Travis Ganong training at Mammoth. Photo: Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain

Words: Heather Hansman

Staring down a 50-degree Alaskan spine line is a lot like standing in the start gate of the idiotically steep Hahnenkamm downhill course. Travis Ganong knows that because he's clicked into his skis on top of both of them. This spring, the U.S. Ski Teamer, who placed 12th in Kitzbuhel this year, ditched his race skis and headed to the Chugach to film with Warren Miller Entertainment.

Does racing set you up for big mountain skiing?
The mental preparation is really similar; I was surprised how comfortable I was. We spent a lot of time looking at our lines, which is a lot like racing. In Alaska you're in the heli figuring out a safe zone. I get to look at what I'm going to do, plan turns, look for cues for timing. Racing is all reaction skiing, same with Alaska, but the actual skiing part is a lot more enjoyable.

So you're not really just a racer, huh?

Growing up racing in Squaw we'd train in the morning, then ski KT-22 in the afternoon. The philosophy there is pretty different. We had a 2-inch rule: If it snowed more than two inches we would go out freeskiing, and it snows a lot at Squaw.

Why did you end up racing?
I did both a lot growing up, but I really excelled at racing, plus my sister was on the team, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I always wanted to keep racing and do World Cup downhill, but I never thought I'd get to that point, it seemed like it just worked out.

Was it ever a struggle?
I made the U.S. Ski Team when I was 16 and I've been on it every year except for one. Three years ago I did my first World Cup, but the year before that, I didn't qualify for the team, so I refocused on training and changed equipment and did a lot of stuff on my own. I came out that fall and started beating people.

For those of us who will never race World Cup, what's the Hahnenkamm like?
It's one of the scariest situations you can ever put yourself in. It's a mind trip knowing you're going to have to go down this icy, bumpy, steep face. They groom it two weeks ahead of time, then water it. If it snows, too bad. By race day after we've all done three training runs it's gnarly bumpy. You have to be super balanced.

During the season are you just running gates all the time?
Sometimes racing turns into a grind. On the speed team we all travel with powder skis. Nyman, Marco and Erik Fisher, those guys all want to ski. Racing is not all about racing. I preach that mentality; I think the skills translate over so well. Our coaches let us have freedom to go freeski. I got a couple of good days at Chamonix this winter, there was so much snow there.

So you guys just go out and rip around in Cham?
No, I'm a lot more cautious than I used to be, because I have goals like winning a World Cup race. Going to Sochi Olympics 2014 is a huge goal, too. I didn't go to Vancouver, so that would be my first Olympics. Then I'm thinking about the next one in South Korea. I'm pretty young for a downhiller. I'd be 33 or 34, which is kind of the peak age for ski racers now. Speed guys peak later. You have to have so much experience, mentally. I am definitely in no way satisfied with what I've done now.

Think you'll end up back in Alaska?
Maybe after racing I'll go more into freeskiing. If I could emulate Daron [Rahlves], that would be ideal.