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The two ‘extremes’ of snowsports

Scott Willoughby

Because there appear to be several riders out there in need of special attention, I’m going to spell this out right up front, as clearly as possible: there is “extreme” and there is extremely stupid.And as evidenced by some of the near misses in Colorado last week, there is also extremely lucky.Case in point, the 24-year-old Snowmass local who ducked a rope in the decidedly gnarly Hanging Valley area of Snowmass Mountain and was swept over a cliff estimated nearly 100 feet high. Somehow he managed to land on his skis, uninjured, standing upright but buried up to his neck in snow.After yelling for help, ski patrol ultimately dug him out and pulled his pass before Aspen Skiing Company spokesman Jeff Hanle confirmed my point (see paragraphs one and two) in the local papers.”What he did is stupid, and he’s lucky to be alive,” Hanle said.Case number two, the 24-year-old skier from Littleton who broke his arm when he was buried in an avalanche outside the boundary rope at Arapahoe Basin three days after moving to Summit County. To his credit, he reportedly was wearing an avalanche beacon when he and three friends ducked the rope to gain access to the “Fourth Steep Gully” adjacent to the ski area. That helped his friends locate him and dig him out of the avalanche debris before being fined $300 for violating the Skier Safety Act and shocking Scott Teopfer, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.”What the heck was he doing there?” asked Teopfer, noting the “extreme” avalanche danger reported throughout the central mountains and the “exceptional” in-bounds skiing on the day of the incident.Now it’s only speculation, but if we were in class and I was called upon to raise my hand and answer Teopfer’s query, I’d blame it on the “extreme” thing. I’d say all these yahoos were looking to get their ya-yas in the hair on the other side of the rope so they’d have a rad story about their epic day to tell their bros at the bar. It would not only prove they were men, but men who could ski the steep, deep powder everyone else considered out of bounds.There were others in their tribe last week, including one who fainted and nearly asphyxiated before his partner luckily spotted his ski tip sticking out of the snow after an avalanche swept him over a cliff and buried him under four feet of snow outside the boundary at Beaver Creek. Despite confessed knowledge of the avalanche hazard and two recent avalanche deaths, neither man was equipped with appropriate safety gear.As many as 80 slides a day were reported during the winter’s most intense storm cycle last week, and it is estimated that only 10 percent of all snowslides are even reported in Colorado. The amazing thing is that the phenomenon is nothing new. Every year, the notoriously arid Colorado snowpack undergoes its same cycle of freezing and bonding in a series of unstable layers just waiting for someone to hop on the slope and trigger another avalanche. We are currently in the heart of it.Still, there is no shortage of harrowing tales to tell about such experiences, often with less cheery outcomes.But there are alternatives. Especially for those extreme types.Today, for instance, marks the beginning of the big mountain freeriding competition at the annual U.S. Extreme Boarderfest at Crested Butte. A week ago, Snowmass held the second of three events that constitute the Colorado Freeride Series. The championships are scheduled for March 21-22, and winners will receive free entry and accommodations at the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships at Crested Butte beginning March 25.Admittedly, these places don’t qualify as backcountry. But in many ways, they’re better. Take, for example, Crested Butte’s Extreme Limits terrain, site of this weekend’s extreme snowboard competition and the extreme skiing championships later in the month. Skiers and snowboarders would be hard pressed to find more challenging terrain anywhere in the nation, much less Colorado, and it is not only avalanche controlled, but there’s a surface lift to drag your too-lazy-to-call-the-avalanche-hotline carcass up to the summit.Same goes for the Hanging Wall at Snowmass, where the extreme skiing and snowboarding contests are held during the Colorado Freeride Series. There will be no need to duck any ropes when the controlled lines for the competition already push the pucker factor off the chart for most riders. And anyone who qualifies for the finals boasts bragging rights aplenty at the bar.”I don’t like to use the word ‘safe.’ You have a responsibility when skiing the Extreme Limits to know your ability, what you are capable of,” said Crested Butte CEO Ed Calloway. “But there’s been a huge evolution in the snow safety world here expanding our ability to mitigate avalanches and control these arenas where we thought they are skiable.”Calloway noted that his staff was spending so much time trying to keep skiers and snowboarders out of the 550-acre Extreme Limits terrain, the resort ultimately adopted the philosophy “let’s just deal with it and get it open.”Similar philosophy is evident in the opening of the 50-plus-degree pitches of Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands and at Colorado’s newest ski area, Silverton Mountain, a full-on backcountry experience.In Crested Butte’s case, at least, the same bravado driving the decision to open such terrain led to the inevitable competition to determine who could ride it best. Not only best, but smartest.”You have to ask, ‘Why do we ski?’ We all ski for some amount of adrenaline rush. Whether we admit it or not, skiing has all those factors that excite us,” Calloway said. “I personally think the contests are a good thing. They sensationalize the act of skiing somewhat and make it pretty exciting, whether you choose to watch it on film or participate. But, if nothing else, it shows that this type of terrain can be skied and skied well, rather than people just going out there and hucking themselves.” qScott Willoughby is a Minturn-based freelance writer who hopes to pay this month’s rent after selling his new pair of K2 Super Stinx. He can be reached at snowrite@vail.net.


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