In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s September 1991 issue (Volume 20, Issue 1).
Story and photos by Steve Casimiro
What a lame idea, I thought, as this guy, some guy really, just a voice on the phone saying he was calling from Valdez, Alaska, went on and on and on about some extreme contest he wanted to have and did I think Schmidt of Plake would be interested in helping and did it sound like it made sense because they had great terrain and avalanche pros and helicopters and they were gonna do it, Ok, but what did I think?
What a lame idea.
I mean, Alaska. Too far, too cold, too dark, too big, too crazy. I pictured this guy, Mike Cozad: too many Januarys bivouacked with that mean old bugger, Yukon Jack. Bright red snowmobile suit. Beard. A loooong beard. A long, greasy beard. Spends the summer working on the herring fleet, the winter cleaning his guns. Until one day, when he says, "Hey, Homer, I got me an idea…"
I was polite. I nodded attentively at the phone and said my uh-huhs in all the right places. Told him I wasn't sure I like the idea of trying to make a contest out of what was to my mind the antithesis of competition. Told him I didn't think anyone would give him the insurance to hold such an event. Told him good luck and, basically, blew him off.
What a lame idea.
The major road to Valdez—the only road to Valdez—runs for 312 potholed and frost-heaved miles from Anchorage. As soon as you head east from the mudflats of Anchorage, you see glaciers and icefalls tumbling from the mountains on your right. After five hours and a turn south, you're in the Chugach Mountains, home of Thompson Pass.
Seen from above, the road through Thompson Pass (only 2,678 feet) looks like an "S" drawn by someone with the hiccups. Moving from east to west, it makes a fairly smooth curve, then bends south back east. The first hiccup hits, and takes a straight jag east, then the second one hits, making a hard elbow back west. The easy skiing–that is, the stuff you don’t have to hike for, since the nearest life is hundred of miles away–starts from a pullout at the first hiccup and head south to where the road runs straight toward town for another 27 miles.
The sky above the pass was so clear when I drove through at 1 a.m. that I could see the northern lights. When I came back up the pass 10 hours later for a little casual skiing, a brilliant sun shone on the skiers shuttling up and down. Two of the "celebrity judges" for the first-ever World Extreme Skiing Championships were there—Mike Hattrup and Glen Plake—and photographers Rod Walker and I skied four runs with the on the hard, scratchy snow. The steep chutes rising above the pass were more tempting, however, and when Plake asked if I want to hike, I said sure.
You never know what you're getting with Plake, and I wondered if I'd soon find myself facing death on some cliff with a bunch of thrash-head extremists. A pickup truck pulled up. I jumped in the back with four other guys and the truck pulled up. I jumped in the back with four other guys and the truck drove back up the pass. Despite the cold and noise of the ride, the guy wedged next to me struck out his bare hand. "I'm Nico Backstrom,"he shouted against the wind.
We tried to carry on a conversation, but the wind snatch the words away. We gave up until we got to our destination a few minutes later. The truck pulled into a gravel lot and I jumped out and met everyone else. First was Doug Coombs, who had a shaggy brown hair cut and easy smile. I'd heard about Coombs earlier last winter at Jackson, where he was a heli-guide. Coomb's name popped up over the winter, attached to epic tales of radical descents and he kept sound like some stoic hard guy. He turned out to be casual, low-key, and really friendly.
Rolling flats stretched south from the gravel lot for almost a mile before rising sharply to a broad, rocky face, and we skated across until it got steep. As we fixed skis on our packs, I met the others: Jim Conway from Salt Lake, kinda tight, ex-racer; and Bruce Ericson from Telluride, scraggly, patches and duct tap. Chris Leveroni, a Jackson instructor I'd met earlier in the winter, was there too, and of course, Nico, a Finn living in Tahoe. All were competitors.
Boot-steps had already been kicked up the right flank of the peak. It was easy to get a rhythm under the hot sun, especially since the elevation was only 3,000 feet and my breathing wasn't coming in the ragged gasps I expected at altitude. The low elevation of the Chugach was an unexpected pleasure.
We reached the top within an hour or so. From the summit, I could see for miles. Directly across the road was the pyramid-shaped 27 Mile Glacier, site of the first day of the competition, with its prominent chute running straight down the middle. To the left, across a giant icefall and another glacier, was the 55-degree face of Loveland, site of the third and most difficult day of competition. (You can see all of the features on the large photo on the opening page. Loveland goes off the page to the left, 27 Mile is in the upper right.)
I learned that the peak we were on was the site for the contest's second day. The others had skied off it once before, and were back up to check out line of descent. I didn't want to sucker myself into skiing something way over my head– these guys were there to compete at extreme skiing, remember?– so I asked where I could find a reasonably mellow line. Half-expecting to be challenged or sneered at, I was surprised when both Leveroni and Coombs were supportive. They pointed out a wide, steep chute that was impossible to see from the summit, and I understood then how much basic respect they had for everything around them—their fellow skiers, the mountains, the snow… everything was treated with value.
I also realized once again that the public perception of extreme skiers as daredevils is far from the the truth. It made me respect them that much more when, from about halfway down the wide chute, I stopped and watched them pick their way through impossibly steep corridors in the rock, working together to find the best lines instead of competing.
Valdez, Alaska, is a grubby little town in one of the most beautiful corners of the world. In early April, when you're gaining six minutes of light a day, the streets and melting snow banks are covered with an ugly gray dust. But look up, to the mountains. Pure white. These wild, spectacular, glaciated mountains surround the town and the hooked arm of Prince William Sound and give the area its nickname, Little Switzerland. The mountains are everything to Valdez.
They frame and shelter it and give it character. But the mountains, too, are nothing to Valdez, at least not commercially. For that, you have to look to the water, to the tankers that come empty and leave full of oil, and to the cruise ships that come full of tourists' money and leave a little emptier. It is this Sound—with its calving glaciers, its herring, its waters that deepen with green as the clouds thicken, and its tragic oil spill—that defines Valdez.
At least, that's the way it was before Mike Cozad got his idea to let the mountain work for Valdez. When I finally met Cozad, at a packed reception at the town's civic center, I found he didn’t have a beard. Nor did he, from what I could tell, have a snowmobile suit. He was handsome in an easy way, with a boyish smile and a bustling confidence. He tended to say, "Hey–whatever you need, I'll try and take care of it."
It seems as if half the town's 3,500 residents showed up for the reception. Miss Valdez was there, posing in a tiara and smiling with Plake, whose 'hawk was as tumescent as the Alaskan day is long. High school kids wearing Oakley glasses clipped backwards on their heads ran around collecting autographs.
It was clear the town fully supported the contest. It was also clear that without the town's support it wouldn’t have happened. Volunteers chauffeured judges, set up tents at the contest sites, and shuttled skiers around on snowmobiles. I think the town's response was a surprise to most of us visitors. I guess I'd thought of Alaska as being way the hell out of the civilized world, full of grizzled pioneers blind from the long winter nights. In truth, the people in Valdez were more civilized and less grizzled than most of my immediate family.
Mike Hattrup sat to my left, boating a sprig of green around the syrup where his pancakes had been. Next to him was Scot Schmidt, then Scot's pregnant wife, Teri. Directly across the Hattrup was filmmaker Erin"Extreme I, II, III and IV" Perlman. A couple others were jammed into a corner of the restaurant for the judges' meeting. Plake was at the next table, his back to the discussion. Always the outsider.
The topic was criteria. How do you judge this thing? The organizers had come up with a complicated system based on three runs a day, six or seven factors judged on each, all calculated, prodded, pushed, crushed, and tweaked in some kind of snarling algebra. The judges didn’t like it. It was too much, like using a mainframe to calculate one plus one. Besides, some of the factors were out of whack. Did it make sense to have the time of the run count as much as the amount of air? And what was the difference between form and fluidity? SHould you get points for a spectacular recovery or lose points because you screwed up in the first place?
Voices rose and fell, the discussion ebbed and flowed, seemingly without direction. It was always Perlman who wrestled it back. "OK," he'd say, "I think we agree that…" and someone could cut him off, "I don't agree," and the conversation would wander like the glaciers above the town.
Perlman leaned forward, addressing Hattrup. He gestured forcefully with his hands, as at a lecter. "What are we judging? Is it aggressiveness? Is it attitude? And what about time? How big a factor should time be?"
Hattrup leaned back in his chair, against the paneling, and twiddled his thumbs slowly. Perlman gestured. "If we say speed is important, we say the ability to compress a number of turns in a given area isn’t important.."
Hattrup: "I think it's more impressive to ski a given space in fewer turns."
As Perman said, "Since turning is a key element.."
"It's an element of control," corrected Hattrup.
Plake addressed the table over his shoulder. "I don't think time should be a big part of the score unless it's to disqualify someone."
Perlman, out of the blue: "OK, we get rid of recovery and put in under control." Schmidt: "Yeah control should be one of the six factors." Hattrup: "Wait, what's wrong with the way time is scored now?"
Plake said, "There should be a time quota, period. You shouldn't get points for being the fastest one down."
"The guy who does it in less time is better," said Hattrup. "Bullshit," said Plake. "We're not here to ski down the fastest. Time should be a free-floating element. It should be our mental note as to how well or aggressive the dude's skiing. But if someone stops to check out an air before he jumps… you can't mark someone down for 15 seconds of safety consciousness."
"It'll be a lot safer," agreed Schmidt. Hattrup conceded easily. "OK."
Perlman pounced. "OK, I think we agree about that. Now let's talk about…"
Under a sky the color of ghosts, Kevin Andrews waited. He was restless and uncertain.
His tips were aimed straight down the main chute of a peak called 27 Mile. It was the easy way down, and he knew it. Three competitors had gone before him in the first run and each had skied the wide, 45-degree pitch. There wasn't much extreme there.
It was different to the left, where a sharp, rocky ridge flanked the main chute. There was a face, steeper than the chute and mined with brands of ugly black rocks, that everyone called the rock garden. Extreme. But no one had skied it, and Andrew's only view had been through a pair of borrowed binoculars 2,000 vertical feet below, at the judges' table. Even the judges, who pre-ran every course, hadn't skied it.
Andrews pivoted his ski to the left, toward the ridge. Go big or go home.
What was the World Extreme Skiing Championships anyway, but 37 skiers who traveled all the way to Alaska to compete for no money in a first-time contest run by people none had ever heard of? Who cared about winning a glorified bowling trophy/ He turned his skis back to the right.
The wedge of time until his start for smaller. The north wind rustled at his clothes. As the starter said go, he turned his skis back to the left and rocketed toward the ridge.
There was a high summit cone between the face and the start gate, and Andrews had to drop behind it and approach the ridge form the backside. There was a spot where the line of the summit mellowed into the ridge, similar to the spot where your neck curves into your shoulder, and that's where Andrews looked down the face for the first time. He wasn't happy with what he saw. "Sandbagged!"
He bounced up and down on his skis. The adrenaline rush was contagious.
"Shit, I've been sandbagged. I'm in the wrong place." He looked along the ridge, to where I was dug in shooting photos. "Dude, how do I get in?
He was so hyped it seemed rhetorical. He moved back and forth along the ridge like a hound hunting for a scent. He pushed along the ridge toward me, his skis lacing front side of the knife ridge, and he skimmed around my camera bag like it wasn't there. "Man, oh man, oh man," he said under his breath as he brushed past.
He stopped above a 10-foot square patch of snow. He rocked a couple times from the waist, the leaped sideways. His skis dropped four feet and skittered on the snow, the edges screeching like the rusty wall of guitar feedback. He made a pedal turn to get his tips back to the right and slid a couple feet above some rocks. He jagges right, dropped into another ally of snow, and worked his way down the face. Next thing I knew, he aired into the main chute and disappeared on the dips and rolls of the long outrun to the finish line.
The judges had settled on five categories to be judged: aggressiveness, form, fluidity, air, and degree of difficulty. By trailblazing the rock garden, Andrews scored major points for aggressiveness and degree of difficulty. Soon after Andrew's run , the ridge was crawling with competitors checking out ways to drop in. A guy who introduced himself as Dean Cummings crawled to the edge on his stomach and whacked at the hard snow with his pole , which glanced off sharply. "Hmph," he grunted. "Rowdy."
Only the first five or six turns were visible to me from where I was dug into the ridge, but they were the most spectacular turns of the day. Tony Brey, a stocky German , skied up from the backside and looked in at the spot Andrews backed away from. "Ver do I go? Ver do I go?" he asked frantically, and the other competitors looking on laughing, and said, "Here, Tony, jump in here," and he did. He blew the turn and accelerated on his side tower rocks. About five feet above the rocks he rolled his edges over. They bounced twice, then caught, and he jetted sideways into the chute.
The most domination run of the first heat was Coombs. It was pure, unruffled control. He dropped in where the German blew it, but his turns were precise and razor-sharp. One turn, two turns: hard, aggressive, no chatter or sliding. Between rocks, around rocks over rocks, he was a picture of calm– all the while taking one of the most aggressive line of the day.
The competitors took longer than Cozad had calculated, so the third run was scratched. It didn't help that a volunteer patroller froze with fear in the main chute for 40 minutes. He remained paralyzed while fellow patrollers tried to talk him down or even out of the way so the event could continue. Eventually, a rope was thrown from the ridge high above, and he was able to scuttle to the size of the chute. "He's from Fairbanks," local patrollers would later tell anyone who would listen.
The clouds blew away in the night, and whatever heat they'd trapped was lost by radiation. It was cold in the shade at the base of Odyssey, the peak I'd skied on my first in the area. Traveling by snowmobile (they call 'em snowmachines up there) to some tents on the flats at the base of the peak, your lungs would burn and nostrils freeze. A gas generator was at the judges' table to powder portable heaters, but it wasn’t working. The judges were stamping their feet and feeling ornery.
There were more line for the competitors on Odessey than 27 Mile. As on the first day, there was an easy way down (the 45-degree chute I skied after my hike), but there were more variations off the summit. The most difficult, sustained pitch was to skier's right. About half the guys who scored big went to that side, the other half went off a cornice to skier's left. It was impossible, even watching from the judges' table, to get a sense of rhythm on Odyssey. The mountain was too big. On 27 Mile, the competitors were restricted to a limited area, which forces them to get more creative. Coombs blew away the field then because he so clearly worked the mountain best. He took aesthetic lines that had been avoided or poorly skied. On Odyssey, it was difficult to compare skiers because they were skiing such different lines.
That's not to say you couldn’t tell who was kicking ass. Even from a couple thousand feet below, you could see the push it in places where there was little room for error. Coombs put down another precise, technical line down the steep chute to skier's right. His only error was when he plugged a flat landing on some air toward the bottom of the course. Dean Cummings, pushing hard after finishing fourth on day one, launched the biggest air off the cornice, stuck the landing, and put soen a series of flawless turns. His gutsy run moved him into second behind Coombs at the end of the second day.
After the results from the second day were added, it was clear the same people were domination. In third was sumper Justin Patnode, Leveroni moved up a notch to fourth, Valdez local Greg Morris jumped to fifth, and Scott Kennett climbed three places to sixth. Kim Reichhelm was first of three women and 22nd overall.
Kevin Andrews and his skiing partner, John Hawley, rode back into town with me at the end of the day. Andrews was nonplussed by a horrible, tumbling fall he'd taken in the second run, but he considered himself out of the running (he later found out he was seventh). As we came down off the pass and Loveland came into view, I slowed down so they could get a better look. Each day, competitors and press stared up the face and wondered what waited there. Each day, it got scarier, and the relative insanity of skiing it inspired much debate. Half the field was wetting its Gore-Tex at the thought.
Andrews’ round features twisted into a grimace, "That's insane. I don't wanna die. That's just crazy. I'm not going to ski that. I don't wanna die."
Hawley said one thing, but he must have said it 30 times as he stared up at the face: "There's no way. There's no way. There's no way."
A safety meeting was held later that night so the competitors, who were wigged, could unleash their anxiety. Cozad said nothing doing.
He started off by saying, "I know there's been a lot of discussion about Loveland," and there was nervous laughter. There'd been nothing but discussion about Loveland. "As organizers, our main concern is about the snow. There have been a few inches of new snow, and if it gets sunny tomorrow there will probably be point releases."
At this, there were grumblings. "Great," one guy mumbled, "now we have to worry about getting carried over the rocks by slush." Complaints also targeted the difficulty of the slope. The only one unruffled by Loveland, it seemed, was Coombs, who just smiled. “Listen, you guys,” Cozad said. “Glen, Mike, and Scot skied Loveland today. I know it’s skiable.
"This is the final day of the event," said Cozad. "It's not suppose to be the easiest day. It's suppose to be the most difficult, and it is. But it's skiable."
The words were little comfort. Fear of the unknown and imagined pervaded the room. It didn’t help when Kim Reichhelm said, "There's a lot on the line here, you know? If somebody dies, they're never going to let us have this event again. You can't be afraid to bail. But if you ski, don't eat it."
Gray clouds cloaked the mountains. It was snowing at the pass and helicopters couldn't fly, so the event was postponed until Friday. It was a good morning to sit inside and eat your guts out thinking about Loveland. Or tromp down to the restaurant and hope you go the waitress that called everyone "doll". Coombs was there telling extreme ski jokes.
"How many extreme skiers does it take to change a lightbulb?" Pause. "One hundred…one to change it and 99 to say, 'I could do that.'"
Around 1:30 in the parking lot of the motel, I ran into Scott Kennett, who'd taken his new puppy, Sundance, on his first run down 27 Mile. Kennett had a handful of neoprene dog collars he was selling that read "Bad to the Bone." He was on of the few skiers who had hiked around on Loveland and he was concerned about the conditions.
"It was bulletproof," he said. "I came over one roll between some rocks and it was really steep. Gravity was getting the better of me. I was sliding this much on every turn [he held his hands four feet apart] on a pair of sharp, new TNCs." He shook his head at the thought of not being able to get an edge in. "I know the judges will be looking."
Always glib, he called over his shoulder as he walked away, "Edging skills or hospital bills…"
I got in my my car and drove a couple blocks to pick up Nico Backstrom. He threw his crampons and axes in the trunk and we headed up the road to check out a frozen waterfall. He was anxious about skiing Loveland.
"I had the most fun before the contest started, when I was just out skiing or yesterday on our free run when we all skied together. The contest is OK, but I'd like it if we could come back next year and just go out with a bunch of photographers and ski."
He was pensive for a moment. He stared out for a long silence as the bare trees whipped past. "It’s not going to be a lot of fun."
Valdez woke up to another day of fog, wind, and blowing snow. The event was off again, and the odds seemed slim that is would be held Saturday. After lunch, Perlman and Hattrup taped the stand ups for a POWDER TV segment in the Pipeline club, the bar where Joseph Hazelwood downed his last drink before running the Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef. The sky lightened around 5, and Hattrup, Rod Walker and I went up to the pass to try and scam a helicopter ride somewhere, anywhere, to shoot some photos.
We were lucky. Plake, Coombs, and Schmidt scored a ride to the top of Loveland with Phil Pastuhov, a video cameraman, to shoot some footage and take one last look at Loveland. We grabbed Jim Conway and snaked our way into a second lift.
The helicopter moved along Loveland's face, about half a mile out as it gained altitude, and suddenly it all seemed clear: This mountain wasn't that steep. OK, it was gnarled with rocks and there was a cornice at the top, but jeez, even I could probably ski it. What was all that whimpering about?
Then we leveled out of our bank and when I saw the true perspective of Loveland, I almost lost my lunch.
The view from the summit onto the face was almost as bad. The pitch fell away so frantically that I got chills at the thought of skiing it, even though I knew I didn’t have to. The pattern of rocks and snow looked similar to the way ruffles and pleats fall away in myriad folds and layers on a fancy dress. A million variations, a million ways to fall.
Six inches of new snow were plastered to the face. Little black chunks of rock poked up everywhere–Plake called them "chocolate chips"—and no doubt others were hidden under the new snow. Somebody, Plake I think, stated the obvious: There was no way the contest could be finished. If held under cloudy skies, the new snow hid dangerous rocks. If held on a sunny day, the warmth on the south slope would cause melting snow to avalanche.
Conway, Hattrup, Walker and I left the others and traversed off the back side of Loveland, along a huge glacial cirque. Clouds were hanging low and and dark, so we worked in a gully against some rocks, Hattrup and Conway skiing, Walker and me shooting. At 7:30 we realized we had a long way to ski back to the pass. The light was dimming as the clouds lowered further, so we went back to the summit and headed down the east shoulder. We picked our way down the ridge in the fog, following the tracks of the earlier group, each left turn a deliverance from the edge, each right turn a prayer against gravity. A few hundred feet below the summit, Hattrup and Conway stopped to peer over the edge. "Looks like they went in here," Hattrup said.
The entrance looked a heck of alot easier than up on the summit cornice, if you want to call 55 degrees "easy." There were tracks, but they were like scratches on a cutting board–a hack here, a hack there. Rod and I looked at each other. There was no way Phil skied the face sometime before us. It seemed appropriate to me that the contest ended like that–a handful of friends skiing in the fog, at the end of the day, no one watching. I wondered who went first.