Freedom, Death and Glory

by Jay Cowan on December 29, 2011

For many people of all ages, fun in the mountains involves a certain amount of risk. It turns you on and it can turn on you.

Photo: Frank Shine

Look at the line one more time, get that sick little smile on my face, click my poles behind me a couple of times, exhale and shove off. Keep breathing. As a coach used to tell me, if you can’t hear yourself breathe, you probably aren’t. Work the fall-line where it rolls over and feel the sheer pitch of the slope, like someone too close behind me. Try not to cackle and choke on the powder billowing around my face. Don’t get sloppy or forget where I am. Breathe. Cut across the fall-line and set hard, release the slough, then flow with it off the cliff, stay tight, drop, drop and whoof! Hip-check into the hill, disappear in the powder then spring up out of it and bound on down the mountain, still charging, still breathing, the blood pumping in my head, a lunatic light in my eyes and wild laughter in my heart. If it sounds a lot like sex, you understand the feeling.

Why not? Those two words may be the essence of freeriding. “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” That hard-used George Bernard Shaw quote can define a way of looking at mountains as well as general human endeavor. For those snowboarders and skiers who spend a lot of their lives seeking and riding beautiful, exciting lines, the question they ask themselves most often is, Why not?

Why not enlarge the possibilities, the way any athlete does with any sport, looking at what’s never been done? With serious focus, preparation and passion, big new lines are being carved daily by the mad poets of the mountains. Especially around the Roaring Fork Valley where I live, which has become one of the country’s freeride capitals. Sometimes, with all of the other distractions in Aspen, people forget that it still has big-time slopes and riders.

“This valley has such an athletic population,” says 33-year-old native Kiffor Berg, “that there’s a huge talent pool to draw from. Combine that with the world-class terrain here and you get a very large and strong freeride community.” One that counts Berg among its headliners.

Will Cardamone, 25, grew up here as a third-generation local who knows his home-slopes. “This valley has become such a big freeride center for two reasons,” he says. “First, because it has the goods. The Elk Mountains are absolutely amazing and hold some of the best terrain in the country. Now, we do deal with a continental snowpack, which means the consistency throughout the snow is always changing and snow stability is a very serious factor. But when the snowpack is solid, there is so much potential and most of it is untapped. The other reason is due to the transformation that skiing and snowboarding have taken over the last ten years or so. It used to be that most kids like myself went to AVSC [the Aspen Valley Ski Club] to learn how to ski fast around gates. Now they’re going to the club to learn how to throw a cork 9 over a table or rip a steep line.”

Instead of the rigid discipline of ski racing, there have been options. “I am definitely independent,” notes Cardamone. “And the freedom associated with big-mountain telemark skiing hooked me pretty quickly. Plus, the feeling of fear mixed with adrenaline that hits when you’re about to drop in on a big line is as alive as I have ever felt and when it is directly followed by the feeling of flying and then that overwhelming joy after it all comes to a perfect ending, there is nothing that I have done yet in my life that is more fun than that.”

When you grow up in the circus, the rest of life can seem a little tame. Aspen has a long history of pushing all kinds of boundaries, especially in the mountains. Freeriding locally is just a product of our surroundings, mentored and godfathered by the likes of Lou Dawson and Chris Davenport, who have helped inspire the whole scene.

“This valley established its community long before skiing became its most paramount commodity,” says freeskier and photographer Frank Shine. “The passion that grew from within the town as the sport became more popular still remains. I ski with people who range in age from 16 to 50, all equally motivated by finding that perfect run through the trees, down the bowl or during the quiet of a deep-winter storm.” And, as Shine points out, “Every run is an unknown with endless possibilities around each corner, allowing for continuous chances to be creative.”

Onna Konicek, a 30-year-old family doctor from Vermont who works full-time in the winter at the Snowmass Mountain Urgent Care Clinic and who took second in the women’s snowboard division of the Colorado Freeride series in 2008, agrees. “Aspen has become synonymous with ripping. It’s a great gathering of the vibes, so to speak, for exceptional skiers and snowboarders. Skiers and riders are drawn here by one love and the strong sense of community.”

What draws people to freeriding itself isn’t too complicated, either. As U2 sings, “You don’t know if its fear or desire. Danger’s the drug that takes you higher.” Fear, adrenaline and the rush are all components of the freeriding package that’s rooted in doing what you love and loving what you do.

“It reminds me of skiing on Prospect Mountain when I was a kid,” explains Konicek. “We would tear around like little maniacs, dodging trees and skiing off of boulders. On the mountain, I’m excited and happy. I’m living in the now, flying down the mountain on the ever-breaking wave of the present. I am surrounded by the most miraculous substance — snow! I am alive with every cell. Freeriding is about the rush, fitness, camaraderie, challenging oneself, excelling, conquering fears, pushing limits … and just being out there, surrounded by the glorious beauty of the mountains.”

Ask anyone who does it, and he or she will tell you the same essential thing. They all get it. “It just seems that the ultimate pleasure is to float through pow arcing big fast turns,” says one of the guys I ride with whenever I get the chance. Snowmass mega-boarder Dave Watson has competed all over the world, won the 2008 North American Snowboard Freeride Tour and is helping promote various freeriding comps and projects in Colorado. “Big air usually goes hand in hand with deep pow,” he points out. And so does every run Watson makes. Why? “It’s like coming up on Gowdy’s at Snowmass — you can’t see the run because it’s pretty flat before the cornice. I cut some speed as I approach the cornice and send a slow 360 into the gnar. After dropping 20 feet into a 50-degree chute, it’s just one big toeside turn out into a wide open pow field spraying snow with every turn,” he explains as his eyes go a little wide and he flashes a big grin just thinking about it.

The art and soul of freeriding

Photo: Frank Shine

At its finest, freeriding doesn’t involve any competition or filming. “The thing that pumps me up is the atmosphere freeriding creates,” says Aspen native Jesse Hoffman who, at 16, rocked the 2008 North American Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte before blowing up, has appeared in several movies and coaches in Portillo. But what he likes most is going big with friends all over the West and the world. “You’re out in the mountains with your buddies skiing sick lines all day, and you all share the same passion for skiing. I’m not sure about competing … For me, it’s more fun to just go freeskiing with my friends. There are no scores, no judges, just me and my friends ripping it up.”

Essentially, freeriding gives a name to something people have been doing forever: seeking the limits of what’s possible on snow and within themselves. I did it 30 years ago with my friends all over these same mountains: throwing flips off the old mining roads in Little Annie Basin, poaching dangerous lines down Highland Bowl years before it was officially “opened,” launching large air off backcountry cornices in Lenado and generally behaving like invincible idiots when there were no cheering crowds and no cameras rolling. It’s always been about finding the right way to flow down a slope, working with a mountain to make something nearly impossible into something almost hysterically easy, blasting through deep snow at high speeds, rolling over whatever comes up — big drops, cul-de-sacs, death cookies, the last shreds of a sane restraint. One of the best skiers I knew, who died driving a snowmobile off Mount Sopris, used to compare our early freeriding to his specialty of dirt-biking, where you just cruised over everything out there as fast as you could and learned how to handle it. None of that has changed much.

As Jacqui Edgerly, another Aspen native now in her early-20s, observes about her peers, “We all grew up skiing on the same mountain, jumping off the same cliffs and skiing deep pow. There’s quite a range of ages, but since everyone is always up on the hill cruising around, it’s hard not to have a laugh!”

One of her good friends is another birthright local, 25-year-old Nick Devore, the winner of the 2008 World Freeride Telemark Championships and widely considered the best big-mountain telemarker in the world. “Now, for me, freeriding’s a way of expression and prayer, it’s something to keep my mind on and something to dream about,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful, ever-evolving art form that brings out all sorts of emotions. Really, there’s just nothing more fun that gives me a greater sense of freedom than skiing. It’s a great way to explore the mountains and nature and myself.” Devore has discussed with Will Cardamone that “We didn’t really have a cultural background or know much about it, but then we realized that our mountain lifestyle and skiing was our culture, it is a new culture, it is our way of life and I hope to have kids to continue this culture and help it evolve.”

Cardamone’s sister Kate, 28, is also one of what some have called the Aspen Ripper Factory. She’s a free-heeler who won the women’s ski division of the Colorado Freeride Championships in 2008 and sums up things for many of their crew. “Appreciation for the outdoors and adventure in wild places was instilled in me at a young age. Our parents are definitely worried about what we do, especially because we’ve both taken falls. They also understand that the environment they raised us in and the activities we grew up doing feed straight into the love we both have for skiing. We were cut out to find this type of skiing fun.”

For many people of all ages, fun in the mountains involves a certain amount of risk. It turns you on and it can turn on you. Aspen has long nurtured dangerous pursuits, including mountain climbing, bicycle racing, hang-gliding, rodeoing, motocrossing,  kayaking, hard-drugging and, not incidentally, ski racing, which has claimed lives and limbs from its inception. The season of 2008 was a big one for a lot of locals as they swept through various competitions with top podium performances. But that same year, three different skiers with strong ties to the local freeriding scene all died in bad accidents and suddenly there was great hue and cry about it.

On January 22, 2008, former local Billy Poole, 28, was skiing for a Warren Miller film crew in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, when he cartwheeled through a rock field and died. April 4th, Aspen native and triplet Wallace Westfeldt, 22, landed on a concealed rock and perished after airing out a cliff band in Tonar Bowl off of Aspen Highlands for local filmmakers. April 11th, John Nicoletta, 27, hooked a rock while skiing an exposed line at the Alyeska Freeskiing World Championships and tumbled brutally to his death. Three bright lights extinguished in less than three months.

Jacqui Edgerly was there when both Westfeldt and Nicoletta died within a week of each other. “I was present while Wallace gasped for his last breaths as we tried to lend him our own. Continuing on the World Tour Finals in Alaska, I cheered for John as he dropped from above skiing his best, but was snagged by a rock along the way. My body and mind were weak, tired, sad and confused. I was empty and drained. I just needed some time to settle myself and now I couldn’t be more stoked to get after it again,” she told me in November of that year. “I have realized in the past year that people and friends come and go. We cannot do anything about that except love them and laugh with them while they are with us.”

Kate Cardamone, whose dangerous header off the Burnside Cliffs at Snowmass the same winter was photographed by the Aspen Times and horrified everyone, including her parents, reflected about others who said they’d slowed down and started thinking about things. “The tragedies and falls we have experienced in the sport have been wake-up calls and made me very nervous,” she admitted. When columnist Paul Andersen and newspaper letter writers questioned the motivations of the freeriders following Wallace Westfeldt’s death, it caused the surviving riders and their parents to take stock.

Andersen, the father of a 15-year-old son who probably cringed at being evoked in his father’s stories, insisted the Westfeldt death, and others, were avoidable. “Why did Wallace jump off that cliff?” wrote Andersen soon after the fact. “I see a multitude of reasons — peer pressure, excitement, validation, reward, challenge. The culmination was a soaring moment of immortality, a modern-day Icarus parable spurred by a culture of titillation and thrill-worship that fuels part of the ski industry … ‘He died doing what he loved’ is an unacceptable epitaph for sacrificial youth. It’s time to reevaluate the direction of the ski industry — and soon — before more deaths and injuries shock us into the grim awareness that the cost of selling risk is way too high.” Andersen suggested one of Westfeldt’s primary motivations may have been fame.

“I didn’t like the column one bit,” says Kate Cardamone, “but I had to figure out why. Well, I don’t have a death wish and I have learned that if you are in it for fame, go to Hollywood instead. I can’t deny it feels good to do well and accomplish your goals and be recognized for it. But I do it because I have been able to test my own limits, and knowing myself, skiing has helped me open up and gain confidence that I have been able to carry into other parts of my life. I know my limits, but I do it for me and when/if I ever feel otherwise, I will do something else.”

Wallace Westfeldt’s father Weems is a long-time honcho in the Snowmass Ski School, a veteran of the sport and the industry, and an eloquent writer. He responded forcefully and passionately to Andersen’s pieces. “Paul’s ponderings of why Wallace jumped off the cliff are fair questions. It is extremely sad, though, that other reasons were not available to Paul’s imagination. So I will add some, which I think are more accurate: Joy! Art! Expression! Adventure! Exploring the limits! Being in exquisite harmony with the mountain, gravity, the snow and the snowboard! Quest for excellence! Transcendence! Was he killed by the camera-glory? I’ve got two answers to that. The first one is ‘no.’ Wallace was not a heedless person. He took responsibility for his actions… My other answer is that, if yes, then so what? If one builds a career on pushing limits and living the adventure, then filming is a natural and beautiful part of it.”

If you talk to serious freeriders these days, as I do all the time, most are articulate, mature beyond their years and extremely self-aware in the most positive way. Many people who are critical of what freeriders do or their motives for it have never spoken to them. Still, it’s not easy for people who love them, especially parents. It wasn’t for mine. I didn’t particularly think about getting hurt or dying. And when I did get hurt (four knee injuries, mostly from jumping), it didn’t change me much. Hell, I accidentally went upside down and backwards off some rocks at Snowmass just a couple of years ago and I wasn’t even doing anything that tricky or stupid. When friends die (or sometimes worse) doing these things, we mourn and we do it in the mountains as they would have wanted us to. But it’s hard on everyone. My parents were great skiers, but my mother didn’t care to watch when I was in big gelande contests. On the other hand, my dad liked them because he was a jumper once himself.

For the Cardamone’s parents, Tom and Jody, there is the same “mixture of pride and fear,” as Tom puts it. “Kate and Will go into the mountains in all seasons as comfortably and competently as if they were going across town to visit a friend. We’re immensely pleased to have given them lives in which they find such deep enjoyment and fulfillment.” They also note that the level of risk for what Kate and Will do is something they “are not particularly comfortable with.” Kate’s header could have had far worse consequences and Will smashed a kidney several years ago. However, “Our discomfort doesn’t translate into holding them back. They know life is wonderful and fragile and they are seeking that balance point between the regret of not drinking fully from the cup and the other extreme.” Then he pauses and chuckles softly. “Jody and I don’t worry that they’re not drinking fully enough.”

Nick Devore’s mother Karinjo says people come up to her on the street and ask why she lets him do it. “And I say, well, first of all, he’s in his 20s, I don’t have a lot to say about it. And even though it sounds weird, within the realm of what he does, which is definitely not safe, he’s really kind of safe. He’s done his avalanche training and his CPR, he doesn’t take chances when he doesn’t feel good about them, he does yoga and he stays in unbelievable shape. These kids are all such mountain kids and such naturals that you can’t say they don’t know what they’re doing.” Especially when a big part of what they’re doing, says Will Cardamone, is focusing on “respect for and a connection with the natural world.”

As Nick Devore put it, “It has been very sad and challenging losing friends to skiing, but I have grown tremendously as a person and as a skier from these losses. They have definitely made me rethink why I ski at the level I do and have slowed me down and helped me rethink my decisions.” After a summer of reflection, he told me, “I am ready to continue pushing myself and my skiing. I would rather die skiing than never experience the sense of freedom and joy that it brings.” Devore had a bad avalanche accident the winter of 2010, but hasn’t changed what he does because of it.

John Nicoletta’s good friend, photographer Zach Ornitz, wrote about him, “John was the most solid skier I’ve ever seen and I know he carefully weighed his decision before plunging down the fall line [the day he died]. He aspired to making a life out of the activity that he loved most. Who wouldn’t want to achieve the dream of a life filled with turns in champagne powder, travel to exotic locations and days spent with true friends? I think John’s advice would have been simple: ‘Ski it because you love it. Ski it because it makes you happy’.”

While questions would continue to be raised about each of the three deaths — the reasons, the preparedness, the culpability of film-makers and so on — many in the mountain community agreed with a letter written to the Aspen papers by long-time local ski patrol person Roine St. Andre, who said, “Myself, I’m so happy they died in sacred places rather than in a war zone or a nursing home.”

Obviously, freeriding will never be safe. It would lose much of its appeal if it was. And there are bozos all over the mountains that will huck themselves off or down anything without a moment’s thought if there’s a camera involved or just some bragging rights. It’s the “Jackass” syndrome, another form of gene-pool thinning in a process that’s been with us a lot longer than freeriding.

Onna Konicek, through her work at the Snowmass clinic, sees what she does from both sides. “It is a calculated risk we all take based on our riding ability, but it is important to realize no one is exempt, no matter the level of expertise. Nature rules and the mountains must be approached with humility and respect. We should all ride to live another day, as well as live to ride.”

Smart riders do all they can to improve their odds. On a daily basis, Dave Watson wears a girdle with plastic hip and tailbone pads, foam quad and hamstring pads and a Leedom helmet. “During comps, I always wear the Mack Daddy body armor with foam and plastic shoulder, elbow and forearm pads, a chest pad and an armadillo back protector,” he says. “If the venue is particularly sketchy, I wear my full-face Giro Helmet.” And he’s not doing it for the money or glory. He competes as one of the top American boarders on the World Freeride Tour in the U.S., Austria, Norway, Russia and France with minimal sponsorship. Prize money is scant and, underneath the gladiator garb, there aren’t many who even know who he is. Others do better with films and travel expenses, but it isn’t X Games glory or dough. Freeriding, even competitively, is really just a labor of love. And we’re all addicted to love.

Jay Cowan writes for a variety of magazines and has books on Hunter Thompson and the Alps in publication. “In The Land of Living Dangerously,” about the Indonesian region, will come out as an ebook this winter. 

Share on TumblrSubmit to reddit

Leave a Comment