Getting Vertical

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Sunrise on April 6, 1998, appeared as a faint orange glow over Yellowstone National Park. A cold wind that heralded a building snowstorm rushed out of the southwest. At the top of Andesite Mountain in Big Sky, Mont., there was little talk and no joking among the 60 volunteers who staked out fences, erected a canvas-wall tent, fueled the snowmobiles and checked the radios. The day promised to be long, cold and snowy. It would also prove to be perilous and painful for Rusty Squire, a former U.S. Ski Team member and current stockbroker in Big Sky. What Squire was about to attempt was at best fool hardy, at worst fatal. He planned to ski 300,000 vertical feet by the end of the day, about 3,000 feet more than the current record.

Breaking the world vertical record speaks both to the pleasure and pain of downhill skiing. Logging 300,000 vertical feet in a single day is comparable to high jumping 8 feet, running a sub 2-hour marathon or a 3:40 mile. It is a form of refined aerobic torture. To reach 100,000 feet is incredible, 200,000 sick. There is no metaphor for 300,000. Somewhere around 250,000, the most superbly conditioned athlete's lungs go, his back gives out, his concentration fades and his legs cannot hold a ski on edge.

Others have held the title for a year, or a few months. Mark Jones, a Canadian speed skier living in Chamonix, France, skied 212,000 vertical feet in 12 hours off the Grands Montets' upper tram. Jones' daylight record was bested by Mark Bennett, an oral surgeon who used a helicopter to ski 294,380 feet in 14 hours in the Yukon. The record proved to be a function of daylight, lift speed and conditioning, and Squire knew if he was to have any chance of breaking it, he would have to hire a very fast helicopter-the high-altitude Eurocopter 208sa "Lama" used for the famous "Into Thin Air" rescue on Mt. Everest.

Big Sky ski resort had closed Big Horn, one of its most popular runs, to the general public. The first gray light had barely touched the groomed east face at 7 am when Squire poled away from the upper helicopter pad. His first run down amounted to a 40 mph inspection tour around volunteers setting pine boughs to enhance visibility. The helicopter would not arrive until 7:15 and, for the next three runs, a snowmobile ferried Squire and his skis back to the top. Squire would soon pick up the pace: To break the record, he would have to ski 197 runs of 1,500 vertical feet each, in about 65 seconds per run.

Squire may have devoted several years to the U.S. Ski Team but for the past decade he has worked as a stockbroker. Despite his dedication to 6 am to 5 pm work days, his pregnant wife and his 2-year-old daughter, he never lost his passion for adventure. In the past two years, he had skied a dozen hairball chutes, endoed off a speeding motorcycle and been chased off a granite cliff by two grizzlies.

Nothing, however, scared him half as much as his third run down Big Horn. Holding an 80 mph tuck, he lost his concentration, flew off a bump and rocked into the back seat. His left ski floated up in his face, leaving him a second to think, "It's over before I even got started."

Why he didn't crash is a mystery. It might have been a combination of experience and luck, or simply a guardian angel who forced his hands forward and ski tip back down. Sinking into a tuck, he took a shaky breath and accelerated toward the waiting ship. During the next 10 runs he tried to memorize Big Horn's imperfections-the ruts, ice balls and pitch changes that could throw him onto his face in an instant. By run 25, he had begun to relax. By 50, two hours into the attempt, he had stopped thinking about anything but the moment-and D.J. Appleman.

W hen Squire last spoke to D.J. Appleman, Appleman had less than a week to live. By then the cancer had run its course, and Appleman was counting time in hours not days. Before he was diagnosed with liposarcoma, Appleman had devoted much of his time and a large part of his incomeo helping kids with cancer. But he was better known as the charismatic owner of Scissor Bills in Big Sky, the locals' favorite watering hole. He had a reputation as a hedonist, a hard-partying master of ceremonies who loved beautiful women, cold powder and hot motorcycles in roughly that order. He was also one of Squire's best friends: They spent years fly fishing, hunting and skiing together-Appleman even threw Squire his bachelor party.

What Rusty proposed surprised them both. Taking his years on the U.S. Ski Team, the U.S. Pro Tour, the Iron Skier, 24 Hours of Aspen and The International Powder Eights into account, he improvised. "D.J., I don't know if it would help," he said, "but I want to set a world vertical record to benefit Eagle Mount Big Sky Cancer Kids." Eagle Mount is a charity that underwrites the cost for kids with cancer to come to Montana with their families to whitewater raft, fish for trout, horseback ride and ski. Rusty would set up a scholarship to support that program. Weakened by the cancer, D.J. answered, "Russ that would be incredible."

It was the last time they spoke. A week later Appleman died. After the service, Rusty was left with little more than the promise he had made. Without it, he could never have focused on the record. There was never any question of personal gain. Ego wasn't a strong enough reason to start the hardcore weight lifting, bicycling and nordic skiing program he would need to break Mark Bennett's record.

Squire was convinced if he didn't make a financial commitment, he could never make the critical mental commitment, so he seeded the fund with $2,000 of his own money. In the months following D.J.'s death, he made hundreds of phone calls to sponsors and volunteers. He asked Frank Silva, his close friend and Powder Eights partner, to take charge of course safety-the volunteers, helicopter, course conditions and a dozen other details that could easily derail the attempt. He convinced Ron Hinds and Patrice Lynn to keep time and count the runs. And he talked Tim Collins, who works at PHD Skis in Bozeman, into waxing and filing his skis for the world vertical attempt.

It was during run 70 (105,000 vertical) at around 10:30 am that Squire nearly quit. While flying off the speed bump, his stomach revolted and, at 70 mph, he hurled a wicked combination of ginseng gel, energy bar, herbs, bacon, eggs, toast and Advil onto the course. "I thought I was OK until I felt a second wave and got sick again. It was as if my stomach suddenly realized we weren't stopping," he remembers.

Rusty knew if he continued to vomit, there was no way he would reach 200,000, much less 300,000 feet. On the helicopter ride up, he tried to saturate his blood by breathing oxygen and managed to drink a little water. During the next run, his stomach turned again but he pushed on.

To succeed, Squire knew each run had to be precise. The tuck, jumps and corners had to mirror the run before, the one after and the 100 laps in the future. As soon as the helicopter settled onto the landing pad at the top of Big Horn, he unbuckled his seat belt. Steve Figgins and Ross Pfohl opened the door and helped him climb down onto the pad and into his skis. Ten seconds after the Lama landed, he accelerated away from the start.

Because little time was saved by poling and skating across the upper flats, he stood to rest his thighs. Then, as soon as he broke over onto the headwall, he grabbed a bullet tuck and within 10 seconds was up to 70 mph. The bump came fast. Located halfway down the mile course, it was the crux-the choke point where the wind tried to beat him into the back seat. Beyond the bump, he arced through the course's biggest corner and searched for the smoothest line. Here, where his speed reached 80 mph, a mistake could send him cartwheeling into the hospital-or the graveyard.

The bottom of the course arrived in a blur. As Squire rose out of the tuck, the wind slammed into his body. His thighs burned as he began to turn, the speed bled off and he slid underneath the Lama's spinning rotor to the skid where Peter Zemlock and Tyler Hill caught him, released his bindings and helped him into the ship. The Lama lifted and in the minute it took to climb to the start, Rusty took a breath of oxygen, a sip of Powerade and a squirt of Power Gel. Then, as the ship flared above the pad, he shut off the oxygen, grabbed his poles and when the door opened, climbed out.

By day's end, he would repeat the process 220 times.

Late that morning, the snow intensified, quickly covering the course with 4 inches of powder. The sun disappeared for good at 3 pm and, minutes later, the visibility went into the tank and the cold settled into Rusty's feet and hands. Despite the conditions, Kevin Kelleher, who owns the local Lone Peak Lookout newspaper and who had just completed his second round of chemotherapy to combat malignant melanoma, continued to forerun Big Horn to keep the line fast and smooth.

Riding the chair back to the top of the course, Kelleher recalled that he got D.J. his first job at Big Sky-at Buck's T4 restaurant. "I know why D.J. loved the Eagle Mount kids," he said. "They were young and fragile and innocent. They just broke his heart-and at the same time he fell in love with them."

The runs continued to accumulate. By 200,000 feet, when massage therapist Debbie Schope climbed into the helicopter to work on his legs, Rusty's thighs and knees were numb, his back ached, and he was having trouble fighting off the cold.

At 225,000, he took his only break while the Lama refueled. More than his near crash or nausea, the moment served as the day's low point. He had just learned that the Lama's altimeter calculated the total course vertical at 1,450 instead of 1,500. Multiplied by 220 runs the discrepancy amounted to 11,000 feet. Stressed and hypothermic, Russ shivered in the tent for 5 minutes. At the sound of the approaching rotor, he picked up his poles and stepped into his skis. The shadows lengthened and the wind and snow increased, but Rusty maintained a pace of 33,000 feet per hour.

The volunteers cheered when they heard Squire had broken Mark Bennett's record. Stepping out of the ship on his 200th run, he took stock of the situation. He was the first man in history to ski 300,000 feet. He had also skied the most runs in one hour, the most in 10 hours and the most in 24 hours. Before he started, Squire had hoped to reach 350,000. He was now within 20 runs of that goal. Each hour added 30,000 vertical. If he didn't fall, the light didn't fail, or the building storm didn't shut down the attempt, 400,000 feet might be possible. By 5 pm, however, the fog, snow, cold and rotor blast had taken a toll on the crew. The light was gone, and Squire was shivering with hypothermia. In the end, it wasn't his sore legs, the fading light or cold that stopped him. It was the money. It had taken eight months to raise $16,000-$11,000 for the helicopter and $5,000 to seed the scholarship. Each additional hour cost $1,000. To reach 400,000 would have required another $2,000. It was money Squire didn't have.

To feed the record, he would have had to raid the scholarship fund. In hindsight, he says, "The attempt was both a memorial to D.J., and a chance to help cancer kids. We had a budget of $11,000. When that was exhausted, the attempt ended."

After 10 hours and 15 minutes, he had skied 331,160 vertical feet-or the equivalent of about 11 Mt. Everests. The volunteers stayed to break down the tent and haul away the fences while Rusty stiffly climbed to the top of Andesite Mountain and skied down to Big Sky's Huntley Lodge.

An hour later he appeared at the celebration party at Scissor Bills-D.J. Appleman's bar and restaurant. Frank Silva handed him a beer and Squire paused beneath D.J.'s skis that were screwed to the wall above the bar. Climbing onto a stool, Rusty wrote the vertical foot total and signed his name near therned as he began to turn, the speed bled off and he slid underneath the Lama's spinning rotor to the skid where Peter Zemlock and Tyler Hill caught him, released his bindings and helped him into the ship. The Lama lifted and in the minute it took to climb to the start, Rusty took a breath of oxygen, a sip of Powerade and a squirt of Power Gel. Then, as the ship flared above the pad, he shut off the oxygen, grabbed his poles and when the door opened, climbed out.

By day's end, he would repeat the process 220 times.

Late that morning, the snow intensified, quickly covering the course with 4 inches of powder. The sun disappeared for good at 3 pm and, minutes later, the visibility went into the tank and the cold settled into Rusty's feet and hands. Despite the conditions, Kevin Kelleher, who owns the local Lone Peak Lookout newspaper and who had just completed his second round of chemotherapy to combat malignant melanoma, continued to forerun Big Horn to keep the line fast and smooth.

Riding the chair back to the top of the course, Kelleher recalled that he got D.J. his first job at Big Sky-at Buck's T4 restaurant. "I know why D.J. loved the Eagle Mount kids," he said. "They were young and fragile and innocent. They just broke his heart-and at the same time he fell in love with them."

The runs continued to accumulate. By 200,000 feet, when massage therapist Debbie Schope climbed into the helicopter to work on his legs, Rusty's thighs and knees were numb, his back ached, and he was having trouble fighting off the cold.

At 225,000, he took his only break while the Lama refueled. More than his near crash or nausea, the moment served as the day's low point. He had just learned that the Lama's altimeter calculated the total course vertical at 1,450 instead of 1,500. Multiplied by 220 runs the discrepancy amounted to 11,000 feet. Stressed and hypothermic, Russ shivered in the tent for 5 minutes. At the sound of the approaching rotor, he picked up his poles and stepped into his skis. The shadows lengthened and the wind and snow increased, but Rusty maintained a pace of 33,000 feet per hour.

The volunteers cheered when they heard Squire had broken Mark Bennett's record. Stepping out of the ship on his 200th run, he took stock of the situation. He was the first man in history to ski 300,000 feet. He had also skied the most runs in one hour, the most in 10 hours and the most in 24 hours. Before he started, Squire had hoped to reach 350,000. He was now within 20 runs of that goal. Each hour added 30,000 vertical. If he didn't fall, the light didn't fail, or the building storm didn't shut down the attempt, 400,000 feet might be possible. By 5 pm, however, the fog, snow, cold and rotor blast had taken a toll on the crew. The light was gone, and Squire was shivering with hypothermia. In the end, it wasn't his sore legs, the fading light or cold that stopped him. It was the money. It had taken eight months to raise $16,000-$11,000 for the helicopter and $5,000 to seed the scholarship. Each additional hour cost $1,000. To reach 400,000 would have required another $2,000. It was money Squire didn't have.

To feed the record, he would have had to raid the scholarship fund. In hindsight, he says, "The attempt was both a memorial to D.J., and a chance to help cancer kids. We had a budget of $11,000. When that was exhausted, the attempt ended."

After 10 hours and 15 minutes, he had skied 331,160 vertical feet-or the equivalent of about 11 Mt. Everests. The volunteers stayed to break down the tent and haul away the fences while Rusty stiffly climbed to the top of Andesite Mountain and skied down to Big Sky's Huntley Lodge.

An hour later he appeared at the celebration party at Scissor Bills-D.J. Appleman's bar and restaurant. Frank Silva handed him a beer and Squire paused beneath D.J.'s skis that were screwed to the wall above the bar. Climbing onto a stool, Rusty wrote the vertical foot total and signed his name near the bindings. All agreed that D.J. Appleman would have been the first to applaud the record, and the victory party began in earnest.

Epilogue: Rusty Squire's vertical record came under assault almost immediately. Two weeks later on April 20, 1998, San Francisco snowboarder Tammy McMinn and skier Jennifer Hughes fell just short, completing 101 runs for a total of 305,525 feet in 14 hours and 50 minutes at Klondike Heli Skiing in Atlin, B.C.Next, on April 28, Edi Podivinsky and Luke Sauder of the Canadian Alpine Ski Team, ex-Canadian Ski Team member Chris Kent, Swiss extremist Dominique Perret and Austrian guide Robert Reindl of Mike Wiegele Heli Skiing used an A-Star helicopter to access Mount Albrada's 5,000-vertical-foot north face. The team managed to ski 353,600 feet in 14 1/2 hours. Squire's one- and 12-hour records still stand.

To make a donation to Eagle Mount Cancer Kids, contact: Eagle Mount Big Sky Kids, 6901 Goldenstein Lane, Bozeman, Mont. 59715, Attn: Healing Through Love and Laughter; (800) 858-8968. the bindings. All agreed that D.J. Appleman would have been the first to applaud the record, and the victory party began in earnest.

Epilogue: Rusty Squire's vertical record came under assault almost immediately. Two weeks later on April 20, 1998, San Francisco snowboarder Tammy McMinn and skier Jennifer Hughes fell just short, completing 101 runs for a total of 305,525 feet in 14 hours and 50 minutes at Klondike Heli Skiing in Atlin, B.C.Next, on April 28, Edi Podivinsky and Luke Sauder of the Canadian Alpine Ski Team, ex-Canadian Ski Team member Chris Kent, Swiss extremist Dominique Perret and Austrian guide Robert Reindl of Mike Wiegele Heli Skiing used an A-Star helicopter to access Mount Albrada's 5,000-vertical-foot north face. The team managed to ski 353,600 feet in 14 1/2 hours. Squire's one- and 12-hour records still stand.

To make a donation to Eagle Mount Cancer Kids, contact: Eagle Mount Big Sky Kids, 6901 Goldenstein Lane, Bozeman, Mont. 59715, Attn: Healing Through Love and Laughter; (800) 858-8968.