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Intro#18

BROTHERS AND SISTERS, I put before you a radical thought:

That extreme skiing really is extreme.

That extreme skiing is much more than some bandwagon ridden by greed-mongers and middle-aged marketers trying to reach the Youth of Today.

That extreme skiing is in truth a viable, significant, and important part of skiing.

There, I said it: Extreme skiing is legit.

Everyone knows the extreme label is the kiss of death. Only “alternative” has been more appropriated, more corrupted, and more diminished by its use as a sales tool. Sadly, what was once a fairly accurate description of a certain type of skiing is now just a lightning rod for cynicism and scorn. And rightly so: We’ve turned extreme into a parody of itself. Which is why real extremists run faster from the word than computer programmers from natural daylight. Which is why Shane McConkey and his fellow extreme-skiing contest competitors have formed the International Free Skiers Association. Which is why you will rarely, if ever, see someone described in these pages as an extreme skier.

But—and here’s my main point—what these guys and girls are doing is extreme. Inside or outside of contests in Crested Butte, Valdez, Squaw, or Las Leñas, what Shane and his compadres are doing is dangerous, frightening, and offers little margin for error. It is far more difficult and risky and requires way more skill and nerve than 99 percent of us will ever possess. It is, like it or not, extreme.

I was scared out of my wits back in 1991, when I went up to Alaska for the first-ever extreme contest. Sitting on a knife-edge of snow on the second day of competition far above Thompson Pass, I looked down the steep contest pitch and was convinced someone would die on it. Sharp rocks studded the snow everywhere, the face ended in a huge cliff, and you never knew until you made a turn whether 10 more inches of snow or an edge-busting boulder lay under the surface. When the strongest competitors came down and flashed it—Kevin Andrews, Dean Cummings, and Doug Coombs—I was blown away. A whole new world opened up to what was possible on skis.

Since then, I’ve learned that pitch was nothing for those guys. I’ve seen people lay down far more daring lines and come away looking like gods. But I’ve never forgotten that first glimpse of the gap between what I thought possible and what really was possible.

There is no perfect term for this kind of skiing. “Extreme sking” is inaccurate, not to mention embarrassing; only a kook would want to be called an extreme skier. But what to call it? Free skiing? Adventure skiing? Big mountain free skiing? Ski mountaineering? None of these fit the bill.

I like “expert skiing.” It is simple, succinct, and understated. It is accurate. No one who has earned the term has to feel shy about using it. Unfortunately, it’s too subtle for the ’90s—where you have to shout to be heard—and not very sexy.

Whatever we end up calling it, I want to leave you with this thought. Radical skiing of the extreme variety is pushing itself further and further with each passing winter. Mountaineers like Doug Coombs are going deeper into the wilderness, while freestylers like McConkey are learning the big-mountain savvy that will take them safely into bigger arenas. Resorts are seeing sicker and sicker lines by alpiners, snowboarders, and telemarkers. The whole genre of skiing is going off, and all I can do is stand there with my mouth open, amazed, as new heroes are made every day.

First published in Powder Magazine, issue 25.3, November 1996. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.

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