Dexter Mills was going down. The tall, affable 15-year-old was hating life. His parents had recently divorced. His grandfather, the person he considered his best friend in the world, had just died. He'd moved with his mother from his birthplace in Crested Butte, Colo., where he had skied since infancy, down to the bigger town of Gunnison to start high school. But it wasn't working out. His anger seemed to grow in reverse proportion to his slipping grades.
That was not the Dexter Mills I met last March at the annual Crested Butte Academy Winter Carnival. After a disastrous freshman year in Gunnison, Dex had started over at CBA, a respected prep school and winter-sports academy with about 60 students and a staff that includes former U.S. Ski Team coaches. His mother, April, now says, "Dexter has turned his whole life around. He's a different person than he was a year ago. I can't say enough about the academy."
At the Carnival, each of the academy's competitive teams¿alpine, snowboard and freeride¿plus the outdoor education program, hosted fun competitions on the hill. Smoke from grilling burgers wafted up from the base, and students mingled with and raced against teachers, parents and even the headmaster, a former NCAA skier at Harvard.
For his second run of slalom, Dex donned a pair of ski blades and carried a bright blue saucer to ride "through the delay gate at the finish." His mother fretted: "Am I going to have to go down and pick up the pieces?" Dexter and the saucer parted company well before the delay gate in a harmless storm of limbs and corn snow.
Slalom's not really Dexter's thing. Freeskiing, a.k.a. extreme skiing, is. As a member of the Academy's freeride team, he works out with the alpine racers in the mornings before school. Afternoons and weekends, they either practice body control in the half-pipe or ski the Butte's steep, technical terrain with their coach, four-time U.S. Extreme champion Jill Sickles-Matlock. Still, Dexter was a moody, smart, impish handful.
(Scene: Professor Brian Krill's world history class. Dex is one of five students, including fellow freshman Caroline Jarolimek, second in alpine combined at the Junior Olympics last year.
Krill: "Who were the Epicureans?" Dexter: "Hippies who went to college?" Krill: "Very good, Dexter.")
Adults rolled their eyes at his sometimes inappropriate ebullience, but they were well aware of the distance he had come.
Dexter got in some competition experience at the Badass Series on Berthoud Pass, but what he was really pointing toward was the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte in April. For the first time, the Extremes had added a junior division, and Dex was excited to compete on home turf.
The U.S. Extremes were born the same year as the academy, 1992, when then marketing director Bob Gillen seized on a way to mend a sport he saw as "out of balance." Skiing's heroes were the off-piste risk-takers mythologized in films by Greg Stump and others. And yet the ski industry, Gillen felt, had become obsessed with "trying to produce the perfect liability release."
Crested Butte had the radical terrain, and its extreme contest was an immediate success. It helped launch the careers of Shane McConkey, Seth Morrison, Dave Swanick, Kristen Ulmer, Kim Reichhelm and Sickles-Matlock. The names of contest runs have become steep-skiing lore: Headwall, Staircase, Spellbound/Phoenix, Body Bag, Bermuda Triangle. Every year the notion of "skiable terrain" has to be redefined.
Last year's 10th annual was both a celebration of extreme's coming of age and a wake for Gillen, who died in the fall of pancreatic cancer. Competition began with skiercross, that combination of roller derby and downhill racing in which four skiers battle each other to the finish through banked turns and whoop-de-dos, like washboard on a very bad country road. There were four juniors entered, two from California and one from Utah, and Dexter won. "I got thhe hole shot!" he crowed, meaning that he jumped out to the lead in the very first turn. "I think there was some carnage." And indeed there was. His closest pursuer went down in the S-curves and slid the whole thing like a waterslide.
Next day was qualifying for the freeskiing competition. This is Dexter's favorite kind of skiing. "I like it because it's all over the mountain," he says. "It's less predictable than racing; it changes." Or, in the words of Barb Peters, a Crested Butte local who has competed in all 10 Extremes, "It's how you look at the mountain, how you create something of your own with your run. It's choreography at its finest."
The judges score each run for line selection, control, fluidity, technique and aggressiveness. Dexter eases into Angle Gully, a diagonal slash of snow and rock that bisects the Headwall. His competition credential dangles from a chain off his hip. He's tentative at first, checking, hopping the ubiquitous rocks. Down in the moguls at the bottom, he throws in some exuberant wiggles and finishes with a spread eagle/crotch grab ala his hero, McConkey.
All four juniors move on to the next round along with 60 men and 24 women. They ski Staircase, a fiercely steep and sparsely covered series of drop-offs that require spectators at the bottom to either lie back in the snow or risk a craned neck. Seth Morrison, he of the parakeet-blue hair, throws a "Misty" flip off a huge boulder in the center of the chute. Dex airs off the side of the same rock but gets docked for the time it took him to side-step to his launch.
Coach Jill Sickles-Matlock congratulates him for "making turns in between the hucks, versus just goatin' around up there." Mom gushes, "Dexter, so awesome!"
The juniors are scored the same as everybody else, and Dexter's point total is not enough to advance, but that doesn't seem to bother him. He's created something of his own. Peach-fuzz cheeks flushed with excitement, he kisses his mom and bolts off with new friends in search of a soda.
CBA's headmaster, David Rothman, believes Dexter is coming around "in part at least because of the freeride program. He was a troubled kid. But he respects other people more now because he himself is respected as an athlete."
Somewhere, Bob Gillen¿who believed in young skiers pushing the envelope, believed they might just save a troubled ski industry¿is looking down and smiling.