- Tom Stillo
Last years first place U.S. Extreme Skiing Champion, Brant Moles, getting crazy in Crested Butte
photo courtesy of Crested Butte Mountain Resort
I remember when I started saying used to about all the things I didn't do any more. It was the day that rock climbing and river rafting and mountaineering started slipping into the past and I began to realize that I had come in from over a decade out there. It happens, if we're not careful, and drastic measures are called for to turn the Way-back Machine back to the day when fearlessness weighed even with an idealized acceptance of living at risk.
That wasn't the original aim of the first Novice Extreme Skiing Clinic held in Crested Butte last week as a preamble to the 10th Anniversary U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships. The clinic's targeted participant was the up-and-coming extremist, the skier who's gone as far as you can get on the double blacks and can't be satisfied accepting the limits of a world without appetite for adventure.
What makes the clinic irresistible is the lineup of Hall-of-Fame freeskiers who are participating as instructors, judges or just ski-by guests. If you follow the sport, you know that John Egan, Scottie Ewing, Jill Sickels Matlock and Barb Peters are the Greg Maddux, Mark McGwire, Peggy Fleming, and Martina Navratalova of their sport. And if you aspire to enter their realm, you'd jump at the chance to participate in a clinic boasting their presence.
The members of the clinic vary from day to day. Tom Bradtke is in from Chicago, soaking up everything he can from the all-star extremists surrounding him each day. Susan Medville is a Crested Butte resident, sharpening her skills to participate in the Championships that begins two days after the clinic ends. And Dexter Mills is a 15-year-old Gunnison local about to take the extremes by storm in the junior competition.
The first clue that I am over my head is that everybody else is wearing a helmet, including our instructors, James and Yarek. I'm on a beat-up pair of short rentals, in jeans, flannel and fleece, and for some reason -- typical of my level of preparation -- dress socks in my ski boots.
After a warm-up run, we head for The Glades, a high alpine wooded range of powder and solitude. Once we get off the Palma lift, my cover is blown. We glide into one of those end-of-the-world corners where the mountain meets the edge, and I won't even lean to look over unless I'm at least three yards away. We decide to split up until lunch, giving the others a chance to air it out without having to spend too much time in idle waiting for me.
That "Novice Extreme" moniker is confusing, but I gamely represent the novice contingent. You're supposed to be able to get down double blacks to participate, which I can do. I just do a lot of kick turns and sit turns and inch-your-way-around-the-tree turns as I take the scenic route back and forth across the plunges, my heart racing and every clenchable body part doing its best to simulate white knuckles.
Yarek tells me his definition of extreme skiing involves some real threat to life, or at least limb. It's laughable to imagine that I'm really entering that realm of risk. But fellow flatlanders know how powerful the idea of high-pitched vertical danger can be. In a pathetic kind of way, I'm experiencing the sick rush that extreme skiers yearn for. My long traverses wear out my molars every time I run out of mountain and have to make a turn, and somehow the people I'm skiing with manage to respect that level of personal challenge rather than snicker at my textbook demonstration of lameability.
Yarek declines the easy way out of downgrading my day and cruising me around on easier terrain. If I want to understand the mentality of these athletes, I might as well look down the chutes and over the cliffs they'll be competing on. He quickly assesses my ability and the reality that I actually can get down -- one way or, more likely, another -- most of the terrain he wants me to see. In a daylong instance of brain freeze, I never say no, letting numbing fear, dehydration and sunstroke pass for guts.
We hit the Glades and the North Face, Black Chute and the Headwall. And after lunch, when it has been determined that I am about two levels lower on the skier scale than I indicated on my registration, we decide to head for The Peak anyway. There was some stealthy discussion with heads turned away and hands cupped in front of mouths when that decision was reached, and a more cynical soul might think they were trying to teach me a lesson for having the audacity to think I could enter their terrain.
Crested Butte is known for its "Extreme Limits" terrain, the kind of alpine terrain that is out-of-bounds at most mountains. It's what attracts skiers and event sponsors to the mountain, and in tandem with 10 years of Extreme Freeskiing Championships, it has made Crested Butte synonymous with the entire concept of extreme. The Peak is the outer limit. At 12,162 feet, The Peak is another 500 feet higher than the lift takes us.
After a rigorous 30-minute ascent digging into the snow wall in our ski boots, balancing skis over our shoulders, and using our poles as walking sticks and emergency breaks, we make the final wintry ascent to the miniscule summit, a cluster of snow-packed rocks with room for a handful of close friends to share the space. I fall once on the way down, losing control until I hit a pair of skis stuck upright in the snow like a horse shoe ringer straddling a stake. The skis cantilever forward, smacking their owner in the head and sending him tumbling 10 yards down the ridge. Oh, yeah, I'm a bonus to have around in that terrain!
Yarek is good enough at what he does that he is not easily fooled by people's underestimated sense of their own limits. The fact that he took a 9-year-old girl to the top of the peak does not diminish my sense of accomplishment. I know what a 9-year-old is capable of. I was 9 once, and fearless. He tells me he had to bring her down on a rope, and I grow concerned when my keen powers of observation conclude that he couldn't possibly have a rope with him today.
We ski off the edge of the peak, dropping down to the mountain and The Headwall for a look at the course we'll compete on tomorrow. I'm fried by the sun after spending all my time stressing over surviving the mountain and completely ignoring the sun's ability to bake my brain golden brown. I can barely keep my eyes open the rest of the day, but in the spirit of the extreme, I keep moving for another six hours as Bela Fleck, David Grisman, and Sam Bush hold a jamfest in a horse cutting arena. Throw in the after-party partying, the spring-forward change in the clocks, and an early morning competition, and I am as relaxed as I could be without slipping into a coma.
The panel of extreme skiing legends judges us on line, control, fluidity, technique and aggressive approach, and Jill reminds us it's not about speed as much as it is attitude and style. My score's are mostly 5's and 6's (with a few 4's thrown in from the East German judge), gold medal material in the world of figure skating, but placing me in a league of my own on this 1 to 10 scale. Tom hucks his way through the rocky Headwall and takes the top platform at the awards ceremony. Dexter takes the silver. And when I end up with the bronze, there is talk of an official investigation to punish the parties I bribed.
Spirit is what it's all about in extreme skiing. The best you can think of someone is that they're sick, deranged, out on the edge -- but not out of control. For a couple days I felt out there again. I know it shouldn't have surprised me so much, but I even felt welcomed out there. When you're pushing at the limits, there's always room for another shoulder.