Big Air

“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”— Henry Ford 
I stood anxiously at the top of Aspen Highlands and watched my friend Rick launch himself over the edge of Steeplechase.  He popped hard at the lip of our jump and went into a tuck position, spinning end over end in the thin mountain air.

“Yahoo!  That was cool!” he exclaimed as he landed a double back flip in the deep powder.

Now, it was my turn, and the pressure was on.  Together, we had built a jump at the ski area boundary with a waist deep powder landing and an in-run that gave us up to about 50 feet of air. We had been training together for more than a year on trampolines and diving boards, and the moment of truth had finally arrived.

It was a crisp clear day in the high Rockies, and we had spent the last two hours perfecting our technique for single back flips which were starting to feel fairly easy: Just head on down the ramp, pop hard at the edge, throw your feet toward the sky, and lean backwards.  The ground comes back into view, and it is easy to make a last-minute tuck in case you are not far enough around.

I was preparing to do a big layout back flip, but when Ricky popped the double, my strategy suddenly changed.  I knew that the time had come, because this is what we had really been training for.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the motion that had become almost second nature on the trampoline.  The longer I hesitated, the more nervous I became, as my brain struggled desperately to protect me.

“OK, it’s now or never. Gotta get psyched.”   I told myself. Then, I took three deep breathes and slowly exhaled.  “Just tuck and head down the ramp at high speed.  No turning back now.”  As I launched myself skyward and pulled into a tight tuck, the adrenaline kicked in and my anxiety disappeared, The ground was swirling far below me as I finished the first revolution.

“OK, concentrate,” sky again, then ground, and snap.  Pulling out of the tuck stopped my spinning momentum, and I landed upright in the deep powder.  “Yeeoo! What a rush!”  I shouted out loud.

“Wow! Wasn’t that awesome?  Let’s do a couple more,” exclaimed Rick, enthusiastically as we hiked back up the hill.

A small crowd was starting to form, and for the first time in my life, I felt like a celebrity. We hiked gallantly up the hill and completed two more doubles.  We nailed them all and were feeling on top if the world, because there was a big contest in Keystone a few weeks later, and double gainers had been winning competitions.

“That’s enough for today,” I said. “We should quit before we get too tired. Let’s pack out the landing and go have a beer.”

Our heads were buzzing from the huge dose of adrenaline, and people that we didn’t even know were patting us on the back and congratulating us as we skied down the mountain.

Two days later, we were back again, and after a couple of big single layouts we felt ready.  We now had the confidence we had gained from the previous jumps, but the stakes were higher.  The landing had been packed out, so instead of waist deep powder, we had a smooth but hard surface to land on.

As I hiked up to the top of the in-run, a crowd was starting to gather

“Haven’t you heard that flips have been banned at Highlands?” a ski instructor among the crowd asked.  “There was a bad accident at Steamboat, and the injured jumper has sued, so the ski areas are nervous.”

“No, I didn’t know that,” I replied, as I quickly skied down and launched a double. The instructor looked a bit shocked, and that evening our jump was destroyed by a Sno-cat.

“What a bummer.” remarked Rick, as we stood in awe looking at the flat ground where our jump had been. “That was a great jump. What are we gonna do now?”

“That contest is only two weeks away, and we need more practice.” I replied.  “Lets go build another jump. But where?”

We spent the afternoon searching the outskirts of town and finally agreed to a shady spot on Shadow Mountain.  The terrain wasn’t as good as our original jump, but it was the best that we could find in a hurry, and we were very eager to keep practicing.  The landing was good, but there was a small tree in the middle of the in-run, so we were forced to make a turn about halfway down the approach.  It was only a small turn, but it made concentrating on the jump a bit more difficult.  Our new jump was also in the shade which made it more difficult to judge the landing, but contests were not canceled on cloudy days, and this would be good practice.  We had already done about six good doubles on the now-flattened Highlands jump, and were feeling quite confident.

I started with a single layout.  “That felt pretty good, but it needs to be a little bigger.”  I yelled from the bottom.  Rick made a jump and agreed, so we packed some more snow on top of the kicker and carefully shaped the jump so that it could freeze during the night.

The next day, Rick was busy but I was eager to train, so I went to the jump alone.  The contest was quickly approaching, and I had an avid desire to keep practicing.  My first two jumps were single flips and they felt good, so I began to prepare for my first double on the new jump.  I hiked a little bit further up the hill and concentrated on the motion.

“OK here it goes,” I thought, and I raced down the hill toward the jump.  The kick felt good, and I launched upward with a tight tuck and easily completed the first flip.  Everything felt fine until about halfway through the second flip, when I realized that the ground was much too close.  I held my tuck as tight as I could, but there wasn’t enough air, and one of my ski tips caught the snow.  It wasn’t a horrible crash, but there was definitely something wrong with my right knee. So, sadly, I gathered up my gear and limped back to my car.

“What happened?” exclaimed Rick, when he returned to our apartment and saw me lying on the couch with an ice bag on my knee.

“I crashed a double. Just barely missed it. That jump is not as good,” I informed him.

“You’re getting way to crazy! You better slow down, or you’re gonna get killed.”

“I don’t think that there’s any other choice.” I conceded.  “It’s gonna take at least a month for my knee to heal, so it looks like the contest is over for me.  I’d build that jump up a little more and try to get more speed if you want to do doubles on it. Oh! And don’t forget to tell all the girls about my injury. I’m getting pretty lonely talking to this ice bag.”

Rick kept training, and I wished him luck as he departed for the big contest, but two days later, he returned with his arm in a sling.

“What happened?”  I asked.

“I overthrew it.  The jumps were much bigger than ours and really icy. I tried to twist into the landing to break the fall and broke my shoulder blade instead. It was a two-and-three-eighths flip with a one-quarter twist, but that didn’t score any points. I should have tucked and gone for a triple.”

Healing gave us some time to think, and we both decided to give up on big air for a while.  But the sport of freestyle skiing was changing very rapidly, and we had missed a small window of opportunity. The aerial competition was rapidly taken over by professional gymnasts, and the skill level of the competitors soared. I am totally amazed when I see someone pop a twisting quadruple jump, and it still brings back found memories of Aspen Highlands.

The World Cup ski races were in town, and we had plenty of time on our hands, so we limped up the hill to watch.  I was very impressed by the incredible athletes who literally flew down the mountain and carved turns on the icy slopes at speeds exceeding eighty miles per hour. Twenty-four is kind of a late age to start alpine racing, but the World Cup was very inspiring, and Aspen had a great town league, so I decided to give it a try.

Dancing on the Edge of an Endangered Planet

The Aspen Town Downhill

Table of Contents: 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *