we felt he could still use the remaining stiff boot back as leverage to perform a heel edge. We had invented the first slip in snowboard boot! We figure it would be a great hit if more chimpanzees took up snowboarding. Hey, that reminds me I have a couple of friends that can use this!
For those interested in Louie’s boarding specifications, we trained Louie on a 100 cm board. In the movies he graduated to a 150 cm board. Louie, from his skate boarding background, is regular foot and we placed his bindings in a duck feet position with a + 15 degree in the front and a –10 degrees in the back.
Louie was now ready to further his snowboard lessons both on the Endless Slope and later on the snow where he moved onto movie stardom as a snowboarding chimp. For more stories and pictures about Louie the Xtreme Snowboarding Chimp see www.endlesslope.com
Louie too good a pupil!
Morishima got a chance to visit Louie on the movie set late last ski
season. The film was shot
in Canada and Sam was able to work with the chimp again during his
“Louie learned to snowboard so well” related Sam, “that they had
to bring in a second chimp as a double to shoot the scenes where he was
supposed to be learning how to snowboard.
He took to the sport so well that he wouldn’t fall or otherwise
look bad, so they had to use another chimp for the learning scenes.
Louie really loved to do it!”
Morishima said it was a fun experience working with Louie, but wouldn’t
want to do it as a full-time professional.
“It would get quite tedious after awhile,” he said, “I got to help out while I was up there even though the film crew included professional boarders as tech advisers. The chimp trainers wanted my input and advice, I thought there might be some tension, but everything was cool.” www.endlesslope.com
The MXP Snowboarding film will be released in theaters in February 2004.
See more information on Louie’s new movie at
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Continuation from the feature article in
the Sierra Ski News November 2002 issue
“Boarding gone ape!
Local instructor trains film chimp”
By Sam Morishima
“Whoa! Was that a real knuckle dragger I saw !” was all I heard from
the snow boarder sitting on the mountain ridge that over looked our
little valley that was cordon off limits to the rest of the resort.
Louie was now tearing through brightly orange cones placed 15 feet apart
as his snowboard came to a sliding heel edge stop in front of a beach
chair that was placed on a Styrofoam like plastic mat that was spiked
down by ski poles. Louie
then quickly leaped out of his boots and scurried to his chair placing
both hands on the arm rest and lifting himself up with a twist that
neatly landed him in a sitting position.
With what started as a big smirk of a smile the lips then parted
to expose a set of beautiful bright white teeth.
He knew exactly the reward that was to come next, the bag of
gummy jelly fruit candy. With
gloves hanging loose from the hands, powder snow clinging to wool socks,
his snowboarder cap half stretched on his head and his powder pants and
jacket ruffed Louie looked more like Al Bundy after a rough day now
camping down in front of the TV ready to watch his favorite show.
Meanwhile, I had to race over to the snowboard with Louie’s boots
still attached to them before they began to move down the hill.
This time I was a little late and I had to ski after the board as
it careened down the hill only to tackle it before it hit the downhill
roadway to the lodge.
back up I saw Louie being picked up by Greg Lille, his surrogate father
and trainer. Louie was
happy as his jaws moved to the chewing of the fruity gummy candy in his
mouth. He sure loved
them treats, I thought as my stomach began to rumble and my hand
reached into my pocket to pull out a packet of the fruity candy.
I told myself he wouldn’t miss one packet as I tore into one.
He must have seen me cause he gave me a raspberry when I
approached him with his board.
Greg was puffing with exhaustion for he had carried the sixty-pound
Louie from the chair up the hill around the slalom course to the
starting gate trudging through the powdered snow.
Not being comfortable in snowshoes that tripped him occasionally
made each of these trips twice as difficult.
Greg, who felt obligated to carry Louie, did a lot of the load
bearing but the other trainers also did their share. There was Greg, his
wife Carol, Mike, Dan and Dan’s younger brother who are all
professional animal trainers. Then
there was me who had a hard enough time trying to walk my beagle dog
without being pulled in every direction Copper (my dog) wanted to go.
I was there because I was to teach Louie the fine art of
that said I decided to be on skis instead of a snowboard just for the
ease of getting around.
We had trained Louie first on the Endless Slope, a revolving carpet
machine (think of a large thread mill at an 18 degree angle.)
The first week was having him get comfortable with the equipment
as he rode the board in modified snowboard boots and board on the
Endless Slope. By the 2nd
week he was getting the feel of what he had to do to make the board
turn, as well as position himself to acquire the needed balance.
He soon began to develop snowboarding muscle memory as he carved
back and forth. With a little assistance from Mike the trainer who
snowboarded alongside of him. Then
Greg and I went to a carpet outlet to obtain a 20 ft by 80 ft carpet and
laid it on a hill at their Primate Preserve where they housed a llama.
Louie got his first ride down hill on a board as the llama looked
on. His Endless Slope
training paid off as he not only made attempts at heel and toe edge
turns down the carpeted slope, but he also continued it off the end of
the carpet into the bushes. He
came to a falling leaf stop just before hitting the ravine.
The bottom of the board was a mess but Louie showed he had the
board balance and understood what it takes to stop and turn the board.
Since our training schedule was short and they wanted to begin
shooting the film in a couple of weeks we had to advance Louie’s
training to the final stage on real snow.
Through the generous help of both Soda Springs and Donner Ski Ranch we
were given a private training area.
Our first two snow episodes were at Soda Springs.
Louie’s first time seeing snow had him trying to eat the white
stuff that was all around him.
He soon discovered that snow was too cold for him and decided it
was best not to mess with it. Louie was definitely the best dressed among us.
Bundled up in his little new boarding jacket and pants he had the
warmest extra large mittens for his long fingered hands and had the
tightest knitted wool snowboarding socks also extra large for his
hand-like feet. He looked
so much like a child with his hat and goggles on that when a few skiers
and boarders came through our area they didn’t even recognize Louie as
a chimpanzee. In fact a few
of them were pretty rude going under the markers that said, “keep out”
and even yelled at us for hogging the slope to ourselves.
We needed to be isolated not wanting to be bothered by others.
However, for Louie’s first run we had a small audience
consisting of the Soda Spring staff cheering Louie on.
Placing trainers every 20 ft along the run with Greg at the end,
Carol got Louie into his special snowboard boots that had half the back
missing so he could slip his feet out freely.
This made Louie feel a lot more comfortable because he didn’t
feel trapped to the board. Louie
headed straight down to the first trainer and then got onto his heel
edge making a perfect back side turn but instead of releasing the edge
held onto it and kept turning and going out of the groomed area and into
the powdered snow where he buried the board and his head.
He rolled head over heels out of his boots and board and ran
through the knee deep snow to Dan who was the nearest trainer who
quickly picked him up and held the shaking head covered with snow.
Louie, looking like a miniature abominable snowman, had Carol and
Greg running to him with a towel to brush the snow off and keep him warm
and dry. We all agreed he
had his heel edge turn solid. Even “Doc” who is the head of the Ski and Snowboard
school at Soda Springs was amazed.
The problem we faced the rest of the day was to get him to use
his toe edge. The run had a
tendency to have a lateral slope that favored Louie to naturally go onto
the heel side so we decided to move our operation to Donner Ski Ranch
where we could find a slope without a bias to one side.
Norm Sayler, the owner of Donner Ski Ranch, loved the idea of Louie
being at his resort. In
fact he offered Louie a job as a lift operator but Louie being only 6
years old at the time was under age.
Sal did offer us a whole mountain to use with our own ski lift.
The problem is Louie would go crazy over the lift and make it his
own private jungle gym. So
the use of the lift was out but the mountain slope was greatly
provided us with skimobiles to transport us to the mountain slope area
that was placed off limits to other skiers and boarders.
We settled in a sloping canyon and Donner Ski ranch groomed the
run for us. It was ideal
for Louie’s training. The
Skimobile was modified to have a very long tow bar that placed the sled
farther away. This way when the sled transported Louie with Greg the
noise from the ski mobile would not frighten Louie.
This worked well except one time when the noise echoed off the
snow just right making the Chimpanzee so nervous that Greg had to call
the vehicle to a stop and we had to wait awhile until things calmed down
and we could move again.
It was back breaking work for the trainers since after each run they had
to carry Louie back up to the top of the run.
Louie, I believe, had the first and I hope the only human powered
chair lift at Donner Ski Ranch. You
would think that we would use the skimobiles to carry him back up.
However the ski mobile noise and shaking made Louie so skittish
that he wouldn’t concentrate on his lessons.
Thanks to the Endless Slope, Louie’s comfort level on the snowboard, his balance, his understanding of toe and heel edging and stopping were all there. We would hate to imagine how difficult and frustrating it would have been teaching without it. On the snow however, we had to strengthen his toe edge turn and we used a combination of an embankment, a cone and two trainers strategically placed on the snow run to help guide him in the process. It worked well and soon we began to minimize the embankment and eliminate the cones and trainers. We knew we had it when Gary, who was head of the Donner Ski Ranch School, gave his approval.
Next was to teach Louie to take jumps.
This, to my surprise, was the easiest thing to teach Louie.
Louie was a natural in the air but what was amazing was his natural
positioning in the take off and landing.
We first built a small jump that only caused Louie to do a falling
leaf and stop either on top of it or slide up and over it.
What Louie was telling us was he wanted it bigger and steeper. He wanted to go BIG!
So we finally figured it out and gave him what he wanted.
It was cool watching him make the approach. He went straight for it
and, as carefree as a Sunday walk in the park, he shot out off the lip.
In mid air he raised his head to chatter and gently landed squarely
below as if he had been doing this all his life.
He then smoothly turned his board across the slope coming to a heel
edge stop. It was amazing!
Taking part in teaching Louie to snowboard was a thrill I will never
forget. It was also a
learning experience in teaching. Being
able to teach without words or explanation, to plan out a lesson so
carefully as not to introduce any incorporation of bad habits because if
Louie had developed any bad habits in snowboarding it would take 7 times
longer to undo the bad habit and get him back on track, not to mention the
frustration and confusion that it would cause on Louie.
But, I also learned something else about our close relative.
What we discovered on another day was that after painstakingly
building what I thought was a perfect jump Louie would not take it but
stopped right in front of the jump no matter how many times we had him
start. We were worried that
Louie had lost his urge to take jumps.
Greg however, solved the problem.
Looking down the jump at Louie’s height level he noticed that
where I had placed the jump it looked like it went off into space and you
couldn’t see were you might land. I realized Louie apparently was no dummy, he wasn’t
going to go jumping off into nothing.
He needed to know what he was going to land on.
Maybe Chimps are smarter than most humans because they know to look
before they leap!
A small crowd of boarders had gathered on the mountain ridge looking down
at where we were training Louie. Louie
now had his own cheering section as boarders chanted Louie’s name.
It was as if the boarders of the world had adopted Louie as their
new mascot. Louie was now
ready for his filming of “Most Xtreme Primate” on the slopes of Canada
and onto movie history as the first snowboarding Chimpanzee.
But that’s another story!
Would like to give a Big Thanks to the people at Donner Ski Ranch and at Soda Springs for all their kindness. If you’re ever at Donner Ski Ranch and a hairy arm gives you a helping hand on the ski lift it just might be XTREME PRIMATE!
For more pictures of Louie: on the Jay Leno Tonight Show
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