This story first appeared in the January 1998 issue of Men's Journal.
In football, a team loses five yards if its left tackle jumps offside. But if the left tackle keels over and dies of heatstroke, loss of his services is deemed sufficient penalty. If a power forward collapses of a heart attack on the basketball court, the referees do not give the opposition an extra free throw. And in baseball, batters universally avoid catching fastballs with their foreheads on the theory that being awarded first base fails to compensate for getting killed. So death for most athletes and to most rules committees is, ipso facto, bad.
In extreme snowboarding, you lose 30 points if you die.
“Yeah, the days of belly-flopping off a cliff and collecting a prize are definitely over,” says Steve Klassen, the 1996 winner of the King of the Hill Snowboard Tournament in Valdez, Alaska. It’s hard to tell if he’s nostalgic or numb as he nurses a beer at the 1997 opening ceremony in April. A little fall that doesn’t alter your line of descent will cost you one point. If you fall and slightly alter your line but show good stability in the recovery, you lose two points. If you use your arm as a stabilizer (doing a “wheelie bar”), you lose three points. And so it goes for minor, medium, and large falls, down to a minus-10 for three or more cartwheels (also known as “starfishing”). From minus-11 to minus-29, the rules mention no penalties. Then, at minus-30, you draw the ace of spades: a major fall that “endangers rider safety,” which is to say “ragdolling,” which is to say you flop uncontrollably for 4,200 feet down a 70-degree mountainside, contusing all your internal organs on exposed rocks, starting an avalanche with chunks of snow the size of a bus, and getting buried at the bottom of a glacier in a bottomless crevasse.
“No, I don’t feel like I’m risking life and limb,” says Klassen, once a business major and an All-American pole-vaulter at USC, now the owner of the Wave Rave Snowboard Shop in Mammoth Lakes, California. At 32, he serves his young sport as both an elder statesman and a champion, most recently having won the European Extreme, in Verbier, Switzerland. “To me, only the Downhill Day has any risk. It’s unnatural to go as fast as you can. I like going as fast as I want. My thing is more fluidity of line. A lot of guys jump off bigger cliffs. I don’t like pushing it so far that I’m risking my life.”
The dining room at the Totem Inn, the official KOH headquarters, has a moose head the size of Iowa mounted over the fireplace. To its left is a glass case holding two stuffed beavers and a stuffed wildcat. To its right sits another case, with a stuffed wolverine and two sets of carved walrus tusks. The walls are covered with huge banners advertising the various sportswear and equipment companies sponsoring the event. The room is dominated, though, by a pink coffee can sitting next to the cash register, for donations to Jim and Wendy Burgett, to help pay for the convalescence of their son Myles.
“We were doing a photo shoot for this movie called Quest, on Sugarloaf, in British Co-lum-bia,” Klassen re-calls. “There was good snow, good avalanche stability, no reason to think it was un-safe. [Myles] was on a planned route and just made the wrong turn, went off a 25-foot cliff, and landed in a patch of rocks. I was down at the helicopter with the pilot when it happened. The cameraman got to Myles within five minutes, and we were able to fly the helicopter in about seven minutes after that. We didn’t have a stretcher, so we stuffed him into the outer shell of a sleeping bag because he couldn’t wait. I thought we did a good job with the first aid — re-positioning him, getting him into the helicopter with the guide — but there wasn’t much we could do. He was unconscious, gurgling. The back of his head was smashed in. He was bleeding from his ear. His jaw was locked. He was still alive — that was all you could say.”
He wasn’t wearing a helmet?
“No, in general people don’t wear helmets when they film. But if you’re doing anything around rocks, you should definitely wear one. In Mammoth Lakes, I’m the safety spokesman, and I’ve gotten a lot of guys to wear them. The way people are pushing it now, I tell them they can push it even further with a helmet, as far as going over cliffs and stuff.”
What does Klassen think of Myles?
“I admire his ability, and I’m intrigued with his personality. I’ve been to college, been around the world, own a business. Myles was 19 at the time of his accident, and he’d lived almost his whole life in Valdez. He had this simplicity, this childlike curiosity, that you only find in people who have been exposed to almost nothing. He was really shy until he got to know you, and then he could just amaze you with these really powerful insights that could only come from the innocence of his experience — something I’d lost sight of a long time ago. At the same time, he was a hard-partyin’ Alaska boy. He drank, he smoked. He was a little closer to death than the rest of us. I think his hero, Jim Morrison, had a lot to do with his wild streak. He was always rattling off quotes from Doors songs. He came to visit me in Mammoth Lakes once — it was his first trip to California — and he wrote a line from ‘Roadhouse Blues’ on a poster in my shop: ‘Keep your eyes on the road [and] your hands upon the wheel.’ ”
Nick Perata — KOH organizer during the winter and spring, fishing and hunting guide during the summer and fall — stands up in the Totem Inn dining room and calls for quiet. He yells for quiet. He screams for quiet. Lots of people join him in screaming for quiet. Maybe a third of the room glances at him, causing a drop of about five decibels in the din. Perata shouts: “This event is designed to find the best all-around snowboarder, not just the most extremist guy. It’s about speed, freestyle, and extreme. All my competitors should be reading the judging sheet. If you don’t fall, you win. So don’t fall. The whole reason I’m doing this event is so people can snowboard safely.”
The background decibel level goes back up. Perata reminds the four or five people still listening that for their $1,100 entry fee, they’re getting three square meals a day, lodging, transport up Thompson Pass, and a whole bunch of rides on a helicopter or a skiplane to various backcountry locations in the Chugach Mountains, places with such names as the Cheese Grater, the Python, the Berlin Wall, and the Terror Dome. And if they crash, they might get first aid.
“There’s not a lot of snow this year,” shouts George Ortman, the head of the rescue squad. “That means more rocks, lots of brush. It’s bonier than ever. It’s manky. And we found a big avalanche today. The mantra is: It’s up to you guys not to get hurt. If you do, it’s ’cause you went too fast and you hit a rock. We can’t control it, and we can’t make it safe. If you crash in our domain, we’ll try to save your life. If you crash outside our domain, you’re on your own. So listen when we tell you what’s out-of-bounds. Nobody gets on the chopper without a helmet, beeps [an avalanche transceiver], and a shovel to dig your buddy out. The rescue squad can commandeer anyone. If they need help, listen to them. It’s really dangerous, as skinny as I’ve ever seen it.”
Perata announces that there are 43 entrants this year from all over the world: 10 women, who will go down the mountain first, and 33 men. The winners, male and female, of each of the three days of competition get $1,000; the two overall winners get $10,000 apiece, a fresh 25-pound king salmon, a bitchin’ beautiful broadsword, a crown, and a massive pile of swag from the various sponsors.
The final speaker is a woman named Theresa Ingersol, a friend of the Burgett family’s.
“Myles has been making a little progress since the accident on February 3,” she says. “He’s coming out of the coma now.” Big cheers. “He had an operation to fix his feeding tube, which was causing an infection. He is able to move his fingers, and he recognizes his family. But he can’t talk with the feeding tube in his throat. The doctors won’t take it out until they’re sure he has a swallow reflex.”
Silence. Perata seizes the moment to hold up the pink coffee can. “It doesn’t matter about the prizes, just put your money in here,” he says. The noise starts to build again. “One more thing,” he yells. “The Totem Inn has the finest waitresses in the entire world! Tip them, and they’ll be stoked to serve you!”
The next morning is declared a weather day, meaning that it’s cloudy in Valdez and there are snow squalls 30 miles up the pass where you catch the helicopter. This is why Perata scheduled 10 days for a three-day, three-event competition. Back in the Totem dining room, it’s also a hangover day. Only a few of the competitors have shown up for their officially allotted biscuits and gravy with unlimited coffee refills.
“I’m the only one in my family who isn’t a brain,” says Perata, who is originally from La Canada, California, the town next to Pasadena. “My parents got divorced when I was 3, and school never interested me much. Me and my friends, we were huge into vertical-ramp skateboarding. In 1983, we made our first snowboard — just a piece of plywood, and the binding was seat belts. We took it to the Angeles Crest National Forest above Pasadena and hiked up about 3,000 feet near the Krakta Ridge ski area. I was the first guy to go, and it was just so natural and easy. Waist-deep powder, and I didn’t fall the whole way down.”
Not quite Saul getting smacked by white light on the road to Damascus, but it was still a life-changing religious experience, against which higher education just couldn’t measure up. After a year at the College of the Siskiyous and a year at Boise State, Perata admitted to his old man that he wasn’t learning squat, dropped out, and moved to Breckenridge, Colorado, the mecca of snowboarding in the mid-’80s. “The mountains were as good as, maybe better than, As-pen’s, and it was so much cheaper,” he recalls. “They actually wanted snowboarders in Breckenridge.”
In 1989, Perata decided to climb the Moose’s Tooth, a mountain near Alaska’s Mount McKinley. On the twenty-eighth day — spent mostly above the tree line, where there were no colors except the white of the snow and the blue of the sky, no sound except the rumblings of avalanches, no smells except that of pure air — a plane dropped him a package containing a case of beer, a quarter-bag of weed, two tins of chewing tobacco, five packs of cigarettes, and a zillion cookies. Comesting his comestibles, surveying all of Alaska at his feet, Perata had his second religious experience. “I realized what an asshole I was, what a punk asshole snowboarder,” he recalls. “And that whatever you do with your life, the mountain doesn’t care. It is magnificent and you are nothing. It can kill you, and it is not even trying. No matter how tough you think you are, how bad you think you are, the mountain won’t let you do certain things. I was humbled. And I realized that the mountains in Colorado weren’t gnarly enough. Colorado had no challenge.”
As a competitor in the snowboard wing of the 1993 World Extreme Skiing Championship in Valdez, Perata was standing on a ridge with a group of other entrants and EMTs when he had his third religious experience. A cornice of snow — 15 feet thick and 600 yards long — fractured, and the backdraft sucked a skier off the ridge and into the avalanche, killing him. As Perata watched him tumble for 3,300 vertical feet, he knew there had to be another way. He would organize his own tournament, just for snowboarders. It would be safer. It would have better rock-and-roll bands. It would be called King of the Hill, and he would incorporate himself as the Alaska Freeriding Federation so he couldn’t be sued personally if someone got hurt.
In the annals of Valdez disasters, the inaugural KOH, in 1994, doesn’t -summon anywhere near the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the 1927 meteor that shattered the peak of a nearby mountain, the 1964 earthquake that leveled the town, or the 1989 oil spill that besmirched Prince William Sound. But it does hold a very special place in local memory. Perata appointed as his head judge a man named Scott Liska, once an electrician, now the owner of the Boarderline Snowboard and Skate shops in Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks. Liska drove down Richardson Highway from Anchor-age in his black Cadillac hearse with its super-amplified sound system blaring Dr. Dre and the Geto Boys. His first stop was the Valdez police station, to bail out a recently busted friend. The police wanted cash, however, and at the local branch of the First National Bank of Anchorage, Liska was too drunk to sign his name. Finally, Liska tried the ATM, which unreasonably refused him money when he couldn’t remember his PIN. So he pissed on it. The security camera caught it all, so to speak, and the incident made a secondary splash in the Valdez Vanguard‘s coverage of the tournament.
During the weather delays that year, a number of the entrants built on this public-relations coup by shooting holes in traffic signs. At the awards ceremony, at the new Valdez Convention and Civic Center, a facility that would be the pride of any small town in America, half the dance floor was designated for the underage local youth and half for the overage drinking snowboarders. The local underage youth, however, kept slipping over the line to the bar, then had their morals further corrupted by the punk-rock song stylings of Penny-wise and the Offspring, whose language was deemed unfit for minors. The hall sustained a moderate mosh-pit trashing, and Matt Goodwill, the first winner of the King of the Hill title, punched several holes in the stage with his bitchin’ beautiful broad-sword. The cops shut down the show early, Perata refused to pay the center’s rental fee for eight months, and the city of Valdez has declined to rent the building to him ever since.
“Alaska is the best place in the world to snowboard, and I’m trying to support it,” says Liska, still the head judge, whose gray hair makes him look older than his 39 years. “The mountains are steeper and the powder is deeper. You go to a ski resort, all you see are the moguls, the tracks of other skiers, the crowds at the tram lines. When you go
up in a helicopter, you don’t see another track. Just blue sky, untouched snow, perfectly white, with the sparkling crystals.”
Seems like aesthetics plays a big part in the thrill.
“Oh, yeah. I made more money when I was an electrician, but once you’ve experienced this kind of snowboarding, you just want more. When we started King of the Hill, I was worried that if we didn’t have a new event and draw in some more people that the local heliskiing company would go out of business and I wouldn’t be able to get to the top of the pass anymore. These mountains are way too big to hike up. I had to get back up there.”
What’s the difference between snowboarders and skiers?
“Snowboarders are a little more anticonformist, and they’re looking for a different thrill. Skiing is more speed; snowboarding is more style: riding the terrain, sliding on logs and rocks, just using everything on the mountain. And you can go backward and forward on the board, which you can’t on skis. Judges vary in what they like, but in general you want to avoid stopping and standing and falling. You do want to choose the best line down the mountain and stay in control. The experienced riders take Polaroids at the bottom and look at them again at the top, because everything looks different up there. You’ve got to memorize your landmarks from the helicopter.”
Does Liska know Myles Burgett?
“Yeah, it was really scary to hear about him. I rode with him a lot. When I first got to be friends with him, I thought he had a death wish. It seemed like he was taking incredible risks, like he didn’t care if he made it or not. Then I thought, Well, maybe he doesn’t have a death wish. Maybe he has a special gift. If you were flying in a helicopter and you saw somebody’s track that made you think How did anyone go there?, you’d just assume it was Myles’s. All he cared about was finding the biggest, gnarliest cliff drop. I remember one year I was judging, and Myles traversed the mountain and dropped into a chute, which funneled down to this 80-foot cliff. The edge was rounded, not a straight drop-off, and I thought it would be impossible for him to generate enough speed to clear it. He made a couple of turns in the chute and started an avalanche, and you couldn’t see anything but this big cloud of snow. All you could hear was Myles’s board clacking on the rocks. I was pretty scared, with that clacking. Suddenly, the cloud spit Myles out, like a surfer getting shot out of a huge tube, and I heard him yelling. The avalanche actually saved him, gave him enough speed and pushed him out over that rounded cliff. He seemed invincible.”
The 4,700 residents of Valdez like to talk about: (1) the time a big RV pulled in to the Tesoro gas station and an eagle swooped down and ate the family’s poodle; (2) the looming likelihood of another earthquake’s hitting 9.2 on
the Richter scale, as did the one in 1964, the worst in North American history; and (3) the prospect of declining tax revenue from the oil pipeline’s forcing the prosperous town to become a tourist trap dependent on snow as a natural resource.
Officially measured at 227 inches through March, the snow — now piled in grayish-black pyramids all over the wide, flat streets of Valdez — appears to be an especially abundant resource, even in balmy April weather. Compared with the record of 561 inches in the winter of 1989–90, however, this year has been positively bony, manky, and skinny. The farther up Thompson Pass you go, the more snow you get, but there are still lots of rocks and brush visible at the 32-mile mark, where the sign “Alaska Backcountry adventures/Heli Skiing $65, Airplane $45/Fully Guided” beckons snowboarders to a slushy parking lot, two mobile homes, and a couple of Porto-Sans that reek heinously even at subfreezing temperatures.
The vibe is sort of Apocalypse Snow, with Perata playing both the Dennis Hopper and the Marlon Brando roles, orchestrating which of the 43 contestants, 20 media people (mostly on camera crews), 11 rescue-squad workers, 8 work-crew members, and 5 judges get to fly up the mountain in which trip of the Bell helicopter and the De Havilland Beaver ski plane. The Beaver, a model of mid-’50s Canadian vintage much loved by bush pilots, has a little rope tied to each of its wingtips. When the engine starts, creating a hurricane of loose snow in its wake, two guys hang on to the ropes and pull in a seesaw motion to rock the plane’s skis out of their frozen ruts. Then the plane takes off to-ward some high-tension wires about a mile down the road, winging up to land on a high glacier. For the non-Alaskan, the scene doesn’t inspire confidence.
In the parking lot, Julie Zell, a small blonde who has been Queen of the Hill for three years running, tosses a stick for her retriever, Bamboo. Be-sides sporting the usual logos for her various sponsors, her snowboard is painted front to rear with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
“I just found it in some magazine,” says Zell, 30, pulling a string of Tibetan prayer flags out of her car and folding them into her backpack. “I’m looking for a good place to hang these on the mountain. They’re for my brother Jimmy, who was paralyzed in a paragliding accident. Myles in a coma, my brother fighting for his life in a New York hospital, and this other friend of mine, Trevor Peterson, dead in an avalanche recently. Trevor was a pioneer of extreme skiing. His name was synonymous with ‘first descent.’ I’ve been asking myself lately, who had the worst fate? The guy who’s in a coma and will have to relearn everything? The guy who’s paralyzed but mentally all there? The guy who died? I never thought much about this until my brother’s accident. There have been so many accidents, even in this little town. Did we cross a line somewhere? That’s why I have that quote from Teddy Roosevelt. It’s been hard to motivate lately.”
The last of eight children, Zell grew up in Syracuse, New York. She entered her first ski race at the age of 5, cried inconsolably when she didn’t win, and still wonders why such a young child would care so much. She had a 93 average in high school but couldn’t buy the undertone that life was predestined to college, job, marriage, kids, and death. She got a ski scholarship to the University of Alaska for one season. She got another ski scholarship, to Montana State, for one season, until that program got cut in a budget crunch. After a stint in Hawaii as a tour guide, waitress, and tie-dyer, she moved to Jackson Hole, where her older brothers Jeff and Jimmy were ski racing.
“I decided to go back to ski racing and see if I was any good, but I hated it,” Zell says. “I was still too young, and I couldn’t handle the politics. It seemed like the rich kids had all the advantages. They could go to all the camps and ski races, get training and expenses. Lots of times, you’d miss out on things because of political decisions. You’d be following the rules and suddenly there was this exception to the rule, this habit they had of moving the goal posts. In 1990, after a lifetime of bumming out over skiing, I tried this snowboard that was lying around the house. I pulled out of my first turn, and it was so easy and natural and perfect that I started laughing. And that was it. I was hooked. My brothers tried to convince me that I was throwing my life away, but they’re proud of me now. If you’ve been coached all your life, been too regimented and disciplined, the freedom of snowboarding can just grab you. You have to be yourself to get down the mountain. The biggest obstacle is your own nervous system.”
How well does Zell know Myles?
“He’s a crazy kid, definitely a go-for-it kind of guy. I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘It was bound to happen.’ And I feel like clotheslining them. You never know why people take the chances they do. Maybe they see the risk differently.”
The Brobowl, site of Downhill Day: a 3,500-foot vertical drop, at moderately steep angles; 16 gates; each competitor gets two runs; only speed counts, with a maximum of around 70 mph possible; so named by Perata because he and three of his bros were the first humans to snowboard the route. One of the bros (Jay Liska, son of Scott) is competing today; one is off filming another event, in Juneau; and one is doing time for handing out a large batch of mushrooms after last year’s closing ceremony.
Casualties: two — Julie Zell and a member of the rescue crew. After Zell’s smooth first run, the clouds blow in, reducing visibility to dangerous levels during her second run. Coming out of a steep incline at 50 mph, she hydroplanes and hits a bump. She starfishes three times into a snow-bank, suffering a moderate concussion and a jammed spine. The rescue-crew guy catches the tip of his ski on something. “He fractured his tibia and fibula,” says squad head George Ortman. “It’s going to cost $25,000, and he doesn’t have medical insurance. The bones of the mountain are sticking out everywhere. Definitely the most dangerous year I’ve ever seen.”
Later, back at the Totem: “Most of the other Frenchies are assholes, but not Antonin,” says Perata with his unerring instinct for political correctness, speaking of the first day’s leader, Antonin Lieutaghi. “The other Frenchies won’t even talk to you most of the time. Antonin is a good ambassador, and he’s the best athlete in the event. He’s the only one I know who actually trains, who doesn’t get fucked up, who is always first on the bus in the morning. What wins in this sport is your legs. Way before reaching the bottom, your legs are jello. The strongest legs, the strongest will, the strongest route-finding ability — Antonin is best at all three. And every competitor I know likes him.”
Lieutaghi, who has dark hair and eyes and is one of a small minority of snowboarders who can do a triple backflip, is also the only competitor with his own press packet, which conveniently identifies him as being 29 years old, a snowboarder since 1986, and a current resident of the French Alps. “His legendary good mood, his passion for mountains and his unceasing foolery are nowadays known in the snowboard family,” it says. “The fluidity, the esthetic style and the incredible power to situate himself in space. All that, make of Antonin Lieutaghi a special sportsman.”
“I was too noisy at normal school,” says Lieutaghi. “I always wanted to move. It was difficult to sit at my desk, and I didn’t want to make study after school. I wanted to do some sports. They sent me to the Fratellini Circus School, in Paris. I learned acrobatics, trapeze, trampoline, tight-rope, juggling, clowning. I learned to handle my body well in the air and some stuff like that. I can live only for snowboarding. What I like is free-riding. I don’t like to race. I race only to be recognized by my sponsor and to make some money.”
What do his parents do?
“My father is a writer and botanist. My mother is a proofreader. Nobody else skis in my family. My father has too much job. Is very difficult for him to have good organization. He tells me I am a good example for him. He very much appreciates what I did to arrive at my point now. He maybe wants to do something else, but not in sports. I don’t tell my parents what I really do. This winter, I fell in a big crevasse and broke my ribs and collarbone. I fell in a big avalanche. I jumped a 40-meter cliff. I try to be careful for myself, but I don’t tell them about these things.”
“They measure his progress daily with the Glasgow Coma Score,” says Wendy Burgett at a table in Valdez’s Sugarloaf Saloon. “There are three categories — eye-opening, vocal ability, and movement ability — for which they give points and then add them up. On a scale of 3 to 15, Myles is at 9 right now, which technically is not even a coma. He opens his eyes and makes eye contact slowly. He has expressions on his face. He’s been mov-ing his left arm all along, and he’s beginning to move his right arm, which I thought he might have lost the ability to do. He made a sound early this week. They’re working on his digestive problems, and his pneumonia is gone. It’s a slow process, a year or two of rehabilitation, and he will have to relearn a lot of basic things. But the brain can recircuit. There’s every chance he’ll be walking and talking and functional.
“I don’t know what we’d be doing if the accident hadn’t happened in Canada, where they’re paying for his rehabilitation. Our Blue Cross didn’t cover Myles, and we couldn’t find other insurance. His father and uncle are with him in Vancouver now. We have to pay our travel and living expenses in Vancouver, but our friends in Valdez have come through for us. A raffle raised $6,000.”
“We have a prayer chain going like you wouldn’t believe,” says Wendy’s friend Sharon Keese.
Why was Myles so drawn to snowboarding?
“It was his art form,” says Wendy, a native of Wisconsin who works in the Valdez women’s shelter. “He was a quiet person, but he’d get on the board and come alive. I had no idea how motivated he was most of the time. When he came home last year after Extreme Day, I asked ‘How did you do?’ He just said ‘Pretty good.’ It turned out he was in first place. I was just happy that he’d found something he loved.”
“The consensus of his friends is that he would have won the whole thing this year,” says Keese. “It never went to his head, though. He was always teaching his friends new moves.”
“He’s in six videos, has his own poster, and we have a stack of snowboarding magazines with pictures and articles about him,” says Wendy. “But he’s always been just an ordinary kid. The competitions aren’t very competitive, just an excuse to hang out with your friends.”
What about school?
“When he applied himself, he was a great student,” says Keese, whose own sons are close to Myles. “I think he was bored in class. One of those kids who are a little too smart for school.”
“He did well in creative writing and art,” says Wendy. “When he did it, he did well. He just had difficulty applying school to his life.”
“There were a lot of kids who didn’t go to school on good snow days,” says Keese.
Was he thinking about another career eventually?
“He was talking about doing something else, planning to study for his GED,” says Wendy. “When he would leave in the morning for the mountains, he would say ‘I’m going to work,’ so he had a strong sense of professionalism. When Myles was 15 and considering dropping out to snowboard full-time with a sponsor, the principal of his high school had a long talk with him, tried to convince Myles to stick with his classes. Myles dropped out anyway. Within a year, he had been to Uzbekistan, New Zealand, France, and South America. I don’t know how high school could have been any more educational.”
“He thought the women in Russia were hairy,” says Keese.
“When they went to Bolivia, one of the riders got sick,” says Wendy. “They had several days with nothing to do, so Myles went up on the roofs to explore the city. He found this chapel where he rang the bell, just to hear what it sounded like. Well, the bell hadn’t been rung since World War II, and the police almost shot him. The priest wanted to throw him in prison until Myles gave him all his travel money.”
She must have worried about him.
“All the time. His father would say ‘You don’t need to take the risks anymore. You’re good enough.’ The accident wasn’t a harebrained backflip. It was a planned route, and he made a wrong turn. They tell me he wanted to wear his helmet that day, but he forgot it in the closet back home.”
“You wanna know what happened?” asks Steve Klassen, deeply embarrassed to have finished twentieth on Downhill Day, carrying a large grocery bag full of junk food back to his hotel room. “I thought I had a smokin’ first round, but I used the wrong wax on my board, which really slowed me down. For the second round, I switched to a new board. It was faster, but I couldn’t feel anything because the new board was stiffer. And I couldn’t see anything in the flat light. You couldn’t tell slab from snow. Sometimes you just need luck, and I didn’t have any. This will be the first contest in three years that I lost.”
“I can’t remember anything except pulling my head out of a snowbank,” says Julie Zell, also carrying a bunch of junk food to her room. “I feel like I got two steel bars running from my shoulder down to my ass. Somebody said the light was like riding in a milk bottle.”
“In the future I’ll be wearing speed suits and shit like that,” says Klassen. “A little bit of performance is added every year. And a little soul is taken away.”
Nick’s Happy valley, site of Freestyle Day: a 3,200-foot vertical drop; so named because Nick Perata loves its wind lips, natural half-pipes, cornices, small cliffs, and other natural features that make snowboarding extreme; competitors are judged for style, aggression, control, and fluidity; 10 gates determine the route, so everyone is working with the same terrain; the run is untimed; it’s said to get the best powder in the area when snow comes in. Unfortunately, snow comes in while half the competitors are on the summit and half still in the parking lot. Perata spends the morning and early afternoon beseeching the skies, muttering oaths about “bluebirds” (clear skies), “graybirds” (cloudy skies), and “sucker-holes” (gaps in the clouds that promise a bluebird but deliver a graybird). With $1,000 out of his pinched budget already spent on flights to the summit, he must decide on a tooth-grinding, minute-by-minute basis whether to pull the riders off the mountain because it’s too dangerous or to send more riders up and go on with the show.
A discreet word on dope: A snowboarder’s day runs at the same pace as a rock musician’s — long periods with nothing to do leading to short periods of intense activity and absolute focus. Some, not all, snowboarders smoke pot to pass time during the long periods and to enhance the flow during the short periods. So whenever a suckerhole blows over the summit of Nick’s Happy Valley, all Alaska sparkles down below, all the universe opens up above, and several billion brain synapses in the immediate area go electric with this staggering skunkweed that smells just like Starbucks coffee.
Another discreet word on dope: Riding the features of a mountain with your feet locked to a small board exerts astronaut-level G-forces on select areas of the human body. Kneecaps have been known to shatter without hitting anything, so great are these forces. Of necessity, snowboarders learn to be amateur chiropractors, adjusting their ligaments, tendons, joints, and spinal columns on a nightly basis in their motel rooms. Many find this process more tolerable with a lungful of skunk-weed.
Casualties: none. But you can’t see much, either. Most of the runs occur during light snow squalls, which give the mountain the look of a Zen painting as the clouds blow in and out. At the first jump, a wind lip reinforced with a man-made snow ramp, the riders do some jaw-dropping spins (180 to 540 degrees) and backflips, then disappear into the gray. Lieutaghi takes second behind a local rider named Jason Borgstede, and Klassen moves up to twelfth.
“Dead last!” moans Morgan LaFonte, rubbing peppermint oil into her bare feet, ostensibly to keep warm. The window of her room at the Village Inn, across Richardson Highway from the Totem, is wide open, creating an access hole of about 16 square feet for the stiff, chilly wind. “I’m dead last! I can’t go to the Totem! I won’t go to the Totem! I can’t bear sympathetic looks! I’m just not competitive enough. I hate to look at other people and think, Hey, I’m better than her. I have no killer instinct.”
Despite two lousy days in this competition, LaFonte has done well enough in the past that she has her own production-model snowboard marketed by K2. Her room is strewed with clothes, while her stash of herbs, vitamins, and foodstuffs is scattered in a terminal moraine of Tupperware. Unable to spell the name of her hometown after several tries with pen and paper, she volunteers by way of autobiography that she’s from northern Michigan and has been living in Colorado for 12 years.
Her friend and fellow KOH contestant Lori Gibbs grew up in a strict Mormon family on a small farm on the Snake River, in Idaho. She barrel-raced at high-school rodeos, hunted, fished, and endured the hard winters. After 2 years at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, she ran off to California to live with a surfer who had to hide her skis to get her to try snowboarding, and for much of the next 12 years she ranked among the top three women in the sport. Most recently, she won the European Extreme.
“We’re the dinosaurs,” says Gibbs. “The kids coming up now, they look at me and say ‘She’s old.’ It’s taken us a lot of years to get where we are, and it’s taken a lot out of us.”
By way of injuries?
“Well, let’s see. I broke the same set of ribs twice. I broke my back. I blew out both my knees. The third time was the clincher. In 1991, I broke my leg in five spots, crushed my ankle. We were guinea pigs for testing equipment in those days. I have a pretty high tolerance for pain, but I had to take a year off for rehabilitation. I did a lot of thinking about the true meaning of snowboarding.”
“That I do it for my soul, not for a sponsor. That I will still be doing powder runs even if I’m on the pro-golf tour and making real money. It’s like finding a drug that you really, really love. It’s like sex.”
“An injury is not the worst thing that can happen,” says LaFonte. “I had a clean record until last winter, when I tore a bunch of ligaments in my knee. It freed me up to take a look at myself. I decided to be kinder to my body if I wanted to live to be an old and happy human being.”
So what’s next?
“I’ve been through all the levels of excitement in this sport, and either you get through it or you die,” she says. “I’m in the final stages now, and what I really want to do next is surf.”
The White room, site of Extreme Day: a 4,100-foot vertical drop; to the west, a steep ridge about a mile long; to the east, another steep ridge about a mile long; to the north, a gap; to the south, a slightly lower gap; in the middle, a glacier that slopes gently to the south, giving the effect of a football stadium with an opening at either end zone; named for the Cream song; should be re-named the Anvil of the Arctic Sun, because under a blue-bird, the 360-degree UV hammers any exposed skin.
Planted in the snow at the bottom of the run is a profusion of banners bearing the logos of several companies. In addition, most of the best riders have individual sponsors whose insignia are plastered on their helmets as if they were stock cars at the Daytona 500. When making the yearned-for transition from doing the thing you love to getting paid for doing
the thing you love, snowboarders learn the same hard
lesson as rock musicians: Open the door for capitalism, and suddenly the thing you love is tainted. Am-bivalence re-places that pure sense of freedom, which is why you got into it in the first place. So while most pro snowboarders are grateful to get enough of a stipend that they don’t have to wait tables or do carpentry at least part of the year, they are simultaneously resentful of the boss. A snowboarder who showboats to impress a sponsor is known as a “nut-swinger.”
A discreet word on language: The work crew and the first-aid crew are not referred to as such. They are called “banner nigs” and “rescue nigs.” In fact, anyone with a job is a “nig.” No racism appears to be implied; it’s part of the general atmosphere of taboo-tromping.
The word “extreme,” once useful to designate activities requiring both courage and coordination outside the realm of traditional sports, has gone through the usual transition to meaninglessness as Madison Avenue and the entertainment business have applied it to all manner of insipid crud. Today’s truly extreme snowboarder is often described as “hairball,” as in what your cat barfs up every week or two. For instance: “What we do is pretty hairball,” says Morgan LaFonte, “but they have more injuries in those bogus half-pipe competitions for television.”
To be hairball, one must “huck,” which Klassen de-fines as “throwing yourself off a cliff where you
have a fifty-fifty chance or less of landing it.” Head judge Scott Liska barks over his walkie-talkie to the work crew on a ridge: “Get ’em off of there! I don’t want anyone hucking off that cornice thinking there’s pow underneath!”
Handling one’s body well, riding the features of the mountain within an inch of ragdolling — but not ragdolling — is “meat hucking.” A synonym for meat hucking is “carcass tossing.” Thus Elke Barns, a rider from Gird-wood, Alaska, compliments Lori Gibbs on an especially thrilling descent: “That was some hairball carcass tossing, girl!” “Taco tossing,” by contrast, means hitting something so hard that you fold your body around it. This is to be avoided.
Casualties: No one actually taco tosses on Extreme Day. Three riders do go down something called the Koch Notch, a narrow chute with little snow ending in a tiny rock ledge that drops off to a 60-foot rock cliff that descends at an 80-degree angle. All three riders stop on the ledge and stare down for minutes before making the leap. Two of them more or less huck. One of them breaks his leg. The rescue squad digs him out and carries him to the helicopter for the 10-minute ride back to base camp, pausing first for a snapshot. The rider with the broken leg laughs the whole time. Another boarder finishes his run and pulls off his glove, revealing a pinkie sticking out of his palm at a right angle. George Ortman grabs the finger, while another guy yanks the boarder’s shoulder, and they snap the pinkie back into place.
Some 4,100 feet up, there’s a mile-long ridge to the west. Every 10 minutes or so, a boarder starts down from any point of his choosing. On the glacier below, there are clumps of banners, clumps of camera crews, clumps of spectators, and one clump of judges (who sit in a half-igloo to shield themselves from the pounding sun). The riders begin as little black dots, discernible from the rocks only because they are moving. As their descent proceeds, the sheer, overwhelming beauty of meat hucking becomes apparent as the riders find routes where there appear to be none, turning every obstacle into an opportunity for acrobatics.
Even to the untrained eye, the two best rides are obvious. Klassen carves the White Room in exhilarating, long, graceful slashes that have an almost architectural geometry. And Matt Goodwill attacks the boulders as if God put them there just to piss him off. At one point, he leaps onto the edge of the chute and jibs the nose of his board back and forth on either side of the spine, drawing cheers and gasps from the clumps below. It’s like watching Rembrandt and Jackson Pollock fall off a mountain, Mozart and Motörhead, Laurence Olivier and Jim Carrey. Carrey wins, 100 to 98.
“No, he wasn’t shy. He just didn’t like to talk,” says Trevor Keese, son of Sharon. “What was odd about Myles, he never said goodbye. When he was bored, he’d just disappear. You’d look around and he was gone. You never knew what he was going to do.”
Was he interested in anything in school?
“He could draw pretty good. But the principal, him and Myles didn’t get along. Myles was always skipping to go snowboarding, and he’d never give any explanation. When he got a sponsor and went professional, he was figuring he didn’t have much chance of graduating, anyway. But he paid his dues. The principal kept us out of our classes, made us stay in the office and do our work. It was that or suspend us. And a suspension was just giving us another day off to go snowboarding.”
“Remember when you asked me about risking life and limb?” says Klassen, across a long table in the Sugarloaf Saloon banquet hall, where the faithful have assembled for the closing ceremony. “When you ask about life and death, I just see snowboarding. Do you see that now, after Extreme Day?”
Well, the appeal is clear. But it still looks like he’s risking his life.
“Only in my youth,” says Klassen, whose strong second yesterday moved him up to tenth in the overall standings.
“Death — that’s a boundary you don’t want to cross,” says Jason Schutz, a rider from Bozeman, Montana, who finished sixth. “Even I get scared watching some of those guys. I saw Myles risk his life several times, but I only saw him frightened once, when he had a big exposure and not much powder. Even he had his limits. In the year before his accident, Myles was talking about getting safer, taking fewer risks.”
“Whenever anything’s exposed, I wear a helmet now,” says Eric Klassen, Steve’s younger brother. “I saw a guy rag all the way down in Tahoe recently. You could hear his helmet clacking on the rocks. That could have been his skull.”
“I just got a new motorcycle, and I’m going to wear my helmet all the time,” says Goodwill, the winner of Extreme Day, sixth on Freestyle Day, eighth on Downhill Day. Once a carpenter, Goodwill has long reddish-blond hair and listens to Pantera and Biohazard on a Walkman for maximum aggro when he snow-boards. “It’s boring without the tunes,” he says. “This is as close as you can get to being a rock star without having any musical ability.”
After a raucous food fight between the Americans and the Frenchies, Perata assumes emcee duties and thanks the competitors, the sponsors, the Totem Inn, the Village Inn, the work crew, the rescue squad, the judges, the media, and last year’s King and Queen of the Hill — Steve Klassen and Julie Zell.
Klassen climbs onstage and stands with his back turned to the audience, staring into the microphone. Zell whispers in his ear. “ ‘Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure . . . ,’ ” he mumbles, as Zell whispers to him again, “ ‘ . . . than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they . . . ,’ ”
she whispers yet again, “ ‘ . . . live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.’ ”
“I think that about covers it,” says Zell, grabbing the mike, “except to say that I’m glad no one got whacked too bad this year.”
Perata calls Goodwill, the new king, and Karleen Jeffery, the new queen, to the stage. They kneel before their predecessors, who present them each with a robe, a crown, heli-lift passes, a not-entirely-fresh king salmon, and a bitchin’ beautiful broadsword.
“My brother Goodwill,” Klassen says, “your victory is one of triumph.”
Goodwill punches several holes in the stage with his broad-sword, which he then holds aloft. “This shit’s going to look good on my wall!” he shouts.
With the king and queen looking down from their thrones, Perata hands out a mound of lesser swag to the competitors, giving each an introduction that falls somewhere between generic and personal: “And at number five, Elke Barns! She’s a badass woman, she does it all!”
Finally, a band called Freedom 49 sets up and starts playing long, slow, mournful blues. “This is dedicated to a brother we lost on the slopes,” says the singer. “A friend of ours who died last year.” The room clears in minutes as everyone is driven to the bar, where they drain the entire stock of hard liquor in an hour.
“We were friends since the age of 5 or so,” says Justin Taylor, who lives near the Burgetts. “We were 12 when we got into snowboarding. It seemed like he was at least a year and a half ahead of everyone else when we started, and he just got better. We were in the same classes until he dropped out in the tenth grade, but he didn’t spend much time in school, anyway. He was always up at the pass doing kickers. There wasn’t anything else to do until we got old enough to party, a couple of years ago. We’d have bonfires and drink beer until we puked.”
Did Myles ever talk about why he hated school so much?
“No, he never talked about anything. He didn’t like the principal just ’cause he was the principal. A lot of snotty people went to our high school, and we were never a part of it. We were the antisocial ones who never went to the pep rallies. Everybody else considered us losers.”
When he made it to class, how did Myles behave?
“I remember in the fifth grade, this one kid in our class got in trouble, and the teacher wrote his name on the blackboard, which meant you couldn’t go out for recess or something. The kid hadn’t done anything. But the teacher wouldn’t listen, so Myles went up to the blackboard to erase the name. The teacher had to tackle him and hold him down until the principal came and took him away. We all knew it wasn’t the kid’s fault. Myles was the only one who stood up to erase the name. That was the first incident. He never liked school again. He was a hell of a guy. And he still is.”
“Where you going?” says the cop.
“The Tsaina Lodge,” says Nick Perata. “There’s a benefit for that local boy who’s in a coma. I was only doing 69.”
“You know what the speed limit is?” says the cop.
“That’s correct.” The cop looks at Perata’s license and then back at Perata. “Haven’t I seen you before?”
“I’m with the King of the Hill Snowboard Tournament.”
“At the auditorium, three years ago. Yeah. You’re the one who booked those bands. All night it was ‘motherfucker this’ and ‘mother-fucker that’ — and my kid was in the audience.”
“Well, you stopped the show.”
“No, we didn’t. We let it go on a long time.”
“Okay, but we didn’t shoot up any signs this year.”
“The people of Valdez would want me to express their heartfelt gratitude for that,” says the cop, eying the seven snowboarders stuffed into Perata’s old Buick. “Tell you what. I’m so grateful that I’m going to let you go with a warning, but if I catch you again going even a hair over 65, you’re busted. Awright?”
Perata pulls back onto the highway. “I’m hoping they forget all that shit from the first year and let me rent the Civic Center again next year,” he says. “The hall at the Sugarloaf isn’t big enough to bring in the good bands.” The stars are shining in an almost-cloudless sky, the Hale-Bopp comet hanging out the rear window like a banshee, the mountains looming like ghosts in the blackness. “I lost $22,000 last year. This year, I paid that off, and I lost another $35,000. I haven’t made a nickel in four years. So I don’t do this for the money. You know why I do this? I do it for Alaska. I do it for the mountains. And the moment somebody dies in my tournament, that’s when I pull the plug.”