John Kutcher and Sam Hurst backflipping, last run of the day of the PCMR season. PHOTO: Trevor Woods
John Kutcher and Sam Hurst backflipping, last run of the day of the PCMR season. PHOTO: Trevor Woods

The Exposed Truth of Going Upside Down

When a cleanly stomped backflip becomes more than just a sweet aerial maneuver

PHOTO: Trevor Woods

Certainty comes at once: It's easy to know I haven't set the flip right. My feet float up in front of me, visible because my head hasn't led back and over my shoulders as it should. The smooth, sure power and control that imbues the hips when things go well instead collapses into a taught, sinking feeling. My body fights to turn to the side, push itself over on empty air as I crash into the pads of the climbing gym on my upper back and neck.

There's no air in my lungs as I roll over, slowly regaining my breath. I go home with only a sore spot mid-spine, wondering the whole time about how close I came to something worse. My job, my livelihood, and all the fun I want to have depend on a healthy body. Consults with medical friends suggest I just strained it; no need for X-rays. I'm back to my normal routine within a month, except for a worry that nags at me: Am I done going upside down?

Backflips and all the crowd-pleasing they offer need no defense. They are hard enough to be impressive but easy enough to control. There's a singular moment of non-vision that sticks out—a place where I can no longer see forward but still can't look over to spot the landing—that demands all the trust I have in my body and abilities. I've learned to love that moment—to ride and savor confidence in that exposed truth while hanging upside down on skis. I wish I could wrap that up that sensation and gift it to every person I've ever met.

Q: How Do you Get a Ski Bum off Your Doorstep? A: Pay for the Pizza.

Yet it's not just the simple satisfaction of that moment—there is some level of ego bound up in going upside down. Backies remain a high point, as I never picked up a big bag of inverted tricks on skis. To stomp and ski away cleanly…that was validating. But to land one with an audience? That was surrounded by different trappings, tangled up in far more that reaches back to my early school years.

Backflips are hard enough to be impressive but easy enough to control. There's a singular moment of non-vision that sticks out—a place where I can no longer see forward but still can't look over to spot the landing—that demands all the trust I have in my body and abilities.

Skiing was not the first thing where I excelled, but it was the first thing where I felt the recognition from my peers. The elementary yard is a hard place to be a strange, chubby kid, especially one who learns to get attention by being different. Middle school saw it worse. Yet while I spun in the vicious cycle of trying to find acceptance while pretending to be cool enough not to care, it became apparent to the kids I wanted to impress that I could ski. And the one trick I knew that would impress them all? A cleanly stomped backflip.

Knowing that I had something valuable in their eyes changed skiing for me, though I didn't realize it then. A version of proof appeared; a showmanship quality was added on. It was my own acceptance that I sought, but basking in their approval felt so good that I let the hook set deep without knowing what I'd swallowed.

So, years later, I embarked on every skier kid's dream: to become a professional skier. Instead of fighting the tension between skiing because it was fun and indulging the impulse for accolades, I separated myself: There was work skiing, and there was just ripping around with my buddies. Truckers drive for work and drive to see their friends across town—why couldn't I have the same split in my life?

But truckers don't drive places to impress people. I fed on my abilities and how people looked at them. Serving as a marketing asset literally turned the "look at me" impulse into a job, rewarded by money.

What Would You Do to get First Chair?

Middle school was long gone though that basic tenant—to feel good about myself because other people were impressed—was reinforced. Of course, the other shoe eventually dropped. After some successes, I found myself less excited to continually pump out content, to come up with ideas and then turn those into value for brands. Travel saw me far away when there were big snows at home. Cameras created situations where I left my knowledge at the door and narrowly escaped intact. Maybe the biggest sign of the change: I want to be a person, not a brand.

I don't want to look at myself upside down any more; I don't want to look back mid-trick to see who is watching me or counting the likes. Skiing was there all along—I loved skiing, but in dismissing the showman, I think I've found something that doesn't clutch so desperately at the attention it receives. This is a dramatic, important shift, the kind of growing up I'm OK with: In focusing less on myself, I gain the freedom to see what I can call forth in other people.

Coaching and guiding skiing and rock climbing, are, for me, ways to wrap up that energy and satisfaction I get from doing something personally. They are ways to contain it and box it up and hand it to other people to open. Seeing someone else unwrap that gift, try it on, walk away with it—those are the best moments of my working life. I can't deny the satisfaction I get in doing that work, and it carries the weight of every deep powder turn, every early wakeup in a tent, every scary rappel, every close call and, yes, every backflip.

David “Powder” Steele is a skier and writer based in Whitefish, Montana. His column, Graupel, appears every month.