Drew Tabke isn’t your typical world champion. He’s not your typical person, either.
Drew Tabke wasn’t supposed to be here. The Freeride World Tour’s (FWT) final event, Xtreme Verbier, that took place March 29 in Switzerland’s southwestern state of Valais, was a showdown of the best big mountain skiers on the planet. Six-story airs, close-out chutes, and 45- to 50-degree slopes comprised Verbier’s Bec des Rosses—an 1,800-foot north face that is one of the most respected, and feared, venues on the circuit. On a normal year, say last year when he won the overall FWT title, Tabke skied with confidence and focus. But the 30-year-old—one of the most versatile and thoughtful skiers in the world—was having a difficult 2013-14 competition campaign.
In four tour stops before the Xtreme finals, Tabke’s average finish was 16th. He needed a wild card invitation to compete in Verbier since he didn’t qualify for one of the 12 spots. His challenging season was due in large part to touchy snowpacks around the world, including avalanches at three straight venues—one of which cancelled the comp at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. As a member of the eight-person Pro Freeriders Board, and a contracted freelance writer for the FWT, and Powder.com FWT correspondent, Tabke took on an impromptu spokesperson role for athletes, which often put him in the position of mediating differences between competitors and tour organizers, each representing distinct American and European opinions. That, plus a constant tendency to analyze himself and his varying roles, proved too much distraction for a big mountain athlete skiing on the razor-thin line between success and disaster.
The Utah native sat on the metal floor of Verbier’s Mont Fort tram as a FWT announcer spoke Swiss French over a loudspeaker. A pair of skinny 98mm-waisted touring skis with tech speed bindings leaned against the Plexiglass. Beyond the window, 90 teenagers competed in the Junior Freeride World Tour finals on Petit Bec, looker’s left of Bec des Rosses. It was a weather day for the Xtreme competition, so earlier that morning Tabke texted me to meet at the tram station near the top of Les 4 Vallées on top of Verbier. At 8:30 a.m., we were alone in the 50-person tram car in a foggy whiteout, listening to the announcer and looking to go for a tour beyond the ski area.
“It’s been too much baggage,” Tabke said of the 2014 season. “I’ve been skiing with too much on my mind.”
The tram doors closed at the upper station. Tabke and I were the only skiers in the box. The candor of his statement seemed fitting as the empty box zipped up the mountain into the white. Contributing to his journeyman status as a 10-year-plus big mountain competitor is an analytical intelligence that contrasts with most of his peers. It’s not often you find such a cerebral, and well-read, skier, who is willing and able to stomp a 50-foot back flip, then paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Pynchon. Meanwhile, he’ll cite Ed Abbey when talking about McMansions being developed in lieu of preserving nature in his native Park City, engendering a social skepticism.
On skis and off, Tabke lives a binary existence, with an undercurrent of philosophical thoughtfulness that, at times, belies a life-of-the-party spirit. The former contributed to he and his novice skier girlfriend, a professional contemporary ballet dancer, uprooting from Salt Lake City to Seattle to pursue a more cultured lifestyle—one that didn’t just revolve around skiing. And the latter can be seen by looking at his informal ski background that had him skiing bumps and competing in the now-defunct U.S. Freeksiing Open before becoming a freeride star, all while working at ski shops the last 13 years (yes, you may have had boot work done by a world champion). Pundits say he’s one of the best skiers in the world and hardly anyone has heard of him. Friends say he’s always thinking two steps ahead of others, and himself.
We disembark from the tram and shuffle our way to the railing, where pictures and descriptions of the surrounding Alps, including the Matterhorn, give context to the vista. Except that there is no vista. We can’t see more than 50 feet in front of us through the fog.
Tabke is eager to talk about other things, though—skiing things, route-finding, touring gear—as he leads the way down a set of steel steps to the snow. We click in and start side-slipping on refrozen hardpack, 50 feet outside the ski-area boundary. It’s been a lean year in Verbier, and several rocks pepper the 45-degree route threading the rockbound face. My jacket is halfway unzipped; the temperature is a balmy 40 degrees. Despite the icy and soupy conditions, Tabke links a few effortless turns, whipping his skis back and forth in succession like a violin bow. His form is compact, fall-line facing—a style that has become his trademark.
He continues down, stops, glances up at me, then continues over the edge and out of sight. This is what he does. Little explanation, no warning. He leads the way and others follow. So I push off, test the snow with my edges, make a quick turn, and do just that.
Tabke’s inimitable and sincere verve can be traced to his South Dakota-born parents. Mike and Susan Tabke grew up in farm-growing, church-going families. They discovered skiing at Terry Peak, where Mike ski patrolled, in South Dakota’s Black Hills. But after the two started dating in high school, they yearned to see and ski more beyond the Midwest. For one winter, they ski bummed in Crested Butte. Eventually they landed in Sandy, Utah, at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon, where Tabke was born. His mom got a special-education teaching job and his dad worked for hot-dogger Bobbie Burns building The Ski.
When Tabke was 2, at the prodding of a friend, the Tabkes moved to Hawaii’s Big Island and “hippied out for a bit,” according to Tabke, while his mom called it “a homesteader lifestyle.” During Tabke’s formative years on the now-defunct Freeskiing World Tour, announcers nicknamed him “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” since Tabke, tongue-in-cheek as he’s wont to do, listed the snowy peak of the Hawaiian Islands, Mauna Loa, as his home ski area. Missing the mountains, the Tabkes returned to Utah—Midway, Utah, to be exact, about 20 minutes south of Park City—when Tabke was 7, where he cut his ski teeth on the snowcone slopes of the Wasatch.
When Tabke grew up in Park City in the early to mid-’90s, the local school district issued $100 season passes to students and gave them early release on Fridays to go ski at ParkWest, which then became Wolf Mountain and is now the Canyons. He was a bump skier, not a racer, eschewing convention and the steep cost of joining the race team. On weekends, his parents and younger sister drove to Little Cottonwood Canyon and skied Alta. “I remember feeling that buzz for the first time in the Germania lift line,” Tabke says.
“I didn’t like it when people said he didn’t have coaches because when Drew went to Snowbird and Alta, those mountains were his coach,” says his dad, Mike, a finish carpenter in the Heber Valley. “Skiing powder, skiing storm days, that’s where Drew learned what he’s capable of.”
At 16, after saving up money from working at ski shops, Tabke attended Shane Szocs’ High North ski camp at Whistler, which was a breeding ground for talented freestylers in the early 2000s. After gleaning inspiration from J.P. Auclair, learning tricks and adding air awareness to his quick-turn bump style, he caught the eye of a few locals back in Utah.
“I heard about this kid throwing 9s in the pipe,” says Will Sumner, a friend of Tabke’s who grew up in Park City. “I remember I hit this booter and landed before the cat track, feeling good. And then Tabke’s next and he throws a giant back flip all styled out, head back by his heels, and lands on the other side of the cat road.”
Tabke helped break the mold of big mountain competition skiers being cast as hard-charging rippers with little style. In 2000, he watched Shane McConkey hit a 75-foot tabletop and quarterpipe in the Red Bull Huckfest on Snowbird’s Big Emma run. Soon enough, he entered the burgeoning U.S. Freeskiing Open at Vail in 2001 and 2002, competing in halfpipe. (He dropped in switch to forward, then a straight air, and a big flair, then an alley-oop rodeo, then a 5, and an alley-oop, finishing with a 7.) Much of the course of his life has been more accidental than intentional, and after attending the University of Utah while working at Alta’s Deep Powder House ski shop, he says he’s not sure whether or not he had goals to make it “big or whatever.” “When I did the first freeskiing event at Snowbird, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a Freeskiing World Tour athlete,” he says. “It was, ‘Oh, I work at Alta, some buddies are doing the comp next door at Snowbird, and it sounds fun.’”
In an image-driven, highly competitive era in skiing—where pro skiers have agents and boast about the number of Instagram followers they have and other brand marketing strategies—Tabke’s independence is refreshing. His modus operandi, while on skis, aligns more with skiers like Seth Morrison and Scot Schmidt who simply skied their way into fame and success—for no other reason than that was what they loved to do. “It took me six years to get a bachelor’s degree,” says Tabke, who double majored in international speech and Spanish. “I wasn’t charging through to move forward to the next thing. I was just skiing.”
Tabke’s working-class roots were on display last spring in his adopted hometown of Seattle, sitting in his 1988 teal Ford Escort station wagon, sipping Americanos and waiting to board a ferry. It was June and I’d flown from Southern California to talk with him about skiing, life, and what it is like to exist halfway between fame and obscurity.
“I left Utah because it is so simple, like a country club, there’s no thought required,” says Tabke, who moved to Seattle six years ago. “I wanted to have to think about stuff, which is why Washington was cool because it was difficult.” Despite the North Cascades close proximity to metropolitan Seattle, the surrounding backcountry does not offer the same convenient access as the Wasatch. In his free time, Tabke devours North Cascades mountaineering guidebooks. He reveres eccentric characters in the area, like Fred Beckey and the Skoog brothers, that have made the Northwest ski scene, Tabke asserts, “a fringe culture.” His free time is scarce, though, as Tabke rarely stops moving. After summiting and skiing Mount Rainier two times in three days during a high-pressure cycle a week ago, he now wanted to surf off Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
“I think I obsess over surfing more than skiing,” he says, his narrow face looking down at his weatherworn hands rolling a cigarette. He pulled out his iPhone and checked various ski blogs and ski sites (he regularly posts trip reports), then The Onion homepage. “I refresh it 50 times a day,” he said, helping explain his self-deprecating wit. A few hours prior, near his apartment on Seattle’s Beacon Hill, with countless guidebooks lining the bookshelf, we ate oysters with his girlfriend, Mia Monteaboro, at a neighborhood restaurant. The two met in college through a friend. A Santa Barbara native of Japanese-American descent who had never skied before or knew about the Wasatch Mountains, Monteaboro attended the University of Utah for its ballet program.
“She was a total ‘bun-head,’ to borrow a dancer’s term,” Tabke said. Monteaboro works for a performance art dance company in Seattle and teaches ballet to girls when not in production. The couple, as Will Sumner contends, represent two of the city’s best attractions—ski mountaineering and dance. “I like that Drew’s not just this skier guy,” says Monteaboro. “He thinks differently than most. And he’s always restless. You think when he gets home from traveling the world he’d want to slow down. But he’s always going skiing somewhere or making midweek missions to surf on the peninsula.”
When he and Monteaboro moved to Seattle, Tabke worked at a bagel bakery. “I couldn’t find a job, so I baked and delivered bagels from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. four days a week. I thought it would make me a better ski mountaineer, preparing me for alpine starts.” When he’s not spending three months—August, September, and October—in Chile working for an event company and ski guiding wealthy clients (he speaks fluent Spanish), he works at evo, the ski shop in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood where he fits boots, from November to Christmas. Ski shops have subsidized his skiing, since North American companies don’t fully support big mountain competitors. Tabke hasn’t been bashful about that inequity, in stories for various ski media, using an outspoken confidence that doesn’t read as whiny. After he won the 2013 world title, The North Face and Smith did not renegotiate his nominal contracts. Compared to his FWT European peers, who earn a year’s salary from ski sponsors, few world champions lose support in the prime of their careers.
Tabke is not one to promote himself, despite prodding from established pros, like Ian McIntosh, who once told him to “grow a backbone” and speak up for himself. “Freeriders are analytical,” he said, as we drove off the ferry after crossing through the Puget Sound. “So much goes into route finding. You have to think. Otherwise you’ll break your leg.”
He laughs, half-sarcastic, half-serious, reaching to roll the window down. After naming his first Praxis pro model ski the ProTest after the Chicano protestors of the 1960s (“My dad’s favorite book is the Milagro Beanfield War”), his fifth and latest pro model ski is the G.P.O.—Giant Pacific Octopus. “I’m obsessed with octopus,” he says. “They’re hugely intelligent. People don’t understand them.”
Tabke’s hard work paid off last season, when Eddie Bauer and Giro signed him to handsome contracts. I asked if he felt vindication from the deal, a victory for big mountain competitors and himself. “I’m diametrically opposed to who I am as a walking advertisement,” he said, laughing again at the contradiction. He dovetails into a diatribe about putting stickers on every single piece of equipment. But he pokes fun at the hypocrisy he preaches when he pretty much lives it. It’s clear he accepts that conflicted fate but isn’t completely comfortable with it.
Tall evergreens line the two-lane highway, like a tunnel to open space as we head toward the coast. “I’m a contrarian and like to start an argument to even out the conversation,” he said with a grin. We passed a tranquil alpine lake, like the ones you see in commercials. Then he swerved onto a pullout on the side of the road and asked, “Wanna have a beer?”
Tabke seemed out of place. He was surrounded by three cameras, a foot of fresh powder, and the silver birch trees of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. “OK…I’m gonna go now,” he said. He made two turns, absorbed the transition, and launched off a felled branch, artfully tapping a mushroom of snow on a stump 12 feet off the snow, then stomped the landing.
This was Tabke’s first time to Japan, and instead of navigating 50-degree avalanche-prone faces, he was lining up dreamy Japan powder on low-angle slopes on a snowy February morning. “It’s so great to travel and not compete,” he says. Fellow FWT competitor and longtime rival, Sweden’s Reine Barkered, was there, too. Giro skiers Ingrid Backstrom, Riley Leboe, and Izzy Lynch accompanied the duo as well, searching for creative airs off the backside of Asahidake ski area.
While Tabke waited for the standard shoot setup, he hiked and toured like a rabbit, surveying the area. “I have no patience,” he said. “I guess, though, it’s cool to slow down. I’m realizing that freeride comps prepare you for any type of skiing.”
“Drew’s much better at this than me,” said Barkered, one of the more aggressive skiers on the tour. “He’s got a lot more natural style, especially in the air.” Eventually, Tabke got the green light, charged the fall line in his neutral mogul stance, somehow blending power and precision with grace. His long, sinewy arms switched places at his sides, fluid and blithe. It was the type of skiing that makes you want to drop everything and go ski yourself.
In the lodge for lunch, he sipped an espresso with his legs crossed (ski boots on), talking with Backstrom about living in Washington. Earlier, I asked the female star why she vouched for Tabke to be on the Giro team. “It’s Drew,” she said. “He’s just such a great person, and skier, obviously.”
Then an email came in saying that a friend of Tabke’s, who he worked with at Alta’s Deep Powder House, died in an avalanche in Switzerland earlier that day. He looked stunned, then emotional, then perplexed how this could happen. Again. Two years ago, he lost his mentor, close friend, and head judge of the Freeskiing World Tour, Jim Jack, in an avalanche. Before that, he watched two peers die while competing on tour. He asked me, “What do you do? Do you keep skiing when friends keep dying from skiing?” I listened as he hung his head, looking for an answer. (As this story was going to press, Tabke lost another close friend, Liz Daley, to an avalanche in South America. The two were part of an Eddie Bauer-funded expedition in Argentina.)
We headed back out, and Tabke and photographer Adam Clark lined up a shot. The snow started to fall again, as it tends to do in 15-minute increments on Hokkaido. Visibility switched from good to questionable. Clark gave Tabke the call that he was ready. The maneuver didn’t seem dangerous—make a few turns and air off the pillow to the left. Tabke pushed off, made a turn, the snow deeper than he thought, taking him off line. When he went to air the pillow, he didn’t see a tree on the right and missed it by a few inches. It happened in just a flash of a few seconds, but Tabke made it out. “What the fuck!” he yelled after stopping to collect himself. It was the first time I’d seen him truly rattled. He skied to the lodge, visibly shaken, and disappeared inside.
Back in Verbier, a month after the Hokkaido trip, the sound of icy turns reverberated off the rock walls. I gathered my bearings in the whiteout and trusted my edges, as I attempted to catch up to the world champ. The voice of the junior tour announcer on Baby Bec could not be heard. I crested a rollover and saw Tabke making ski mountaineering turns—hips facing downhill, arms out front, focused— and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Eventually, I reached him after several teeth-chattering turns. “That was weird,” he said, laughing. “Let’s go up there and see if it’s better on the other side.”
We skied across the face and contoured a bowl in an effort to gain a sub-peak. Tabke kicked off his bindings, strapped his skis to his pack, and started climbing on loose coral-reef-like rock. I followed suit but lagged behind, sweating through my mittens, attempting to find handholds and to trust my Vibram soles. I looked up and noticed Tabke had gained the col and was dancing around like a billy goat, carefree, almost boyish.
When I reached the top, he revealed his teeth, smiling, totally at home, despite the exposure. “Man, I haven’t done this in a while,” he said.
“What? Climb up a sketchy rock face?” I responded, attempting to channel Tabke’s sarcasm.
“Yeah, and get scared for fun and go ski.”
In five days, the weather window for the contest finally cleared. Tabke finished fifth, his best result of the season. But it was here, on top of this summit, where he breathed easy for the first time all season. He wasn’t competing. He wasn’t shooting photos or determining whether or not the terrain was safe to ski for 50 of his peers. It was as if he was back in Park City, airing bumps with friends, or at Alta, skiing knee-deep powder with his parents underneath the Wildcat lift.
After clicking in, he made one strong ski cut, then two tight turns before opening them up in a synchronized motion. He started hooting in childish glee as he glided down the slope that was as smooth as a pool table. Without analyzing or thinking about all the things he could have done or needed to do right then, he was in his element. Today, he was just skiing.
This story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue (43.4) of POWDER.
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