All-Access Heroes

Deep thoughts
Deep Thoughts 0903

Unlike most other sports, where the best you can hope for is to glimpse the stars through a pair of binoculars from the top deck of some enormo-dome, skiing lets you stand in the same line, ride the same chair, and play on the same field as your heroes. You'll probably never swing at a pitch in Yankee Stadium, least of all when the Yankees are there. Okay, maybe you can shoot the same golf course as Tiger Woods, but not when he's playing on it. And the same is true of most adventure sports: You might be able to climb, ride, or paddle where the big boys do, but you can bet the big boys won't be around.

Skiing, though, is an egalitarian sport. On any given day, on the plaza at Snowbird, you might run into Kristen Ulmer or Gordy Peifer; at the Jackson tram dock you might hang with Micah Black, Rick Armstrong, or the boys from Teton Gravity Research; in the Mammoth terrain parks it could be Kristi Leskinen. Over the years, I've run into countless racing legends, including Hermann Maier, Marc Girardelli, and Ingemar Stenmark; pioneering big-mountain skiers Scot Schmidt and Doug Coombs; bumpers Jonny Moseley and Wayne Wong; and untold top freeskiers. Oh, and Plake—everywhere I go, it seems, I run into Glen Plake.

Admittedly, I know what a lot of these people look like from my years of working at ski magazines, but I'm not counting any celebrity sightings that came from special access in ski industry events. These were days when I was just skiing, they were just skiing, and I happened to notice. That means you or anyone else on the hill can do the same: Look up and witness in person one of the most amazing displays of strength and skill you'll ever see on skis.

I still remember seeing Girardelli get off the chair behind me at Park City. As I stood up from buckling my boots, I was struck by his tree-trunk thighs and how he showed the ultimate marriage of power and precision as he arced down a run populated with riff and raff and flotsam and jetsam—that is, us. I've caught Black casually sticking a 60-footer at Jackson, then spied Coombs straight-lining Jackson's tight and rocky Meet Your Maker at about 50 miles per hour. You can watch ski movies until your eyeballs fall out, but it's no substitute for observing someone's style, form, and spirit right there in the flesh. It will leave you in awe.

This kind of accessibility is a gift that bears strikingly tangible benefits, not the least of which is inspiration. There is nothing like watching Stenmark—live—to make you want to ski with that same amazing smoothness or seeing C.R. Johnson busting new-school tricks in the Squaw terrain park to get you charged up for a huck session. Even better than just being inspired, though, is that by sharing the slope, you can slide right over and take the same line—and nothing will teach you faster than trying to emulate, on the spot, someone who's at the top of his game. You might even get a tip or two from the hero at hand. Shoot, you can't even find Kobe's hood, let alone show up there and get him to school you on dunking. If Plake starts giving you tips, you might not be able to get him to stop.

Skiing's public playground is the great leveler. Certainly, top skiers' abilities create a kind of "us" and "them," but when we're standing in line, hiking a ridge, or looking down the same narrow chute, we're all just "us"—one big, smelly, discordant tribe. This helps us keep our heroes in perspective—they are, after all, just people—and understand their place in the culture. Collectively, we make the sport what it is. The difference is subtle, but significant: It defines us as participants, not just as spectators and performers.

I've never liked the phrase "keepin' it real," but I guess that's the heart of what I'm talking about: The public ski run keeps it real. It forces our heroes to stay down to earth, a part of instead of apart from. It lets us praise their accomplishments, but not go overboard. It keeps us connected to what's possible on a pair of metal-edged sticks, and it reminds us that though we might never be able to ski like them, we can try, right here, on the same slope, under the same sky, in the same air. Only skiers can say that, and that's pretty damn cool.