A Perfect Storm
In February 1996, Jackson locals Hans Johnstone and Mark Newcomb skied the daunting Hossack-MacGowan Couloir, completing the first winter descent of the 13,770-foot-tall Grand Teton. For the first half of the ascent, they used Silvretta approach skis, and then switched to leather climbing boots once they hit rock and ice. Strapped to Johnstone’s pack was a pair of 205cm Volkls for the downhill, heavy plastic alpine ski boots, and all the requisite climbing gear. With ineffectual randonee equipment available at the time, Johnstone and Newcomb believed the only way to ski such a stout and demanding line was with their sturdy alpine equipment.
Since then, skiers have seen a revolution in gear, vastly improving how we access the mountains, as well as how we get down them. And whereas Johnstone and Newcomb relied on firsthand experience to determine conditions, today skiers only need to click-in to a website to gain instant information on weather, snowpack, routes, and photos of what went down yesterday. The Grand now sees about 20 to 30 descents a year. It’s still no small task, and most of those descents occur in spring and early summer, but with new gear enabling light and fast movement, some people literally run up the mountain in their ski boots.
But it’s not just alpine touring gear that has helped skiers achieve a leg up on Mother Nature. In the last 15 years, skis took on wider dimensions for better performance, twin tips for going backward, double-reinforced edges for sliding handrails, lightweight tips and tails for faster spinning, and rocker for planing over—rather than through—snow. Features that were mostly avoided a decade ago—pillow lines and vertical spines, halfpipes with 22-foot-high walls, jumps with 100-foot-wide gaps, parking garages and close outs, the gut of an avalanche path right after a storm—are now tested regularly. Events like Powder’s now-defunct Superpark have evolved into the Red Bull Cold Rush and Linecatcher, where skiers demonstrate freestyle skills in a big-mountain setting. Ski Superpipe, which struggled to gain acceptance in the early years of the Winter X Games until C.R. Johnson and Candide Thovex showed everyone what was possible, in 2003, by throwing massive 900s, will appear in the 2014 Olympics. Anyone who doesn’t have multiple varieties of a 900 in their trick quiver won’t be competing in Sochi.
Throw in the fact that resorts, ski brands, and media—including this magazine—actively promote the cool factor of skiing beyond the ropes, plus the influence of social media—the constant game of over-sharing, self-promotion, and one-upmanship—and it seems that if you’re not out there killing it every day, you risk being left behind. Until the arrival of digital media, big tricks and new lines usually waited in hibernation until they could be released six months later by movies and magazines. But now, the combination of day-to-day chatter online, blogs such as TetonAT, and forums like Newschoolers, the need to put up or shut up turns into a feeding frenzy. The group mentality pushing us forward is no longer our close personal friends but our hundreds of “friends” on Facebook.
In many ways, it’s hard to see skiing’s rapid evolution as anything but positive. Cruising through the backcountry has never been as efficient or pleasurable. Avalanche technology and forecasting has made us safer and more aware than we have ever been. Despite all the high-profile accidents, thousands of skiers go unnoticed for making good decisions to further their skiing careers. Pro skiers can make a decent living by giving their fans a show of artistry and athleticism at a level the world has never known. And sometimes, the next kid is just a craftily composed edit away from being famous.
It all adds up to make the last 10 to 15 years one of the most transformative eras in skiing history. Not since the introduction of metal and fiberglass skis—advancements in the ’50s and ’60s, respectively, that helped boost the likes of Jean Vuarnet, Sylvain Saudan, Wayne Wong, and Bill Briggs—has the sport gone through such a rapid progression. As skiers traveled deeper into the mountains, higher out of the pipe, and farther away from what any normal person could ever dream of doing, it seemed that skiing had truly reached the pinnacle of possibility. But instead of slowing down, it went faster.
“If I look back, in the 1990s, we never used to get out in a heli the first day after a storm,” says Douglas. “We were building a jump somewhere to wait for the snow to settle. It’s not like that anymore. Things are getting chased down minutes or hours after a storm breaks. That’s part of our whole society. Everything has to move faster, has to grow. And it’s a pretty destructive cycle.”
That cycle resulted in a perfect storm brewing across all segments of skiing. The result has been an ever-increasing stream of influential skiers paying with their lives.
Blame it on the gear. Blame it on the Internet and movies and magazines. Blame it on sponsors and competition. Blame it on personal initiative. Blame it on climate change, which has caused erratic weather patterns and snowpack analyses that baffle even the most experienced forecasters. Argue that this list is apples and oranges, because Shane was ski-B.A.S.E. jumping, C.R. was skiing a familiar line inbounds, and Sarah was performing a routine trick. The reality is that no matter the discipline, the level had gotten so high, the commitment so fierce, that any little mistake, stroke of bad luck, or curveball from Mother Nature proved fatal.
As bad as it looks, the list doesn’t even include the dozens of hometown heroes, such as Jackson’s “Everyday” Wray Landon, Squaw’s Allison Kreutzen, Whistler’s Duncan MacKenzie, Stevens Pass’ Johnny Brenan, or 20-year-old Will Schooler, who last year became the first urban skier to die as a result of hitting his head while trying to slide a rail in Nelson, British Columbia. Nor does it reflect all the close calls that occur to every professional skier that continue to walk the line despite knowing full well the consequences.
In the spring of 2011, Ian McIntosh was in such a situation. Known for his aggressive style, McIntosh, who is built like a defensive end, epitomizes modern big-mountain skiing. His chosen discipline is straightlining near-vertical slopes, usually with huge cliff drops with massive consequences. He was in the midst of the best Alaska filming session of his career that spring and had skied several big descents successfully. On his next drop, he misjudged a spine-riddled face pock-marked with rock and ice. Losing control, he took a horrific tumble and broke his femur—all of which was caught on film, including the emergency evacuation. McIntosh says the injury occurred because he cut corners by not scouting the line more thoroughly. He knows it could’ve killed him.
Despite what happened, the Canadian believes that being a professional skier means taking big risks. Not for fame or money, but because of the thrill. He says he would ski that line again, if only after looking at it more closely.
“I’m hoping that as we move forward, people will consider how many loved ones and heroes we’ve lost, and continue to make smarter decisions,” says McIntosh. “But the bottom line is this is the level we’re at. Everyone’s idea of what is acceptable is different, but I think as skiers we all accept some level of risk because we love pushing ourselves and doing what we do. But I think for the most part, people in the sport accept that any day they go out in the mountains, it could be their last.”
This kind of thinking, aside from being maddening to mothers, fathers, spouses, and friends, is not as rare as one might think. Professional skiers know what they are up against. They say the risks they take are carefully calculated, and that the only thing worse than dying is not skiing. They say that skiing gives them their reason for being, and that they’d do it for nothing, with or without the cameras.
Which is how Johnstone has existed for his entire ski-mountaineering career. Soft-spoken and camera shy, Johnstone, a 51-year-old innkeeper and Exum guide, is the only person to have skied every route down the Grand Teton. In May this year, he snagged the devastating Otterbody Couloir with fellow Jackson local Christian Beckwith. His gear that day was exceptionally lightweight compared to his past exploits with Newcomb—specifically, a pair of Scarpa Maestrale AT boots, lightweight Black Diamond skis, and Dynafit tech bindings. Beckwith wrote an account of the descent on his website, called the Outerlocal, where he described being scared shitless while Johnstone skied it like a stone-cold ninja.
Though he appreciates the historical significance of the Otterbody descent, Johnstone says it was not worth dying over. He’d been patiently eying the route for two decades and only attempted it when everything lined up. As the two skiers entered the crux, they used a rope to rappel the dicey sections. Johnstone says he’s seen enough carnage in the mountains already to not take the utmost in safety precautions. When you get to a certain point, he says, it’s not just about you anymore.
“I’ve lost some good friends in ski mountaineering,” he says. “I look back at my more committed ski descents…and we didn’t get the rope out very much because we felt in control and that we didn’t need it. But in this stage in my career, I got it reeled in way more than I did back then. Part of that is being older and having three kids. I really do want to keep doing it, but I’ve seen the aftermath of close friends dying out on the hill. And it’s a disaster. It’s just not acceptable.”
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