Icarus? Forget about him
Ever since Icarus launched his ill-advised flight to doom, man has attempted to fly.
It is one of the most primitive and primal of all instincts. Fortunately, it’s one we all can indulge in frequently here in the mountains. With an abundance of kickers, bumps, rolls and cliffs, we can soar like Icarus.
And, with an abundance of soft fluffy landings, we don’t have to risk our lives on the re-entry.
Hucking is one of the greatest joys of skiing and snowboarding. Sure, groomers are fun. But after you dial in your short swing, your long swing and your straight down the fall-line, what’s left?
Nothing, really, except to charge off that roller and catch a little air.
Why is air so much fun? Perhaps because it’s scary.
“When I stand on top of a really big cliff,” says huckmeister Jeff “Spack” Robertson, “I’m pretty much ready to piss my pants. But that’s the best. That’s when the adrenaline is pumping. And when you stick it, you’re a hero.”
Robertson is known for his foolishness: Amazingly big drops off of 60- or 70-foot monsters in the backcountry. But anyone can tap into the rush. All it takes is a bump, some guts and enough speed to escape the pull of gravity, if even for a moment.
As with anything, technique is essential if you want to fly, rather than tumble into oblivion like a Greek hero.
“I try to exhale as I’m going towards the lip, and release everything, all of my thoughts,” says ski-film star and two-time North American extreme skiing champion Rex Wehrman. “I pick up my feet, tuck them under my butt, and keep my hands in front of me. The ideal is to be carving a turn through the air. It’s like carving a turn on a groomed run, only you’re dropping 60-feet.”
Easy for him to say.
Still, as even a skimeister like Wehrman would admit, you can stack the odds in your favor.
“I like it to be neck-deep powder,” admits Wehrman of his ideal choice of a landing. “Steep and deep.”
For neophytes, Wehrman’s advice is crucial. Flat landings suck. They break your bones, jar your back and generally make you feel like a modern-day Icarus hitting the flat, hard ocean from two miles up at 100 miles per hour.
No, the ideal landing is soft.
It’s also steep.
“The steeper the better,” says Robertson. “It smoothes out the impact, and that’s the crucial thing.”
Then there’s the jump itself. If you’re hitting a small kicker, you want the ramp to be smooth and even. Think the beautifully manicured launchers over on Golden Peak. Ruts, bumps and any other debris that can suddenly change your trajectory at the point of takeoff are to be avoided at all costs.
But not all jumps are kickers and there’s something about cliffs that attract everyone.
“I like cliffs because it gives you the feeling of being on a rollercoaster,” says Wehrman. “You lose your stomach. The feeling of dropping and the speed at which you fall, that’s what makes big air off of cliffs fun.”
With cliffs, according to Wehrman, the key is speed on takeoff. Avoid the temptation to step right up to the edge of the cliff and take a peek over the edge. Rather, you should stand back, line it up and let it rip.
“Speed gets you away from the rocks and rocks are bad,” says Wehrman.
So where do you go when you want to throw your body into space? Vail abounds with air potential. There are the more obvious hits, like the Chair 4 Cliffs, as well as the rocks under Chair 11. These lines have the advantage of major hero factor, as everyone can see you when you go big.
Of course, they can all see you when the mountain gives you a smackdown as well, which is why those who are just starting to fly should head over to Ptarmigan Cornice. Tucked away at the top of Sundown Bowl, this drop varies in size, and usually has a nice, soft landing after storms to cushion the inevitable falls.
Then there’s the Golden Peak Terrain Park. There’s nothing quite like a controlled environment to learn to fly and Gold Peak is one of the best in the state. With immaculately groomed hits of all sizes, it’s the perfect venue to get up to speed.
For those who want to drop au natural, there’s the Dragon’s Teeth in China Bowl. Because of their southern exposure, the landings are best after deep storms. The recipe is simple here – wait for a powder day, get plenty of speed and charge into oblivion.
If Icarus was still around, he’d be stoked.
Tom Winter is a freelance writer based in Vail.