Living the Nightmare – Sam Smoothy, a Year in Freeride Skiing

5 years ago I met a young Free-ride skier from the small farming town of Cromwell, South Island New Zealand.  That year, he was only 19 years old and had just won New Zealand's premier big mountain skiing event.  To put it in perspective: Free-ride skiing involves hiking to the top of the gnarliest mountain you can find, then skiing down steep couloirs, over cliff bands, rocks and drops to reach the bottom.  It's not a sport for the faint-hearted.  At this year's Verbier Extreme (the final of the Freeride World Tour and the premier Free-ride, blue riband event in the world) one competitor fell and tumbled several hundred meters over exposed rock, jagged ice and several drops of up to 30 meters.

This is a sport which kills: each year Free-riders die of falls, slips, or that whispering death of the mountains: the avalanche.

This is what first fascinated me about Sam Smoothy: the wild-child Cromwellian.  A young, athletic, competitive and eloquent boy who chooses to develop his talent in one of the world's most dangerous sports.  Put simply, Free-riders are just like us in terms of their dreams, ambitions, doubts, loves, vices and everything else that makes up the human condition.  What makes them so different to the rest of us is an apparent obliviousness to mortal danger.  They face death on the mountain every day: close shaves are common and injuries can put them out for months.  Careers are ended.  Friends die.  But each time, rather than counting their chickens and thanking their lucky stars, they return to the white expanses, open sky and steep descents that mark their bliss, their playground and their ultimate terror.  They are like junkies, knowing that the action and lifestyle may well destroy them, but unable to resist the magnetic pull of the white powder.

"It's all worth it for that one great line, that one day where it all comes together," says Sam, "But I don't expect to be an old man."  That was one of the most shocking things I had ever heard.  This friend of mine expects this sport to kill him.

And yet he goes out every day, skiing in avalanche zones and jumping off cliffs.  How is it worth it?  As a skier myself, I have tasted the elation, thrill and unparalleled ecstasy of a good run on the mountain.  It's unlike any sex, any drug or any sport you've ever played.  It's you and the mountain.  Every mistake and every success is down to you, and you alone.  The very danger and risk of death is an essential component to that joy: it heightens your senses, your awareness, and the rush you ultimately feel when you stand at the bottom of a mountain face, look up, and see the tracks in the snow made by your skis as you carved your signature into the powder.

That feeling has scared me.  It's too good and I want more: deeper powder, narrower couloirs, steeper faces and bigger jumps.  But a sense of preservation pulls me back from pursuing it every day, and that sense of self-preservation doesn't exist in those that make it to the stop of this most extreme of sports.

5 years after I met him, Sam has progressed through the qualifying ranks and joined the select group of skiers on the Free-ride World Tour, to compete on the most challenging and rewarding mountain faces in Switzerland, Russia, America, Austria and France.  This vagabond lifestyle, hero worship and ever-present pro-hoes may sound appealing, but as Sam has become a good friend, I have gained an insight into the highs and lows of this sport of genuine supermen.

This year, Sam came to the FWT full of hope and promise.  He expected to win.  But before his first competition, he injured his knee shooting photographs (a part of the ever-present need to fulfil your sponsors' marketing desires), meaning he didn't ski to his best ability in Chamonix, had to pull out of Engadin, and then perhaps went out too hard in Kirkwood and Sochi.  In the end he failed to make the cut for the final run in the Verbier Extreme by 1 place.  Needless to say, he wasn't too pleased with himself.

Sam has lived with me on and off for the last three seasons.  I've seen the elation in his face when he competes and stomps a run; the delight he has in seeing others succeed in their own small way on the snow; and his genuine love of getting out there and skiing with his mates.  But I've also seen the deep despair he can enter when things don't work out; the fatalistic anger and petulant blame of events and decisions that don't go his way; the reaction of a damaged ego; the indulgent ways of repairing it; and the consideration of throwing it all in.  But every time he picks himself up: his love of the snow and competitive spirit sends him back to the white havens and he tells us all of how he will construct victory next year.

This year I have asked Sam to write a monthly column for Beyond Limits so that others might get an insight into the mind and lifestyle of someone who lives a glamorous, dangerous and appealing lifestyle beyond the concept of most of us.  Someone who is just like you and I, but nothing like us at all.

After his failure to make it to the Verbier Extreme finals, Sam fell into a real funk.  He spent his time drinking, womanising and telling us everything that went wrong, how fate and circumstance had conspired to deal him a bad hand.  And yet it was also time for him to contribute his next article.  So he sat with his Mac and a bottle of Jamesons and put together one of the most honest, brutal and insightful pieces you will every read by a professional athlete.  Whilst much of the piece didn't make sense at first, the cathartic process helped him, and he is now in a much calmer state (aided by an anti-biotic-enforced drinking ban), able to reflect that this year wasn't so bad after all: he is young for his sport; he was competing with his heroes; he was getting used to the adoration of fans, the media attention, the female attention; getting used to the travel and the politics of the event; learning what he needed to do to be better; and learning how he needed to ski to win.

This article, co-authored by me, is that stream of consciousness pieced together into a coherent piece.  It's brilliant, and I'm proud that I had a hand in editing it.  But the honesty, the topic, the truth, the phraseology and sentiment behind it is all Sam's.  I'm glad to know him for all his brilliance, volatility, self-belief, egotism, genuine heroism and humanity.  So enjoy, courtesy of Beyond Limits.

Living the Nightmare – Sam Smoothy, a Year in Freeride Skiing

Greetings from the floor.  My damsel of distress, Freeride, recently purchased a large rubber fist.  She briefly caressed me gently before forcing a blindfold on and punching hard and low.  I had planned on a semi witty scribble about the clever tools of Freeride - mental and physical - for my column this month.

But, as a man of passion, and recently bruised pride, I cannot bring myself to poorly preach from the altar I just ingloriously fell from. (That is to say, if I was really ever there at all.)

So the question here is not, "what devices enable success in the freeride arena" but more "how does an imbalanced young man entertain himself when the season closes out like a brutal set at Jaws, Maui (the premier big wave surf break.)."  The drink replaces adrenaline and the troubles start to flow.  Where, as always, abject honesty prevails.

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After a slow start to the Freeride World Tour, my dreams of global conquest were abruptly cut short by that old favourite of the Freeride game: the knee injury.  Unable to compete at Engadine, Switzerland (the blessed run where I came first last year) I had a solid, but vanilla run, at Kirkwood, California.

Then came the horror of Sochi, Russia.  Despite a run which was praised and cheered by those whose divine ability on the mountain I respect, the arbiters of law (and more importantly points) decided that my run was not as earth-shattering as all had presumed.  A gloomy mood fell across the tour as riders muttered like Brutus and his cohorts, but the coup only reached the nether regions of a street fighter.

I regained my composure to pull out a screamer in Austria that saw me finish 5th there.  When the overall points were totted up, I came..... 14th.  One spot below a run at the Verbier Extreme and a guaranteed place on next year's tour.

And so, I begin to reflect on how, like Alexander, my conquest of the world was cut short by illness, injury and circumstance.  Do I lay the blame at the vagaries of injury and a subjective judging system?  Do I consider that I have not done my best?  Or, worst of all, that I have done my best?  The daemons of doubt gnaw at my mind, as the daemons of injury gnaw at my body.  It was my first year on the tour.  I wanted to win, but I can console myself that many Freeriders do not peak until their 30s and that this year was as much about understanding how to compete on the tour as anything else.  But that does not dumb the pain as well as a bottle of Jamesons and the temptations of the flesh.

Video of Sam Smoothy's controversially scored run at Sochi, Russia

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Welcome to the, largely, hypothetical tales from the crypt of every ski town's darkest nights.  A quick Surgeon's Warning: If you suffer from having a loved one removed from you by a ski town, we suggest you discontinue reading now.

From one who preens himself on his skill of descending the upthrust pinnacles of our tectonic planet, where the sparkling glamour and elite culture of the world gathers, please now harken to a looser, more freefall, description of the places where those who aspire to be heroes do not drink brandy, but chase after an ideal.  A new lifestyle.  Something greener, sprinkled with white crystals of our planets most precious tri-atomic molecule.

The ski town.  The home of the newly brave. The physical (and temporal) plane for those who love to ski.  For those escaping a job.  A wife.  A life bordering on such hair-tearingly dull-ality, that has them fleeing after a semi-teenage existence of charming the pants off the pleasure machine.  With the masses barely able to describe the apathy of their 9-to-5 existence, some eyes look south (or north, depending on geography) for something else.  A place where few of the outside, real-world rules are enforced - let alone thought of as anything more than mere idealistic guidelines.  These are the thin line of morals and ideas that might keep you from getting arrested, barred or beaten early in your season.  If only you could remember them after 13 jager bombs.  Rules you perhaps wish you had tattooed into your mind as you are asked, once again, why you thought pretending you were Triple H with a pint of beer in Apres-ski was a good idea.

“Sorry I hooked up with your girlfriend mate.  How bout I get ya a pint?  We’re still good right?”

Perhaps its the high altitude, but there sincerely seems to be an entire disregard for society's pervading moral code in a ski resort.  Most people have located themselves here in pursuit of pleasure at great cost: financial, personal and sometimes spiritual.  So what's a little sharing amongst friends?  Those who have just arrived or are stopping by, may be shocked by the decadent behaviour.  But few manage to hold out against the hedonism once situated in such a place.

This terribly low price of sexual redemption is not merely a male phenomenon either.  All inhibitions seem to fall aside as soon as one clicks into a seasonal snowboard, a pair of skis, or the door to a set of Norwegian sisters.  It is painfully true, though, that more than one unfortunate female has cried bitter salt starts when the third girl from their shared flat brings home the same charming Johnny-local.  She may plead for morals with hollowed-out droopy eyes.  But is anyone listening?  Does anyone want to?

Would the same thing happen in a place where a more regulated, watered-down, Donny-Osmond-esque personality was the supposed ideal, rather than a libidinous, Russell-Brand-esque vagabond?

Is this a self-taught change in attitude, or merely an enforced reflection of the compromises one accepts in order to make do in an underpaid, overly expensive bubble world?  For, when one is running away, is a cold, sweaty tussle in a snow bank outside an overcrowded apartment really any worse than staring at a screen blaring a programme that will inspire no more motivation than a high-school abstinence video?

Forgot the faux-mystic question "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"  Here, in the snow,y blurred border-land of the capital Mountains, there is no silence.  Just the sounds of V8 engines driven by children, as they deliver their champagne-soaked elders and assorted mistresses to their abodes.  Where wealth and power sit unhappily side by side with the chalet-girl, the driver, the dreamers chasing a winter season of joy.  A strange place of status, where the bankers spend their nation's taxes whilst their wife runs off with the tennis coach, their daughter pursues the delinquent snowboard instructor and they, themselves, hurtle towards a quadruple-heart bypass.

I would that hope anyone careless enough to still be here with me at this juncture, reading these horrendously linked words, would have noticed the large number of questions I have posed in my ramblings.  Whilst in previous columns I have made out that I knew a thing or two: a man-child who has run harder than any child chasing kites, or whatever it is they chase these days (perhaps a Pokemon or unnaturally early adolescence?).  But at this juncture, I feel that one more season and it’ll all collapse.  Like any addiction, escapism or delusional behaviour, eventually the real world will pick you up and violently takes you, despite your shattered screams.  And dreams.

And here sits the semi-pro.  The border-line.  The one who gets paid, but isn’t making cash.  An endless river to the debt sea, the semi-pro rider works his, oft-bruised, arse further than any desk jockey and pours it all back into this relentlessly powerful rip tide.

Chasing that elusive (and, perhaps illusive) dream.  A dream now broken and shattered, filling me up like a bitter bile that threatens to choke me in a supper of my own disappointment.

All sounds a little bitter for someone living the dream, doesn’t it?  Not only cutting off the hand but twisting it and flipping it north, much to the surprise off the internal organs.  But let us hope that, like stormy weather: this, too, shall pass.  Within a few weeks the monster of ambition will have grown inside me once more, casting doubt aside with the power and destruction of a tsunami, and throwing me again to this vicious rollercoaster of elation and depression.  I stand now at the trough of the wave, preparing (hopefully) my ascent once more to the peaks of professional skier-dom

Unlike Alexander, I have not fallen in Babylon (there's no FWT stop there...).  And so next year, I can begin my conquests anew!  Now I just need to figure out if I can go through it all again.

While Sam Smoothy licks his wounds and recovers from ladies and late night parties, this video is a reminder of the pure athleticism and courage it takes to toss oneself off cliffs.


Sam Smoothy is a professional Freeride skier from Cromwell, New Zealand.  He started skiing as soon as he could walk and had a promising career in ski-racing, before he discovered a passion for Freeride.  Sam worked his way onto the Volkl International Ski Team and currently competes on the Freeride World Tour, (the world's premier Freeride competition) having won the NZ Open and Engadinsnow competitions.  Sam is a monthly columnist for Beyond Limits Magazine and writes a regular blog