The Word of the Bird

Deep thoughts and deep pow with skiing's spirit animal

This story originally published in the October 2014 issue of POWDER (43.2). PHOTO: Cedric Bernardini

If skiing were to choose a spiritual creature, it’d do well to tap Michael Shaffer. Known simply as Bird, the renegade 42-year-old lives life off the ground, migrating between his native Washington and adopted home of Chamonix, while taking flight as part of the growing speed-riding contingent that combines paragliding with skiing. Raised in a North Cascades hippy commune, Shaffer combines an eccentric wisdom with his love for the mountains, keeping the ski dream alive any way he can, even if that means slinging hemp-based clothing at big mountain comps from the back of his truck with backcountry savant Ptor Spricenieks. So when Cham-based ski-makers Black Crows needed someone to fly their freak flag, they sought out their friend Bird. Though the company boasts the likes of French mogul legend Julien Regnier, its high-flying, blue-haired sage embodies the Crow lifestyle, spreading weird across the globe, one Birdcall at a time.

Where did this ski journey start?
I started skiing with two Lithuanian friends who lived on the same hippy Christian commune as me and were really good skiers. They introduced me to everyone. Suddenly I’m following the Mahre brothers around when I’m little, trying to learn how to ski.

When did you become Bird?
It started as a joke. Everyone had these labels at the pro-this and pro-that. So I made my own duct-tape labels that said, ‘Bird.’ It made other people smile and they were looking at me like, “Is this guy a freak?”

But the bird symbolizes the feeling I get from the mountain, the energy that I want to share with people. Plus, I’m starting to look more birdlike too. I think the beak is really starting to come out.

I once saw you in a Jackson hotel wearing a silk robe flocked by a group of gypsies. What’s the deal with the robe?
For me, it’s comfy and makes me feel like a warrior. The robe was a gift from the guy that fought Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. He lives in Tokyo and he took me out and got me this robe.

Do you ski in it?
Sometimes. I bring it to the little Leavenworth Ski Hill or closing day at Grands Montets. It makes you feel like you have wings out there.

This Black Crow brand and family, can you describe that a bit? It’s not your normal ski crew.
We have like-minded freaky people that share the same passion. Not following a framework has allowed the company to be more open, and people are starting to notice. It all feels a bit punk rock.

Was Chamonix where you got into speed riding?
Cham was my first introduction to flying. I’ve wanted to fly my whole life. Who doesn’t dream of it, especially when skiing powder is so like flying? Surfing people are territorial. On the north face of the Aiguille [du Midi], they’re territorial. Flying, there isn’t any of that. You meet some far-out flying people, weirdos from all realms.

What is it like to fly?
It means letting go of parameters I put on myself, being open to taking off, and being confident because once I’m in the air, I’m on my own. Once you take off, it’s up to you to get yourself grounded and in a safe place again.

That’s deep.
Yeah, it ended up being a pretty good metaphor, didn’t it?

What’s the idea behind your mantra, full wingspan?
It’s the idea that sometimes we’re flapping in the wind, but then when it’s flowing and doesn’t take much effort—it’s just full wingspan. It doesn’t happen everyday, but full wingspan is us reaching our potential and not being stressed, bent over backward. Find something that gives you passion, and soar with it.

Do you feel that way skiing?
Oh yeah, if it wasn’t for skiing I don’t know if I would be alive today. I would be trying illicit stuff to find that feeling, but the ski community and its high energy zones give me so much. Skiing is my path. That’s full wingspan. Kaw!