When nearly 40 skiers converge outside Valdez, Alaska, on the sixth of next month for the ninth annual World Extreme Skiing Championships, they stand to log a series of performances that could collectively constitute one of their sport's watershed moments. Armed with fat and shaped skis custom-built to handle the Chugach Mountains' temperamental maritime snowpack, 50-degree steeps, and coffin-width chutes, these racers will blitz lines that would have been deemed suicidal by the slow-motion, hop-turning Chamonix mountaineers who invented ski d'extreme back in the late 70s. "This is a turning-point year," says Shane McConkey, who finished sixth in 1996. "The creativity you see now is crazy, and the talent level has gone through the roof."
That may sound like overbilling, especially in light of McConkey's current job title: President of the International Free Skiing Association. But there are grounds for taking his assurances seriously. In the first place, there's the unprecedented influx of world-class freestylers and alpine racers, more than 1,000 of whom have scrambled to sign on with the IFSA since 1996. And then there's the stature of the WESC itself. Though still notorious for its low-rent digs and paltry prize packages (this year's contestants will risk their lives for $3,000), the WESC seems to be emerging as one of the most significant championships in skiing, having just inked TV deals with the Eurosport Channel and ESPN2 at a time when the U.S. Pro Skiing Tour was forced to cancel its entire 1999 schedule due to lack of viewer interest.
The primary reason the WESC is able to flourish in the face of such apathy is that it consistently produces the sorts of spectacles rarely witnessed on the traditional gates-and-stopwatches circuit. These can range from the appalling to the absurd. In 1993, Wilbur Madsen fell to his death while peering over his intended line of descent, and three years later Brigitte Mead rag-dolled for 1,000 feet before bashing to a stop at the base of a rock wall. (She survived, thanks only to her battered helmet.) Last year, however, Frenchman Sebastian Michaud pulled off a feat worthy of a plane-crash survivor when he lost a ski just after throwing a backflip off a 50-foot cliff, made the split-second decision to speed away on one leg, rammed through another crux, lost his second ski, and ended up jogging across the finish line.
If conditions this year enable them to stick their intended lines, the course could favor McConkey and 1995 winner Dean Cummings in the men's division and Jill Sickels Matlock and Switzerland's Francine Moreillon in the women's, all of whom ski with a style that embraces aggression and speed. But regardless of who gets to cash the winners' checks, the competition should be worth watching. "This is another league," says Cummings. "Rookies don't understand that when you unhook from these mountains, you're only going to touch down every 60 feet."