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I Owe My Life of Skiing to Glen Plake’s Mohawk (And a Few Others)

The freeskiing faction of our sport proudly dubbed itself a “counter-culture”—erecting a giant, collective middle finger to "the system."

The images were indelible in my mind: Seth Morrison hip-checking onto a hanging Alaskan face with flaming red hair propped up by his goggles; Glen Plake doing a rodeo 7 on 200-cm straight skis with a 50-cm mohawk; Kent Kreitler’s bleached, spiky dreads floating high above his head as he aired into some unfathomable depth.

For a middle-class kid who grew up without much confidence, but a deep love of skiing, the photos, and videos of these skiers were a portal to another world. I was small, socially awkward, and bad at ball sports; but I loved skiing, so these were the only sports heroes I could relate to. That these audacious figures existed in my same culture gave me permission to take the risk of standing out.

When I was 16, I bleached my hair for the first time. Not long after, I made short, spiky dreads to emulate Kreitler’s. By the time I was 19, I dyed my hair black, wore it in a mohawk, had a pierced nose, and wore a chain and lock around my neck. To me, this was purely an ode to Morrison and Plake. I grew up listening to my mom’s Beach Boys cassettes and knew nothing of Sid Vicious.

But that was all changing now. The prerequisite in-your-face attitude that loud clothes and weird hair required, in my case, also required method acting—I had to pretend to be rowdier and more damaged than I actually was.

I found scripts for this in the soundtracks of my favorite ski movies, where my heroes glissade down impossible mountainsides to punk rock anthems. In my eyes, this transformed skiing into a revolutionary act of resistance to mainstream culture; and mainstream culture into an oppressive force that needed beating back.

In the years that followed, the freeskiing faction of our sport proudly dubbed itself a “counter-culture”—erecting a giant, collective middle finger to the uptight era of shiny purple one-pieces, and anybody stupid enough to get caught up in “the system.”

Everyone else was brainwashed; we were free.

The sport fabricated rifts and began placing people on either side of them. Racers, ski instructors, and corporate resort managers in one camp, and freeskiers in the other. I aligned with the radicals, and that bled out beyond skiing. I started looking for everything the world at large was getting wrong. Torn from VHS ski movies I wore right out, the lyrics of Bad Religion and Operation Ivy made the world’s shortcomings so much clearer to me.

Working backward from the privilege of a youth spent sliding on snow, I found a place of righteous indignation with society that fit perfectly with the frustrated later years of my teens, and the early activist years of my 20s. University put me in league with other angry young people I could share clarity and vision with, and we confirmed to each other that only we saw the truth. All throughout, I invented injustices for myself to validate my place in the pantheon of the disenfranchised.

But I also kept skiing. Always. I entered “extreme” competitions as a way to channel that arrant, angry energy down through my edges like my heroes had done. When I graduated, I bought a shiny, black acoustic guitar to learn Social Distortion songs while living in a van as a ski bum—convincing myself I was an anti-hero as I traveled from contest to contest in those years. I

never did win any, but I did make a lot of friends, and times were begrudgingly good. Eventually, joy superseded the frustration I had spent years purposely curating.

Around the time I cut all the dye out of my hair, Mike Ness’s rockabilly riffs started drawing me into country, blues, and Americana, and I stepped outside of punk rock. I found Bob Dylan, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and a whole different aesthetic of manhood to draw from in expressing personal and social dissatisfaction.

I started writing my own songs, I stopped competing, and I started skiing in the backcountry. My tastes changed from three-chord power ballads to three-chord folk songs, and then to intricately internal tunes by the likes of Valerie June, Justin Vernon, and Sam Beam.

Angry skiing turned into regular sessions with a therapist. Songwriting turned into an unlikely career as a long-form editorial writer. Days smashing my chin against my knees gave way to those smashing my lungs up mountains. With my own two feet, I began connecting with the earth in ways so soothing there aren’t words for it.

I settled into something just shy of acceptance with the world—a reluctant handshake framed by a fierce determination to adapt rather than insist it meet me where I am but to still push things in better directions when I can.

At the fading edge of my 30s, life became a beautifully flowing experience, steered by a tamed emotional constitution, a wealth of nourishing friendships, and a tapestry of incomparable moments spent out in the only world that’s real: the physical one.

There was one constant throughout all of that, and one thing that brought me back to center. However roundabout and rocky the journey, I wouldn’t change any of it.

Right here is a good place and one I never would have arrived if Glen Plake, Seth Morrison, and Kent Kreitler had worn their hair normally all those years ago.