Staying Power: The Ian McIntosh Profile

Why we can't stop watching big mountain skier Ian McIntosh

This story originally appeared in the September 2015 (44.1) issue of POWDER. To purchase that issue, go here. To see how Ian McIntosh does at the 16th annual Powder Awards, where he is has three nominations, follow us on Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram (#PowderAwards).

Marquee photo shot by Adam Clark

Throttle down. The snowmobile speedometer bounces past 60 mph. Plastic runners violently slap against a minefield of frozen ruts. The snow that became rain that became ice has turned this docile riverside trail into a sea of hazards, but Ian McIntosh stands comfortably at the helm of his gas-powered ship, his fiery beard doing little to hide the uninhibited grin as the world blurs past.

Mac admits that he felt he had something to prove the first time he and Cattabriga-Alosa met in Alaska, a similar feeling to the one he had when he pushed from the structures of alpine racing in interior BC to PY Leblanc, Ryan Oakden, and Leif Zapf-Gilje’s unmanicured Whistler playground 14 years ago. He survived his first winter in a friend’s closet for $200 a month, subsisting on toast and BC powder in between night shifts as a ski tech at Summit Ski. Eventually, he took up carpentry to pay the bills but filmed with a local production crew, Pimpin’ Frogz Productions, while skiing his way onto the big mountain competition circuit.

Even with several local segments and international competitive success (he finished second and third overall on the Freeskiing World Tour in 2004 and 2005), he dreamed of bigger parts and budgets, and began shopping his own tapes around the industry. In 2006, the persistence paid off when his footage landed on Josh Nielsen’s desk. The former TGR director of production was so impressed that he invited the towering Canadian and fellow Whistlerite Dana Flahr to Jackson Hole for a video “tryout.” Mac didn’t disappoint (neither, by the way, did Flahr, who won Breakthrough Performance at the Powder Awards that year for his role in TGR’s The Tangerine Dream).

“It was pretty clear right out of the gate that Mac was not fucking around,” says TGR co-founder Todd Jones. “It was all of that Jackson south boundary stuff, those big technical lines, and he just went out and annihilated those things.”

"McIn-talk" know when it's time to walk the walk. PHOTO: Blake Jorgenson
“McIn-talk” know when it’s time to walk the walk. PHOTO: Blake Jorgenson

Since then, Mac has been a fixture on the TGR roster, forming a power duo with Cattabriga-Alosa and appearing in all but one of the crew’s annual movies since his 2006 debut in Anomaly, for which he was recognized with his own Breakthrough Performance award. He combines aggressive fall-line skiing with a high-speed air presence, launching 50-foot cliffs and punching down 60-degree terrain with Jeremy Nobis-like power.

“It’s in his mentality and how he attacks the mountain,” says Nobis, a former Olympic downhiller and pioneer of aggressive big mountain skiing. “I think it’s bred into us redheads, we have some other DNA going on in us.”

“It was a huge beat down,” Mac admits. “I was driven by ego and it almost killed me.”

But shelf life is limited for big mountain line chasers. Most of Mac’s contemporaries are in their early 20s. Mac, on the other hand, is well into the middle of his third decade. While he’ll argue that physically and mentally he is stronger than ever, the reality is that age is a force that can be slowed, but never stopped. In a sport that sledgehammers leg muscles down vertigo-inducing steeps book-ended with certain-death drops, those years of wear become exponentially magnified.
Still, it’s not easy to walk away from something you’ve pursued your entire life. Therein lives the dangerous paradox, one that continues to take some of the sport’s brightest talents with abrupt finality.

“I’m not going to say it couldn’t happen to me, but I’m not going to hide in my house or do a normal job because there is a risk of death,” says Mac. “[Skiing big lines] is what keeps me up at night, I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Despite his convictions, he claims he isn’t oblivious to the implications of his decisions, especially upon those closest to him.

It’s part of the reason he didn’t tell his parents, both longtime backcountry skiers from Invermere, BC, that he had run away to New Zealand at age 19 to compete in the 2001 World Heli Challenge (an event that inspired his move to pursue skiing full time).

“It scares the crap out of me,” says Ann McIntosh, Ian’s mom and a former ski instructor at interior BC’s Panorama Resort. “My favorite time of the year is when I get a phone call from him saying, ‘Hey guys, I’m back from Alaska.’ Until I get that call, I think about it daily.”

In April 2011, she received a different kind of call.

Within days of separating from his wife of three years, McIntosh had flown up to AK to film for One for the Road. Too stressed to sleep, groggy on Ambien, and admittedly overconfident on his line choice, he tumbled through a scoured spine zone, snapping his femur. He returned to Canada broken, and to an empty house.

Mac battled to hold onto his world. Laid up with a titanium rod in his femur, he worried that he’d lose his sponsors, and worse yet, never return to the mountains he’d worked so hard to top.

“It was a huge beat down,” he admits. “I was driven by ego and it almost killed me.”

After the surgery came physical therapy and four-hour gym days, regaining strength as he pieced together the confidence that had shattered with his leg.

What do you call a ginger with big cajones? Fireball. PHOTO: Adam Clark
What do you call a ginger with big cajones? Fireball.
PHOTO: Adam Clark

Then came the setbacks. A quadriceps seizure after a snowmobile fall in February 2012 caused him to miss the entire next season. A broken ankle just four days into the following year threatened to wash another down the drain.

While the accidents exhausted Mac’s resolve, when he finally did return to skis halfway through the 2013 season, the change was noticeable.

“I think he learned a lot from that experience,” explains Cattabriga-Alosa, who was part of Mac’s medical evacuation that day outside of Juneau. “He is even more sensitive about the time to go for it and the time to hold back and be patient.”

In a sport where second chances are marred by wheelchairs and lifelong hospital bills, Mac had not only gotten another shot, he had made it back to Alaska, proving to TGR what he had clung to all along—that he would do “whatever it takes to preserve this lifestyle.”

McIntosh, ever thoughtful and cerebral, knows he toes a fine line. PHOTO: Adam Clark
McIntosh, ever thoughtful and cerebral, knows he toes a fine line. PHOTO: Adam Clark

That includes logging more phone time than most consider possible for a man that spends half his year in the mountains. When I roll up to his Pemberton pad, a three-bedroom house he built, Mac is in full sports-agent mode. He thrives on the business side of skiing, a place where his outspokenness (the nickname “McIn-talk” is well substantiated) pays in heli trips, stunt roles in movies like Inception, and sponsorships.

Alongside finishing up guiding requirements to someday lead trips of his own, a leadership role is what he looks forward to in the future.

“He’s taught me to balance getting work done, and doing it efficiently,” says Johnny Collinson, who, along with sister Angel, is a key athlete in the future of the TGR brand. “I’m young and hungry, and he reminds me that if I want to be doing this for a while I should choose a mellower line and work my way up…without breaking myself off.”

Mac embraces the role of teacher but is the first to point out that adrenaline is not a beast that can go unfed. Whatever the future holds, he continues to structure life around the visceral now, something that not even six months of big mountain skiing can satiate on its own.

That’s part of the reason that Mac took up BASE jumping three years ago, logging well over 100 jumps since—both free and with the aid of his favorite tool, a wingsuit—in locations stretching from the fjords of Norway to Yosemite’s Half Dome. It doesn’t ease the concerns of his loved ones—the sport has claimed an idol of Mac’s, Shane McConkey, as well as 200 other jumpers since 1981—but it stokes his fire and has earned Mac lucrative commercial work—including ads with Nissan and Alfa Romeo.

Mac leans out over an 800-foot face holding onto an anchored rope that looks like it barely holds a tire swing, much less a full-grown man. Then he leaps into oblivion.

With low tide in full swing around Whistler, we take advantage of the weather window for a rare midwinter jump outside of Squamish. As we climb behind the granite monolith with his jumping gear in tow, Mac explains that BASE jumping and its thin margin for error is another passion that leaves little room for ego.

He considers himself an intermediate in the jumping world, and it’s strange to watch the giant personality take a backseat to his local jump partners, rattling off the questions of an eager pupil as he slips into reinforced ballistic nylon.

“There’s a lot of fear, you’re definitely scared,” says Mac. “But I feed off of that stuff.”

Mac leans out over an 800-foot face holding onto an anchored rope that looks like it barely holds a tire swing, much less a full-grown man. Then he leaps into oblivion. Twenty-five seconds later, his parachute deploys down valley. I exhale deeply, smiling but shaking more than a little bit. There’s not a ski line in sight, but Mac has brought back that all-too-familiar feeling.

What that feeling is exactly is hard to pinpoint, a dynamic wave of exhilaration and terror, something akin to hurling yourself off a bridge and having the bungee initiate just in time. It’s a sick thrill, but it’s one we come back for again and again.

“Mac’s [lifestyle] is fast and loud—it’s intoxicating,” says Cattabriga-Alosa. “He is just a true badass, and I think people are enamored and drawn to that.”