Contributed by Pat Melvin
Reprinted from NYTimes.com
The Slopes' New Renegades? Skiers
By GWEN KILVERT
Published: December 28, 2003
ON a blustery day in mid-December, Chris Benchetler and his friends were trudging forward in line for the Thunder Bound Express chairlift at Mammoth Mountain in the eastern Sierras of California.
Wearing oversize jackets and pants so voluminous that waistlines and inseams were mere suggestions, and headed for a terrain park where they looked forward to careening in and out of half-pipes, they were the very models of snowboard culture. Except for one thing: they were there to ski.
Mr. Benchetler, 17, and his friends are in the forefront of a growing trend in snow sports known as freeskiing or "new-school skiing," which is breathing new and lucrative life into the struggling ski industry. Using skis known as twin-tips, which are designed so skiers can move backward and forward down mountains, freeskiers borrow both the creative moves of snowboarding, using obstacles like rails and stumps for tricks, and, more important, something of its renegade image.
"The level of skiing is almost equal with snowboarding now," said Mr. Benchetler, who has been freeskiing for five years and sports shoulder-length hair that curls up under his hat and goggles. "And the style of clothing and even the graphics on skis are cool now," he added.
In the six years since the first pair of twin-tip skis were introduced by Salomon, new-school skiers have been reclaiming status and mountain space lost to snowboarders. Resort managers and ski instructors from Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia to Stratton Mountain in Vermont say they are transforming the scene on the slopes.
"There are more and more young skiers in our terrain park each year," said Oren Tanzer the terrain park manager at Mammoth. "Skiing was in decline, and now there are almost just as many of them out there as snowboarders."
According to SnowSports Industries America, a national trade group, the number of twin-tip skis sold (usually for more than $500 a pair), shot up 65 percent last season to 23,000 over the previous winter. "We are starting to see a lot of these freeski brands get traction with customers 30 years old and under," said Ira Rosh, the divisional merchandise manager of Paragon Sports, the largest sporting goods store in Manhattan. "Twin-tip ski and freeski apparel sales are already stronger than last year."
Freeskiing has also spawned its own magazines, like Freeskier and Freeze. "We have seen more change in the ski industry in the past 12 months than we have in the past 20 years," said Brad Fayfield, the editor and publisher of Freeskier, whose circulation has increased to 100,000 since 2002. "If our magazine's growth is an indicator, then the ski industry is in for an epic ride."
KINGS OF THE HILL Three of the competitors in a freeskiing event held at Lake Placid, N.Y., last week. Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times
And freeskiing is fast gaining legitimacy as a competitive sport. Last year, it was included in world cup competition for the first time. And the sport is aiming for an invitation to the 2010 Olympic Games.
It has been a long time coming for Mike Douglas, known as the godfather of new-school skiing. In 1997, Mr. Douglas, a Canadian freestyle skier, was coaching the Canadian Freestyle Ski team when he and four of his skiers began doing tricks in snowboarders' half-pipes. (Not to be confused with freeskiing, freestyle skiing is an Olympic sport involving acrobatic jumping and mogul skiing.) But the Canadians' single-tipped skis kept them from pushing as far as they wanted to go.
At the time, ski manufacturers were focusing much of their energies on snowboarding, which for years had been gaining ground on skiing. Between 1993 and 1998 the number of alpine skiers had dropped by 13 percent as the number of snowboarders doubled. (Since then, skiing participation has continued to drop, from 10.5 million in 1997 to 7.4 million in 2003, while the number of snowboarders surged by more than 50 percent, from 3.7 million to 5.6 million, mostly among those under 24.)
Ski loyalists, meanwhile, who wanted to depart from the standard downhill and mogul trails, were barred from the half-pipes and jumps in what were then called snowboard parks. Not surprisingly, the rapport between snowboarders and skiers was tense. "We had become the ugly stepchild of the new action-sports scene," Mr. Douglas said.
Afraid that the evolution of skiing might come to a permanent halt, in August, 1997, Mr. Douglas put together a video documenting the moves he and his friends had perfected on skis and drafted a proposal for the construction of a fatter, softer ski that could withstand landings, with a turned-up tip in both the front and back for skiing and landing backwards. (Twin-tip skis are 151 to 181 centimeters long, 60 to 71 inches.) After sending the package to every major ski company, only Salomon, a company known for its trendsetting innovations, wanted in.
The result was the Teneighty, the first twin-tip ski, which reached the market in February 1998 and officially started the freeski movement. "The Teneighty was not just a leap in technology," said Hal Thomson, the communications manager of Salomon North America, "but a cultural movement that may be the biggest evolution ever in skiing."
Within a year, competing ski and snowboard makers began producing twin-tips of their own, and both Freeze and Freeskiing magazines were started. It was not until last January, however, that new-school skiing gained wide-scale notice and respect, when a French freeskier named Candide Thovex sailed more than 20 feet off the ground in the half-pipe competition at the 2003 Winter X Games. To indicate just what a feat that was, ESPN compared his run with that of Shaun White, the snowboard superpipe gold medalist.
At times, Mr. Thovex had soared a full four feet higher out of the half-pipe. "The minute Candide dropped in, you knew he was taking skiing to a new place," said Salema Masekela, the events commentator and a snowboarder. "I have never seen anyone go that big in the pipe."
Candide Thovex at the 2003 Winter X Games. Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Skiing's new highs have attracted both alpine skiers and snowboarders. Many of the early converts were people like Justin Todd, 22, a skier all his life. Since new-school skiing didn't really exist at his local mountain in Montana, he didn't see his first pair of twin-tips until he saw freeskiing in a video four years ago.
"Freeskiing is just more fun," said Mr. Todd, who moved to California to have better access to the terrain park at Mammoth. "I am not getting burnt out by it because there are always new tricks to be done. At Mammoth, a skier not on twin-tip skis is likely an adult."
In lesser numbers, snowboarders have been swapping their boards for skis. Craig Coker, 19, who began snowboarding when he was 6, took up freeskiing after watching it in the 1999 Winter X Games. "I liked that skiing felt so different," said Mr. Coker, who also now lives near Mammoth Mountain. "And that I didn't need to change the way I dressed or leave the park."
Even professional snowboarders have been stepping onto skis. Mr. Thomson of Salomon said the company has received a surprising number of requests for skis this season from its professional snowboard team. "When you spend as many days of the year snowboarding as I do, it's fun to mix it up," one of the athletes, Jason Ford, said. "You change the platform you're on, and the mountain changes too."
And so have lift-line politics. Skiers and snowboarders now huddle together, their clothes almost indistinguishable, their iPods loaded with the same music. "Freeskiers share the same lifestyle, culture and reason for being on the hill as snowboarders," Mr. Fayfield said.
In short, it is now the thing your parents don't do. "It's become the counterculture," said Finlay Torrance, Mammoth's sports school manager. "I am seeing kids who are 10, an age when they typically take up snowboarding, graduating from our ski school wanting to keep skiing."
Freeskiing's next generation is now one-upping the jaw-dropping moves pioneered by people like Mr. Douglas, both in terrain parks and in the backcountry, where they are launching themselves over 120-foot gaps: just wider than the wingspan of a 727 plane. All this before they are old enough to drink.
Beginning Jan. 27 in Aspen, Colo., spectators for the 2004 Winter X Games can expect to see the caliber of freeskiing leap ahead once more. "People are going to be blown away by the freeskiers this year," said Mr. Fayfield, who has been charting the moves of the sport's newest stars in his magazine. And for the first time, the games will be broadcast live, on ESPN.
Skiers are certainly embracing new tribal bragging rights. The ski maker Line has made "I am a Skier" T-shirts.
"Ten years ago a kid would be embarrassed to be a skier," said Jason Levinthal, the company's founder and president, who began building twin-tip skis in his garage in 1995. "The T-shirt is a way of saying I am proud to be a skier."
Jason Levinthal of Line. Paul O. Boisvert for the New York Times.