It starts when I pick up my phone in Aspen. The voice on the other end is trembling, barely audible.
"I'm in Glenwood," it says. "I just got pulled over coming out of Glenwood Canyon doing, like, 90. You've got to come get me. My license is suspended and the cop won't let me leave."
It's Jeff, the photographer.
Jeff's on his way to pick me up for a month-long road-trip. Our objective: to infiltrate the competitive freeskiing scene. We'll be driving to events in California, Utah, Vermont, and Colorado, worming our way into course areas and VIP lunches, and, in my case, signing up to compete in a big-mountain event. Overall, we expect to drive some 6,000 miles of highway. I haven't even left my house yet, and Jeff's already gotten busted in the brand-new turbo wagon that Saab has graciously loaned us for the month. Great.
Nonetheless, three hours later we're speeding west toward California. My emotions are a giddy brew of excitement, anticipation¿and fear: Jeff has regained his confidence, and now he's testing the Saab's top speed on his suspended license. The speedometer tickles 145, and his face explodes into a wild laugh. I press a button, and hot air blows through the seats and up our asses. Jeff's socks fill the cockpit with a pungent aroma.
Outside, the Saab is adorned with the logos of our other patrons: The North Face, Smith, Life-Link. A bit shameless on our part, I suppose, but then we are covering the freeskiing circuit, which wouldn't exist without sponsorship. Fraught with significance for Jeff and me, the symbols are meaningless to the endless desert sky.
After sleeping out in the open, we beam a cell-phone call from Ely, Nevada, to our first destination: Mammoth, California, host to the inaugural Winter Gravity Games. Mammoth reports 10 feet of new snow over the last six days. We punch it and arrive later that evening, landing in the middle of an activity that is as intrinsic to the freeskiing world as skiing itself: The Party.
Now, ever since I was 13, my primary cultural outlet has been skiing. I don't own a television, and I've always read ski magazines like most people read Newsweek. So when I show up at the opening-night party and the list of attendees reads like a who's who of the ski world, I suddenly feel like a teenage girl backstage at a Ricky Martin concert. I'm surrounded by ex-World Cup racers, filmmakers, freeskiing stars, and a cadre of industry execs and event organizers all busily stoking the new school fire. These folks are reinventing skiing. Powerful stuff.
As I lurk around the party scene, I run into Rob Boyd, one of Canada's best-known downhillers and as easygoing a guy as I've ever met. Boyd is retired from the World Cup tour and competes on the professional downhill and skiercross circuits. I ask him how skiercross compares with the über competitiveness of the World Cup. He chuckles, points to the beer in his hand, and says, "Well, on World Cup I wouldn't be hanging out drinking this the night before a race."
Later that night, mere hours before the start of the skiercross qualifiers, a skier smashes the front end of a rental car while "testing its snowbank elasticity." Maybe these guys need to take skiercross a little more seriously. Over the next few days, snowboarder Shaun Palmer steals the skiercross title from a field of skiers that includes Boyd and a handful of ex-U.S. Ski Teamers like Jeremy Nobis and the Crist brothers. After the coup d'état, some of the beaten skiers tell me that Palmer employs ski technicians and has a paid skiercross coach. Whatever. The dude's impressive.
What really impresses me, though, is the Gravity Games' big-mountain event. It's held under blue skies on a rocky face called Star Chute, and it's slated to be the first big-mountain competition ever to receive major network television coverage. Everyone is ecstatic, though some competitors are skeptical of the wind-loaded, crusty snow.
The snow doesn't faze Guerlaain Chicherit, a steely-eyed young Frenchman and the 1999 winner of the World Extremes. This kid is incredible. After seeing Chicherit ski in New Zealand, a pro skier friend of mine said, "Okay, I quit." And did.
I watch Chicherit descend a line on Star Chute that looks not only unskiable, but lethal. He drops a 20-foot ledge down to a pocket of snow about the size of a Persian rug, then launches another cliff onto a similarly exposed piece of white. Unflinching, he moves out onto the biggest drop on the face. He sails off the 50-footer and lands perfectly on the course's lower slope. Carrying serious speed, he hits another rock, goes airborne, and rotates a huge, laid-out front flip. His run turns out to be one of the highest scoring in big-mountain history, a 48.2 out of 50. Stellar runs usually score in the low 40's.
At the finish line, people are laughing, hooting, and clapping uncontrollably. Chicherit skis into the finish with a bloody, swollen lip, the result of his knee slamming into his face on one of the landings. A mouthful of stitches later, he has to decline the second run and drop out of the competition. The $1,000 prize goes to Squaw Valley's Shane McConkey.
That full-moon-lit night, I sit beneath the judges' stand at the big-air contest (where the winner's purse is $13,000). Judges Kent Kreitler and Seth Morrison are having a powwow on the judging criteria. "Let's judge conservatively at first," says Kreitler, "and go from there." They designate a certain amount of points for a tight spin and so much for a loose one. The rules are being laid out as we go along.
In the qualifying round, ski-industry-bad-boy-turned-cologne-supplier Brad Holmes is the first man off the kicker. His red-colored figure sails and spins in a crouched ball. He partially eclipses the full moon and, for an instant, is a beautiful sight. He then over-rotates and crashes sideways into the landing. His body lies limp and lifeless. As I look at Holmes, I feel a terrifying moment of déjà vu.
Only one year earlier, I was riding a lift at Vail during the U.S. Freeskiing Open when, below me, former U.S. Ski Team member Jim Moran aired his way off a jump. Spinning a difficult trick, his body began to tilt slowly off axis, and he landed hard on his side and into a coma.
Holmes is luckier. He gets carted off in a toboggan and ends up with only a minor concussion. By the end of the qualifying night, four more guys get lugged off in sleds.
The qualifying rounds are disaster prone mainly because several relatively unknown athletes are taking big risks, trying to edge their way into the cutthroat race for sponsorship dollars. In the finals, the level of jumping and landing gets considerably better. Another Frenchie, Candide Thovex, steals the show. Throwing tricks that I would need a slow-motion VCR to understand, he consistently lands with precise, feline grace. The 17-year-old beats out big-air superstars like Jonny Moseley and J.P. Auclair to win the event.
The aerial heroics carry over to the next day's quarterpipe event. The weather is brutal for us spectators¿it's snowing six inches an hour¿but the format is enticing: Skiers and snowboarders are pitted against one another; the best jump takes the loot. This time it's the French-Canadian skier Philippe "Philou" Poirier who awes the crowd. While most of his jibbing peers sport small, compact bodies and low centers of gravity, Philou, at over six feet, looks like a big, smiling frat guy. He hurls his massive frame out of the pipe and into a stretched-out, upside-down spin. Against a backdrop of swirling snow, his body twists around itself in mysterious ways before reentering the pipe¿a corkscrew 900. The jump is good enough to wrest the title from some of the best snowboarders in the world.