Suz Graham and ‘Creeper in the Woods-style’

Emergent big mountain sender talks candidly about fear, flips, skiing like a guy, and Japanese music videos

Photo: Bryan Ralph

Photo: Bryan Ralph

By Ryan Dunfee

Suz Graham, the ski-BASE jumping native of Salt Lake City, blew up on the scene two years ago when her large backflips caught the public eye during the 2010 Red Bull Cold Rush. She won the women's competition and, after a month of online voting, finished fourth for the People's Choice Award—for both the women and the men.

Graham, 25, is back on the radar again this winter for being the first athlete named to Silverton Mountain's pro team. For as rare and raw a mountain as Silverton, Graham is an appropriately atypical choice. And she marked the occasion by promptly rolling her car off the dirt road between town and the mountain… She’s OK. Recently, caught up with Graham to talk about fear, the unique challenges for women in big-mountain skiing, stunt doubling for a Japanese music video, and how to get better the old-fashioned way: by chasing the most badass-looking skier in the liftline. What’s cracking?
Suz Graham: Just got off the phone with my insurance company. I was in a car wreck last week and totaled my car and lost everything, including my computer, so I’m getting that all figured out. Thank goodness for insurance!

One of Graham's recent flips didn't end well—that is, in a creek off the Silverton Mt. access road. Photo: Suz Graham

One of Graham's recent flips didn't end well—that is, in a creek off the Silverton Mt. access road. Photo: Suz Graham

What happened? I slid off the road on the way up to the mountain and rolled down the embankment into the river.

Was that more or less scary than anthing you’ve done on skis or BASE jumping? Way more scary. I wasn’t in control at all… just along for the ride. Then I end up upside down in a river. With the windows broken and water rushing in.

Were you at any risk of drowning? I don’t know, it was pretty shallow—but if I had been knocked out… I think my head would have been underwater. Scary to think about.

Skiing much? It’s so thin everywhere. I go skiing almost everyday but it’s hard to last more than a couple hours.

Just groomers at Alta or what? Yea… we ski “off piste” which is super gnarly, but it’s something interesting to do. … Avoid the ground—the literal dirt and rocks that shows through.

So you grew up in SLC? Yeah, I was born in Calgary, but my family moved here when I was really young. So yeah, grew up here—learned how to ski at Alta. Lucky girl.

Was your lifestyle growing up similar to what it is now? More or less, I guess. I mean, I was really lucky growing up because it was always centered around being outside, playing in the mountains, and doing things in the outdoors instead of staying inside playing video games or something like that. My parents are skiers and I remember going skiing just about every weekend, going camping all the time, river trips, etc.

Graham at last year's Red Bull Cold Rush in Silverton. Photo: Jim Harris

Graham at last year's Red Bull Cold Rush in Silverton. Photo: Jim Harris

Were you doing as batshit crazy stuff then? My two older brothers were really good skiers, and they inspired me to start hitting jumps and skiing off cliffs at a really early age. All I wanted to do was to be able to follow them around and keep up.

Are they doing anything on your level now? I was always kind of fearless as a kid, always up to try anything and never wanted to miss out on what anyone else was doing or trying. They are both working professionals [now], one is a doctor and the other a computer engineer, and they don’t live in the mountains anymore. Both great athletes still but kind of gone in a different direction that I did. They admit I’m the crazy one now.

I was going to ask you if you sucked all the crazy out of your parents’ genes. Not all of it, but a lot I think. I don’t know if I can even call myself completely “fearless” now. I think I have always just been gifted with the ability to look at something logically and really be able to assess the risk. But I definitely have built it up, and it’s funny how normal some things become.

How did you evolve from looking at cliffs or whatever with fear to approaching them more objectively? Well, honestly, when I was younger and starting to want to ski off cliffs and ski bigger lines, I would just follow people. I wasn’t confident enough to pick out stuff. But I thought if someone else did it first, then I could do it too.

It’s hillarious now, but I would be skiing by myself—this is when I was probably 15 years old—and I would pick out people in the lift line who looked like they were good skiers, and I would just follow them, total creeper in the woods style… Staying far enough away that I hoped they wouldn’t notice, but I’d totally follow good skiers around and try and do what they do. I don’t know what I would think now if I noticed some little girl tracking my friends and I around.

That’s hilarious. Then I just started to slowly learn how to assess things on my own, what was reasonable and doable. I’ve definitely gotten myself in trouble more than a few times, but I guess that’s part of the learning curve.

What would be an example of that kind of a situation you’ve put yourself in? One of the first big mountain competitions I did, I just got too anxious and was in a new area, not familiar with the terrain and put a lot of pressure on myself to do something radical. I got a little lost and ended up skiing off a massive cliff that had basically no landing area. I shattered thumb and wrist and took a chunk out of my helmet when I landed. I was really lucky not to have been seriously messed up. It was a stupid decision. I just didn’t have a chance to really look at it and my emotions got in the way that time.

Where was that? Crested Butte.

Trestles are a good place for reflection... if you're Suz Graham. Photo: Suz Graham collection

Trestles are a good place for reflection... if you're Suz Graham. Photo: Suz Graham collection

So how has that part of your game evolved? I’ve learned it’s never that important. Even if I’m in a competition or have some sort of pressure, like cameras or something, if I don’t feel totally confident about it then I need to take a step back.

How do you perceive that women go through the process of preparing for big mountain lines and cliffs—getting over the fear, committing, having confidence? We are definitely much more conservative and calculated for the most part. The emotion thing is a big part and something everyone has to deal with, but seems to be especially present in women.

The biggest thing is getting past that emotional side of things and really being able to think logically and take a calculated point of view. I always say it’s all about seperating the percieved risk from the actual risk. … Most men just seem to be able to block that fear out, or don’t have that internal sense trying to hold them back. Sometimes I’m amazed, and jealous, how some guys can just turn their heads off and be psyched all the time.

I think women in general are more succeptable to fear in the way that we just have this primal instinct to protect ourselves, more than men do I think. It makes us think twice and sometimes I wish I could turn that off, but it’s a good thing too.

Need a ski-BASEing stuntwoman for your next Japanese music video? Suz Graham is your girl. Photo: Suz Graham collection

Need a ski-BASEing stuntwoman for your next Japanese music video? Suz Graham is your girl. Photo: Suz Graham collection

Are you ever able to turn “it” off now and be absolutely fearless? I feel that women have an extra pressure on them to perform, to prove that they deserve to be there too. But it’s a double-edged sword in things like filming and competitions, because on one hand girls want to show that they can step up to the plate too, but on the other hand the media, society, etc., has kind of made this padding for women, putting them on a seperate platform so it can sometimes be an excuse to back off, to not really push yourself, which ends up really backfiring in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t think “it” ever really turns completely off, but sometimes I get really excited, super fired-up for some reason, and it all just comes so much easier. The most impressive things I’ve ever done have all just been when I’m with my friends, having a good time. Unfortunately, that’s usually when the cameras and judges are all gone.

This is why I’ve started this new idea of just filming everything and anything, bringing a GoPro in the pocket, because I’m convinced that I can show some of the world’s greatest skiing—a lot done by women, that nobody has ever seen—with a low-budget, low-pressure, media like little online edits shot with a GoPro. They could potentially blow big shot productions out of the water—at least content-wise, my editing skills are not so awesome.

How does the Cold Rush play out with both the men and women at the same venue? It’s so awesome. Cold Rush takes away that weird segregation that happens. Everyone is together, doing the same thing. It was a huge honor for me the first year—I won fourth place, People’s Choice Award, that was combined men and women.

When the men and women aren’t segregated, when they are judged the same, on the same venue, on the same platform, women are going to inherently step it up. I once had a judge tell me in a big mountain comp a long time ago to “stop trying to ski like a guy. You don’t need to, if you just tone it down a couple notches you will win every time.”

I didn’t want to hear that—there is a reason why women’s competition skiing is so drastically below the men’s in most cases. … There are definitely chicks out there pushing it these days though. [But] because they are held at a different level, you don’t have to try as hard or take as big of risks to win.

Competitions like the Cold Rush not only take off the pressure of being totally solid and stable—since it’s rider judged, you get rewarded for pushing the limits. Even if you crash, you will most likely still be given a higher score than someone who is just conservatively taking the easy route. You can’t “win by default” at competitions like the Cold Rush. They foster an environment that is similar to what I was talking about earlier—just having fun with your friends, feeding off each others’ energy, trying new things, pushing the limits, having an awesome time.

(Viewing note: See Graham’s double-flip from the 2010 Cold Rush at 3:00.)

What’s the deal with your sponsorship with Silverton this year? Basically, I just really love the area—spent a lot of time there last year and got talking with Aaron, the owner, and talked about the possibility of partnering up this year. I love the area and am planning on heading there to do some filming and ski some big lines.

Will they be giving you some sort of private access and free passes and heli rides? How is it going ot work out? They like my style of skiing and I guess I’m the kind of rider they want to be representing Silverton. I have a season pass for the unguided season, and when they turn to guided only, I’m going to be able to do some projects there that I’m currently working on. Hopefully some heli time too…

It’s experimental this year. We are just feeling it out but have a good thing going on. I love the area and the town—despite that the road ate my car and tried to eat me—and the people, and the owners are into me as an athlete. So it’s a good partnership.

How did you start getting involved in stunt doubling and commercial work? I wish I could do more! It just sort of found me I guess. I am unique in the way that I’m the only woman who currently ski-BASE jumps, one of the fewer women who BASE jumps regularly, and who is a big mountain skier. So when some production wants a girl who can do all that… they put out the call and eventually find me. It’s awesome. Unfortunately there isn’t really a big market for female ski-BASE stunt work.

But the fact that I do more than one or even a few extreme sports make me unique, so I get those jobs easier. I have thought of trying to get more into it, get an agent and such, but I don’t really know how to break into that world. I’ll tell you though—Hollywood pays a lot more than the ski industry.

Can you carry your ski season on one stunt gig? It really varies, but they have definitely saved me in the past. The problem is I can’t count on it happening.

What was the deal with that Japanese music video you did? Ridiculous, right? Makes absolutely no sense. … I got approached by some agent in L.A. that had heard about the job, turns out they reached out to a ton of different people, skiers, BASE jumpers, etc. They even talked to Shane McConkey about doing it with a wig! They did the typical Hollywood run around, I didn’t know if I had the job until literally like the week before. They even flew me out to L.A. one morning, and back that evening, just to have me try some clothes on. It was all so bizarre.

But I got to go heliskiing in AK—lifetime goal!—and pick out a ski BASE up there. One of the best ski BASEs I’ve ever hit, been wanting to go back ever since. As far as the storyline of the music video—don’t ask me.

This is one with the bow tie chute? Was that even a real chute? So they had a custom all-white parachute built for me for the video, two actually, and they asked the manufacturers if they could make it bow tie shaped. We told them, actually, if your parachute looks like a bowtie when it opens, that means you have a horrible malfunction and you are now spinning toward the ground. So they went for the post-production editing on that one…

That’s hilarious. So that ski BASE was supposed to be part of the video? They also had me wear this really weird coat dress thing… and wanted me to ski BASE with a purse. The coat was some crazy designer and half rabbit fur. It apparently cost 8,000 dollars, no joke. And I cut holes in it for my leg straps. Yeah, that was what the idea was behind the video—they wanted to make it kind of like that James Bond chase scene where they are skiing around and it ends in a ski BASE.

Any clue what the singer is singing about? No clue, and I never met her. Alaska is too cold for her anyway.

How much heli time and ski time did you get on that trip? Tons of heli time, like hours, just looking for the ski BASE. And hardly any ski time. Makes me sick how much money they paid for all the heli time flying around.

Who did you fly with? Dean Cummings. The cool part about that trip was I brought a “stunt coordinator” with me. And they paid him a ton too—basically someone to hit the ski BASE first.

Who’d you finagle into doing that for you? My BASE jumping mentor, Jesse Hall, one of the top ski BASE guys around.

Other plans for this season? Getting radical, and getting it on film—with no particular production company since my sponsors and me are too broke to afford to put me in a movie. So GoPro footage it is! And it’s gonna be rad.