A Brief History Of Extreme Skiing
Extreme skiing is what happens when you get away from the groomed runs and head for the steepest area you can find off-piste. As opposed to ‘regular’ off-piste, extreme-skiing involves slope angles of at least 45-degrees or a good-sized cliff drop.
If you’ve seen films by Matchstick Productions or Teton Gravity Research you know what extreme skiing looks like – but do you know its history? These days, thanks to advances in ski technology, it’s a lot easier to get extreme than it used to be, but back in the day skiers still sent it hard!
Extreme skiing is a term coined by the French in the 70’s who called it simply “Le Extreme”. In the days before throwing huge tricks off of cliffs and riding fat skis simply getting down a 55 degree pitch in one piece was a miracle. Can you imagine yourself going down a nearly-vertical chute with a pair of 65mm wide, 210cm long straight-skis on?
Extreme skiing’s pioneers:
The Swiss-born Saudan is considered to be one of the fathers of extreme skiing and is credited with inventing the ‘windshield-wiper turn’ in the late 1960’s. He also completed 18 of the world’s hardest first descents including Mont Blanc, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount McKinley.
The original American ski mountaineer, Briggs made his name when he skied the Grand Teton in Wyoming in 1971. As steep-skiing was more of a European phenomenon at the time Briggs’ tale of skiing the Grand was met mainly by disbelief so the next day he chartered a plane so he could go up and photograph his tracks. That photograph almost instantly became iconic amongst the American ski community.
Stefano De Benedetti
Beginning his extreme skiing career in 1976, De Benedetti racked up over 80 first descents in the Alps before hanging up his skis in 1986 after skiing Mont blanc’s Innominata Ridge.
Miura broke the speed skiing record in 1964, only to see it broken the very next day. Rather than get discouraged, it gave him an idea: be the first to ski Mount Fuji, and ski it so fast it will require a parachute to brake. In addition to Fuji, Miura skied the South Col of Mount Everest in 1970. His parachute failed due to high winds and he slid hundreds of meters down the mountain, very nearly swallowed by an enormous crevasse at the bottom. Luckily he stopped a couple of meters before going in.
Another tour-de-force amongst European steep skiers, Baud became a guide in 1973 and – literally – wrote the book on Chamonix: Chamonix – Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles Rouges – a Guide for Skiers.
Extreme skiing’s next generation; bringing the extreme to the masses.
In 1983 one of Warren Miller’s camera-men filming piste-skiing at Squaw Valley saw some local “rat-bags” skiing some incredible off-piste lines. He tracked down Scot Schmidt and asked to follow him around. Warren Miller himself called the footage from the next day “the most outstanding to have ever come through my office” – that footage of Scot dropping the Eagle’s Nest cliff sparked Scot’s film career and the direction of skiing for decades to come.
A US hall of fame skier, Plake grew up skiing moguls in Heavenly Valley and rose to prominence when he starred alongside Scot Schmidt in Greg Stumps The Blizzard of Aahhhs – widely recognised as THE movie that cemented extreme skiing as the future of the sport. It also cemented Plake’s trademark mohawk hairstyle in the minds of young extreme-skier wannabe’s the world over.
Coombs was a prolific American mountain guide who began his professional guiding career in Jackson Hole in 1986. He’s credited with over 250 first descents which include some of the most difficult pieces of terrain in five continents – many of which were featured in some of the emerging movement’s biggest films.
Doug was also one of the pioneers of Alaska’s Chugash range, and helped to open the world’s eyes to the incredibly wild terrain in the now-legendary French backcountry ski area of La Grave. Sadly, La Grave is also where Coombs lost his life in the attempted rescue of a fellow guide.
Possibly the biggest personality ever in any skiing discipline Shane McConkey started his professional skiing career on the Pro Mogul Tour but was asked to leave following a then-illegal backflip and an even-more-illegal naked spread eagle. Shane’s fun-loving personality shone through in all the films he was featured in, especially when dressed as his extreme-skier pastiche character ‘Saucer Boy’.
McConkey also played a huge part in the fat-ski movement which he initiated in the mid-ninties, initially by using the 90mm underfoot Volant Chubb as his every-day ski (at the time fat skis were considered a crutch for poor skiers). Years later Shane was out waterskiing with some friends when he had a Eureka moment, realising that powder snow behaves more like water than it does hard-packed snow. He mounted some ski bindings to a pair of waterskis in the prototype that would eventually become the K2 Pontoon in 2006. Reverse camber, reverse sidecut and tapered-tail skis, all commonplace today amongst powder skiers, are all a product of McConkey’s imagination. Sadly Shane passed away during a ski-BASE jump accident in the Dolomites in 2009.
Seth Morrison was possibly the most visible figure in extreme-skiing as truly began to go mainstream in the early 2000’s. Between 2000 and 2013 Seth had featured parts in 24 major extreme ski films from Teton Gravity Research, Warren Miller Entertainment, Matchstick Productions and others. During this time he was also the winner of 15 Powder Video Awards and had many pro-model skis and boots produced by his sponsors K2 and Full Tilt.
How to start extreme skiing
As the saying goes, you need to learn to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. Similarly, you’ll need to master groomed runs in resort before heading off-piste. Get comfortable with groomed reds and blacks, then try skiing on ‘natural’, ungroomed runs.
The next step is getting in to some mellow off-piste terrain. As off-piste runs are, by definition, unsecured you need to get familiar with safety protocols, not to mention the differences in technique that you’ll need to master. Getting a professional ski instructor or mountain guide is invaluable for your first taste of the backcountry. Many specialist ski schools – like TDC in Val d’Isere, Tignes, and Meribel – offer great introduction to off-piste group courses. These classes are a great way to get your feet wet off-piste as they’re budget-friendly and you’ll be joined in your new adventures by like-minded individuals.