PHOTO: David Reddick
This story was first published in the December, 2006 (35.4) issue of POWDER. Subscribe to “The Skier’s Magazine” today.
They are skiers first. That's who is on this list. But they are also mountaineers and movie stars, freestylers and speed freaks, innovators, Olympians, mothers and brothers. They may not be the fastest or the best or the biggest, but they've influenced the sport of skiing—collectively and individually—more than anyone else on snow.
No doubt, our readers will agree and disagree with the list, and that's fine. It's an inevitable outcome. But wherever we, as skiers, find ourselves today, we're here because these people led us here. POWDER has had the privilege to share in the many milestones of the past 35 years, and here is a slice of that experience—told through portraits of those who made it happen. —Tom Bie
As Dave and Jake Moe were piecing together the first issue of POWDER in their makeshift Sun Valley offices, there was no bigger name in skiing than Swiss legend Sylvain Saudan—the original extreme skier. Though he'd already knocked off some of his more famous descents, like Chamonix's 55-degree Spencer Couloir, and the northwest face of the Eiger, Saudan continued throughout the '70s and '80s to be the worldwide barometer for what was possible on skis. In 1972, the famously arrogant self-promoter (he sued Whistler over the resort's naming of the Saudan Couloir) completed the first descent of the Messner Coulior on the southwest face of Denali. Ten years later, at the age of 43, Saudan became the first person to ski from 8,000 meters, making the first descent of Pakistan's Hidden Peak.
Wayne Wong will primarily be remembered for riding his tails and sporting a perma-tan with a huge, shit-eating grin hung beneath a pair of white, iSki sunglasses. But beyond his '70s freak-fashion sensibility, Wong was the first poster child for a new way of skiing—and a whole new way of thinking yourself around a mountain—that made him a de facto icon. Given a direct lineage from the hot-dog era to today's progressive freestyle revolution, there's still a lot of kids who, whether they know it or not, want to be Wayne Wong. Although today's steeze-mavens would be hard-pressed to ascribe anything but laughter to Wong's trademark moves of the early '70s—the Worm Turn, the Slow Dog Noodle, the Wongbanger (a front flip between ski poles), these innovations became mandatory hot-dog moves. As stoked by today's freestyle scene as we were by his, the 55-year-old Wong still hosts events like the Wayne Wong World Hot Dog Skiing Festival in Tahoe. But the event most important to him remains the America Airlines Celebrity Ski, through which he's raised more than 30 million dollars since 1984 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. —Leslie Anthony
Fifty-one years. That's how long Bill Briggs taught skiing. Fifty-one years. Yet ski instruction was his third love, behind music and ski mountaineering. Though he'd already scored first descents of the Middle and South Tetons (1967), Skillet Glacier on Mount Moran ('68), and the fame-producing Grand Teton (June of '71), Briggs' most technical descent may have come in '74, as he laid the first turns ever down one of the toughest in the Tetons, the steeple-like Mount Owen. He achieved all of this with a replacement hip, and still had the energy to yodel at the bar afterward.
Patrick Vallencant and Anselme Baud
The first two names mentioned as an inspiration to renowned Europhile Doug Coombs, Vallencant and Baud formed one of the earliest partnerships in "extreme skiing." Together the two Chamonix guides ticked off dozens of impressive feats in the French Alps, including the Couloir Whymper and Couloir Couturier on the Aiguille Verte, the north face of the Aiguille du Midi and the 1977 first descent of the Arete De Peuterey from the summit of Mont Blanc. In 1979, Vallencant skied Peru's Mount Yerupaja. At a sustained 60 degrees, Lou Dawson called the feat "possibly the continuously steepest ski descent ever." Vallencant died climbing in 1989, but Baud remains active in guiding and education in the Alps and Himalayas.
Klammer won 25 World Cup races in the '70s and early '80s and earned five World Cup downhill titles—in 1975, '76, '77, '78 and '83—a feat that may never be repeated. This alone would be enough to earn him everlasting icon status, yet his greatest moment by far came at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, where the Austrian earned his gold in the downhill by beating defending champion Bernhard Russi by a third of a second, despite being the last of the 15 competitors to make his run. The previous year, Klammer had won eight of nine World Cup downhills.
Before Harry Egger, before Jeff Hamilton, before Franz Weber, there was Steve McKinney—the "High Priest of Speed Skiing." McKinney, brother to three-time Olympian Tamara McKinney, held the World Speed Skiing record in '74, '77, '78, and '82, and was tearing up Squaw Valley and the surrounding Sierras before Scot Schmidt even rolled into town. But, Schmidt says, "I never saw McKinney jump a cliff—he was all about speed." McKinney pioneered use of the rubberized racing suit, and in 1978 became the first person to break the 200-kmh barrier. (This was 15 years before grooming machines were being winched down the speed track.) McKinney died in 1990, killed by a drunk driver after leaving the Tahoe home of friend Craig Colonica.
Though most of her competitive days were already behind her by the late '70s, 1978 was the year that "Suzy Chapstick" was introduced to the world in the popular TV commercial. An alpine competitor in the 1968 Grenoble Olympics, Chaffee went on to become a three-time World Freestyle champion and helped organize the 1984 World Cup event at Breckenridge that qualified freestyle skiing as an Olympic sport. The Rutland, Vermont, native became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Olympic Committee Board, worked for four different presidents on the President's Council on Fitness and Sports, and was very active in getting Washington to enforce Title IV, giving women equal opportunity in college athletics.
It's maybe not surprising that Swede Ingemar Stenmark—vacationing in Indonesia at the time—survived the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. He always had a way of moving quickly when he had to. Despite the success of more recent World Cuppers like Hermann Maier and Bode Miller, Stenmark remains by far the most successful ski racer of all time. His 86 World Cup wins are more than anyone in history (Maier is second with 53)—and he achieved this in the late '70s, before the Super-G and Combined were added as disciplines. With the possible exception of tennis player Bjorn Borg, Stenmark is the most famous and popular Swedish athlete ever. He won three straight overall World Cup titles in '76, '77, and '78. And, in '79, finished his second straight season of winning every giant slalom race on the tour, going 17 for 17 before winning two gold medals in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.
He called it the Quest, his "ski the 'teeners project"—to be the first person to ski all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks. Dawson began his project—unknowingly at the time—in 1978 and only managed to bag one summit in 1980, South Maroon Peak near Aspen. Yet South Maroon was a special accomplishment because it was also a solo descent. Dawson finished his quest in May of 1991, when he and Glen Randall skied from the top of Kit Carson, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. The Colorado Ski Hall of Famer is also a prolific writer, having authored dozens of magazine articles and several books, including Dawson's Guide to Colorado Backcountry Skiing, and Wild Snow, A Historical Guide to North American Ski Mountaineering.
Phil and Steve Mahre
Many siblings have made their mark on skiing, but none are more famous than these Northwest twins who grew up skiing at White Pass, Washington, and shared the podium at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Phil, older by four minutes, was named to the U.S. team at age 15, won three consecutive overall World Cup titles from '81—'83, and won three Olympic medals at Lake Placid and Sarajevo. Steve won the 1982 World Championship giant slalom title and took silver in slalom at the '84 Olympics, finishing less than a quarter of a second behind his brother. In 1985, the brothers authored a book, No Hill Too Fast, and they now run the Deer Valley-based Mahre Training Center.
Allan Bard and Tom Carter
Readers of POWDER magazine in the early 1980s were treated to many backcountry stories from Bard and Carter, who traveled extensively to report on their journeys. But it was the non-exotic Redline Traverse along the crest of the Sierras—completed over a three-winter span between 1981-83 by Bard, Carter, and Chris Cox—that solidified Bard and Carter's reputation as the backcountry kings of their day. (The name comes from the red line on topo maps marking the National Park boundary.) The 200-mile route remains one of the longest continuous ski traverses ever done in the Americas and included the 1983 first descent by Bard and Carter of the north face of Mount Whitney. Bard was killed while guiding on Wyoming's Grand Teton in 1997, but Carter remains a guide in Yosemite and the High Sierra, as well as a heli-ski guide for Ruby Mountain Heli-skiing in Nevada.
Scot Schmidt was slaving away as a Squaw Valley ski-tuner when a Warren Miller cameraman asked him if he'd mind hucking a few cliffs off the then-unknown Palisades. Segments from the resulting film—1983's Ski Time—introduced Schmidt to the world, yet it was his memorable performance in Greg Stump's classic Blizzard of Ahhs that cemented Schmidt's reputation as the most revered skier of the 1980s. His hang-in-the-air style was copied by skiers around the globe, his posters hung on every wall and tune room, and his yellow one-piece North Face became the outfit icon of every ski bum in America.
He was trouble from the beginning. A juvenile delinquent, Oregonian Bill Johnson was arrogant, abrasive, pig-headed, uncoachable. But on February 16, 1984, in Sarajevo, Johnson became the first American man to win Olympic gold in the downhill. By doing so, he challenged the long-standing European domination of the sport, and made a mockery of anyone who doubted him. What really drove the Euros crazy wasn't just that Johnson had beaten them, but that he'd predicted it, like Joe Namath before Super Bowl III. In March of 2001, at the age of 40, Johnson suffered a life-threatening crash and subsequent coma at Big Mountain, Montana, in a comeback attempt to make the 2002 Olympic Team. He continues to recover in Portland, and will always be remembered as one of the original bad boys of racing and the man who first brought the U.S. Ski Team Olympic downhill gold.
John and Dan Egan
They were quick on their feet and even quicker to flash a grin. Warren Miller discovered John and Dan Egan pounding bumps at Sugarbush, Vermont, in 1978, and the bros would become what Miller called "the ATVs of the ski world" – guys skilled enough to go anywhere, from Siberia to Turkey to Greenland. Their famous death escape when a house-sized cornice at Grand Targhee broke away beneath them in a 1990 film became the single most used segment in Warren Miller's career. They succeeded on both sides of the camera, producing more than a dozen movies and a syndicated television show. And they remain apostles for the sport—John as a VP at Sugarbush and Dan as head of Egan Entertainment.
In the January, 1986 issue of POWDER, writer Chris Noble had this to say about skier Jean Marc-Boivin—also an accomplished climber: "In 1980, Boivin soloed the north face of the Matterhorn, then skied down the mountain's east face, a sheer rock wall indiscriminately spattered with snow like an expressionist painting." In the mid-80s, Boivin became the king of the third wave of great extreme skiers, the first beginning with Saudan and Heini Holzner in the mid to late '60s, the second belonging in the '70s to the likes of Vallencant and Baud, and the third taking place in the 80s, when Boivin began descending routes that pushed beyond the previously unimaginable threshold of 60 degrees.
A couple years back, on a classic glacier descent of Chamonix's famed Vallée Blanche, a well-informed guide stopped many times along the 12-kilometer route to point out various couloirs, provide detailed histories on first ascents and descents of a dozen peaks, throw in a few obituaries, and spin a personal story or 10. He was informed, articulate, gregarious, laughed like a donkey and conversed animatedly with anyone we passed, both in English and fluent French. It was hard to imagine that a man of such pervasive savoir faire also had the world's most famous Mohawk twisted up beneath his toque, and was the same skier who helped light the fuse of a revolution with many a bedroom-wall poster. With ballsy star-turns in a handful of Greg Stump movies—beginning with 1987's Maltese Flamingo—classic magazine covers and a bazillion memorable photos, a California punk named Glen Plake kicked off an unlikely ski career that would eventually see him become the sport's biggest cheerleader and grassroots community activist. With a litany of causes célébres that include moguls, 210s, terrain parks, ski-film history, family run hills, and ski-mountaineering, Plake—avec Mohawk—has been deservedly enshrined as one of skiing's most important icons and respected elder statesmen. —L.A.
He was the quiet one, the one without the Mohawk or the yellow one-piece suit. Yet it was Hattrup who got Glen Plake his shot with Stump. It was Hattrup who moved to Chamonix first. And it was Hattrup who went on to guide Raineer and earn his AMGA ski mountaineering certification, which he now uses working with Martin Volken's Pro Guiding Service in Seattle. Hattrup began his career as a mogul specialist with the U.S. Freestyle Team, and still plays an influential role in the ski industry as K2s telemark and alpine touring manager. But despite what Hattrup may have done before or since—as with Plake and Schmidt—it was his appearance in Greg Stump's masterful series of ski films that set him apart.
It may not have been as famous as Stump's other films, but 1989's License to Thrill had one important scene that the other's didn't: Kim Reichelm's run-in with the tree. "Hitting that tree is not my proudest moment," says the 46-year-old former U.S. Ski Teamer. "And the fact that I am still known for it is embarrassing. But it did get me on Late Night with David Lettermen, which was cool." Reichelm has had many other moments for which she is proud, including winning the first World Extreme Championships in Valdez in 1991 (and again in '95, the same year she also won the North American and South American titles), being on the U.S. Team and the Women's Pro Tour, and starting her "Women's Ski Adventures" ski camps—now in its 18th season. Appearing in Matchstick Productions' 1998 film, Sick Sense, even gave her the opportunity for another film segment, this time without the tree. For Kim Reichhelm, finding the sweet spot as a professional athlete meant breaking trail her entire life.
Pierre Tardivel and Dominique Perret
The year the '80s gave way to the '90s was a special one for two of the biggest names in alpinism. Frenchman Tardivel made the first of his three-sided Mount Blanc descents in 1990—this one down the Swiss side—followed by the Italian side in '92, and the French side in '97. The same year, Dominique Perret, a Swiss, set a new cliff-jumping record of 120 feet, and the following season showed he was more than just a huck doll by setting a speed-skiing record in Portillo, going 211.825 kph. But big speed, big air, and a triple-play descent down one of the world's most famous massifs are not what these two had in common. Both shared the dream of skiing Everest. And though neither ultimately succeeded in skiing from the top, the legitimacy of their attempts—Tardivel from the south summit in 1992 and Perrett from the 8,500-meter mark on the north face in '96—placed them both at the pinnacle of ski mountaineering possibility.
Doug Coombs and Dean Cummings
Nobody knew exactly what to expect from the first World Extreme Ski Championships, held in Valdez, Alaska, in the spring of 1991. So it wasn't a surprise when some no-name dirtbag from Jackson showed up to claim the crown. What was surprising is the role that win would play in catapulting Doug Coombs from the depths of anonymity to the highest echelons of the sport. Coombs won it again in '93 but two years later victory belonged to New Mexico native Dean Cummings, who went on, like Doug, to put his pioneering stamp on Valdez heli skiing. Cummings had a three-year stint on the U.S. Freestyle Team and was one of the only skiers to make the era-transition from Greg Stump films like P-Tex, Lies and Duct Tape and Groove Requiem to Matchstick flicks like Global Storming and the Ski Movie trilogy. The later films helped Cummings' H2O Heli-Adventures join Doug and Emily Coombs' Valdez Heli-Ski Guides in building the foundation of the Chugach heliskiing scene. Coombs died April 3, 2006, while skiing in La Grave, France, but he leaves behind an unparalleled legacy of influence, from Alaska to Europe and beyond. Cummings continues to run his heli ski operations, work with many film crews and further youth outdoor-education programs in and around Valdez.
Eric Pehota and Trevor Petersen
Forming one of the greatest teams in ski mountaineering history, Canadians Pehota and Petersen moved to Whistler together in 1984 and spent the next decade scoring dozens of first descents, establishing themselves as two of the premier skiers on the continent. One of Pehota's greatest individual accomplishments was the 1990 first descent of Mount Waddington, but together, the influence of Petersen and Pehota was often as a single unit, showcasing their skills together on mountains like Pontoon Peak in the Chugach or Canada's Mount Robson—documented in Peter Chrzanowski's 1987 film Mount Robson, The North Face. Petersen died in an avalanche in Chamonix in 1996, but not before influencing thousands of skiers inside and outside Canada. Pehota still lives in Pemberton, B.C., with his wife and two boys.
That a kid from Kansas City was able to make such an impact on the ski world is a testimony to every flatlander who ever strapped on a pair of boards. Kreitler moved to Sun Valley when he was 10, but it was his college years in Boulder and his title at the 1993 U.S. Extremes in Crested Butte that really elevated his career. The following year he moved to Tahoe and began skiing for the cameras, primarily with TGR (who doesn't remember the grainy, poorly lit interview with Kreitler in The Continuum?), but also with Matchstick Productions—one of the few athletes who skied for both film companies. Long considered one of the most versatile skiers on the scene—he won the silver in skiercross at the first X Games—Kreitler was also one of the first to begin venturing into the halfpipe on skis and, in TGR's 1997 film, Harvest, established himself as a pioneer in making sweeping, high-speed turns down exposed Alaskan faces.
He was 23 years old and had never won a World Cup downhill race. But if you're going to win your first one, the Olympics is where to do it. Moe is funny, easygoing and relaxed. But it takes focus to win a downhill race, and at Lillehammer, Norway, Moe had all the focus he needed, taking home a gold in the Downhill and a silver in the Super G, becoming the first American male alpine skier to win two medals in the same Olympics. He retired in 1999 after 12 years on the team and, like many Olympians, parlayed his fame into an ambassador contract, choosing Jackson Hole Mountain Resort over several other offers. His partial ownership in Chugach Powder Guides now allows him to spend several weeks a year fishing and heli skiing in his beloved Alaska.
Troy Jungen and Ptor Spricenieks
Like Petersen and Pehota, fellow Canadians Jungen and Spricenieks pushed—and continue to push— the boundaries of ski mountaineering, especially in the realm of descending huge mountain faces. And none was bigger than the most sought-after goal in Canada: the first descent of the 55-degree, 3,000-foot north face of Canada's Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, which the two completed in 1995. Many previous attempts had been made, including by Petersen and Pehota themselves, as well as several by filmmaker Peter Chrzanowski. It's almost surprising that Spricenieks is known for this descent in his home country, because few can match Spricenieks' list of travels as an international snow bohemian. He's made countless trips to France and the Himalayas and anywhere else there's snow (often on assignments for POWDER), and he always travels in the pure style of the true dirtbag.
Wendy Fisher, Kristin Ulmer, Allison Gannett
Several female skiers were making a name for themselves in the mid-90s, but none were more visible than the trio of Fisher, Ulmer and Gannett. The New Hampshire-born Ulmer has made a virtual career of being exquisitely in the moment. The former U.S. Ski Team mogul specialist skied fast, threw flips and dropped huge air, a big-mountain litany that qualifies her as the first recognizable female freeskier. It was only logical that she would drift into ski mountaineering, where, in 1996, she become the first woman to climb and ski Wyoming's Grand Teton. Ulmer now runs her Ski to Live camps in Utah.
Fisher, a 1992 Olympian, also had a big year in '96, winning the U.S. Extremes in Crested Butte and the World Extremes in Valdez, as well as becoming the first woman to ski down Colorado's South Maroon Peak. Despite seven years with the U.S. Ski Team, Fisher gained much of her fame by being the "token" female in many a Matchstick Productions film, often outskiing the boys. Fischer spends her time running her FISHSki camps for women and girls in Crested Butte.
Gannett also gained notoriety through films, being one of the few athletes, male or female, to work with both Matchstick and TGR. Her frequent extreme-comp wins, combined with her powerful straightlining in TGR's Uprising and Harvest made Gannett famous as one of the most aggressive female freeskiers of the '90s. She continues to travel the world to ski, fueled in part by her passionate work on the issue of global warming.
Mike Douglas and Shane Szocs
It was in 1997 that the Misty Flip for skiers was born. At the time, both Szocs and Douglas were working with the Canadian Freestyle Team, practicing new moves with their crew on trampolines, water ramps, and in terrain parks. Szocs suggested the trick after a snowboarder friend showed it to him, and it was Douglas who finally stuck it off a windlip at Blackcomb. With a patriarchal label like "Godfather of New School," it isn't surprising that Douglas embodies maturity, professionalism and leadership. It is surprising, however, that a decade after rising to fame with the Misty Flip, "MD" remains one of the most active, diverse and respected skiers on the scene, regularly winning awards and accolades that you'd think would be going to skiers 10 years younger. The former Canadian National Team mogul skier conceptualized the original Teneighty ski for longtime sponsor Salomon, then led the New Canadian Air Force on a park and pipe rampage that changed the sport forever. Yet despite Douglas' perennial status as reigning overlord of newschool, it may be Szocs, as founder and director of Whistler's High North Ski Camps, who has ultimately influenced the most skiers. Whether coaching or competing or appearing in the best annual ski movies, both are stretching their clout into a second decade of influence.
Nobody—not Micah Black, not Jeremy Nobis, not even a snowlerblading Shane McConkey—had more of an impact on the alcohol-induced, fired-up, Friday-night-in-the-fall, ski movie audience of the late '90s than Seth. You could feel the energy level in a room rise whenever his image came onscreen, usually to a rocking soundtrack as Morrison launched a Lincoln Loop or some unimaginably monstrous backflip off a giant cliff. It was good entertainment, and, for Morrison, helped take the bite out of his well-documented disappointment of three straight second-place finishes in the Crested Butte extremes—to Kreitler, McConkey, and Dave Swanwick. Morrison moved to Vail when he was 11, and then onto Crested Butte, where he starred in MSPs first three films: Soul Sessions and Epic Impressions, Hedonist, and The Tribe. Then came the heli crash in the Andes, the move to Jackson Hole, and a few questionable decisions. But Morrison, as always, landed on his feet. He remains an iconic symbol of style in the mountains and continues to influence many a wild-eyed ski bum.
Vinnie Dorion, JP Auclair, and JF Cusson
They were called the New Canadian Air Force, and in the words of writer Micah Abrams, "They all brought something different to the equation. Most of the tricks that the NCAF is credited with developing looks like this: Vinnie was the first to do it fakie, Auclair was the first to do it with style, and Cusson was the first to do it, period." This trifecta of players—led largely into battle by Douglas and Szocs—changed the notion of what was possible in the pipe and park. As Szocs put it, "We wanted the challenge of conquering terrain once dominated by snowboarders." While Dorien is essentially credited with inventing switch skiing, and Cusson was an expert in huge air (he won the Big Air comp at the '99 X Games and took second the same year at the U.S. Freeskiing Open), it was J.P.'s stylish appearances in ski films—from Matchstick's Ski Movie to Poor Boyz' War that has earned him his legendary freestyle status.
Editor’s Note: JP Auclair died in an avalanche in Patagonia in late September, 2014.
The "turn that changed the world"—Nobis' mind-blowing, TGR-documented, 30-second, 2,000-foot descent of Alaska's Pyramid Peak on a pair of Dynastar fat skis—may have happened in 1997, but it has been his relentless, consistent straightlining at over 70 miles per hour on the biggest faces on the planet that has kept Nobis at the forefront of skiing's cutting edge. And nowhere was that more evident than the opening scene of Nobis in the TGR's 2000 film, Further. The former U.S. Ski Teamer and Olympian has spent nearly a decade teaming with Micah Black as TGR's rock star, one-two punch, and he has perhaps mellowed at bit on the full-frontal attacks as he's invested more time into the ski-mountaineering side of things. But when it came to skiing a giant Alaskan slope in the late '90s, nobody charged harder than Nobis.
2000 was the breakout year for Candide Thovex. The then-17-year-old Frenchman swept the X Games and Gravity Games big air contests, and broke down barriers with an unprecedented launch over a 100-plus foot gap in the Utah backcountry that would soon be known as Chad's Gap. But it was the following winter, when Candide returned to this monster in Grizzly Gulch, that the rest of the world really took notice. Candide again dropped into Chad's, and this time unleashed a technical, off-axis spin—the Mike Douglas-inspired D-spin that had won him contest after contest the year before. It was the first time such a technical move had been performed over such a huge gap, and the accolades came from the ski industry and beyond. ESPN nominated the trick for Feat of the Year at the Action Sports and Music Awards, putting it on the same platform as Laird Hamilton's first ride at Teahupoo and Cary Hart's back flip on a motorcycle.
Heading into the 2002 Olympics, mogul skiing could very well have been on life-support. In the face of the inverted trickery that dominated films and big air and slopestyle contests, moguls' staunch adherence to twist-twist-twist-spread was downright boring. Enter Moseley, hero of Nagano '98 and poster boy of American skiing for the last four years. Using film to prove that he could perform the trick while keeping his ankles below his head—therefore not technically being inverted—Moseley convinced F.I.S. officials that his patented Dinner Roll (an off-axis 720) was legal. Then, with the hometown crowd chanting "No more twisters," he unleashed his creation on a worldwide audience. The judges failed to reward him—he finished 4th—but eventually the sport caught up. By 2005, F.I.S. had lifted its ban in inverts in the moguls.
He's a product designer, having invented both the Whippet ski pole grip (featuring an ice ax handle), and the HotWire, a carabiner with a wire gate. He's a racer, with top finishes in the Life Link Randonee Rally, France's Derby de la Meije, the Black Diamond PowderKeg (which he founded), and others. He's an author, having self-published "The Chuting Gallery—A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch Mountains" in 1998. And he's a climber, paying his Yosemite dues on the face of El Cap and Half Dome. But mostly, McLean is a skier. And from Denali to the Patagonian Icecap, from the Wasatch to Tibet, nobody has influenced backcountry skiers in the past decade more than he has. In 2003, McLean and three partners made the first descent of Alaska's Mount Hunter, which followed his descents of both the Orient Express and the Messner Couloir on Denali. Expeditions these days for the 45-year-old McLean often involve the use of kites, allowing him to cover snowy miles in minutes rather than days.
Grete Eliassen should just give her two Winter X Games Superpipe gold medals to Sarah Burke. In 2005 and 2006, Eliassen edged out Burke for the gold, but had it not been for years of lobbying, campaigning and, above all, innovative skiing on the part of Burke, Eliassen would not have had a contest to win. Before there were girls skiing in the park, there was Sarah Burke. When there were only men's divisions in big air and slopestyle competitions, Burke would show up anyway. When they let her, she'd hold her own in the men's competition; and when they wouldn't, she'd forerun. In he process, she inspired a whole generation of girls to pick up twin tips, and convince the men in charge that the ladies deserve to compete as well. In 2004, largely because of Burke, the brass at ESPN finally relented, giving women's Superpipe full medal status in the 2005 Winter X Games. But Burke's work is not yet done. Up next: convincing those same executives that it's time for women's ski slopestyle as well.
After the media bombardment leading up to the 2006 Olympics, can anyone not know Bode's story? The home-schooling, the no electricity or running water, the rebel attitude, the reckless style. Then came his disappointing results in Torino, and suddenly it's like, "What happened to Bode?" But let's remember a few things. First, it was Bode who believed in the promise of shaped skis long before other racers would touch them. And by winning two silver medals in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake, he helped restore pride to a program that hadn't seen real success in nearly a decade. He may not have brought home any medals from Italy, but 2005 was his year, becoming only the second skier in history to win at least one World Cup race in each of the four disciplines—Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super-G, and downhill—and bringing the overall World Cup title back to the U.S. for the first time since Phil Mahre in 1983.
What can you say about action man Shane McConkey that hasn't been said by a thousand wide-eyed wing-nuts in a hundred internet chatrooms? Just this: even when he seems fresh out of surprises, he finds a way to re-inspire a legion of fanatical followers. McConkey has a knack for marshalling insouciance and irreverence in a way that makes us all believers. He adamantly swore by fat skis before anyone, and we believed him. He launched the IFSA to regulate big-mountain comps and skiing, insisting it was the future, and we believed him. Perennially hucking and ripping his way through films led to suggestions that he was the most prolific and innovative freeskier ever; we believed it, honoring him with award after award. When he reciprocated, hanging a stuffed duck on the mic at the 2001 Powder Video Awards, magnanimously offering it to the audience—because we're all winners and everyone deserves an award—we believed him. Until the duck turned out to conceal a remote-controlled fart machine. When he skied off 250-metre cliffs with a parachute, insisting that the "close-out line" was the last uncharted horizon, we even sort-of believed him—enough to inspire a small coterie of imitators.
It may seem paradoxical, but we believe in the 37 year-old racer-turned-bumper-turned-freeskier cum inspiration because his feats and accomplishments are, in the end, so truly unbelievable.
Editor’s Note: The skiing world lost one of its brightest stars in March, 2009 when McConkey died during a ski-BASE jump in the Dolomites. Long Live Saucer Boy.
Before you start wondering how a 23-year-old could be considered one of the most influential skiers of the past 35 years, consider this: Hall was 14 when people first started to utter his name as skiing's future star. He was 16 when he competed in his first X Games, 17 when he started his reign of six consecutive years with a medal, and 19 when he and a bevy of other big-name pros teamed up to found a ski company called Armada. At a young age, Hall—the only skier to ever be sponsored by SNOWBOARDER Magazine—already has almost a decade's worth of influence on the ski world. And that clout is poised to only grow.
This story was first published in the December, 2006 (35.4) issue of POWDER. Subscribe to “The Skier’s Magazine” today.