Freeski to the Extreme

11/24/2015

Winter 2015

I’m standing in my skis, my heart racing, peering over the edge of a steep, almost vertical ridge, down to the untouched snow of Telluride’s rocky Black Iron Bowl below me. Where’s the trail? This can’t be right. Am I even permitted to go down the hill this way?

I mean, yes, the insane drop in front of me is, in fact, marked on the trail map. And sure, there is that ominous-looking sign nearby with the words “EXTREME TERRAIN” spelled out in big letters confirming that at least this isn’t the first time a human has ventured out to this point. I’ve done black diamonds before, but I’m more of a groomed-trail skier. Attempting to ski big mountain terrain with fresh powder, while exciting, is a little intimidating for me. 

Dropping In

Suddenly, a fearless skier drops in and inadvertently shows me how it’s done, carving a clean pair of lines down the slope. She is quickly followed by other skiers and snowboarders, all dropping into the venue to get to the viewing area at the bottom and watch a local freeskiing and freeriding competition. I had intended to check out the event, but no one told me beforehand that in order to be a mere spectator you still have to ski down the same extreme terrain as the competitors do. Inspired by the extreme skiers and snowboarders before me, I gather my courage to follow suit, and drop in. 

Gary Mackenzie

The crisp, powdery snow swooshes beneath the planks attached to my feet, and it’s truly exhilarating – that is, until I lose control and tumble down the mountain like a snowball with my skis trailing behind me. Alas, wipeouts where you leave a trail of ski equipment and articles of clothing strewn in your wake – or “yard sales,” as they say in skier vernacular – are inevitable, even for a pro. 

Breaking Free

The sport of freeskiing, where skiers launch themselves into the air and do tricks (and occasionally take a tumble or two), has become increasingly popular since the 1980s and has evolved over time with the popularity of snowboarding. With its roots in the desire to bring the notion of surfing to the slopes, snowboarding itself has evolved over the decades. It took some time, but both snow sports ultimately went from ski resort fads to international mainstream acceptance when they started spawning official freestyle skiing and snowboarding events at the Winter Olympic Games in 1992.

Jonathan Penfield

Forging Their Own Paths

As awe-inspiring as it is to watch athletes contort their bodies in the air, Olympic freestyle skiing and snowboarding is done at controlled, custom-designed venues akin to ski resort terrain parks. Freeskiers and snowboarding freeriders know that while park obstacles can be fun, nothing beats doing tricks off the natural features of a mountain. 

“With all these kinds of [mountain] features, it’s all up to your creativity,” says Jonathan Penfield, a freeriding champion and proud Subaru Outback owner. 

“There’s a million different ways you can hit the same natural feature. With park jumps, there’s only one way to take off.” His words make it seem easy as he whizzes down a rocky series of lateral outcrops – almost as if it were premeditated – and then wows the crowd by launching into the air for an aerial board grab. 

Exploring the Possibilities

Gregory Hope

Whether they are in competition or not, freeriders and freeskiers like to find new and inventive ways to launch off cliffs, boulders, and wind lips to twist and flip in the air. Even maneuvering smoothly through difficult areas – without doing any tricks – is still worthy of praise. There are an endless number of ways to find your way down the mountain. “[Freeskiing] fits my kind of skiing more,” says Gregory Hope, another freeskier. “I like exploring a lot, trying to figure out new and different ways down the mountain.” I watch as Hope approaches a narrow opening between a couple of outcrops where the snow is slipping down so fast that it looks like a waterfall. He fearlessly flies off the top and lands in a cushion of white – without donating anything at all to a yard sale. 

Having Fun and Finding Your Style

Connery Lundin

For me, exploring to figure out any way down a big mountain without falling again is the challenge. I am nowhere near the level of Subaru WRX owner Connery Lundin, another freeskiing champ – and somewhat of a celebrity in the competitive freeskiing world. “Just be comfortable in your skis and know how to turn,” Lundin coaches me, giving me the benefit of his many years of experience. “And from there, it’s just fun. In terms of getting into big mountain skiing, and learning tricks and hitting cliffs, I would say just ease into things and do things the way you’d like to ski them. And don’t try and copy other people’s style, because it’s not as fun that way. Develop your own style.”

Baby Steps 

Lundin's advice was easier said than done. On subsequent attempts at trying to ski down the big mountain bowl, I could not make it down without wiping out in epic fashion. This was not the way I liked to ski down the slopes. And so, to “develop my own style,” I decided to switch venues instead. Fortunately, the Subaru WinterFest was going on, closer to Mountain Village at the Telluride Ski Resort. Featuring an easy, kid-friendly simulation of a freeskiing venue, that  allowed me to “get creative” by weaving around little propped-up obstacles. While it was nowhere near the grandeur and challenge of a real big mountain bowl, at least my newly developing style didn’t leave a yard sale behind me. When it comes to freeskiing, I guess you have to start somewhere.