Last winter, NBC News broadcasted a nine-minute expose called “The Death Zone,” which detailed the recent spate of fatalities in next-level skiing. Robb Gaffney, a doctor who specializes in psychiatry, author of Squallywood: A Guide To Squaw’s Most Exposed Lines and the director of “whacking your pole” in G.N.A.R., The Movie, was integral to the piece. Not just because he has been on both sides of the equation—he appeared in ski films in the late ’90s and has lost numerous friends recently—but because he raised questions that nobody had been asking, at least not publicly. When he suggested the possibility that Red Bull had been partly responsible for McConkey’s death, NBC zeroed in on that sentiment, leading viewers to believe that Gaffney blames sponsorship for all of skiing’s latest tragedies.
A day or two later, Romeo posted the video on TetonAT and wrote, “It is pretty wild (and sorta cool) to see skiing all over the mainstream media recently. Too bad it took a bunch of awesome people dying for the bigger audience to realize the risks many skiers take every day. Unfortunately, I think Rob (sic) Gaffney speaks a lot of truths in this MSNBC video and I sure hope we can all survive the next 10 years. LIVE TO SKI!!!”
In the comments section below the post, someone calling himself Randy Marsh wrote: “F that! I disagree with you. Rob (sic) Gaffney speaks like a sell-out bitch. I remember him growing up and have now lost respect for him. A bunch of awesome people have been dying and trying for a very long time; skiers, climbers, boaters, surfers, soldiers, etc… What has changed is the widespread publicity and shear (sic) numbers willing to try. The line in the sand is most of this (sic) people would have done their passions despite the camera and glory. Personal enjoyment, progression and responsibility can’t really be measured at the f-ing news desk!”
What Gaffney believes is that sponsorship is just one element of a highly complex equation that influences risk-taking in skiing. His main argument points to a continual cultural shift that has raised the level for all skiers, which thereby puts the sport’s influencers even farther out on the edge. With more skiers taking more risks, the probability increases for what Gaffney calls “nature’s feedback.” Essentially, the consequences of our actions.
“The margin for error is so much smaller now and we’re seeing nature’s feedback at an ever-increasing rate,” he says. “We knew we were going to get here, we just didn’t know when. With Shane’s death, that was the first indication that it started. And to see all these other guys get picked off very quickly through the years supported that idea.”
In hopes of reversing the trend, Gaffney launched a campaign called Sportgevity this fall. His goal is to instigate a movement that promotes athletic progression but also longevity in one’s career. This means slowing down to make better decisions that serve long-term goals. While he doesn’t expect today’s top-level athletes to step back, he is at least hoping to reach the next generation, who he says have grown up in an environment that glorifies the deaths of their heroes.
The bottom line, he says, is that a successful ski career does not end in tragedy. Rather, it ends when you say it ends, looking back not at years or seasons, but decades. This ultimately means being honest about how and why our skiing heroes died. “We don’t have to demean them and devalue what they’ve done,” says Gaffney, “but we have to look at the mistakes they made. If you’re a person that wants to have a long career in skiing, you’re gonna have to do things differently than the guys who died. You can still respect who they were, but what they did didn’t necessarily define success, if you’re looking at a career that you want to be 80 years long.”
Personifying that success, Gaffney says, are skiers like Douglas, Wayne Wong, Billy Kidd, Klaus Obermeyer, Chris Davenport, and Glen Plake, guys who have been around and continue to influence the sport.
“We believe there is a beauty in being able to experience your athletic career over decades,” he says. “If you can ski for a lifetime, what you’re going to see in terms of where skiing has come from and where it’s gone to, that’s just an amazing experience. To cut that short, I think, is tragic. To cut that short because of the decision you made, or because your inability to say ‘no’ to a group when they are marching into avalanche terrain, is tragic.”
For Douglas, the message is about having enough patience and smarts to know when to scale it back, and when to push it. “I wait until I feel the conditions are right and everything is lined up,” he says. “On those days, it’s time to go for it. And I think that’s great. But a lot of people are out there pushing every day, and sometimes it’s a matter of taking that step back. We want everything so quick right now, so instantly. My love for getting out on a powder day has not wavered in the least. But I’m willing to give up a few along the way to get a hundred more.”
To a certain extent, this is already happening. Kaya Turski, the world’s top-ranked female slopestyle skier, argued on her blog this spring that women should not be expected to do the same tricks on the same features as men. She says women’s skiing would progress faster, and lead to fewer injuries, if they were able to practice their runs on smaller jumps. “Personally, I would be more confident throwing my hardest tricks if I didn’t think that if I came (up) short, or went a little too big, I might explode from the impact,” she wrote. “I would prefer to see a nice cork 900 on a 50- to 60-foot table than a 360 or 540 on something 30 feet bigger.”
Ever so slowly, appreciation grows for not just the crazy, but the creative. Sean Jordan, a 19-year-old phenom featured in the last three Stept Productions films, has made a name for himself as one of the most gifted park and urban skiers of his generation. Many believe that the biggest and best among his crew is yet to come. But as the other aspects of skiing have shown, being at the top also carries significant risk. Mix a discipline that includes three-story drops to concrete, kinked metal rails descending icy steps, and a group mentality that seeks to one-up the impossible, all while being wrapped in the pioneering spirit, it’s scary to think about what’s down the road.
But Jordan believes the future shouldn’t just be about cheating death by hitting the biggest features. “Someone’s always going to be looking to hit the biggest rail,” he says, “but if you do something creative on a smaller feature that’s never been done before, it’ll give you just as much respect.”
Though he’s never met the man who produced G.N.A.R., The Movie, Jordan sounds like he’s already on board with the ideas behind Sportgevity.
“I want to be out there skiing as best as I can and competing, but I also want to continue to ski for as long as I can,” he says. “I’ve seen how quickly things can turn badly. But I do think people can be progressing the sport and doing big things, but also stay out of the hospital. You want to ski your whole life, so be reasonable.”
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