World Cup downhill racers are, without question, the most badass men and women on skis. Badass-er than Chugach straightliners, badass-er than I-skinned-for-three-months-and-slept-in-my-puffy-the-whole-time-to-reach-this-peak alpinists; badass-er than those kids who throw spins and flips off giant booters. The guys and gals who charge 80-plus mph down free-falling, off-camber pitches on glare ice don't just suppress the urge to go into the world's fastest pizza wedge, they actively step on the accelerator, making them a cut above the rest on the overall slab of badass meat.
This isn't the easiest position for me to take. I'm a lapsed (a more honest man would say failed) ski racer myself. I walked away from the sport at 18 after a mediocre New England high school career, based in large part on my assessment that ski racers weren't really skiers—they were jocks who chose to ski because they weren't sure they could make varsity football. And I really didn't like jocks.
From there, I moved to Colorado, learned what powder was, learned to ski it, got a job at a ski magazine, and loudly proclaimed from the bully pulpit of print that the second generation of Alaskan big-mountain pioneers (Shane McConkey, Kent Kreitler, Kristen Ulmer, Seth Morrison, to name a few) were the most badass skiers who ever lived. We turned "FIS Sucks" into a marketing campaign, and believed Spandex one-piece suits were inappropriate under any circumstance outside the Infinity War.
Unfortunately, with age comes wisdom, which is just a nicer way of saying that, if you make them long enough, you'll see most of your arguments come apart over time.
At this point, it might be helpful to define the term "Badass." For purposes of this argument (yes, we're arguing, fight me), it means the skier is performing at the highest level on three fronts:
1. Physical Performance
I spent a good chunk of my career surrounded by world-class big mountain skiers. Most were vertical-devouring animals who avoided turning at all costs and rarely broke a sweat. Many were also happy to do this with a hangover, which made them a lot of fun to party with. But if you can perform at the top of your class while hungover, your class doesn't demand true peak physical fitness. And, sure, walking for three days before climbing and skiing a huge objective requires insane fitness, but you take as many breaks as necessary.
World Cup downhill skiers, meanwhile, need to tolerate 3.5 g's, which increases their felt weight by more than a factor of three. Their knees experience torque force similar to that found in a front-end loader. Most of them can leg press in excess of 900 pounds. If you're still not swayed, Google "Didier Cuche training" and find the video of the five-time Hahnenkamm champ lunging across a gym with 150 pounds on his shoulders and frog-hopping stadium stairs two at a time.
Show that video to your favorite big mountain skier, and then go have beers and laugh about how you're totally not doing that.
2. Raw Courage
I've stood at the top of film-worthy peaks with near-vertical pitches, multiple potential fracture zones, and endless exposure. The appropriate reaction to these places is terror. The fact that big mountain skiers and alpinists stand in similar places and feel unbridled excitement speaks volumes about their courage.
Still, the statistics alone of World Cup downhill tracks are daunting: top speeds at Wengen exceed 95 mph; the starting pitch at St. Moritz is more than 45 degrees; the Hahnenkamm's Mausefalle jump is nearly 230 feet of air. Then, combine that speed and air on a water-injected frozen course, where officials often wear crampons just to keep from doing a slide-for-life.
3. Technical Skill
Everyone knows that fat skis made things easier in deep snow. What that translated to for big mountain skiers and alpinists is a greater margin of error—part of McConkey's inspiration for reverse camber, reverse sidecut skis was a desire to chuck them sideways in soft snow in order to shave speed like a snowboarder.
Meanwhile, product innovation for World Cup downhillers has been laser focused on one goal: going faster. Ski lengths, materials, and sidecuts are all adjusted in order to empower the skier who can identify the fastest line and then hold it at the highest speed possible on the hardest snow imaginable. No one who's seen slow-motion footage of a skier navigating the Hahnenkamm's Karusell alongside footage of a big mountain airplane turn can argue that the latter is a more technically difficult turn, let alone made on a noodle of a ski, comparatively.
And if you really want to argue the point, ask yourself: How many World Cup downhillers have become world-class big mountain skiers? Jeremy Nobis, Daron Rahlves, and Wendy Fisher all come to mind. How many world-class big mountain skiers have become World Cup downhillers? Jon Olsson is the closest you'll get, and he never made it out of the Europa Cup circuit. In GS.
I suspect the vast majority of World Cup downhillers are still just jocks—sorry, Austrian downhill team, but you don't look like fun guys to drink a beer with.
Then again, there's another thing that comes with age: a decreasing giving of shits. So let the guys and gals in the superhero suits with the tree-trunk legs take their rightful place in the extreme sport pantheon. The rest of us can enjoy the show … and then go ski some powder.
Micah Abrams was one of the original editors of FREEZE Magazine. He definitely can't hang with the Austrian downhill team, on the hill or at the bar.
This story originally appeared in the December 2018 (47.4) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.