Musings from the Pontiff of Powder: Vol. 7

The Upside-Down Town
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By: The Pontiff of Powder

There is a photograph on the wall of my office that triggers memories of a day unlike any other that I have ever experienced. It is a picture of me flying upside down and backwards, trailing a shower of snow behind me as if the earth didn’t want to let me go and so held me by a 10-foot white tether. On my feet are silly-long 210cm Olin Mark II’s, the same skis I had raced on in college the year before. The shot catches me near the apex of my first attempt at a spread gainer. Before take-off I had visualized myself looking like a diver through the air, with balletic form and military precision. Regrettably, what the photo depicts is a man who looks like he has just been punched in the solar plexus by Ali, is perhaps already unconscious, ungracefully bent at the waist and tilting away from the direction of travel. The fact that I landed on my feet was but another demonstration that miracles can happen.

It was a day for miracles. The spark that lit this particular flame was the arrival in town of the Olympia Beer Demo Team, a concoction of the ski film-maker Terry Sprague.

The Oly team was comprised of Chris Curtis, Mike King and Scott Magrino. The idea behind the event, if you can call loose mayhem an event, was to film the boys building a kicker or two and teaching the citizenry of Breckenridge, Colorado, how to go upside down. It wasn’t a contest so there were no waivers to sign, no qualifications to meet. If you could fog a goggle, you could go to flight school.

The night before, a gaggle of derelicts gathered at the Colorado House and boasted over shots of well tequila who would do what on the morrow. All of us were going upside down, that was for sure. After all, we were jumpers! We could do mule kicks, iron crosses, spread tip-drops, back-scratchers, choppers, double daffys, shoulder rolls and twisters, but we’d never been inverted, not intentionally. That would all change the next day.

I am probably unfit for public office because I didn’t even call the owners of the Electric Pizza Company to tell them I was blowing off the day shift to go upside down with my people. I knew Magrino because we had started the season together teaching at Copper Mountain. He was on his way to becoming a big deal, a full-page shot of him appearing in a feature article on hot-dog skiing in Sports Illustrated. I was on my way to total anonymity, but still, I felt we had this bond.

I wasn’t the only one who must have felt a kindred bond of some sort, because damn near everyone in town showed up to partake in the aerial festivities. The kickers had been built on a steep pitch on a trail called Tiger, near the top of Peak 8. Both sides of the slope were lined with townsfolk, those that skied daily and those who skied rarely, ready for an exhibition. They would not be disappointed.

First the pros strutted their stuff. Big, floating, effortless back flips were followed by Mike King sticking a suicide front then Curtis and Magrino nailing the crowd-pleasing, side-by-side, hand-holding “gay gainer.” They threw down about four rounds of tricks, all looking as easy as walking. Then it was time for amateur hour.

Crazy John Mueller would later become the first person to ski over 130 mph, a record that didn’t outlive the day it was set but an accomplishment of worthy renown nonetheless. CJ wasn’t the skier that spring that he would become later. Yet he was determined and that counts for a lot. He sought instruction from the pros, who told him to toss his head back and keep looking. The rotation imparted by the kicker and natural forces would take care of the rest. So CJ poled furiously down the start, tossed his poles aside half way down the runway (as we all did back then when inversion was our intention), hit the lip of the kicker, laid back, stared skyward and maintained that posture, parallel and supine, patiently waiting for the magic, until he reconnected with a vicious thud with mother earth some fifty feet further downhill.

You’d think watching a local who skied over 100 days a year get savagely thumped on his maiden voyage would deter others, but it had quite the opposite effect. Everyone lined up to take a mad dash down the improvised inrun and hurl themselves towards heaven, feet first. Some early successes were recorded. A brief pall descended on the proceedings when a patrolman showed up, but he took one look at the kicker, dropped his first aid pack, skated, hit it and lofted a pretty, unhurried gainer. As safety demonstrations go, this one was first rate.

At some point I goaded myself into taking the position at the top of the inrun. I turned to Curtis. “What do I do?” I pleaded for last-minute counsel. “Stay loose as a goose!” was the Zen-quality instruction bestowed in my moment of need. Now demonstrably panicked, I turned to Magrino. “Is that it?” I plaintively inquired. “Don’t stop looking!” was all Scott added, as if to say more would further tax my already overloaded circuits. I looked down the inrun at the kicker, which looked monolithic, as if NASA had built it to sling chimps into space. It was time. I poled as if my redemption depended on it, tossed my poles away, my arms to the side, leaned back and let the jump project my feet upward. I was barely aware of being in the air, a jumble of sky and snow flashing by, the ground quickly and comfortingly in sight and me on my feet, gliding downhill, pumping the air and whooping like I’d won the lottery.

I went for it six more times that day and never once did I make it look pretty. It wasn’t that I was indifferent to aesthetics, I just wasn’t coordinated. But I was going upside down and landing on my feet and that felt pretty amazing. And every time I climbed back up the hill, I got to witness another aerial spectacle, another demonstration of why man was not meant to fly.

One of my roommates, blessed with more pluck than skill, over-anticipated a tad. When he reached the kicker he threw himself backwards with such violence that he didn’t clear the lip of the jump with his head, giving it a thump like hitting a melon with a Louisville Slugger. This also had the effect of stopping his rotation cold, so he flew through the air all loose and limp on an alignment that never looked promising. He didn’t jump much after that.

The most outrageous stunts of the day came from the unlikeliest of sources. Benny was a career dishwasher and dipsomaniac, who I suspect first came to town to work the mines. He certainly looked the part, with a bristling gray beard, straggly hair and overalls in lieu of stretch pants. Benny was gonna flip today, by gum. Only Benny had a small equipment problem. His skis were old demos, no crime, but they came with Besser plate bindings, which should have been a crime. If you leaned back in a Besser binding, that was the binding’s signal to surrender, ejecting the skier out the rear hatch, so to speak.

So when Benny sallied forth down the inrun, plaid-clad arms flailing, eyes squinting intently ahead, he had no chance. His timing was flawless, tipping backwards just when cresting the lip, and in that moment sending skier and skis on opposite trajectories. Benny would continue to flip without betraying a hint of lost confidence in the outcome. His skis were still side by side, sailing unchaperoned over the landing hill. Benny landed with the timing and extension of an Olympic gymnast, his boots coming right under him, reaching for the landing and stopping stone cold, pitching Benny beard-first into the hill. Being a man of faith, Benny did this exercise not once, not twice, but thrice, every time sticking the landing, every time suddenly, brutally dismayed to find his skis in absentia.

Later that spring, in separate freestyle contests in Colorado, two talented young skiers broke their backs and became paralyzed after attempting to land a double-back flip. One of them was Scotty Magrino. Their injuries didn’t put an end to inverted aerials immediately, but they foreshadowed the end of an era. It would take the advent of snowboarding, the half-pipe and the terrain park to bring inverted aerials back. Now athletes make insane origami in the sky, folding and twisting with impossible grace and agility. The heavens are open for business again and the world’s youth is taking full advantage of their chance to fly.

Perhaps somewhere this month a small community will gather alongside a kicker, perhaps in-bounds, perhaps in the backcountry, perhaps in a back yard, and each will inspire the others to take a turn at trying to shed the shackles of gravity. It may not always be pretty, but something beautiful occurs when we strive to reach as high as we can, and in that fleeting ether leave a mark that is ours alone.

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