Footloose and fancy-freeskiing in Snowbird, Utah

SNOWBIRD, Utah

From the chairlift, the mountain looks like a snow-covered playground. And I approach it like a video game character.

I spot an untouched run to the right, strewn with craggy cliffs and daring steeps. Just a look starts my heart racing, adrenaline pumping like a tidal surge on a river.

The beauty of this world-class ski resort, in the heart of Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon, can often mask its perils.

This I know. On my last run down the mountain, I miscued a jump and ended smeared in snow, ego bruised and gear scattered about like yard sale debris.

But I didn't give up. A traverse and short hike into the backcountry puts me at the top of another line, which — as always — appears more daunting than envisioned in my indestructible video game mind.

It's not too hard. A few fellow thrill-seekers left tracks that snake nicely through the knee-deep snow. But placid figure-eight turns are so 1990.

Clipping into my skis and tightening my backpack straps, I plot my run. It begins with a lip of snow that drops straight to the hill, then I'll make a handful of turns around a rock cliff and then a clear sail to the bottom.

Summoning courage and forgetting my last fall, I start along the ridge with speed and launch off the wind lip with a 360-degree spin, grabbing my ski in front of my left boot before landing solidly 15 feet down the hill in a splash of powder.

Arc left, arc right, repeat and then straight off the small cliff, turning 180 degrees and landing switch — backward — not gracefully, but upright.

A silent fist pump to the sky. A sigh of relief.

X-Games flavor

This is freeskiing, a genre of skiing fueled with equal parts of big thrills and creative style that pushes riders to new heights and infuses a freedom of expression into an often-stodgy sport.

And this is Utah, an easily accessible yet premier destination for those who want to forgo crowded groomed runs to stretch what's possible on two planks and snow.

Jumping cliffs and skiing steeps is nothing new. Once the domain of ski mountaineers and extreme skiers, a new generation is infusing an X-Games, terrain-park flavor into the backcountry.

And its legitimacy is growing as national competitive circuits form, staging events at places like Snowbird and awarding prize money into six figures.

"New school" skiing started in the late 1990s. It formed as a rebuttal to the rigid, Olympic-defined freestyle skiing and blossomed with the advent of twin-tipped skis, which curve up in the front and back like a snowboard to allow multidirectional riding.

Borrowing from snowboarding style, freeskiing caught fire in terrain parks where obstacles like half-pipes, wedge-shaped jumps and urban handrails rewarded creativity and going big.

Real big. This spring, X Games gold medalist Simon Dumont set a new world record by soaring 35 feet above a 38-foot quarterpipe ramp, pulling a cork 900, or off-axis spin of 2 1/2 rotations. At the top of his flight he was 73 feet off the ground.

"My main reason for skiing is just to see how far I can push it," he told a Poor Boyz Productions film crew documenting his feat.

This new realm appeals to the younger generation but also older skiers looking for a challenge. And it continues to evolve.

Now riders are taking the tricks honed in the park — two and three rotations, single and double flips, taking off and landing backward, all with stylistic grabs at ski tips or tails — into the backcountry, finding natural features such as cliffs and building huge jumps known as kickers.

"The thing I love about skiing would be just the freedom involved with it, especially in the backcountry," says John Spriggs, in the newly released ski movie Reasons, a highlight reel showcasing the best of the freeskiing, including Dumont. "It's everything your mind can see. It's just whatever you want to do."

The sport's never-ending drive to push boundaries does lead to dangers, whether sometimes-fatal avalanches in uncontrolled areas or career-ending injuries.

In December 2006, pro freeskier C.R. Johnson suffered a severe head injury and spent six months in a coma after a skiing accident in the Utah backcountry. He was wearing a helmet.

New horizons

Even still, and possibly because of this danger, setting new boundaries and progression in freeskiing continues.

Snowbird, topping out at 11,000 feet, offers an ideal base for exploring these new horizons or learning freeskiing techniques. Its 2,500 acres is some of the gnarliest terrain in North America. The 500 inches of average snowfall that falls in dry heaps of powder is renowned, too.

The slopes inside the controlled areas offer a week's worth of exploration, and the majestic scenery leaves visitors inspired.

To navigate a big mountain like this, buy an advanced lesson. I found mine was more guiding than teaching, and I learned many of the secret spots and the best places to ski at particular times of the day.

Skiers often queue at the top of runs waiting for the ski patrol to render them safe. It takes only minutes for the crowd at the entrance to Road to Provo to put its signature on an untouched powder run.

But it's not hard to find solitude or a line to yourself. It's here that you can experiment with skiing style; try riding switch, launching cliffs and generally expanding your comfort zone.

And don't forget the fist pump.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

.IF YOU GO

Skiing Snowbird

How to get there: Flights leave Tampa for Salt Lake City every day. On Southwest's fee-free flights you don't have to worry about paying for your ski bag or trying to squeeze your boots into carry-on. Once in Salt Lake, it's a 30- to 45-minute trip to more than a half-dozen resorts. Private and group shuttles are numerous, or save by taking the city bus to the resort base.

Where to stay: You can stay at the base of Snowbird (where bars close at 11 p.m.), but the best lodging and nightlife is found in Park City. With its main street lined with shops, bars and great restaurants, it offers something for everyone. Thanks to the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, there are plenty of places to stay and a great bus system.

Where to ski: Snowbird — and its skier-only sister Alta — is a short shuttle ride around the canyon from Park City. Get an Alta/Snowbird pass and explore both resorts. Another don't-miss: Canyons Resort, the largest ski and snowboard resort in Utah, with a great variety of terrain for all ability levels. And take time to refine your bag of tricks at Park City's top-notch terrain parks.

Money-saving tip: Arrange to pick up lift tickets at a ski shop in the Salt Lake City area and pay the locals' discount rate. Or get a super pass, which adds the ability to ride Brighton and Solitude resorts.

Best runs: At Snowbird, start the morning at Mineral Basin, which gets the sun's first rays, before hitting the trees of Thunder Bowl. At Canyons, take the gondola to Saddleback Express and hit the deep snow tree runs to skier's left. Repeat as necessary, but leave time for the Ninety-Nine 90 lift.

More information: Snowbird.com or toll-free 1-800-232-9542.

Footloose and fancy-freeskiing in Snowbird, Utah 11/14/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 7:57am]

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