The Great Yank-Euro Ski-Off

Part 5: Straightlining

Back at Whistler, Black attacks the hill     Photo: Nathaniel Welch

OBJECTIVE:
To further separate our heroes from park monkeys and in-bounds aces.

STRAIGHTLINING—A.K.A. "pointing 'em"—means going straight down a steep pitch for a long stretch at an extremely high speed. It's one of the more demanding parts of cinematic freeskiing, and it's also the "technique" freeskiers use to outrun sloughs and slides.

We wait a good part of the day for flyable weather. It's well after lunchtime when we head to the hangar of our heli-skiing guides, Blackcomb Helicopters. On the drive over, Black and Perrett drift again into philosophic repartee, wrongly assuming we're still awarding points for that.

"To turn is to admit defeat," Perret grins. "Going straight on long skis is like sixth gear in a sports car, going faster but with lower RPMs. I like putting it into the sixth. If you want to be passionate, let it be from the hairs to the toes."

"I totally agree with your theory of the ski," Black says, echoing Perret's Swiss-English diction. "I, too, wish to put it into the sixth. Too often American ski movies are about taking jibbers into the backcountry. All they want to do is build a cheese-wedge kicker and pull grabs. They're one-trick ponies."

Not these horses. Everything about them radiates bigness: Black's height, Perret's fireplug build. Even their sunglasses are oversize. Perret cloaks most of his skull in Oakley Monster Dogs. Black does the same in Smith Bajas.

Their lines, naturally, are huge.

We fly to the Spearhead Glacier in the late afternoon's golden glow. A test run reveals that the soft-looking snowpack is, in many places, hard cauliflower—the type of snow that sends advanced skiers on prolonged, rag-dolling cartwheels but that pros like Perret and Black easily eviscerate. They get out of the helicopter atop an 1,800-foot face and buckle their boots.

Black, who in the mid-nineties guided "engineers from Illinois and strippers from New York" on ski trips in Alaska, drops in on a Chugach-like spine. His turns are artful, a perfectly balanced, nuanced descent from flank to flank of the snowbound dihedral. He exhibits his mastery of what freeskiers call "spineology."

Perret plunges down the less fluted face, carving bigger, longer, more powerful turns. Both of their runs reduce the peaks to whimpering mounds of rock. But neither pulls a long, straight line on the first go.

During his second run, however, Black nails down his victory in this event. From high on the face he points 'em straight and rockets fast and fluid all the way to the glacier's basin. "I love ripping fast," Black says. "I love the freedom."

Perret's second attempt is also inconceivably strong and speedy, but he makes ten more turns than Black. Granted, they're huge, thigh-melting turns at Mach 5 that only .0001 percent of skiers could make. The speed—50 to 60 miles per hour down a steep mountainside—causes him no discernible fear.

"The most scared I've ever been was in Mexico City during earthquakes," Perret says later. "There was no control. In the mountains, you always have a choice."

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