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Living Large

The culture of extreme skiers

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The word extreme has in recent years evolved from a simple adjective to a marketing slogan, used to sell everything from shoes to soft drinks to sport utility vehicles.

Of course it is never extreme, but Xtreme, dropping the e in favour of the bold x. As I am sure any copy writer at any ad agency will tell you; the letter x in extreme has far more impact on consumers than the banished vowel that used to precede it. X-factor, x marks the spot, brand x, what is it, we don’t know, but we want it.

There are any number of companies that have adopted this slogan/marketing ploy to sell their products. Some have a more legitimate link, such as ski and snowboard manufacturers, but others are more tenuous, for instance a certain soft drink comes to mind.

Whatever the product what they are really selling is a lifestyle, or at least a taste of that life, going to extremes, living large. In reality most of us don’t live that way, but we are willing to be sold on the idea that a running shoe or an SUV will make us feel like we are living on the edge.

However, there are people out there who actually do live the life of ad copy fantasies. Of course in doing so they also face the very real prospect of dying young. I suppose it is fair to say that extreme skiers are a sub-culture among skiers, they are far flung and travel frequently, although Whistler is home to many. As one local once mentioned to me, "there are a lot of boarders, skiers and bikers crammed into this little town."

Still, whether they are fully sponsored professionals (rare) or working in ski shops in winter and tree planting in summer to make ends meet (much more common) travel features large on the itinerary of any extreme athlete. There is also a monk-like devotion to their sport, or I suppose nun-like in the case of females, not that vows of chastity are observed by either. In fact to some, I don’t think that it would be a stretch to call it a religion, a religion with its own martyrs; the ghost of Trevor Petersen looms large as bumper stickers that read "Trevor would do it," attest to.

Living in Whistler it is probably easier to understand their obsession, although for others – weekenders, tourists, city folk, the sort of people whose only knowledge of backcountry skiing is the report of an avalanche death in their local media – it might seem that extreme skiers and snowboarders are suffering from a sort of collective insanity.

Then there are others who see the ads and magazines and come to Whistler to experience it for themselves. Unfortunately for some they quickly find themselves in over their heads and the culture of extremists has little sympathy for those who try to go too far too fast.

One of the first people I am steered towards while researching this article was J.D. Hare J.D. spends his nights working in a local ski shop, but his day job is skiing.

J.D. is originally from Ontario and grew up skiing on Blue Mountain. But of course in Canada if you are looking for big mountains you come west. He is a tall, easy going 23 year old, with a prominent scar on his forehead. We meet at Behind the Grind, a local coffee shop favoured by locals and especially popular with hardcore mountain bikers during the summer months.

As we sit down, he calls over a friend. "Joe you should get in on this as well." Then to me: "Joe’s definitely someone you should be talking to."

Joe is Joe Lamers, who grew up in B.C. and who at the age of 30 informs me that he has been skiing for 26 years. Joe has a more manic personality than J.D. He is, I suppose, more in your face. The contrast between their personalities is interesting, since they share such similar philosophies towards extreme skiing.

First of all J.D. informs me that the extreme part has to be put in context.

"You start off as a skier and go further and further, you’re always evolving."

Joe nods in agreement and adds that he considers himself just a skier. I point out that most people who just ski, don’t usually run the risk of being taken out by an avalanche or falling into a crevasse. Yes, he says, "But when you’re skiing at such a high level it doesn’t really seem extreme and the guys you are skiing with are doing it too."

"Anyone who is really stoked on skiing will eventually go extreme, but that’s Whistler," says J.D.

"You get tired of skiing the same stuff, I need stimulation," says Joe.

I don’t doubt that Joe is someone looking for stimulation, but getting back to objective dangers, what about the fact that you are doing something that can get you killed?

"Well I’m not playing a role. I didn’t read the back of a No Fear T-shirt and get inspired. I’ve been at this for a long time," says Joe.

J.D. points out that they don’t get surprised very often in the backcountry. "I’ve been going into the mountains a long time, not just as a skier but hiking, climbing, winter mountaineering, and you develop a mountain sense."

Although he admits there are some objective dangers, "You can’t really predict."

"There’s a risk-to-benefit ratio with avalanches," Joe tries to explain.

"In other words you balance how dangerous a slope looks against how nice it looks to ski?" I ask.

"I suppose, but when an expert goes down, it’s usually a snowpack anomaly, whereas when it’s a rookie, the avalanche is most likely caused by the victim."

However, both admit that sometimes good skiers allow their physical ability to overwhelm their mountain sense.

"Sometimes patrollers go out and analyze an avalanche that has claimed a life and they look at the situation and wonder what the hell the guy was thinking," says Joe.

"It’s not a matter of getting down it, it’s a matter of finding it in the right condition," says J.D.

"Then there’s failure of human perception," says Joe. "It’s happened to me, it’s happened to J.D"

"Yeah that’s how I got this," says J.D pointing to the scar on his forehead. "I let my guard down because I was in bounds, I got too close to the edge of a cliff even though it was a really obvious place for a slab to detach. So it let go and I went about 50 feet through the air and hit the bowl, then the bowl let go and I went another couple of hundred feet."

Obviously the two of them accept the inherent dangers of their chosen sport, but does everyone?

"There is a stigma about what we do in some circles," says Joe. "Ironically from mountaineers, of all people. You know my skis are tools just as much as an ice axe. They’re what I use to get back down the mountain. But climbers kind of look down on that as not a noble pursuit. You know, you can rappel off a mountain or down climb it, but not carve it."

Well rivalries between different types of thrill seekers is one thing, but I was thinking more along the lines of say girlfriends.

"It’s not easy on relationships," says J.D. "My girlfriend is a ski patroller – and she has issues with what I do. But generally speaking girls in Whistler aren’t going to be interested in a guy working a desk. The downside is we’re away a lot and it’s dangerous."

So how does one afford this lifestyle? Ski equipment is expensive, trips to Europe are expensive and Whistler certainly isn’t a cheap place to live. There are the obvious jobs, working in a ski shop, instructing, patrolling. In the summer there is tree planting or commercial fishing, both of which pay well over a short period of time.

"We all have in common that we work enough to ski, but not so much that we don’t have time to ski," says J.D.

Then there are the sponsors. How does one get a sponsor and what do they do for you?

"Well ski manufacturers, they help out with equipment obviously, plus sometimes they will help with a trip, but none of us are making much money – except for snowboarders, some of them are probably doing a little better. But it’s an image-based thing; if you’re making money, you’re making money from selling photos of yourself."

I also wonder about that image, what about the kids who see their picture in a magazine and decide that they want that lifestyle for themselves, perhaps without realizing the dedication and devotion that goes into it and maybe not truly understanding how dangerous it can be. I ask Joe and J.D. what the "Trevor would do it" bumper stickers and T-shirts mean to them.

"Personally I don’t understand those things," says J.D. But he doesn’t blame the marketers, he blames people for not using their common sense. He stresses that extreme skiing is in many ways a cerebral sport. "It’s not as reactive as say volleyball or tennis, you have to always be thinking about what you are doing, the stupidest people shouldn’t be going to the backcountry, but there are a lot of jokers out there."

Joe agrees and his take on the "Trevor would do it" slogan is more along the lines of pushing himself to be a better skier, to go the extra mile, not to foolishly put his life on the line.

It’s obvious they both have great respect for Trevor Petersen, who was killed in 1996 in an avalanche at Chamonix, France. Joe also brings up other local heroes who he describes as pioneers of big mountain skiing and responsible for most of the first descents in the Coast Range. He mentions Peter "The Swede" Mattsson, John "Johnny the Fin" Chilton and Eric Pehota.

The impression I get from Joe and J.D. is that they are not so much thrill seekers as two guys who love the mountains, but it is a love that borders on the obsessive. Before finishing the interview, J.D. imparts to me that what matters most to him, and he suspects most of his friends, is the wilderness.

"Nature and it’s beauty and solitude."

Not everyone I talked with was as introspective and thoughtful as J.D. or even Joe. Chris Winter is 29, an age when thoughts of settling down might begin to cross the minds of some of us mortals. But Winter still espouses a live-for-today attitude.

Although there is an important distinction between the sort of extreme skiing J.D. and Joe are involved with and what Chris does. The former are more backcountry ski mountaineer types, while the latter is a free skiing, big air guy.

Chris makes no excuses for the lifestyle he leads or the dangers involved.

"If I die tomorrow it would be sad, but I would hope that everyone who knew me remembered that I was living large."

But why? Why this obsession with living on the brink?

"It has to do with getting close to death and feeling alive, it’s not the actual going down the hill it’s the lifestyle. We’re a unique group of people living life to its fullest."

It may sound like rampant testosterone, but it’s hard not to be at least a little charmed by Chris’s unrestrained enthusiasm. He may talk of dying, but you get the impression that this is one person who doesn’t see it happening to him. And in talking with him I sense that he is someone who doesn’t just love life, but is in love with it and all it has to offer.

He mentions that he is just back from Europe (mostly Verbier). How does it compare to Whistler or even North America in general, I ask.

"It’s going off, it’s a free for all!"

He goes on to explain that the obvious trend in North America is a clamp down on safety, and he prefers the European attitude where one is usually expected to take responsibility for oneself.

But no matter how invincible you may feel, people do die in this sport. I ask Chris if there has been anyone close to him who has died in the pursuit of living close to the edge.

"There was one person, Brett Carlson."

Brett Carlson was killed last year while attempting to jump a road at Taluswood. At the time he was being filmed for a locally produced video on extreme sports called Parental Advisory. I ask Chris why an experienced skier would attempt a jump that to an outside observer would appear to be suicidal?

"Well he sussed it out for 10 months, and he thought he had it. You know, you gotta have that 100 per cent dialled in thing if you’re going to do something like that. I saw Brett do some crazy jumps, so you kinda think he must have known what he was getting into."

However, the loss of a friend did give Chris some pause for thought.

"It was an instant perspective on the risk, just to have him suddenly dead like that," Winter says.

But a pause is all that it was, as Chris has no intentions of slowing down or taking it easy.

It should be remembered that extreme skiing is not strictly a male pursuit. While some may write off taking insane risks as out of control machismo, they would be hard pressed to explain the likes of Heather Roberts and Jen Ashton who both compete on the International Free Skiers Association tour.

The first time I talk with Heather she is driving through the desert, the passenger in a car driven by Ashton. Both have just been to the Ski Industries America SnowSport convention in Las Vegas and are now on their way to Kirkwood, California to compete in an IFSA event. Heather has the same infectious enthusiasm for living dangerously as Chris Winter. She also knew Brett Carlson and says that when he died she had to re-evaluate her life and asked herself if what she was doing was worth the risks involved. She decided that if she wasn’t pushing the envelope then she wasn’t fulfilled. And so she continues to compete on the IFSA tour and to ski the big bowls of Whistler-Blackcomb when at home.

Heather grew up in Ontario, where she ski raced. But when she came out west she "didn’t even know what free skiing was." But in Whistler if you’re a local and any kind of a skier, it’s only matter of time until you hook up with someone who will show you the ropes out of bounds. Hopefully they will be experienced and know what they are doing. And as every skier who I interviewed for this article told me, "once you start you just want to go further and further."

I ask Heather if she feels like she is one of the boys? Emphatically, no.

"In Whistler there are six or seven girls that totally rip!" she says. "People are stoked on girls that rip."

Like the men, she admits the lifestyle can be hard on relationships.

"The whole travelling thing is hard. I can only date guys that ski."

What about on the road?

"Well let me put it this way: whatever happens on the road stays on the road."

She passes the phone to her roommate Jen Ashton. Jen is noticeably more subdued than Heather. At 28 she is four years older than Heather. I ask if she would consider herself more mature.

"No I wouldn’t say I’m more mature."

Jen is also from Ontario, but as she says, "I was an army brat, so I basically grew up all over."

On moving to Whistler her experiences were also much the same as Jen’s.

"I became a lifty, met some wicked people, they showed me the mountain and talked me into doing jumps. Then (former world champion) Jeff Holden talked me into doing my first contest."

She has now won a few contests, has a sponsor and also skis for the cameras, last appearing in Warren Miller’s Ride. But still she works in a ski shop – with time off to compete – to pay the bills. Jen does the things she does, "because I love it."

One of the things extreme skiers have all done is ski in front of a camera. Some love it, some hate it, some can take it or leave it, but they all do it. The reason for this is it is the most effective way to ski and make a living skiing. If they have a sponsor then they need to be photographed or filmed wearing their sponsor’s skis or clothing. And if they want a sponsor then one of the best ways to get noticed is to be photographed doing something spectacular and have that image published in one of the many ski or snowboard magazines out there.

Blake Jorgenson is one of the people who supplies those images. He is a Whistler-based photographer, but has photographed extreme skiers from Alaska to Verbier, Switzerland. Jorgenson also takes exception to the label extreme.

"It’s extreme for someone who doesn’t have the experience. If you want to keep doing this there has to be a certain level of professionalism. Nobody is crazy or stupid," he says. "You get the good stuff when you’re with a crew who you know have it dialled in."

He thinks that extreme skiing is more of a mass media term and, as others have told me, several different types of activities have been lumped together under the banner extreme.

"Ski mountaineering is completely different from the free skiing circuit or the guys who just ski for the movies. Mostly it’s just a group of people who do it more than anyone else, it ceases to be extreme for them."

I ask him if he doesn’t feel that he is promoting an image of the sport to people who may not appreciate the inherent risks.

"The magazines and videos out there are for people who ski. I’m not creating stuff to be sold to people who are not involved with the sport."

So what about him? How did he find himself immersed in this culture?

"It’s a slow process, it starts off with you and your buddies and then you become part of the network," he says.

The network?

"Everyone has to live in one spot for this to happen. You have to be in the right spot. Whistler is hands down the best area in Canada. Verbier is a big one in Europe. Being part of this network is how you meet people and find sponsors. I went to Europe in February and ran into lots of people, probably a few dozen that I knew from all over. And over the years you end up meeting everybody, or at least you’ve heard of them, there are only so many people involved."

And of the people he knows and photographs how many can make a living doing what they love?

"It’s tough, you have to get any kind of exposure you can. The guys that get lots of published photos have to spend all their skiing time in front of the camera, plus you have to make the big jumps."

I wanted to talk with at least two or three snowboarders, to get something of a balanced view. While I would admit to a slight bias in favour of skiers, I still feel that snowboarding has been used as a marketing tool and those behind it have been some of the worst abusers of the whole extreme marketing slogan. Unfortunately due to the busy travel schedules of those involved in the sport, I was only able to track down one boarder.

Kevin Smith is fresh off the mountain and red faced from the cold, but feeling good and pleased with the recent dump of snow. He has brought his dog along, a white blue-eyed husky named Yuki (Japanese for snow) who sits quietly at our feet as we talk.

Kevin is a sponsored rider who last year competed in the King of the Hill Snowboarder Extremes in Alaska. He is 28 and has been snowboarding for almost 12 years. When I ask him if this is what he considers his career, he tells me: "It’s definitely a lifestyle. I feel the stuff I’m doing is something that pretty much has to be a full time thing."

He stops here and hesitates before going on.

"Actually for me it’s… you could almost say it’s a religion, it makes me who I am and what I have developed into as a person. I’m never going to lose that passion for what I do. My girlfriend says that to me everyday."

What about your girlfriend, how does she feel about it?

"If you’re asking does it put stress on a relationship, then yes it definitely does."

He also mentions that she has recently made a career decision to move to Vancouver, which prompts me to ask if he has friends outside of extreme sports.

"First of all we don’t really like that word so much, but yes, most of my friends that are close, or at least the ones that I keep in contact with, are into the mountain lifestyle."

What is it about the risks that are so attractive?

"I’m not going to kid you and say I’m not in it for the adrenaline rush, but that’s only part of it. The thing about ripping big lines in the mountains (is that) there are so many variables on how to make a good descent, everything has to fall into place. A week will go by and I’ll feel the need to be in the zone. It’s like going to mass. I just need to experience it."

These are heartfelt words and there is no disbelieving his intensity. So much so that I wonder if he and his peers don’t experience something akin to what soldiers at war experience, a brothers-in-arms sort of thing.

"We’re a tight knit group. Part of that is because when you’re in the mountains you want to be with someone you have a relationship with, a bond with, so when the shit hits the fan you know you can trust your partner."

Speaking of risks and the possibility of things going wrong, how does he feel about the difference in attitude towards risk between Europe and North America?

"You look at Europe and I really believe they have it figured out. Here people will light off of Blackcomb peak with a cell phone in their pocket, get stuck in some drainage and ask to be picked up. In Europe they’ll say it will cost you so much, do you still want a pick up?"

When he mentions inexperienced people getting caught in the backcountry, I ask if I’m not wrong in my impression that many of them seem to be snowboarders, which I attribute to the current popularity of the sport and its steep learning curve, creating a situation where people who might not otherwise even be in the mountains are going out of bounds. He agrees with me, but is quick to stress that he doesn’t feel that skiing and snowboarding are mutually exclusive of each other.

"I do a lot of my riding with skiers. When you’re in the backcountry each discipline works off each other."

In fact his next trip is to Bella Coola to ride the big mountains of the B.C. Coast, with skier Jen Ashton. They will be shooting a promotional film. He doesn’t mind riding for the cameras, although he admits: "sometimes when athletes get in front of cameras they tend to do things outside of their abilities."

The promo film in question is for one of his sponsors, and I ask if it’s true that snowboarders have been the recipients of more corporate largesse than their skiing cousins.

"Maybe for guys in the park playing around on the pipe, that’s where I’d be if I was in it for the money," he says.

But being in the park is not where he wants to be. Like J.D. Hare and many others, it is the beauty and solitude of the mountains and sharing it with a select group of friends that is at the core of the experience.

While writing this piece I asked the subjects that I interviewed again and again why they do what they do. To the outside observer (like myself) it would seem at first glance that they are all obsessed adrenaline junkies who will stop at nothing but their own self destruction. They admit that it is hardly lucrative and that it puts a strain on their relationships. So why do it?

One answer may be: because they have the ability to do it.

For instance, no one questions why an Indy car driver does what he does, but racing cars at the highest level can lead to a certain amount of fame and fortune, so the risks are deemed acceptable. Although I’m fairly certain that if you asked a race car driver why he became involved in the sport, he would probably say: because he loved it and had the ability to do it.

Anyone can be a daredevil, but to do a sport like extreme skiing and snowboarding (in all its various disciplines) and to do it well and consistently at the highest level takes much more than just a daredevil mentality.