Sick, AK

Enter the pucker zone: Alaska's Chugach Range, land of waist-deep powder and drop-dead steeps, where the best big-mountain freeskiers in the world come to unhook. Up here, however, being best isn't the point.

TRYING TO LOOK NONCHALANT while your dislocated shoulder unleashes waves of dizzying pain can be, well, trying. Mine's a trick shoulder, prone to popping out on the wet side of Eskimo rolls and other times when it's nice to have a contiguous skeletal system. Like right now. I'm standing at the base of a 46-degree slope stretching 1,000 feet up Mount Alyeska above Girdwood, Alaska. It's March 22, day one of the Red Bull Snowthrill—the finale of the International Free Skiers Association's 2000 world tour—and I'd rather not introduce myself to "50 of the world's bravest freeskiers," as the press release puts it, by doing the funky chicken. So as my pole pierces the snowpack and my shoulder wrenches loose, I stifle a yelp and wait for bone to ferret back to socket.

Which it does, as soon as I'm able to focus on someone else's pain. High above, Sarah Newman, of Mount Hutt, New Zealand, has dead-ended on a spit of snow with only two means of escape: a 25-foot cliff drop or a disgraceful hike back uphill. After staring at her landing for three long minutes, Newman suicide-shoves off the edge, with all the grace of a carp. Plopping sideways in the soft snow, she spins, falls backwards over another 25-footer, and starfishes through scattered rock before coming to a halt minus a ski. Miraculously, she's unhurt.

The uninitiated observer might assume that such NASCAR-style corporeal pileups are part of the show, but when I look around I see there are no other spectators. The IFSA tour was formed to reward the creativity, technical brilliance, and aggressiveness that have branded big-mountain freeskiing the sport's most audacious discipline. And yet, here at the Snowthrill, they've taken an activity defined by the infinite possibilities offered up in a giant, untamed pyramid of snow and tried to package it in the form of a contest.

Problem is, it ain't working. Mother Nature doesn't compromise, especially in the Chugach Range. By 2 p.m., the mountains are living up to their temperamental reputation. Just up above Jim's Rock, a two-story boulder wedged near the crest of the ridge, stands the official Red Bull starting gate: a 15-foot-tall foam billboard emblazoned with two of the trademark blood-red, seemingly hairless devil-bulls about to lock horns. No sooner has the first round been completed than a gust of wind knocks the starting gate off its moorings, and the bulls find themselves in a thousand-foot slide for life. It's guiltless carnage to be sure. Straight-running through the rocks, the beasts catch 40 feet of air off a boulder—attempting a backflip, perhaps, but fatally under-rotating. The billboard explodes on impact, the bits and pieces rocket-glissading downslope with a ski patrolman and photographer in frantic Keystone Cops pursuit.

As the broken bulls self-arrest, the clouds start spitting flakes. Over on the judging stand, somebody from Mountain Sports International (the event organizers hired by IFSA and Red Bull to put on the Snowthrill) announces over the P.A. that the second run is canceled. A storm is rolling in. It is highly ironic, but fresh powder is bad news for big-mountain events: low-to-no visibility means judges can't see the skiers and skiers can't see the rocks. But for the rest of us, it's a powder day. Everybody—competitors, resort guests, locals—takes off to ski the lower mountain. The Snowthrill sits idle as the clouds dump for the next seven days.

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."

THE TRAM STINKS. It smells like Sunday morning in a college dorm john. My goggles are fogging, and I'm elbow-to-elbow with 30 swamp-assed skiers sweating out Red Bull and vodka and whispering about powder stashes.

I'm home.

The tram is taking us up Alyeska's steep and deep north face, but aside from the fact that everyone's clutching chubby Alaskan skis instead of 205-centimeter slalom boards, this aerial cattle car is pretty much indistinguishable from the tram at Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire, where I spent the best part of my early twenties. I was in college then. The school had a great racing program, but my friends and I weren't there to bash gates. Our thing was heading out in groups of 20 or more, raging down the bumps, hollering through the trees. We never gave it much thought, but we were freeskiers.

Though I'm sardined with card-carrying IFSA members, they're not much different. They're certainly not overly concerned with the official program or the fact that the competition has been postponed for two days. They've got their priorities. To wit: about 30 inches of wet, untracked fresh below. When the doors open and everyone goes right, I go left, adhering to skiing's number-one rule: There are no friends on a powder day.

Unfortunately, I don't know my way around. So out on the face, I employ rule number two: Hook up with a local. He's side-stepping to a high traverse that leads to Christmas and New Years chutes, two 46-degree couloirs that haven't been opened at the top because of avalanche danger but can be accessed safely a little ways down. We pole along for ten minutes before dropping into Christmas and then whip-turning up to the ridge.

My guide quickly descends through a line of firs, and I'm left alone above a steep spine that drops into a shallow gully. It's a swell of snow hanging perhaps 48 degrees at its steepest point; I ride it like a wave, letting my skis accelerate down its face before arcing a bottom turn and heading back upslope. I smear-turn on the lip, powder spills into my mouth, and an undertow of slough threatens to take me out at the ankles just as I drop from the crest into the tube and do it all over again. Traditional skis would nosedive in this heavy snow, but not these fat boys. I'm floating.

The next three days are a blur of tram runs and ever deeper snow. But after a week of almost constant snowfall and milk-bottle visibility, my legs have had about as much as they can handle. At breakfast on the last day, a message board at the Westin Alyeska Resort buffet line informs the assembled horde that the event is on again, albeit on milder, lift-served terrain. A patch of blue sky has opened long enough for the ski patrol to bomb the north face, and most of the skiers are already out inspecting the course. When I get there, I see a brand new Red Bull starting gate standing strong on a knob above Christmas and New Years chutes.

At about 1 p.m., the first skier comes down. Aiming directly for a minefield of rock looming at 50 degrees over the gullet of Christmas chute, he punches his hands forward to accelerate and, without moving his tips from the fall line, knocks off three butter-smooth turns on vertical scraps of snow, floats over ten feet of reef, and disappears down another chute. It's exactly the type of skiing I'd hoped to see, and the judges rank him in the top five for the day. (I rank him first; he skied the hardest line, and he isn't even competing. He's a 19-year-old Alyeska ski patroller named Jake Young, who fore-ran the course for the hell of it.)

The women go first, with the sun popping in and out of the high clouds. Swiss phenom Francine Moreillon, who stunt-skied in the Bond flick The World Is Not Enough, cleans up as usual. Between heats, I spot Chris Davenport scouting his line. We chat for a few minutes and then he skis off to catch the next tram, 800 feet below. I take off after him. Accelerating fast, snow spills over his shoulders as he flows through rolling terrain before cresting a knoll and disappearing. It's just a little patch of powder, nothing extreme, but I know he's enjoying it as much I am. Davenport heads up for his last run; I hold up at the judge's stand and wait. He ends up skiing a line very similar to Young's, sticking moderate air, blasting through small trees at the bottom. He rips—and wins.

Given his passion for freeskiing, it strikes me as odd that a skier of Davenport's caliber bothers competing. When I ask him why he shows up, he gives me the standard "I'm still at the top of my game" jock reply. But then he says something else: "It's all about soul-skiing and being out on the hill with your friends. You get that overwhelming feeling of positive energy. It's buzzing all around you."

The words remind me of something Jeff Holden, the sensei of sick-bird air, told me. "Skiing gives us the ability to be in many flows and times in the present," he said. "I've felt magic. It's filled me with faith to rid me of fear and connect with my spirit." Sure, talk like that hugs your inner bunny. But later, when I'm wondering if I'll ever get another chance to ski waist-deep Alaskan powder with a posse of whooping and hollering die-hards, I realize that not even Davenport or Holden can explain what a freeskier does—they can only do it.

Outside assistant editor Marc Peruzzi lives and skis in Santa Fe.

Anatomy of a Huck

 
Jeff Holden, 25-year-old native of Stoney Creek, Ontario, and noted connoisseur of sick air, successfully completed one of the biggest jumps on record when he flew off this 150-foot cliff in Cordova, Alaska, in March 1999. Here's how he did it.

 »What you don't see: To scout a jump, Holden might rappel down a cliff or snap a Polaroid of his line. For this one, though, he hovered above the cliff in a helicopter to gain perspective. The prep work keeps him calm. "In my mind, I'd already skied the line," he says. "I was comfortable with my vision."

»"You gotta know your slough management." So sayeth Holden. Starting atop a 50-degree slope 1,500 vertical feet above his launchpad (photo 1), Holden's immediate threat is the avalanche of snow cut loose by his edges, which could take him out at the ankles and whisk him over the edge. "If you're in the slough, you gotta point it," he says. "Get out in front and then start deeking"—ski down helter-skelter, constantly diverging from the fall line and changing speeds.

»Takeoff: Holden needs to be moving at a minimum of 12 mph to travel 30 feet out and clear the wall (photo 2). Seem slow? As soon as he's in free fall (photos 3-5), he'll be accelerating at the rate of 22 mph per second.

»Halfway there: 75 feet down and 1.82 seconds into free fall (photo 6), he's traveling at 49 mph. The wind rush could easily rock him backward into a lethal reverse somersault. "I'm looking at my landing, keeping my hands out in front, staying over the front of my skis," Holden says. "Once you're in the backseat, she's pretty hard to recover."

»The 80-foot rule: With an elevator-shaft drop like this, trying to stick it—land without falling—gets very risky after 80 feet (photo 7). "Your knees will buckle, and you'll probably blow them up," says Holden. To avoid that, he will take the hit in a four-point progression: skis, knees, butt, back. "You gotta lay it out," he says. "If you try to stick something that big, you'll blow your knees through your face."

»Constant acceleration: At 100 feet, Holden's going 55 mph and gaining (photo 8). While sky divers in the "arch" position can expect to reach terminal velocity (the point at which air resistance stops acceleration and an object falls at a steady rate) at 130 mph, a skier falling feet-first is far more aerodynamic and would continue to accelerate for hundreds, if not thousands, of feet.

»The crater: Holden hits the snow going 62 mph. If he landed on solid rock, the impact forces would be in the neighborhood of 1,840 pounds, the equivalent of jumping from a 15-story building and sufficient to break every bone in his body. His fate lies with the snowpack. A 45-degree slope lengthens the impact time to 0.75 seconds, reducing impact forces to 675 pounds, which he can handle if he crash-lands correctly. "You want deep snow, but not bottomless fluff you'd blast right through," he says. Holden lands according to plan, hitting all four points. Pushing himself out of the crater, he skis off, mind and body intact.

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