The Great Yank-Euro Ski-Off

Part 1: By the Rules

Mar 1, 2006
Outside Magazine
Dominique Perret

Perret pins his first run

To gauge the skiers' technical prowess on a difficult course.

BLACK AND PERRET groan at the thought of going mano a mano in front of a scorekeeper; competitive freeskiing is normally the domain of lower-on-the-totem-pole athletes. These guys ski for cameras and cash, not judges. They make solo descents on rarely attempted peaks, and usually wait for clear weather. Sunshine improves visibility and makes segments pop onscreen.

Today the weather sucks—an overcast soup envelops Whistler Mountain's Glacier Bowl, where they're about to ski. No trees grow up here, so perspective is limited and vertigo is likely.

The duo duck under a rope with WARNING! CLIFF AREA signs, shoulder their skis, and trudge up the back of a ridge. They lock in and take their positions above unmarked runs that locals have named Exhilaration (which Perret will ski) and Excitation (Black's route). The skiers gaze down at the dodgy conditions: old, unpredictable spring snow and sharp, protruding rocks. The runs are so steep that they can look between their ski tips, now jutting over the edge of the ridgetop, and see the respective bottoms.

Hundreds of feet below, Joe Lammers, a 35-year-old Whistler patroller who often judges IFSA contests, will grade them on five categories: line, aggression, fluidity, technique, and control. The skiers will make two runs each; the average score from both determines the winner.

Black goes first, whipsawing his boards perpendicular to the fall line for three turns. Then he releases his edges, lets his skis go with gravity, and sails over a rock band. He lands the air cleanly and rockets down the apron.

Perret waves a pole to announce his start. He makes two disciplined, braking turns as he approaches some sharp volcanic rocks—"cheese graters" in freeskier parlance—then he makes a halting, chicken-scratch move to line himself up safely for his mandatory ten-foot air.

Lammers deducts one fluidity point. Perret sticks his landing, though, and slashes the firm snow below with such force that the whoosh of his turns reverberates through Glacier Bowl. Lammers looks up from his score sheets. "Micah floats through microterrain features and seems to use his feet and ankles more," he tells me, "while Dom just gets low and plows through anything and everything." Lammers awards Black the first heat by a slim margin: 29.5 to 28.5.

The skiers choose similar lines for their second runs. Perret shows his remarkable consistency by putting up a mirror image of his first run. Black, who arrived at Whistler Blackcomb in a bolo tie and a Stetson, cowboys up for his second run down Excitation. He goes faster, takes 15 feet of air, and nails every move. Lammers gives him the highest possible marks for aggression, fluidity, technique, and control. Black wins this heat, too, 33 to 29, though Lammers is quick to point out that "both guys pinned it."