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Almost Famous

Features
posted: 10/08/2002

Seth morrison is cutting carrots for the salad. we're in the kitchen of the Tsaina Lodge, just outside Valdez, Alaska, surrounded by several ski-industry types and a handful of lower-48 expats who come and go, camping in the muddy parking lot. Seth wears a Grim Reaper hooded sweatshirt, camo cargo pants, pac boots, and sunglasses. He is half of the talent for what will likely be a four-minute segment in this year's Warren Miller movie, Storm. The talent makes salad because this is a ski film and there are no makeup trailers or caterers. It's cut carrots or go hungry.

Morrison, 28, is an enigma in the world of skiing. His freeskiing persona, built on huge stunts on big-mountain lines, is that of an irreverent punk kid from Vail with a rap sheet and a pierced eyebrow. And he's done little to fight the image. But as the star of at least three other movies coming out this fall-two from Matchstick Productions (one called ) and a documentary of extreme athletes by Hollywood director Tamra Davis called Keep your Eyes Open-Morrison is on the verge of going household. But the Seth Morrison about to be exposed to the general populace, perhaps disappointingly, may no longer be punk at all, but rather a hard-working, astute athlete with a bright future and a game plan.

His fans have been watching him since he started filming with Matchstick 10 years ago, and they've grown to expect that a Seth segment will be the highlight of the film-"rewind to Morrison" is a common couch refrain. But while there's no questioning his skill, there have been moments along the way when his intelligence and attitude have been scrutinized. There is the Jackson Hole legend, when Seth, in the winter of 1995-96, got tanked, stole one car and totaled three all in the same night. "I didn't really fit in there," he says. "It was a cowboy-hippie scene. I'm more of a punk-rock kinda person."

There are the photos of Seth flipping the bird at the crowd after yet another bridesmaid's finish in the Crested Butte Extremes. There is Seth in the movies with the pink, blue, and green Heat Miser hair. There is Seth the vagrant, moving from one ski town to the next. There is Seth the victim, lashing out at being injured so often.

"Are you a punk?" I ask him.

"Used to be."

As a teenager, Seth routinely ducked out of Vail's Battle Mountain High School and hit the slopes. "When I was a senior in high school, I'd train in my regular skiing clothes and be way behind people that I'd crush in races. But I didn't care. I'd rather ditch out and go ski." Olympic downhiller Chad Fleischer remembers those days in Vail when Seth used to check out early from race training. But now, he says, Seth works harder and risks more than other freeskiers, which is why he's become an icon in the sport. "These guys opened the doors for the young kids," Fleischer says. "Guys like Seth and (Shane) McConkey. They created the sport and legitimized it. If you're a freeskier now, you're considered an athlete. You used to be considered ski-racing fallout."

Back then, Seth funded his skiing on credit cards and road-construction gigs until he could convince enough sponsors to believe in him. "Olin was my first sponsor," he says. "They gave me two skis, one for the right foot, one for the left." Seth's latest signature ski, the K2 Seth Pistol, just out of the box, is the one every 17-year-old in the park will want to ride this winter. The paint job is pink and green and yellow, with a cartoon Sid Vicious reaching toward the shovel. In Sid's hand is a pistol. Near the tip is a bullet. On the slug, Destroy. "They let me have a lot of input," he says. "It's nice to see it go from e-mails to the physical product." Seth is now one of the highest-paid athletes in a sport that pays squat. The difference between professional freeskiing and professional bull riding is that the bull riders get paid more. And they don't t carrots.

Today is a b-roll day. Two of the best skiers in the world-Seth and Doug Coombs-are sound asleep, wrapped in cheap sleeping bags on bunks in the belly of the Tempest, a 56-foot research boat out of Valdez. They're sleeping off a bender from a night at the Pipeline Club, where Seth, introvert that he is, sang a rousing karaoke rendition of "I Did it My Way," Sid Vicious style. The Tempest diesels at 12 knots past Bligh Reef, made infamous 13 years ago when it administered a core shot to the Exxon Valdez, spilling a sea of crude into Prince William Sound. The Tempest slows and navigates around icebergs the size of tram cars, calved from Columbia Glacier. The athletes awake. It's time to surf.

Bald eagles soaring overhead. Dall porpoises racing the boat. Doug Coombs frolicking in sea-lion fashion on an iceberg-a game as dangerous as skiing Alaska steeps considering that the whole enormous enchilada could, with the weight of a single freeskier, perform its own version of a dinner roll. The saltwater temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit. What would be really nice would be to get some A-roll-say, AK-surfing footy of a shirtless Seth Morrison hanging 10 through icebergs behind the Tempest. Cameraman Bill Heath is ready to film.

Heath to Seth: "You gonna do it?"

Seth to Heath: "No f-in' way."

Two weeks before our arrival, an A-Star full of European clients landed upside down across the road from the base when the hydraulic system failed at considerable altitude. Everyone walked away. "Flying's half of what we do," Seth says. "You try not to think about that part." This rings particularly true for Seth, who, in August 1997, was in a helicopter crash in Chile that killed the pilot and Telluride photographer T.R. Youngstrom. Seth and Matchstick Productions filmmaker Steve Winter survived. "I didn't really remember much," Seth says. "Except that it was our last chance for footage." The Aluette hit severe turbulence at 17,000 feet and, Seth says, "just fell out of the sky." He spent several days in an Argentine hospital with head injuries, a broken collarbone, ribs, and sternum, and a bruised heart. He remembers lying there, stewing, "It just made me super angry. The people involved and myself-I kept getting hurt all the time."

The word "angry" comes up a lot in conversations about Seth. So does "intense." He's a bit of both, though it seems the anger is mellowing. For Seth, the wake for T.R. in Telluride was surreal.

"Everyone was saying, 'I can't believe you're here and he's not.' But it was something I had no control over. It could have been someone else sitting there instead of T.R.; it could have been me or Steve. I'm super fortunate to be here."

"People have this image of Seth that he's mean or conceited," says friend Wendy Fisher, "because he's this quiet guy who sits in the corner. But he's actually a really nice guy, and he's 100 percent there for his fans."

It's those early images of Seth that people often remember, but what they don't see is Seth the dedicated athlete who trains like a madman to stay in shape. They don't see Seth the coach, sharing his passion for skiing with the kids who idolize him.

"He's made some mistakes, but who hasn't?" says Tim Petrick, vice president and general manager for K2. "He's totally dependable. He made a goal, focused on it, and is achieving it. As a parent of a 10- and a 12-year-old, I wouldn't mind having my kids turn out like him."

Hopefully, the Petrick family has health insurance. Seth's marquee maneuver is a Rodeo 7-a back flip, off-axis, with a 720-degree rotation thrown in. It's never been done off a big cliff with a clean landing. Seth talks about laterally moving his superhero chin just a few inches to initiate the spin cycle. At the apex of flight, his torso will be parallel with the snow and at a 90-degree relationship with his legs. The spin continues while Seth returns his tray to an upright position for landing. Nothing to worry about then...except the tanker-load of sluff raining down and the possibility of getting carried over another cliff.

In better conditions in Canada, he attempted three 50-foot Rodeo 7's, but didn't stick one. "I might have done a Rodeo 9 (another half rotation)," he says of the attempt that broke his nose, his thumb, and jacked his teeth. "It was the biggest cliff I'd gone off in four years."

Riding over a cliffs is nothing new for Seth. "I triggered a slide in Haines that pretty much snapped my nerves for the rest of the season," he says. "There's constant pressure to step it up. People are constantly saying, 'What are you gonna do today?' But there are days you can throw down and days you can't."

This willingness to say no is another sign of Seth's growing-dare I say it?-maturity. He will decline to ski something that others may take a shot at even if they don't have the ability. "That's because they're still trying to prove a point," says Petrick. "Seth isn't. That doesn't mean he's chicken shit. He's just smarter. He's a guy you can invest in."

This point is made the following day, on a peak that's a short chopper ride from the Tsaina Lodge. Coombs, the best billygoater on earth, links perfect turns down the wide part of a funnel to the top of the steepest section of a run called Hairy Tongue. Coombs stops. "I don't like it," he says, then performs an amazing bandy-legged kick turn, edges twice, then skis the runout over frozen chicken heads. "Not recommended," he says over the radio. Seth is relieved not to ski it. "I'd never ski some of that shit Doug skied today," he says later.

As for Coombs, he says Seth takes it as it comes, including conditions. "He's not a whiner. He's very accepting, which isn't common with these so-called ski heroes. They want it perfect so they can look perfect."

Our last morning, half the posse is packed and headed to Anchorage, hoping the clouds near Cordova mean one last day of freshies. The midmorning sun is high in the sky and the pilot is taking the weather tarp off the A-Star. Seth sits side by side on the pool table with Mitchell, a 4-year-old Alaska native, playing the latest version of Tony Hawk's skateboard game on the lodge's big-screen TV. Seth doesn't look angry, and he doesn't look punk. It doesn't matter to Mitchell that Seth Morrison is the best big-mountain trick skier in the world. What matters right now is that under the throbbing bass of Disturbed on the stereo, the big guy is showing him the game.

ight position for landing. Nothing to worry about then...except the tanker-load of sluff raining down and the possibility of getting carried over another cliff.

In better conditions in Canada, he attempted three 50-foot Rodeo 7's, but didn't stick one. "I might have done a Rodeo 9 (another half rotation)," he says of the attempt that broke his nose, his thumb, and jacked his teeth. "It was the biggest cliff I'd gone off in four years."

Riding over a cliffs is nothing new for Seth. "I triggered a slide in Haines that pretty much snapped my nerves for the rest of the season," he says. "There's constant pressure to step it up. People are constantly saying, 'What are you gonna do today?' But there are days you can throw down and days you can't."

This willingness to say no is another sign of Seth's growing-dare I say it?-maturity. He will decline to ski something that others may take a shot at even if they don't have the ability. "That's because they're still trying to prove a point," says Petrick. "Seth isn't. That doesn't mean he's chicken shit. He's just smarter. He's a guy you can invest in."

This point is made the following day, on a peak that's a short chopper ride from the Tsaina Lodge. Coombs, the best billygoater on earth, links perfect turns down the wide part of a funnel to the top of the steepest section of a run called Hairy Tongue. Coombs stops. "I don't like it," he says, then performs an amazing bandy-legged kick turn, edges twice, then skis the runout over frozen chicken heads. "Not recommended," he says over the radio. Seth is relieved not to ski it. "I'd never ski some of that shit Doug skied today," he says later.

As for Coombs, he says Seth takes it as it comes, including conditions. "He's not a whiner. He's very accepting, which isn't common with these so-called ski heroes. They want it perfect so they can look perfect."

Our last morning, half the posse is packed and headed to Anchorage, hoping the clouds near Cordova mean one last day of freshies. The midmorning sun is high in the sky and the pilot is taking the weather tarp off the A-Star. Seth sits side by side on the pool table with Mitchell, a 4-year-old Alaska native, playing the latest version of Tony Hawk's skateboard game on the lodge's big-screen TV. Seth doesn't look angry, and he doesn't look punk. It doesn't matter to Mitchell that Seth Morrison is the best big-mountain trick skier in the world. What matters right now is that under the throbbing bass of Disturbed on the stereo, the big guy is showing him the game.

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