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SPORTS WEEKEND | Outdoors

Steep Thrills

Extreme Skiers, Not Bound By the Rules of Regular Racers, Take Sport to What Many Call an Art Form

April 13, 2001|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CORDOVA, Alaska — It's one of the most breathtaking venues imaginable, a lone snowy peak sparkling under an impossibly blue sky.

You can see for miles, and for miles the Chugach Mountains rise and dip, seemingly endlessly, unspoiled and spectacular, pure and white.

Yet, as beautiful as this panorama is, there's another kind of beauty unfolding on the daunting, near-sheer face of the lone snowy peak.

Sixteen of the world's top big-mountain freeskiers, 12 men and four women, are launching themselves off the summit, catching air, choosing their lines, artfully working through narrow chutes and around jagged boulders, ultimately reaching a vast clearing and carving giant turns as they wind up their runs at blistering speeds.

"These people here, they're not just athletes, they're poets," says Michel Beaudry, head judge of the Red Bull Snowthrill of Alaska, an invitational run this year out of Cordova. "Every time they ski down the mountain they write a poem on that mountain."

It becomes clear immediately that big-mountain freeskiing, on natural terrain in a wild setting instead of the groomed slopes of lift-serviced resorts, is about expression. There are no set courses, no gates and no clocks. Athletes are judged on choice of line, fluidity, technique, aggressiveness and control.

But it also becomes clear, after a day or two, that the world's top freeskiers who participate in events like this, are not your typical ski racers. They're driven more by a love of the pristine winter wilderness, of uncharted peaks and first descents than they are by victory and glory.

Theirs is a world totally removed from traditional racing, in which corporate-minded organizers, seemingly sadistic coaches, stand-offish cliques and Jupiter-sized egos come with the scenery.

"We're back to the roots of what skiing is all about," says Beaudry, 47, a former competitor and coach who became "disillusioned" with organized racing several years ago. "It's about big mountains, a love of big mountains and just being together."

*

Nobody knows this better than Wendy Fisher, a former Alpine racing star who hit rock bottom mentally, only to be reborn as a big-mountain freeskier.

Fisher, 29, began racing at 5, as a freckle-faced kid growing up in Incline Village, Nev. Nearby Squaw Valley was her playground.

Though deeply affected by the death of one of two brothers, Mark, who broke his neck during a fall after a jump, she took to the hill with more determination--in honor of her brother.

She was 6 then, he was 13. When she was 13, she enrolled at Vermont's Burke Mountain Academy, a college-prep school for elite skiers.

She eventually made the U.S. ski team and, at 20, won the overall Alpine title at the national championships--and a spot on the Olympic team as a downhill and slalom specialist.

She was a day away from competition at the 1992 Albertville Games when her world was pulled out from under her. Fisher fell during a downhill training run at Meribel, France. She suffered a concussion, broke her thumb and sprained both knees.

She remained on the team and competed on the World Cup circuit the next season, her sights set on the 1994 Olympics at Lillehammer, Norway. She reasons now that a more serious injury might have given her some needed time off, but she never regained the drive a top-tier skier needs. She felt herself drifting away.

"The girls were nice and all, but not really your friends," Fisher recalls, during an interview in an office at Points North Heli-Adventures, headquarters for Snowthrill. "There definitely were some girls who did have good bonding going on, but none of it was with me.

" . . . I started daydreaming about when I was 5, skiing at Squaw with my brothers and how fun it used to be--and I couldn't figure out where it all went."

Fisher began suffering from depression, which led to an eating disorder and subsequent weight loss.

"I also stopped talking to people," she confesses. "I stopped sleeping. All I wanted to do was work out. I couldn't have cared less about racing, but all I wanted to do was work out.

"Eventually, I went to my head coach and said, 'Something's wrong with me and you guys aren't even paying attention. I keep telling you I need some time off and you just blow me off.' They just didn't believe me. I'd been pushing for the '94 Olympics, but I was just burnt to a crisp."

Fisher ultimately quit the team and decided to advance her education. She enrolled at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village and was admitted on a skiing scholarship. She did well but realized after the first few events that organized racing, even at a lower level, was no longer in her blood.

She faxed her father and slipped a note under the door of her coach, telling both that she had quit school and had given up racing.

She then packed her bags, got in her car and just started driving.

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