Story by John Clary Davies
Video by Lisa Phillips
Kent Kreitler was done with skiing. He didn’t re-sign with any of his sponsors in the years following Reverence: The Kent Kreitler Story, in 2004. He bought 150 acres in Panama and traded his Gore-Tex for a Buddhist robe. And by 2008, citing Doug Coombs' death in 2006 and a lack of fulfillment, he walked away from a prolific, 15-year professional career.
Now, Kreitler is back at Squaw Valley, Calif., where he came of age with Shane McConkey and others during a golden age of freeskiing in Tahoe, when possibilities seemed endless. This past winter, Kreitler says he had one of the best seasons of his life—because he skied on his own terms. "It was just a blast to show up in the KT line on a bluebird powder day at Squaw," says Kreitler. "I don't know the last time I had done that, because I was always on a snowmobile at 5 a.m. to shoot somewhere. I had such a blast last winter when I could just show up and be a nobody."
Apart from a ski pass from Squaw, Kreiter says he is “basically sponsor-less” nowadays, and for work, he is guiding a limited number of heli trips out of Tahoe and Alaska this winter. He's also developing curriculum around spirituality and skiing, and hopes to offer heli trips that combine dharma study on down days. Here, in a recent interview with Powder.com, the yogi reflects on his ski career and life beyond it.
Shane McConkey and I were living in a house that was surrounded by frat houses and really close to campus, and none of us were really on that track, and we all loved skiing, so we'd pack up the car and go skiing. Living with Shane was crazy. At that point he was probably goofier than he ever was.
I won the '93 U.S. Extreme Championships and I met all the other characters—[Doug] Coombs, [Dean] Cummings, Swanny [Dave Swanwick], Jim Zell, Jeff Zell and Dean Conway—and that was kind of the beginning of the subculture of the culture for me.
It was interesting going into something and having no idea what we were getting into. There was no footage available from the year before, it was just kind of wide open. It was a totally new and unexpected experience and I just went and skied as hard as I could. After that, I saw a track. OK, I just won this thing. This is going to go somewhere. This sport is going to go somewhere.
I knew my hometown wasn't the place where it was going to happen. I was ready to get out of Colorado and Tahoe just happened. It was going to be a season and it ended up being half my life. I moved in with Shane at first, and then I moved into the valley. I lived in Squaw Valley for 15 years.
I shared a bedroom with this girl and had my bed in a huge closet and had all my things in the closet. We used to go bungee jumping. We bungeed the Golden Gate Bridge on one of these midnight missions.
There were so many new companies and so much energy around Tahoe. The athletes were really wild, youthful, irresponsible and fun. Everything was unregulated in the sport, and everyone was just eccentric and pioneering. Basically the introduction of action sports into the mainstream was happening right there.
Everyone was out almost every night of the week it seemed like. And it was affordable. At our age category, in our early 20s, people weren't really concerned about their future, to be honest.
Within a couple years I was getting at least ten grand from a ski deal and ten with a clothing deal with a travel budget. As long as we had money for food and rent, the main thing was to get travel covered, and keep traveling, and sending photos home to keep all those people happy. It was fun. I did it for 15 years and as I got further into it I was requesting more compensation.
I was always promoting the sport. I was so passionate about it I just didn't think about anything else.
The real career highlights for me were pioneering new areas in Alaska… It was like being an explorer.
I've been out of it now for three years. I reached a place where I felt like though my whole career was as enjoyable as it was, I was also constantly pioneering on the business side. I'm worth this much. I'm worth it because of this and now I'm worth it because of this and now I'm worth it because of this. I got to the point where I was 38, old for a professional athlete anyway, and all the energy was going toward kids, which was super important, and I didn't know how to define the value of a veteran. I just noticed where I was, you know, I'm finding myself not willing to take the risks I took for years.
When Doug Coombs died I was very affected psychologically. For someone with such a high capacity and knowledge to pass away was kind of disrupting for me. Having achieved all the goals I ever had in skiing, it was like, ‘OK, where do I go from here?’
I got to this point where I was like, do I want to be doing this anymore? Signing posters and holding babies?
I decided it was best to make a full disconnect and drop everything.
It gets to a point with anything people do where your passion and your love for something turns into a job and then the job can become more of a job than a passion.
I really had a bitchin' season last year living in Tahoe. Honestly, I was borrowing skis. I'm wearing clothes that are three years old and I'm just totally liberated. I don't have to show up for a photo shoot. I just have to ski with my buddies and it's awesome.
No one should ever underestimate the amount of days athletes put in getting up at ridiculous hours, getting a fraction of the runs that everyone else gets, and like, really wanting to do their best for skiing and for the ski industry and in order to maintain their job.
My primary drive in my life is my being-ness in the world as a yogi, as a Buddhist, as a person who wants to see the ultimate and help other people experience that. [That] feeds me in a way that nothing else feeds me.
Life keeps going and I think it's important to keep moving forward, however that looks to anyone, but it's important to keep asking questions and keep taking steps because life doesn't stop. And if you want to live a fulfilling life like I do, I just have to keep going.
[Shane's death] was kind of surreal. It just brought up a lot of questions around what Shane was doing. What I had done. And what really is the importance of being so radical? Is it really benefitting people?
Every time someone passes away like this I just hope it brings up questions for people so they regulate how crazy they get.
Life goes on after skiing, and if your identity is completely wrapped up in your last stunt or what kind of notoriety you're getting, take a step back and look at what other opportunities you have and the amazing life you have and how amazing the world is and how many other opportunities there are outside of taking risks and being a stuntman.
If someone really wants to take a risk and wants to take on amazing opportunities and challenges this day and age, get into politics. Do something good for the world. We need people who are courageous and willing to take risks and take a stand for something that's important. The attitudes of extreme skiers and BASE jumpers, we need those people out in the world progressing society, because that's the frame of mind it takes to move the world forward.