They don't call her Gnarleen for nothing. Karleen Jeffery spent five years hiding out in Chamonix, storming down rules-free steeps with the world's most hell-bent snowboarders, but now she's back. Even while she was away, she managed to sneak in a competition here and there: The 27-year-old Canadian is a two-time World Extreme Champion, a six-time winner of the Mount Baker Banked Slalom, a four-time winner of the Rip Curl World Heli Challenge, and a three-time winner of the Canadian Nationals (twice for half-pipe, once for giant slalom). She's a North American Boardercross champion, a North American Big Air champion, and twice a Swedish Queen of the Hill. And did we mention that she's a redhead?
The 5-foot-2 femme fatale from Kelowna, British Columbia, got her start as a ski racer. Her father was a Canadian national ski team jumper, and her grandfather pioneered a 165-mile ski route from Jasper to Banff. Then one day back in 1990, a couple of guys dared her to learn snowboarding in time for the national championships six weeks later. She did, and she won. She was 16. ("Speed events were always my favorite," says Jeffery, who now lives in Mammoth Lakes, California.)
Although she used to compete in the half-pipe, the Burton rider has turned her full attention to freeriding, where she outruns avalanches and cracking cornices. "Half-pipe just wasn't that challenging anymore," she says. After a grueling climb up a peak, she might jump into a chute and carve through it at 50 mph, launch into a big-air inversion over a boulder, and spend the next few thousand feet spinning and slaloming down the face. "My sister can be pretty intimidating," says older brother Scott, who stuck with skiing. "She rides really hard. She just charges."
Both in competition and while starring in industry films—her latest is with XX Productions (that's a chromosome reference, dude) —Jeffery walks a fine line between safety and insanity. "It's me versus the mountain, just trying to anticipate what the mountain can do to me and how I can outwit Mother Nature," she says. "I always have an escape plan if things go awry, some rock I can duck under." It doesn't always work: Five years ago in the Alps she landed badly on a jump, breaking her pelvis and fracturing a vertebra.
Next year, aside from competing again in April's world extreme championship in Valdez, Jeffery and her fiancé, BASE jumper Dave Barlia, plan to film each other's exploits around the world with her new 16mm camera. So, what does Barlia call her? "Well," she says, "when I'm in a bad mood he calls me Snarleen."