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The Streakers

Fall Line
posted: 03/17/2005

Bleary-eyed from traveling halfway around the world, Jim Brooks hoped for some exciting runs as he arrived at South Africa's Tiffendell ski area last July. But after a 24-hour flight from Sydney via Hong Kong and Johannesburg, he discovered that Tiffendell's main lift was a ropetow several hundred yards long. "Skiing Africa," concedes the 60-year-old California investment banker, "is not something you'd really want to go out of your way for."

But for Brooks, who was midway through a maniacal effort to ski six continents in 12 days, going out of the way was precisely the point. In Japan, Brooks hiked up a muddy slope in driving rain to bag one run, then drove six hours and arrived in Tokyo just in time to catch a flight to Australian slopes. After skiing a mushy glacier in Switzerland, he jumped a plane to Santiago, Chile, so he could make a few turns at Portillo. Sleep-deprived, sore and $3,400 poorer (not counting the 190,000 frequent flier miles he burned through), Brooks flew home on Day 12 and went to bed. "Looking back on it,"he laughs, "I was a bit nuts."

Brooks is part of a growing subculture of skiers who view a relaxing weekend on the slopes as an attraction primarily for the uninspired or uncommitted. For these skiers, a full ski season is just the starting point (see "The Streakers: Streaks and Streakers"). Known as "streakers" because of their unlikely skiing streaks, these are folks who look at skiing as only half the fun: The real rush lies in achieving the improbable.

Take Arnie Wilson. In 1994, the Brit and his French girlfriend, Lucy Dicker, skied 365 straight days on five continents, chasing their own endless winter. They crossed 13 countries, took 35 flights, traveled 115,000 miles and bagged 4 million vertical feet. In his book Ski the World, Wilson put it simply: "We were mad." (A frequent self-assessment from ski streakers.)

Most streakers, though, act locally. Around Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain, Paul Schipper, 81, is called the "Ironman" because he has skied every day the resort has been open since the 1980-81 season. That's 24 seasons without missing a beat, enduring Maine's less than hospitable weather-from freezing sleet to Arctic temperatures. When his son graduated from college, Schipper arranged for Sugarloaf workers to drive a snowcat uphill at midnight so he could take a run by headlights at 12:01 a.m., allowing him to attend commencement later that day and return in time for first chair the following morning. "It's all about knowing that you've done something nobody else can," Schipper says.

Keeping streaks alive is hard work. Skiing soupy slopes in September or hiking to pebbly alpine snowfields in July may strike some as more fun than golf, but it doesn't compare to gliding through deep powder. So why the compulsion to keep going? "People who are goal-oriented will do almost anything to reach that goal, even if it becomes torturous to them," says Karen Cogan, a U.S. Ski Team psychologist and professor at the University of North Texas' Center for Sport Psychology.

"It takes a lot of time and perseverance to keep going," admits programmer Tom Szwedko, 57, of Leadville, Colo., who has skied in the backcountry at least once every month for 25 years, bending vacations, business trips and family commitments to fit the needs of his streak. Charles Eldridge of Seattle plans to bag his 100th straight backcountry month this spring. "When people start out, it's a physical and mental challenge. Then keeping the streak alive becomes an end in itself," says Eldridge, whose website (turns-all-year.com) records the exploits of backcountry streakers.

Every streaker has a story about the day the quest nearly ended, viewing these near-catastrophes as Job-like tests of their alpine faith. Danny Miller's close shave came on Oct. 31, 2003, the 10-year anniversary of his ski-every-month streak.

With 60-mph gale-force winds slamming Miller as he climbed Washington's Mount Rainier in a dangerous whiteout, he decided to turn around and head down. He became lost while trying to ski back, causing him to inadvertently bag the 1,000 feet of vertical he considers his monthly minimum. It was the last time he waited until the end of the month. "Next time, I'll try to ski October 1st, so if this happens again I'll still have 30 more chances."

Every streaker (they are predominantly male) also needs an understanding mate. At first, Lynne Behrendt thought the odd obsession of her husband, Greg Lange, was "cool and funny. Then I was like, 'OK, whatever.'" Now, years later, with two children and her husband approaching 100 straight months of skiing, Behrendt is ready for the streak to stop. Regarding the streakers her husband hangs out with: "It's like a cult or something," she says with a laugh.

Approaching his 60th birthday, Jon Weisberg, public relations consultant from Park City, wanted a challenge and decided he'd ski for 20 straight months-a modest goal in the streaker subculture. Unfortunately, the blistering summer of 2002 melted every Utah snowfield within safe hiking distance. No mountaineer, Weisberg decided against attempting to reach a high-elevation glacier. So, on September 30-only halfway through his streak-Weisberg abandoned the mission. Defeated, he went to dinner with his wife and soaked his sorrow in cocktails. "I was," he says, "schnockered." At 10 p.m., with two hours left in September, a buddy called and told Weisberg to get his skis ready-it was snowing at a local mountain pass up the road. At 11:40 p.m., after a mad drive, they clicked in and schussed a short pitch. Elated, they skied past midnight and nailed October for good measure.

Weisberg contemplated exceeding 20 months, "but in one of those rare philosophical moments, I scratched my head and asked, why in the hell am I doing this?" Now he has a new goal: ski as many days at Deer Valley, Utah, as possible. "Skiing is transformative," he says. "Every time I get on the snow, all other thoughts melt away."

That mind-clearing feeling of singular focus is what drives many skiers, psychologists say, whether they're trying to ski every continent or just trying to get the family to the local hill on Saturday. "For some people, skiing provides an anchor to their personality," says Donald Weatherly, psychology professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "They are in the zone when skiing."

That's why Brooks found himself racing across six continents toting his ski boots. In 2000, the insatiable streaker skied six Rocky Mountain states in six days. He soon followed that by skiing six Utah summits-Deer Valley, The Canyons, Solitude, Brighton, Snowbird and Alta-in six hours. In 2002, he upped the ante by skiing six countries in as many days, racing from Slovenia to Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France. He doubts he can top his most recent six-continent/12-day trek. Then again, there are seven continents. Had he been able to book a flight, Brooks says without pause, "I would have gone to Antarctica as well."

NOVEMBER 2004

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