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

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.