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Four of a Kind

Adventure
posted: 07/23/2002

What happens when four very different ski stars get together for a week of filming in one of the world's most acclaimed big-mountain resorts?

The cameras are ready. The sky is clear. Glen Plake clicks into his skis. Directly below him, maybe 150 feet away, is the lip of a monster kicker the boys built yesterday afternoon. No one has jumped it yet. But it looks really good. And this little corner of Verbier is extremely photogenic. In the distance are sharp-edged peaks. All around are huge snow-covered boulders. It's going to be a nice sequence.

Plake -- skiing for the first time ever on twin-tipped fat skis -- is ready to go first. The younger guys don't argue.

"Three. Two. One. Comin' atcha." He pushes hard out of the start zone, gets a good head of steam, and leaps off the lip into a huge floating spread-eagled back flip. The amplitude is impressive. Maybe too impressive. His skis have come all the way around and are headed for another rotation when he finally hits the snow. On his back. Hard. But he's up on his feet instantly and skis to a stop just below cinematographer Tom Day.

"Nice jump," says Day.

"I didn't land it, man," replies Plake. And then his trademark cackle. "Shit -- these little skis sure rotate fast. I shoulda brought my 213's."

Seth Morrison is next. He, too, launches into a back flip. A loopy, big-assed flip that will carry him another 10 or 15 feet past Plake's bomb hole. But he's way too high when he comes out of it -- not surprising: At the peak of his jump, he was probably 25 feet off the deck -- and he hits the ground hard. Really hard. Knocks the breath right out of him. But somehow he manages to keep his skis face down and he sticks his landing.

"Yeah," yells Plake. "That's the way to do it."

Third man down is Shane Szocs. He takes off fakie and does a slow-motion grab 180 like it was the most casual thing to do on your first run. And then looks down and realizes he's still very high off the ground. He's almost in free fall when he hits the snow. But he, too, sticks it.

"Alright," yells Plake. "Betcha didn't think ya'd get that high."

"Yeah, way too much speed."

And the three skiers climb up for more.

The cameras keep rolling. Plake, Morrison, and Szocs, together with steep-skiing stud Doug Coombs, are shooting a segment for Warren Miller's new flick. It's a profile on the K2 factory team. And to put it frankly, that's just about the only thing the four have in common.

That, and their love for skiing, of course. Which is why it's so interesting to hang out with them for a few days. Together, they embody the 21st century skiing experience. Separately, they represent radically different skiing archetypes. Plake is the outspoken fundamentalist, the guy who can't stomach all the newbies on the hill looking for an easy ride to mountain mastery. Morrison, on the other hand, is the nihilist poet of the group -- his every run a vertical dance with danger. The easygoing Doug Coombs has all the charisma of the guy next door, right up till the moment when you see him flash an impossible-looking line on some remote mountainside. And finally, Shane Szocs is the ultimate Alpine diplomat: very savvy, very talented, but very aware of the ephemeral nature of "cool."

Each of them takes three or four more jumps each -- enough to get the inrun and takeoff speeds dialed -- before Plake starts getting restless. "Hey, Z," he calls to K2 marketing manager Eric Zerrenner. "You ever done a back flip?"

"Not on snow," says Zerrenner.

"Then the time has come," Plake laughs. "This is where you are going to get your first back-flip experience." Zerrenner really has no say in this anymore. Plake has decided that Eric is going to perform a back flip today. End of discussion.

Plake grabs Eric. Starts walking him up the inrun, talking encouragement the whole way. "You can do this, Eric. I know you can do it. You just have to be strong and sure."

It's fascinatinto watch. Like a high-mountain hypnotism act. Despite his doubts, Zerrenner lets himself be walked all the way up to the start zone, steps into his skis, straps his helmet on, and takes a long look down the inrun. Plake has slid down to the lip of the jump. "You can do it, Eric," he croons up to his pupil. "I know you can..."

And he does. Zerrenner soars off the jump, executes the back flip perfectly, lands upright on both skis. Then, perhaps shocked by the ease of it, he goes tumbling over the handlebars into the snow. He comes up laughing and whooping.

Plake is laughing, too. And yelling and talking all at the same time. "See. I told ya. Nothin' to it. It was perfect. Next time, man, you might actually stick it."

Arguably the most recognizable skier in the world, Glen Plake has an enthusiasm for the sport that knows no bounds. He's a one-man cheerleading outfit. And he's given more of himself to skiing than just about any other ski star. But he's not afraid to tell it how he sees it, either.

"They keep telling me that long skis, face shots, landing on your feet, and being able to ski moguls is all old school stuff," he snorts. "What's with that, man? Old school, new school, that's bull. It's all hotdogging to me. It's all skiing."

When it comes to defining the modern ski experience, Plake is a traditionalist. Heretical activities like snowboarding have no place in his world. "I hate it. I mean, what am I supposed to do when guys like big-wave surfers Laird Hamilton and Jerry Lopez show up at my mountain with their boards? How would they handle it if I showed up at their break with my boogie board?"

Skiers get their fair share of scorn, too. "This fat-ski, short-ski stuff is crazy. It's a fad. Skiing is about paying your dues. Learning how to master your gear. It's not about grabbing a pair of fatties and slip-slapping around the mountain." He laughs. With just a tiny edge of mania. "You know the skiers I'm talking about -- the American helmet heads. They ride up the lift and go: 'Where's the steepest place to ski?'"

What pisses him off even more is the lack of respect found among some of the new, young stars. "I'm kinda like the bridge between the old school and the new," he says. "Know what I mean? For years I busted my butt so skiers who weren't competitors could make a living from skiing. And I think I gave some stuff back to the sport.

"Now what do we have? A bunch of sponsored skiers acting like spoiled brats. They give nothing back. They certainly don't sell skis -- or skiing. But they still want to be paid like big stars. It makes me sick!"

It's early in the morning. Cold. Especially here, exposed to the February wind swirling in from the north. Seth Morrison tries to find a little protection behind a rocky knoll. He squats on his heels, hugs his knees, and waits while Tom Day and his crew set up their cameras off in the distance on the facing butte.

Day's voice crackles over the radio. "We're all set, Seth. You wanna go over with me exactly where you plan to ski?"

And Morrison goes over it with him. "Right off the top cornice, make one quick test turn to see if the snow holds, then right down the gully and off the little rock at the bottom. Didja copy?"

"All clear," responds Day. "Looks like there could be some iffy snow in there. You okay with that?"

Morrison doesn't answer. He just waves and starts getting ready. It's nine o'clock in the morning. He hasn't made one turn yet today. In fact, a little more than an hour ago, he was still passed out, fully dressed, on the living room couch back at the condo after another hard night on the town. Yet, in the next few seconds, he's planning to drop into this desperate little test piece of a north-facing slope that might or might not slide. Without a warmup. Without an inspection, even. And just to get a few seconds of film footage?

"That's why I get paid the big bucks," he says wryly. He calls into the radio: "You guys ready?" "Affirmative." He starts his countdown: "Three. Two. One. Dropping." And he pushes off.

By the time he hits the lip of the cornice, he's fully focused. Fully honed in on the task at hand. A hop into the fall line and the game is on. One turn. Two turns. Three. He swoops from arc to arc in complete control.

"A cakewalk," somebody says.

But he's spoken too soon. Just as Morrison comes gliding off a big rock badge before the final pitch, the snow above him begins to ripple. Then it cracks. Then the whole thing -- a fracture at least 50 feet across -- starts to move down the hill. Fast.

There's nowhere to go. Morrison is right in the middle of it. He straightens his line, but he's still going to have to turn into the moving snow. He hits the sluff going 40, maybe 45 miles an hour. For just a moment it looks like he's going to make it. Then he goes down. Disappears. One second. Two.

A tense voice calls out: "Keep an eye on him. Everyone. Don't lose sight of him."

Suddenly Morrison's back up and skiing again. He gets ahead of the roiling snow, carves a deep gouge out of some wind-packed crud in the transition zone, and slides to safety just below Tom Day's camera placement. The slide rolls harmlessly by.

"Nice job," says Day. "That was sweet. Well done, Seth." Everyone is relieved. Whistles and hoots come rolling out from the other crew members.

"It's all part of the game," Morrison tells me later that day. "That's why I train so hard in the off-season. That's why I kick my ass to get fit and strong. You have to be an extremely well-conditioned athlete to pull off stunts like that."

He laughs, but there's not much humor in it. "You're gonna fall, man. It's part of the sport." Another pause. "But then sometimes it's just too much. Like this morning -- I just don't get paid enough to do that kind of shit."

Still, Morrison wouldn't trade his life for anything. "I love skiing. It doesn't matter how long I'm in the mountains, I want more of it. It's like a ritual for me. Get up in the morning, put on your boots, strap on your transceiver, and get ready for the ski day. One run, a dozen. It doesn't really matter. It's all good."

Even among superstar skiers, Morrison is something of an anomaly. There's an edge to his personality that scares people sometimes. And he doesn't suffer fools. For him skiing is an escape, a release from the grind of being sociable. A very private man, he's almost like a caged animal when he's around other people. Intense, tightly wound, sharp of tongue. Set him loose on a mountainside, however, and a whole other being emerges. Graceful, elegant, totally at peace with himself. "I just feel at home in the mountains. It's who I am, plain and simple," he says.

"I let the grind get me down the last couple of years," he admits. "You know -- during the winter -- working -- you don't seem to get a lot of time to ski for yourself. But this year, I was super stoked to go out and try new things. So I got on it early. Had a lot of good days in the terrain park. A lot of great days in the mountains. And it's made a huge difference in my attitude. I feel fresh. Skiing is fun again."

Click the related link below for Part 2 of Four of a Kind.ative." He starts his countdown: "Three. Two. One. Dropping." And he pushes off.

By the time he hits the lip of the cornice, he's fully focused. Fully honed in on the task at hand. A hop into the fall line and the game is on. One turn. Two turns. Three. He swoops from arc to arc in complete control.

"A cakewalk," somebody says.

But he's spoken too soon. Just as Morrison comes gliding off a big rock badge before the final pitch, the snow above him begins to ripple. Then it cracks. Then the whole thing -- a fracture at least 50 feet across -- starts to move down the hill. Fast.

There's nowhere to go. Morrison is right in the middle of it. He straightens his line, but he's still going to have to turn into the moving snow. He hits the sluff going 40, maybe 45 miles an hour. For just a moment it looks like he's going to make it. Then he goes down. Disappears. One second. Two.

A tense voice calls out: "Keep an eye on him. Everyone. Don't lose sight of him."

Suddenly Morrison's back up and skiing again. He gets ahead of the roiling snow, carves a deep gouge out of some wind-packed crud in the transition zone, and slides to safety just below Tom Day's camera placement. The slide rolls harmlessly by.

"Nice job," says Day. "That was sweet. Well done, Seth." Everyone is relieved. Whistles and hoots come rolling out from the other crew members.

"It's all part of the game," Morrison tells me later that day. "That's why I train so hard in the off-season. That's why I kick my ass to get fit and strong. You have to be an extremely well-conditioned athlete to pull off stunts like that."

He laughs, but there's not much humor in it. "You're gonna fall, man. It's part of the sport." Another pause. "But then sometimes it's just too much. Like this morning -- I just don't get paid enough to do that kind of shit."

Still, Morrison wouldn't trade his life for anything. "I love skiing. It doesn't matter how long I'm in the mountains, I want more of it. It's like a ritual for me. Get up in the morning, put on your boots, strap on your transceiver, and get ready for the ski day. One run, a dozen. It doesn't really matter. It's all good."

Even among superstar skiers, Morrison is something of an anomaly. There's an edge to his personality that scares people sometimes. And he doesn't suffer fools. For him skiing is an escape, a release from the grind of being sociable. A very private man, he's almost like a caged animal when he's around other people. Intense, tightly wound, sharp of tongue. Set him loose on a mountainside, however, and a whole other being emerges. Graceful, elegant, totally at peace with himself. "I just feel at home in the mountains. It's who I am, plain and simple," he says.

"I let the grind get me down the last couple of years," he admits. "You know -- during the winter -- working -- you don't seem to get a lot of time to ski for yourself. But this year, I was super stoked to go out and try new things. So I got on it early. Had a lot of good days in the terrain park. A lot of great days in the mountains. And it's made a huge difference in my attitude. I feel fresh. Skiing is fun again."

Click the related link below for Part 2 of Four of a Kind.

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