By Rob Story
The guys in the cheapest suits of all didn’t know anything. They-ski industry untouchables wearing shirts that shimmered and ties with fist-size knots-sweated out the Las Vegas ski show trying to peddle marginalia like pole-mounted map holders and hats with foam pig snouts. Their business was lousy because their business was always lousy.
No, it was the guys in the next echelon of suits, where natural fibers begin to creep in, making the pronouncements. They were the guys who’d moved a lot of product in the ’80s and had been around long enough to know. But now their company’s expensive, cookie-cutter parkas were clogging inventories from San Diego to Bangor. They weren’t accustomed to trade-show floors so empty they looked newly vacuumed even in the afternoon. The suits would glance down the convention center’s uncongested aisles, shake their heads, and say, “Snowboarding’s the ticket now. Skiing’s yesterday’s news.”
For a moment a visitor might buy it. It’s not as if the guys in the natural fiber suits are the only ones moaning. Skiing is getting hammered everywhere. From subtle exclusion from TV commercials to overt statements in magazines. And not just the predictable fad-chasing bull in silly fashion magazines (though there’s plenty of that): When it comes to skiing, even pointy-head journals like England’s The Economist are talking trash: “Skiing is old-fashioned, elitist, and boring-something your parents do.” A smart-ass editor at SNOWBOARDER, our sister-publication-cum-golden-calf, says, “I can’t wait till the day when POWDER becomes a 20-page insert in a 300-page issue of SNOWBOARDER.”
Let them think what they want. In the mountains are people who know different. In the mountains are members of a surging tribe who live for glisse, no matter if they can spell it or not. They wear baggy pants, pierce odd parts of their flesh, and recognize work for the four-letter word it is. Though every cultural stereotype pegs them as snowboarders, they are skiers. Happy, die-hard, never-give-the-flat-plank-a-second-thought skiers. Skiing is dying? Like hell it is. The day skiing dies is the same day that sex and pizza die.
These are the new ski bums, and the noises they’re making sound nothing like fingernails clawing the lid of a coffin. They’ve grown up with snowboarders-roomed, road tripped, partied and copulated with them-and know that neither sports will push the other off the mountain. Everything will be fine if everyone just shuts up and slides. In the meantime, outside world, you can take your gloom and doom-your Mountain Dew commercials, your know-it-all magazines, your longterm projections-you can take it all and choke on it.
The normal labels do not apply. Granola-head, Euro-trash, gate basher, blow-dried poser, alpine stein: You can throw them all at Seth Morrison and Brad Holmes and none will stick. Morrison, 21, with his purple hair, black-painted fingernails, and eyebrow ring, and Holmes, 25 with his magenta hair, white vinyl belt, and pimp roll walk, aren’t about to be confused with the second coming of the Mahre Brothers.
Morrison: “I’m going to get my penis pierced next week. My girlfriend’s psyched.”
Holmes: “Tattoos are the best because they offend people a lot.”
Morrison. “I got a table dance in Vegas. The chick had zits on her ass.”
Holmes: “I’m not into microbrew. I’m into mega brew.”
Morrison: “I always take too much speed, always more air than necessary.”
His hyena-like giggle bounces off the bear-soaked floor of a Crested Butte dive bar, Talk of the Town.
Holmes: “I want to make a claymation movie where Tomba hits on little girls.” A ball of kinetic energy, Holmes bounces around a living room in Tahoe while scratching his belly. Crispin Glover with a bad case of psoriasis.
Both are film stars, Morrison in The Hedonist, Holmes in Natural Born Skier. Both are partial to baggy clothes and interesting hair. Both get stuffed into the wrong pigeonhole. Says Morrison, “Whenever I hitch from the Butte to Gunnison, drivers ask, ‘How was the snowboarding today?” (For the record, Morrison’s snowboarding history is limited. “I tried it once; did a heli and quit,” he says with a shrug.)
Holmes takes it personally. “What pisses me off is that people come up to me and think I’m a snowboarder when I’ve had a f—ed-image for longer than snowboarding’s been around.” It’s true. When Holmes was 15 he became the youngest bumper to ever make the U.S Ski Team and once appeared in a POWDER story called “Hot Tots.”
Getting mistaken for a boarder isn’t really the issue, though. What chafes these guys, and others like the, is the implication that skiers can’t be free spirits. How stupid is that that? Morrison, for one, credits Blizzard of Aahhh‘s with changing his life. Watching Greg Stump’s crew cavorting all over the globe “made me ski like I do,” he says. “My room still has Schmidt and Plake pictures all over the place.”
“For all the punk trappings, Morrison and Holmes remain hugely talented jocks with a contagious love for their sport. Magnetic on film, almost giddy in person, they radiate an unfettered joy for flying down snow. Skiing’s in their blood and free-skiing is simply the best way to express it.
In the process, they’re rejecting old notions still lingering from the 1980′s. Not just the tapered navy blue CB jackets, but everything. The little bunny hop turns on steeps, the simplistic, fall-like-a-cannonball jumps, the swivel-hips approach to bumps. Inspired by snowboarders as well as Plake and the earlier members of the American extreme movement, they’ve synthesized the best of both into a new paradigm perfectly suited to North America’s bigger, steeper, and more jagged mountains. You can see it in Morrison’s huge, screaming turns down pitches just this side of vertical, in Holmes’s floaty, 720-degree air-plane turns at mach speed and random detours into trees.
Extreme contests, a 90′s phenomenon derided by some purists for attempting to quantify free skiing, have actually forced skiers to ski more completely. As former U.S champ Kent Kreitler says, “We grew up doing one big hit and stopping, which is how filming goes, too. But in contests you have to ski a line with several cruxes and do it top-to-bottom nonstop.” Instead of aiming, dropping, and congratulating themselves, skiers are linking five or six ballsy moves-many of which could backfire with serious consequences-into dynamic, mind-blowing pieces of art. If ’80′s skiing put a premium on responsiveness and quick feet, ’90′s skiing puts a premium on determination and the cojones it takes to hold your line through whatever hell gravity throws your way.
Holmes, Morrison, and their ilk may frighten young children, but in many ways they’re the best purple-haired ambassadors the sport could have. Whether or not skiing deserves its reputation as the winter sport for tight-asses, it could still use a good goose. We can live for skiing, and dye for it, too.
The ski bum lifestyle in North America is the story of the birds and the bees. Like birds, ski bums migrate, not north to south, but low to high. More important, they pollinate. Just as flowers would die if bees didn’t carry life-giving pollen from one to the next, skiing would suffer if it weren’t constantly fertilized. Worker drones who never leave the safety of their own resorts don’t help. Thank god for traveling honey bees.
Because of skiers who flit along like buzzing winged insects, tricks, gossip, techniques, and jokes are passed form resort to resort. These skiers, who invigorate every resort they touch, have been called the Tribe, the Ski Gypsies, the Bros, whatever. Cosmic couch surfer Troy Jungen of P-Tex, Lies, and Videotape fame perhaps put it best when he claimed allegiance to a sect called the “Planetary Snow Bohemians.”
The Planetary Snow Bohemians comprise a distinct class in skiing’s food chain. Younger and poorer than established lifers like the Egan and DesLauriers Brothers, not to mention Plake and Schmidt, they’re lucky if they even own cars. Older and probably poorer than the college grads teaching level one skiing, they don’t live in employee housing or work for the mountain for days a week. They’ll do what it takes to get a pass, sure, but indentured servitude just isn’t their bag. They’ll either pound enough nails in the summer to buy a pass up front or get it by schmoozing their way into non-paying, unrestrictive tasks like V.I.P. escorting or volunteer catering. They save cash by living in small parts of big houses and will dumpster dive for food if absolutely necessary. As a result, they can ski their asses off. Many become talented enough to compete in bump or extreme contests, where they meet enough fellow bohemians to take long, leisurely road trips and still always have a place to crash.
In his epic manifesto “Tales From the Fringe: A Dirtbag Thesis of skiing,” Jungen described it so: “After years of trippin’ one becomes acquainted with the family, and can style everywhere they go. There are different traditions, rituals, and lingo to every clan but the respect and love for the mountains is always the same. The locals…guide their wandering guests to the best powder, food, and parties in the valley. In exchange, the guests always leave and open invitation to their hosts to come and visit.
To hit all the stops on the circuit, you might ski the backside of Crested Butte with Morrison and Dave Bluestein, dice bumps at Telluride with Sheilagh McGlynn and Brian O’Neil, drop chutes at Taos with 1995 World Extreme Champ Dean Cummings (who makes laps around the circuit more than anybody and might be a couple steps ahead of you), mine the Cirque at Snowbird with Shauna Anzures and Brian “Menace” McGrath, redline Scotty’s at Mammoth with Davey McCoy and Jason Moore, catch hospital air at Squaw with John Tremann and Kent Kreitler, explore glaciers at Whistler with Jungen and Ptor Spricenieks, and dive into Hobacks’ freshies at Jackson Hole with Rick Armstrong. Normally, Jackson would also include Micah Black, Kevin Brazil, Hank List, and Gavin Skilton but last season they took the outer orbit to Chamonix. There, known as the Pro Vagrant Tour, they shamed all the European “door knobs” by getting 5,000 vertical feet per run and “swilling cheap bottles of wine like champions.” Late in the season, Black and Skilton skied the radical north Face of the Aiguille du Midi. South America is joining the circuit, too, especially after last September’s extreme contest in Las Leñas, where the Bohemians found 20,000-foot peaks and late last calls to their liking, and laid waste to any silly notion that only snowboarders rage.
The bees keep pollinating, the circuit keeps spinning. Along the way, etiquettes and protocols have surfaced. If you’re couch surfing, do the dishes without being asked, invite members of the opposite sex over to entertain your hosts, and clear out within two weeks. If you’re poaching, don’t wear bright clothes, don’t let tourists follow you, and don’t talk about it on the run or even in a crowded après bar. If someone points out a line to ski he or she gets first tracks. If you don’t have a pass, take what the lifties will give you, yet always be willing to climb for it. If you’re in a bar, flip as much shit to your buds as possible; on the steeps, though, do everything you can to support them, from spotting jumps to relinquishing lines in pursuit of loose skis.
Sex: Whenever possible. The Bohemians’ 14-hour bus ride from Las Leñas back to Bueno Airies would have made road trippers as depraved as Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson blush, though Xaveria Hollander could have hung.
Stateside, though, frustration still rules the day, at least for the guys. According to Holmes, “snowboarding has brought more women to ski towns, but none of them are skiers. And women boarders never go out with guys who are skiers.”
Drugs: They’ve always been part of the ski scene, but the coke seems to have stayed in Aspen with Don Johnson. Mushrooms and acid still emerge on occasion. Pot-or the “bubonic chronic”-is consumed more or less regularly, as you might expect in places populated by hedonists who don’t want to pay eight bucks for a six-pack or get bloated before tomorrows hike. Unlike in politics or society in general, inhaling is not regarded as a major social taboo. Nor is it considered much of a physical no-no. Says one Tahoe skier while draining a large stained-glass bong, “People around here have big lungs.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll; Go big, or go home and watch The Weather Channel.
For now, life on the second tier is fine. Perhaps as a reaction against the onslaught of snowboarding, the sense of community among skiers seems stronger than ever, certainly more so than when I was a ski bum in the mid-80′s. Common are group get-togethers/feasts where people keep showing up with beer and veggies. Jungen calls these spiraling meals” the never ending disco dinner party, ” where “nameless concoctions” grow huge in “Flintstones-sized pots and pans.”
Says Kreitler, “The people who’ve survived snowboarding are passionate about skiing. We’re not making money, just vagranting from place to place. We try to get sponsor expense when we can.”
But where do the Planetary Snow Bohemians go in a couple of years? Do they fade away or break though to Plake and Schmitt Status, where skiing offers a good career? No one gets into ski bumming for the money, but it galls hot free skiers to see a lot of cash distributed to many different snowboarders. While skiing, in contrast, divvies its spoils among the same recognizable few. Kreitler, who was living in his van when he won the ’93 U. S Extremes, says “Skiing’s ready for some new heroes. I’d like to see the new talent honored like it is in snowboarding.”
“People in the ski industry are confused. They come from a racing background and don’t have knowledge of this amazing group of free skiers coming up. There’s this amazing energy that’s not being tapped.”
Perhaps it never will. Perhaps this generation of skiers will slip into the real world or disappear into the background at resorts, retiring from snowmaking jobs at 65. Ski bums, though, will keep regenerating as long as boards can dip deep into a snowpack. As Anzures puts it, “Face shots and overhead powder are the keys to the universe. When you’re gagging, you’re in heaven.”
The Lizard King
If the ski industry has its way, Plake may not vacate his pinnacle until he reaches prime lawn bowling age. Eventually, though, a new talent will be decreed. The exact identity of that person remains a mystery, but you might find him on a warm, bluebird morning in Crested Butte.
The latest in a cycle of storms struck two days ago and the assorted knobs and crevices of Phoenix Bowl still hold hundreds of untouched lines. Shane McConkey raps the shaft of his pole against the lip above one such narrow stash. A near-vertical alley between two rows of trees, it constricts shut with little nubber pines 35 feet below. It seems a skier who dropped it would get threshold unless he jerked to a sudden, ACL-wrenching stop.
McConkey is here to shoot for Hedonist director Steve Winter’s new movie, The Tribe. He finishes his rapping and sidesteps three feet up the sidehill above the lip. He peers at the lip, hikes back down, and looks again at the landing. He hikes back up. He puts his skis on their inside edges by dipping each knee toward the other. He pulls his shoulders in till he’s centered over his knees. Bent and low, his body’s triangular lines echo Joe Strummer’s guitar-smashing stance on the cover of London Calling.
He stands up, pulls the back of his jacket down, and scrapes the snow off his top-sheets. After a deep breath, he shouts “Three-two-one!” and releases his edges into the fall line. He pops over the lift, wrestles a left turn out of the wind resistance, lands, and rips into a thinner band of nubbers, snapping branches left and right. He immediately hits another drop and flies another 10 feet before landing half on his butt.
“Are you OK?” Winter asks from a small spire.
“Yeah, but my ego’s shot, ” McConkey answers.
“So are those trees.”
McConkey never expects to land on his butt. He’s one of the strongest all-around skiers to prune these pines. A pony-tailed, steely-eyed epitome of a mountain man, he hikes faster than a bighorn sheep. The winner of tough contests in both Crested Butte and Las Leñas, he is “The Extreme Champion of Both Americas.” He’s also lactose intolerant. A 60-foot air won’t phase him, but a glass of milk will make him crap his pants. He is frequently naked.
The best known example of McConkey letting it all hang out occurred at a Vail stop on the pro mogul tour last February. He biffed early on his first run, a dual race, eliminating him from a contest he had hoped to win. With nothing to lose, he hit the first jump and reeled off a fat, glorious backflip. The crowd went nuts; the patrol pulled his pass and kicked him off the hill. A pro skier worried about sponsor reprisals might have called it a day right there. McConkey, though, worries more about the performance. If he’s going to lose a bump contest and get booted off a mountain, you can damn well bet he’ll bring back a story to tell. Undetected by Vail’s finest, McConkey stole back onto the competitors’ life, stripped, and handed his clothes to a friend. Nekkid but for his Nordicas, he bullrushed the course and, in his own way, put the “free” back into freestyle.
The patrollers-their faces as red as their jackets-arrived before the friend carrying the clothes did. McConkey got blacklisted. The empire of the Extreme Champion of Both Americas no longer includes Vail.
Several naked appearances later-including one 40-foot spread eagle captures on film that director Winter didn’t know was coming. McConkey is beginning to get a reputation. But labeling McConkey as the Jim Morrison of Extreme Skiing misses the point-no matter how well-deserved the categorization is. McConkey skis naked because the ’70′s freestylers skied naked-and no one cherishes the age of daffies, White Stag bibs, and K2 cheeseburgers more than McConkey. “I want to put on a hot dog competition,” he says. “To win, you have to do a heli, a daffy, and a worm turn-and you it all naked. Plus, you do a hard drug an hour before the start.”
McConkey discovered late in his 25-year-old-life that he was born to freestyle. Raised by his mom in the surf town of Santa Cruz, he was 18 before he found out that his dad, Jim “Mad Man” McConkey, had skied in ’70′s ski films for Warren Miller and Doug Sinclair. Shane has gone big ever since, either consciously (when he juggles, he juggles knives) or unconsciously (McConkey sets three alarms to wake himself up in the morning and still oversleeps). He skis with unerring abandon, whether straight-running a frozen waterfall OB at Alpine Meadows or clearing a house-sized cliff band in Colorado’s Ruby Range (the most impressive air I’ve ever witnessed).
Skiers, McConkey says, need to loosen up. “Too many people think skiing is this strict, controlled thing where you have to be all tight and balled up like this.” He compresses into a FIS-approved egg for a second. “But the best thing in skiing is a big spread eagle.”
The emperor has no clothes, but he has a plenty of sense. In this age where ski area employers subject janitors to random drug testing and the back of your lift ticket reads like a court document, its easy to overlook the reason skiers head to the mountains in the first place: freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Through exploits both goofy and daring. McConkey and crew are bringing freedom back into vogue. And while its not normally advisable to follow a naked man who can’t hold his milk, this one might just deliver us from death-by pucker.
Strictly speaking, it is impossible for a ventilation system to suck all rational thought out of a building. It just seems that way on a Disco Night in late April at Humpty’s in Tahoe City.
Of the 300 people sweating into their polyester leisure suits on the dance floor, only a small minority has considered the merits of breathable fabrics. Judging by the massive sloppy jumble of limbs attempting to spell out “Y-M-C-A,” only a few patrons are taking the careful and measured approach that dancing to the Village People so clearly calls for. And if anyone in the room has enough horse sense to turn down a Heckler Braü -Yukon Jack-Jäegermeister combo, there not readily apparent. But at this stage, what is?
Luckily, the next morn dawns gray and rainy, and a day of rest is declared throughout Lake Tahoe. It is one of the few-off days during this longest season on record, and it is greeted as affectionately as a couple of Advils and a tall glass of water.
Every movement needs a ground zero or at least a perceived one, and for post-modern skiers it’s this place where mountains spring from blue water. Both microcosm and capital city for the bohemian circuit, Lake Tahoe has everything. Some of the steepest peaks in the Lower 48. Volcanic outcroppings riddle with chutes. Pulverizing Pacific storm cycles that-in two of the last three years, anyway-stretch powder days into powder months. Great skiers too numerous to count, including mogul, extreme and Olympic champions. A bundle of famous ski photographers. Enough visits by ski filmmakers to earn Squaw Valley the inevitable nickname “Squawlywood.”
Kreitler, who finished second behind fellow Tahoe resident McConkey in the Las Leñas event, moved here from Sun Valley. “There’s a lot of really good skiers here, and I wanted the kinship of similar thinking people. Plus, the terrain offers more diversity for the type of skiing I want to do.”
Moreover, Tahoe is Californian. Love it or hate it, California is where trends start and images take shape. The shift away from tight jackets and little turns began here, spurred perhaps by California’s huge population of snowboarders (which is fed, of course, by the states huge population of surfers and boarders). At any rate, skiers and snowboarders get along famously here-some say they’re even merging together. Maybe the infamous laid-back attitude figures in. To despise fellow sliders up here is inconceivable, something akin to saying, “We have met the enemy, and he is Kato.” Who can get worked up over that?
If you believe the conspiracy theory that the world is run by 12 bankers in Zurich, then little Zurich is a house near Alpine Meadows rented by Jeff McKitterick (and previously rented by Scott Kauf, the four-time champ of the pro mogul tour). McKitterick’s phone rings constantly: Tremann wonders if Kirkwood will be above the snowline, Braly Joy has San Jose Shark tickets, McConkey needs to get his Alpine from Truckee. McKitterick puts out every fire then grinds some beans for the fifth and sixth cups of coffee hell drink that day.
A long-haired, squinty-eyed surfer who’s universally respected for his alpine prowess (he hikes big peaks on his way to work), McKitterick is a kind of President Spiccoli. You’d follow him anywhere and that’s how we-Pat “Pony Boy” Campbell, Joe McBride, McConkey, David Reddick, and I-found ourselves on Munchkins. A 20-minute traverse out of Alpine Meadows, Munchkins is the best way to get to McKitterick’s house, so long as you like four-foot-wide couloirs tilted to about 45 degrees. The snow is gloppy and runnel-prone but stable. We glide some, sideslip some, and pull up right next to McKitterick’s stairway.
The sun flickers through some clouds. Campbell sits on the expansive porch of the remote, three-bedroom, $850-a-month house and nods with appreciation. Outside is one of the best stashes in the Tahoe basin, inside is plenty of room to store your quiver or throw a never-ending disco dinner party. He could kick it here forever if only the neighborhood was wired. “Yeah, this would be a cool place if you could only get cable. You can’t live in a place without cable.”
Cable means everything, for TV is just the cheap, mindless diversion a ski bum needs after bustling ass all day. And vegging with your friends is a bonding experience just as skiing is.
When McKitterick informs Campbell that the place does have cable, you can almost hear his inner Homer Simpson moan with delight. Feasting our eyes on the bounties of The Weather Channel, we sink into a well-deserved stupor-until McKitterick’s pet ferret enters the room. Its name is weasel and it likes to play.
McKitterick owns a little fuzzy fake mouse, which isn’t very exciting except that the mouse is attached to a fishing rod and that means it can jump around and away from a stalking ferret, Weasel, chasing, leaps form the couch to the coffee table and back to the couch again, then pins the mouse. It’s almost too easy.
McKitterick, to the joy of the crowd, pulls the coffee table two feet away from the couch. Weasel tries to leap the gap, but smacks his chin on the couches edge and falls to the ground.
Now, teasing the ferret might seem cruel, but remember, these are people who suffer for their triumphs. After tromping laboriously up steep piles of crumbling snow, tweaking knees and slamming into branches on the way down, burning in the sun, and shivering in the cold, they’ve gained a hard-earned appreciation for physical effort. They’re not about to let the ferret get a fuzzy little mouse without working for it.
Weasel gets up off the floor. The mouse resumes its bobbing. Weasel follows. Coils. Pounces. Into the airspace between couch and table he flies…
For a moment, all is silent, then the boys erupt in cheer. Weasel has succeeded at the only thing that matters. Weasel has stuck the landing.