Consider the phrase “extreme skiing.” The term was invented by the French, who in the 1970s began calling steep ski mountaineering “Ski Extreme.” The phrase was an elegant construct, and so was the American version. In two short words, “extreme skiing” caught the essence of steep wild snow — the heart of ski alpinism.
A cadre of North Americans followed the lead of the Europeans. In 1978 Chris Landry skied Colorado’s Pyramid Peak’s now iconic East Face , and in 1980 he cleaned Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier. In 1978 and 1979 alpinist Steve Shea knocked off notable descents in the Tetons, including the second and third of the Grand Teton.
But Eurostyle extreme skiing as Shea and Landry practiced was slow and tedious — not the stuff of a ski movie. Indeed, Shea’s voracious Teton skiing was filmed, but the subsequent movie, “Fall Line,” was about as well known to American skiers as Russian television (where, amazingly, the movie was seen at least once).
(Actually, almost every American has seen part of Fall Line. If you’re of boomer age or older, you might remember a film-snip of a horrendous fall down a couloir, shown for several years as an opening for ABC TV’s “American Sportsman” show. That ignominious screamer was Shea performing in, you guessed it, Fall Line. The story behind Shea’s fall is grist for another column; but note that Fall Line was the first full-length action film in the world to feature extreme skiing. It was made by American’s — in the United States.)
If a greater number of North American skiers had hit the harder descents like the Euros were doing in the 1970s, perhaps the sport would been easier for the North American media to convey. Perhaps “Fall Line” would have received the cheers it deserved — and inspired more to explore the steeps. But North American skiers lacked the European alpine tradition that inspires extreme skiers.
What’s more, to ski with the caliber of Shea or Landry you had to combine mountaineering skills with state-of-the-art skiing. Other skiers of the 1980’s were capable of such synthesis, but many who’d qualify as climber-cum-skiers were side tracked by telemark skiing. A few such skiers touted their “first nordic descents.” Yawn. For the sport to be sexy it had to stick to the point: To ski at the ultimate limit of the possible; to ski spectacular terrain; to master the unknown by making first descents. Who cared what equipment you used — what counted was the mountain and route you skied down!
Because of all the above, 1980’s extreme skiing was not the hot news that North Americans slurped with their morning coffee. Few people did it, and even fewer watched. What was a writer or film-maker to do?
To fill the gap, the North American ski media focused on a small but accessible group of western skiers who jumped off cliffs. Magazine hacks and movie moguls promulgated these stunts as “extreme” skiing. A 1981 magazine article entitled “Ski to Die” epitomized this Barnum & Baily approach. Picturing a few minor cliff jumps and people skiing straight down slopes with safe run-outs, the article included photo captions such as “..if it’s too narrow to turn in and too steep to check, you can always just TUCK IT!” Try that on Mount Rainier or the Grand Teton.
By 1992, the “sport” of cliff jumping had reached a tragic extreme. Paul Ruff dressed in his sponsors clothing, carefully placed his photographers, then leapt to his death trying a record jump of 160 feet, (ironically, still hundreds of feet short of distances flown by nordic ski jumpers.) By then, at least a few people had realized that true extreme skiing had little to do with gear, air or hair; but was about wild snow and mountaineering. “The word extreme got overused”, extreme ski movie star Glen Plake was quoted in a 1991 magazine article, “Some guy jumps off a cliff and calls himself an extreme skier — he’s not even close…”
But Plake’s comments came too late. The word “extreme” had already been perverted by the ski media and stolen by the resort ski industry. Presently, even the expert slopes at our local ski area are called “extreme.” To paraphrase Plake, they don’t even come close.
By the classic definition, in-bounds skiing at any American resort could never be extreme. Sure, you can experience fear on such slopes. You can experience mastery. Or failure. Still, go perch on a mountainside twelve miles from help, with not a person in sight, on wild snow that no one has ever skied, with no avalanche control — on terrain that’s steep enough to take special skills to handle. The gap between such skiing and the most “extreme” at a resort is a chasm the size of the Jackson Hole valley. It’s such a big difference that calling the two sports the same name is a ludicrous exercise in egalitarianism.
To further flog the poor word, I’ve even heard “extreme” skiing called a “state of mind.” In other words, you can do it while lying in bed enjoying a vivid dream. When a term gets to that point, you might as well pucker your lips and blow hard — the sound you hear has about the same meaning.
Yes, the word “extreme” was stolen from us. Then it was doused with gasoline and burned to ash. At best, “extreme” now has the meaning of words such as “super” or “marvelous.” So what words can we use to replace it? The term “alpinism” is a good start; it connotes a degree of spirituality and commitment. Thus “ski alpinism” could be a good phrase. “Ski mountaineering” is a good term for everything you do on skis on mountains, but it paints with too broad a brush. “High expert skiing” has been suggested, but three word phrases are poor for speaking, and worse still for writing. At any rate, now that high alpine expert adventure ski mountaineering alpinism is in vogue, I’ll be interested in what we end up calling it.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.