So you wanna be a pro freeskier? Great idea. But it's gonna hurt.
Several years ago, ski filmmaker Greg Stump stood putting his camera gear away at the base of a steep, cliff-peppered face at Squaw Valley. Thirty locals, having heard about Stump's presence, suddenly swarmed the cliffs and flew off in every direction. One kid didn't scope the landing and sprung off a 50-foot drop onto a flat rock, instantly breaking his back. In what must've been excruciating pain, he stood up immediately and skied away, hoping Greg was impressed by the jump and might ask him to ski in the film.
Scot Schmidt told me that story, but I've heard a thousand like it. I've even lived the tale myself -- jumping cliffs for a movie camera with torn sternum muscles or shrugging off splitting my heel into two pieces as "no big deal."
With freeskiing so popular, and extreme and big air events popping up all over the world, fame and sponsorship seem only a back flip away. So, good skiers with drive are going for it. You can read about our heroics in any number of magazines. But there is a darker, equally real side of extremism.
In any given year, around 50 percent of my pro-skier peers are seriously injured. Few other sports come with such guaranteed carnage. And it's getting worse: Ski injuries used to be torn ACLs or broken thumbs. Now with 70-mile per hour straight runs and misty flips to live up to, it's broken backs, necks, and pelvises. I won't mention names because it can affect careers, but two of the most renowned big-mountain skiers in the country tore multiple ligaments and cartilage in their knees last winter. Even after a year in rehab, they may never ski as strongly. They could be crippled with arthritis by age 40, or they might get lucky and have a doctor chainsaw off a section of leg between the femur and shin; rip out the bloody wad of flesh, bone, and ligaments; throw away the whole mess; and screw in a plastic-and-metal replacement. Another top athlete, now 31, has experienced over 15 surgeries on his knees, shoulders, and ankles. You'd think after all those painful physical-therapy sessions, with oozing stitches and a concentration-camp leg shaking under a trainer's care, he'd reconsider his career choice. Yet he keeps chasing ski fame like an alcoholic chasing whiskey.
A famous skier wrote me: "I've broken my back, ankles, ribs, pelvis (twice), blown both knees, torn my MCLs four times, torn my meniscus, had several concussions, and been bruised up and stuck on the couch too many times to remember." And everyone thinks he's practically injury-free -- probably because he bounces back with a great attitude. But also because we hide our injuries. A blown knee becomes "I tweaked my knee," until summer, when the athlete can have it fixed secretly. A broken back with initial paralysis turns into "I can't ski for six weeks." I've always marveled at how hard my friends and I will go off for a little cash, a briefly caressed ego, or the chance to star in a soda commercial. Three years ago, I judged an extreme competition at Snowbird and watched a guy jump a 150-foot cliff. Until then, a scary line would cause the crowd to cheer or moan. But with this stunt, which looked like a horrifying thespian suicide, no one uttered a word. After cratering into a deep, flat landing, the guy stood up and pushed off unharmed. The crowd detonated. He won that run but eventually placed eighth overall. Within two weeks, though, every hardcore skier in the country spoke his name in awe.
I remember a time when I, too, would be in awe of such a feat. Hell, I've jumped at least 70 feet myself (twice that off a man-made kicker). Those memories are such an exclamation mark in my short life -- I feel tingly just mentioning them. But I see now that jumping a 150-foot cliff and not getting injured (other than the long-term cost to one's spine) is 20 percent skill; the rest is pure luck.
Still, the message seems clear: Do soomething crazy, and you'll be rewarded. At least for two weeks, that is. That guy was mostly forgotten the next winter. I hope he has found other ways to feel good about himself besides flamboyant "look at me!" stunts, because his approach to skiing was on a lethal path.
On average one pro skier dies every other year. After such accidents, in order to keep skiing the way we ski, we blame them for screwing up and decide that we, personally, would never make those kinds of blunders, that we are immune to bad luck. Meanwhile I live through two or three near-death experiences a year.
I'm sharing these feelings because I hope some kids think twice about a career in professional danger sports -- or at least know where to draw the line so they live long enough to enjoy the memories. Also, while my injuries haven't been too bad for a 13-years-so-far career (two blown knees, a broken heel, torn shoulder, sternum muscles, and wrecked thumb), I still find myself asking: Would I do it over?
Would I go back in time and accept the short-term glory, the pride of a job well-done, the chance to learn about the world in one sexy, dazzling rush? In a few years, I'll likely face arthritis and the truth anyway -- that no one important is watching, or cares. I'm not saving the world through sports. Life is not a movie, and I am not the star. But, along with the fear and the injuries came those moments when I wasa star. I will always have those exclamation-mark memories.
Was it worth it?
You bet it was.