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Going to Extremes : "If you fall, you die"--that's one way to define extreme skiing. Sometimes, it's true.

January 30, 1994|Alex Markels | Alex Markels writes frequently about skiing. He lives in Minturn, Colo.

PAUL RUFF SCOOPED UP A HANDFUL OF SNOW, PACKED IT INTO A BALL AND overhanded it into the abyss below Lake Tahoe's Thimble Peak. Five long seconds passed, then came a reply.

"More to the left!" called a faint voice.

It was March 29, 1993, and Ruff was perched on a narrow ledge above Thunder Bowl--a natural amphitheater capped by 9,000-foot peaks on the backside of Kirkwood Ski Resort. Still tied to the rope he'd used to belay himself from above, the 29-year-old extreme skier leaned out and strained to catch sight of his friend, Joe Gebhardt, standing far below. It was no use: The rope, secured by one of two Kirkwood Ski Patrol members who'd gone with him to the site, was just too short.

When he'd looked up at this piece of mountainside two weeks before, Ruff had thought it looked perfect. He told his friends it would make for close to 200 feet of "monster air"--easily the biggest cliff jump anyone had ever attempted--with a clear shot from top to bottom. But now, after climbing to the summit, roping himself in and sidestepping down 150 feet, he discovered he couldn't safely get close enough to the edge to see past the jagged rocks and snowy chutes that angled out below him to open snow.

He knelt down, scrunched up another snowball and, with a lurch, fastballed it over the edge. "That's better, man," yelled Gebhardt, after watching the second snowball explode, like the first, on a patch of protruding rocks above him. "But you gotta chuck it farther out!" Ruff let another one fly, then another.

Gebhardt had watched Ruff jump many times before--he'd even followed him over a cliff or two--but those leaps were nothing compared to this. Cliff jumpers typically took off from obvious overhangs or sheer cliffs, but Gebhardt could see nothing obvious about this steep, rocky face. A jumper falling nearly 20 stories would hit 70 miles an hour. His skis might act as wings, pushing him out of his aerodynamic tuck. Even if he could keep himself upright, he would still need plenty of momentum to clear the rocks, which extended 30 feet beyond the takeoff point. And he needed a clear line of vision from launch to landing: Basic cliff jumping technique called for him to be able to focus on the touchdown virtually before he took off.

But as each snowball came flying down the mountainside--one crashing on the rocks, another on snow and another on rock again--it became frighteningly clear, to Gebhardt at least, that accurately predicting this jump's trajectory would be impossible. His stomach muscles tightened and his hands began to sweat. He had never intended to direct the jump; he was here only because Ruff had asked him to help coordinate its filming.

Ruff had it all planned out. To record the jump, he'd recruited seven photographers, including Gary Nate, a veteran cameraman for ski-film producer Warren Miller, and Robbie Huntoon, an experienced cliff jumper in his own right, who ran a small local production company. Nate, Huntoon and the other cameramen would spread out around the massive bowl, staking positions up to a quarter-mile away. They would get close-ups and wide-angle shots with still cameras, on film and videotape, and once the jump was nailed, they would shoot Ruff chugging soda and wolfing down candy bars. The filming was all on spec, but Ruff had a lot riding on the outcome. He had told his fiancee, Kim Wiebe, that this would be his last big jump; he hoped to market the footage to ski-filmmakers and advertisers for more than half a million dollars.

As the photographers skied into place, Gebhardt wasn't the only one who was shocked by the size, scale and layout of the jump. Standing above the cliff in his bright magenta and violet ski suit, Ruff appeared in the photographers' viewfinders as a tiny pinpoint of color on a marbled background of white snow and black rock. "It couldn't have looked more extreme," Nate said later. "It was like watching Evel Knievel jumping the Grand Canyon."

It had snowed six inches the night before, and though the morning dawned crystal blue, the weather was rapidly deteriorating. Broken clouds flew overhead at airplane speed, casting huge shadows across the bowl. Cold gusts whipped against the cliffs, causing the fresh snow to slip like sand through the cracks in the rocks. More than one of the group prayed that Ruff would call off the jump.

"This is a bad scene, Joe," one of the photo assistants scowled to Gebhardt. "I don't want to be here, man."

Still, no one called Ruff back. In the unwritten protocol of cliff jumping, once the skier is in position the decision to go is his alone. To warn him off, or even suggest a negative outcome, would violate one of the cardinal rules of the sport: Don't psych out the skier. It could break his concentration, and should he get hurt, everyone would know who to blame. "If I rattle him and he dies, then I'm responsible," Nate thought to himself. "If I say nothing, then I'm not."

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