IF YOU'VE EVER FELT weightless floating through dry snow on a run you could ski by moonlight, you have an inkling of what freeskiing is. It's skiing without trails, or crowds, or tracks. It's flowing downhill fast, like water, a solitary affair between skier and mountain. The semantic nuances that differentiate "big-mountain freeskiing" from "extreme skiing" might seem negligible to someone who has never done either, but they're not. True extreme skiing in the French tradition takes place on the 60-degree, if-you-fall-you-die ice of technical ski mountaineering; big-mountain freeskiing is about going fast on more forgiving alpine faces with 2,000 vertical feet of powder, catching air where appropriate. In essence, surfing the mountain. It's why people quit their jobs and move to Alta for a decade or two. And it has nothing to do with judges, sponsors, or sports drinks.
By 1996, "extreme"-ism was popping up everywhere. In North America, where the skiing public generally couldn't give a rat's ass about alpine racing, ski manufacturers were employing it as a marketing catch-phrase to boost lagging sales in an industry that hadn't seen innovation since the hot dog movement of the mid-1970s (think red-white-and-blue nylon ski pants, headbands, and the "Worm Turn"). When he founded the International Free Skiers Association that year, Shane McConkey, an amateur freeskier who had won the 1995 U.S. National Extreme Skiing championships and was eking out a living appearing in ski films, was not only protesting the co-optation of the word "extreme" but trying to show respect for the people who had called themselves "freeskiers" for 20 years. Word about his brainchild percolated through the freeskiing community via www.freeskiers.org and various ski magazines, and by the 2000 season IFSA had an office in Park City, Utah, and over 1,000 dues-paying members.
Although McConkey changed the name, big-mountain freeskiing contests are organized in the same way as extreme skiing events. Competitors' runs are evaluated by a panel of judges who assign one to ten points each for line selection, control, fluidity, technique, and aggressiveness. At the Snowthrill, organizers allowed seven days to get in three runs—two on the ridgeline connecting Mount Alyeska to Max's Mountain, rising nearly 4,000 feet from sea level just west of Turnagain Arm, and one on bigger and steeper mountains in the Chugach backcountry. Worst-case scenario: Two runs would suffice to decide the championship.
Of course, the basic premise of awarding points to something as subjective as freeskiing is absurd. To judge it objectively, you'd need to make everybody ski the same line, time them, and mark the distance they travel off the same jump—in effect, killing the "free" in freeskiing. Since the IFSA doesn't go that far (there's no precise measurement; judges decide how many points to assign a skier based on their own criteria), it creates an inherent contradiction. Put it this way: Tiger Woods is the world's best golfer because he dominates the PGA, but is the IFSA tour champ really the best?
"I meet clients from Minnesota who are as good as anyone," says Dean Cummings, lead guide for Valdez H2O, an Alaskan heli-skiing outfit, and the 1995 World Extreme Skiing champ. The IFSA tour, he says, "is a point system—they're crowning the guy with the resources and time to get to the most events." Cummings, who still runs WESC, isn't just griping. The fact is that most big-name freeskiers making a living in the pucker zone (read "the steep terrain that shrinks your sphincter") don't bother entering IFSA events. McConkey, for example, couldn't make it to Snowthrill this year because he was making a video in Europe for Match Stick Productions; other well-known film freeskiers like Seth Morrison, Kent Kreitler, and Wendy Fisher have abandoned the tour altogether. Jeremy Nobis, 30, a Teton Gravity Research film star, deigned to attend Snowthrill, but as a judge, not a competitor. The only high-profile skiers who showed up were 1996 World Extreme Skiing Champion (and Red Bull–sponsored athlete) Chris Davenport, 29, and 1998 Extreme Skiing women's champ Francine Moreillon, 31. The crux? What was originally conceived as a tour to reward the strongest and most versatile skiers has become a series of over-regulated one-rock huckfests featuring about 150—how to put it?—less-skilled athletes. (The Snowthrill itself was only able to attract 21 men and 9 women, hardly the 50 that Red Bull had promised.)
McConkey, 30, acknowledges the problems but doesn't have a quick fix. "Four years ago, our sport needed structuring," he says. "Now we've gone overboard with too many rules and regulations. I'd like to change things around, keep it fun." Then he adds: "People eat shit all the time, but it's like that in all these sports. You go to a surfing event and you see people who suck. These events are a means to an end for a lot of skiers."
A pretty meager means, actually. Skiers at Snowthrill paid a $650 entry fee to compete, not to mention their own travel expenses. Out of a $15,000 purse, the men's and women's winners get $5,000 apiece, leaving the second and third finishers in each division to fight over the scraps. Everyone else goes away hungry. Not a whole lot for risking your life.
But then, it's never really been about the money. When I asked Chris Davenport, who finished second overall on the 2000 IFSA tour (despite skipping two events), what pure big-mountain freeskiing is all about, he recounted a scene he and Wendy Fisher witnessed while waiting in line at the Whistler Peak Chair in 1999. Nothing huge, just a local guy negotiating a short but technical cliff run called Air Jordan, which involved an eight- to ten-foot drop onto a 45-degree hanging face, followed by a 15-foot drop off a second cliff. "[The guy] just drops in, straight runs, and sticks the second landing, making nice turns through the trees," said Davenport. "Our jaws dropped. The best freeskier in the world couldn't have made it look any better."
The guy was Brett Carlson, a Whistler local who had never really made a go of it on the freeskiing tour like his best friend, 1999 IFSA Tour Champion Jeff Holden. To hear Davenport and Holden tell it, Carlson was the real deal. He and Holden had honed their skills in the British Columbia backcountry and became known for hucking monster cliffs, once successfully dropping a 100-foot wall dubbed The Doctor. But Holden was also there on January 17 of this year, when Carlson, 24, tried to jump a two-lane road outside Whistler. He came up short and died the moment his body hit the pavement. A month after the accident, Holden retreated to the Kootenai backcountry to get his head together. Already suffering from microtears in his back due to a car wreck, he tore the meniscus in his knee and is now trying to regroup.
"I'm stoked to be in the mountains this year and see where they take me," says Holden, 25. Still, Carlson's death is never far away. "That jump was doable," Holden says. "Maybe [the snow] needed to set up more, maybe it just wasn't the right time—there are a lot of maybes.... It's made me more interested in doing my homework. I never did my homework in school because the facts didn't add up to anything. But on the mountain, studying, researching, dialing lines in, it results in that creation, that flow."