Jay, VT – Back in 1947, James Thurber’s story about a chap
named Walter Mitty was brought to life on the movie screen by the zany and talented
Danny Kaye. Mitty was an ordinary man who got himself into trouble with some
extraordinary daydreaming. Charles Schulz’ Snoopy was loosely based on Mitty,
especially the “World War One flying ace” part of Snoopy’s persona. What enamored
audiences about Mitty was that his daydreams actually became a reality, at least
to him. His imagination was so vivid that his reality was his daydream, until
his fantasy would often come to a rather embarrassing and abrupt end.
Skiers often daydream about skiing. While trapped in windowless cubicles or
stuck on the cloverleaf headed for houses in the ‘burbs, we often experience
the chill of a face shot on our cheek, or the centrifugal compression of a perfectly
carved turn in our legs. Some of us even dream about an alternate reality where
we make a living off of our passion. A few have the courage to follow this
route, and those that do often forego some things the rest of take for granted,
like 401(k) plans, dental insurance, and a new SUV in the driveway. Instructors
and patrollers make their living on the snow day in and day out, but come April
and May they often have to resort to tending lawns, teaching tennis, or waiting
tables until November.
Competitors mill about the judging platform at Jay Peak’s
In the 1990s another breed of skier for hire appeared, the “freeskier.” What
had been “extreme skiing” is now “freeskiing,” depending on who you ask. True
extreme skiing’s routes go back to the early 1980s, and to the area known as
a mecca for all things extreme: Chamonix, France. Ski d’extrem, as it
was called in french, essentially meant that if one fell while skiing an extreme
line, one died, as simple as that. There were generally no cameras present
to view these ski gods as they pedal hopped and sometime ice axed their way
down a 60 degree chute above a 3000’ cliff. No banners with energy bar logos
greeted them at the finish of their run, and their accolades grew only in the
lore of the sport, not in some flashy full page spread of a magazine with more
gloss than a New Jersey high school girls’ bathroom on prom night.
In 1991 the first World Extreme Skiing Championships (WESC) were held near
Valdez, Alaska. Legendary skiers like Doug Coombs, Dean Cummings, and Chris
Davenport won the event with a combination of grotesquely difficult lines, smooth
form, and huge amounts of air time. As the extreme moniker became expropriated
by advertisers for everything from deer hunting to fruit roll-ups, extremely
good skier Shane McConkey created the International Freeskiers Association (IFSA)
in an effort to both capitalize on the growing popularity of contests like those
held by the WESC, and to “allow the sport of competitive freeskiing to grow
with the insight and oversight of the athletes that participate in the sport.”
A judging system was created, and new types of events sprung out of the old
WESC format. IFSA now holds “Big Air”, “Slopestyle”, “Skiercross”, and “Big
Mountain” competitions, all showcasing different skills, tricks, and creativity
of the competitors. It is the Big Mountain competitions that remain the most
true to extreme skiing’s competition roots.
View Extremely Jay, a First Tracks!!
In the Big Mountain event, skiers compete on roughly the same course, which
is usually a fairly broad expanse of steep slope littered with such goodies
as cliffs, trees, ice floes, cornices, and the occasional powder field. Competitors
are judged on five different categories on a ten point scale in each of their
runs: line difficulty, control, fluidity, form and technique, and aggressiveness.
The lynch pin of the whole deal is line difficulty. If a line is judged to
be a “5” in relative difficulty, the competitor can generally score no higher
than a “7” in any other category, no matter how well they ski it, in a convention
known as the “two point rule.” A skier cannot hope to thrash through the most
difficult line on the slope and still win, though. The rest of the categories
ensure that a challenging route must be skied well in order to win. Runs are
limited to a pre determined amount of time. Go one second over that time and
the skier is disqualified.
This February the IFSA made its first ever stop at Jay Peak in northern Vermont.
Jay Peak has made great strides in recent years in their marketing appeals,
revamping their web site, installing a new lift, advertising in new markets,
etc. It seems to have paid off, as the secret is out about Jay Peak. Several
mainstream ski publications have run feature stories about Jay Peak in the last
two years, and though their heralded back country tours have been discontinued
for now (that ‘s another story), most skiers who pay attention now know about
the frequent powder days and perfect glade skiing that can be had at Jay.
When I heard about the IFSA event to be held at Jay back in the autumn, I jotted
it down on the calendar and made sure to keep the date open, as I’d surely want
to be there to cover the event for First Tracks!! Online. As the ski season
wound up and my skiing confidence grew, though, I began to entertain the idea
of writing about the event from the perspective of a competitor. Enter Walter
Four of us bounced our way up the frost-heave-laden road to Jay early one Saturday,
determined to be one of the first to plunk down $25 for the privilege of standing
in the 5-degree warmth of a Vermont winter, waiting to make a single judged
run in front of some pretty legendary IFSA judges. The X-Team’s Dan Egan, SKI
Magazine’s Joe Cutts, Backcountry and Powder writer John Dostal,
and Freeze Magazine’s Nate Abbot were all scheduled to be there. Egan
commented in the morning, “We’re looking for a skier who can make a turn where
no one else does, who skis aggressively and smoothly. Someone who is creative.”
Two of the skiers in our party of four had scoped out the course the day before,
one almost losing more than his pride on the inspection run, cartwheeling through
a steep bump field after schussing a tight chute. The course for the main event
was to be The Face, the imposing rock wall just below the upper tram station
at the summit of Jay Peak. It was a short course by IFSA standards, but scrubby
pine trees, tight rocky chutes, and a bona fide cliff band at the top meant
that the competitors would have ample opportunity to be both as creative and
aggressive as they dared. Several inches of fresh had fallen overnight, and
the lower reaches of the course were socked in with wind-consolidated powder.
The format was a two-run affair, one qualifying run on the comparatively tame
Green Beret to weed out the undesirables, and one on the Face that was scored.
Over 125 skiers and boarders had entered. Ascending the tram to take the qualifying
run, a hush fell over the cabin as the Face came into view. A tele skier nailed
a perfect line below us, filling the tram car with whoops and hollers. There
was very little posturing or poseur talk. These folks were here to show the
world what they could do, and extraneous trash talk wasn’t part of the plan.
We gathered atop Green Beret, eager to get this qualifying run over with. Then
Walter’s fantasy curse visited me. I froze on the first turn of the qualifying
run, got bogged in a pile of powder, and released from my ski. It was enough
for the judges to raise a little pole with a square piece of plastic at the
end of my run, and my day was over. A wave of disappointment hit me like a
truck, but it soon passed as I realized that all my buddies had qualified.
The main event was an entertaining affair, with most skiers choosing a simple
air over a slab of rock and some wide powder turns to the finish line. Others
attempted to pick through the scrub off the main lines, but most were hampered
by stuck tips, poles, and various contorted positions that did little for their
fluidity scores. One line was particularly impressive, though. Just skier’s
right of the main slab of rock was a longer, narrower slab, complete with requisite
casing of ice. This line required either a second or two of free fall and a
hopeful recovery of control below, or some scratchy and questionable hop turns
on rock and ice. This was the spot below which First Tracks!! Online Writer
Matt Duffy had experienced his brush with eternity the day before. Most of
the skiers with the cajones to nail this line also had the skill to back
it up, and one of the members of our party, Jeremy Malczyk, took second place
with a very long flight down this chute followed by some very impressive high
speed turns to the finish.
First place belonged to Ontarian John Coleman, though, who had the audacity
to pull off a front flip over the main swath of rock. He partially fell on
the landing, but quickly regained his composure and skied well below his landing
spot. His head had missed the rock by just a couple of feet, almost spelling
out exactly why helmets are required for IFSA events. Dan Egan later explained
to Malczyk that his run had been the smoothest and perhaps the most aggressive,
but the difficulty of the line chosen by Coleman had taken precedence. We were
left wondering if IFSA events were all about skiing, or about risk-taking.
A few weeks later, Malczyk entered the Black Magic competition at Magic Mountain,
Vermont, and won it.
As for myself, I’m left waiting for next year, when perhaps the Walter Mitty
bug will strike me again. Perhaps a better strategy would be to imagine myself
as Lane Myer, trying desperately to stay ahead of the paper boy, determined
to collect his “TWO DOLLARS!” Maybe then when I lost a ski, my day wouldn’t