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.

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

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.