A Hypothesis on the Development of Action Sports

Editor's note--this article, originally slated for publication in October, slipped from it's original footing. It appears now with minor alterations.

A familiar situation arose again yesterday. It was 9:30 in the evening, maybe, my eyes bleary from the scant four hours of sleep I had. Instead of closing my eyes for the night I ambled about the house, trying to square up my few possessions, keeping my toothbrush out of dog's reach and my clothing folded. My friends stood stoically around the kitchen counter processing the autumnal elk harvest: separating meat from bone, steak from burger. This was my home but this was not my dog, not my elk, not my house. I was, as I am perennially, a visitor here. Despite this, I felt at home, being that my home is less of a place and more of a way of living. The places I feel most at home--friend's houses, the mountains, the rests stops on the interstate between points A and B--rarely share the ideals of a household.

I am not alone in this nomadic institution of ski bum poverty. There is an eternal essence at the root of impoverished itinerant, an archetype of richness and grit and freedom. The rise of blues, of jazz, and of hip hop are all deeply rooted in traditions of hard times. So are skateboarding and distance running. Find any subculture with financial woes and I will show you a beautiful expression of human spirit. For my particular obsession, we need only hearken back to the wild days of the New Canadian Air Force or the Jackson Hole Air Force. Both organizations were chaotic, immature, and semi organized at best. To borrow the words of Chris McDougall, "...they were poor and ignored and free from all expectations and inhibitions." Both groups were a response to the mainstream ski culture of that time: hierarchical and heavy handed dinosaurs with a focus on uniformity and the pursuit of the perfect turn. In the shadow of a giant a retort developed, spearheaded by groups of rowdy young men and women with a bone to pick with the paradigm.

Jeremy Holmstead picking no bones.



From the nest of unease rose the fledgling idea of 'freeskiing.' No longer did the course require manicured perfection of groomed runs or perfectly angled aerial jumps. The new idea, the innovation that created this fresh new thing, was that no rules could govern what could and should be done--hence the 'free' moniker in the name. Race gates were ignored, ropelines were ducked and in one notable instance even clothing was abandoned. This style was liberating and entertaining, the utility immediate and all encompassing. As the possibilities of what could be skied expanded, so did the expectation of the skis themselves. The initial push for fat skis and shaped ski design arose from these rambunctious hooligans.

Slowly, gradually, the minor blip in the collective societal radar that was the freeskiing world grew to a more prominent and recognizable signature. The silent skiers ducking ropes into avalanche prone terrain and into the snowboard parks were observed and gained the esteem of their colleagues. The transition was gradual but persistent. The inaugural Winter X Games proved a success in 1997--meaning that many of today's gold medalists were naught a twinkle in their mother's eye at the time. Given the rising popularity and reality of commercial success, many of the younglings of the day received a much different type of training than the generation before. Late nights of booze-fueled shenanigans, blatant disregard to established rules, and reckless trial and error gave way to foam pits, air bags, trampoline training, and video review. These investments paid immense athletic dividends, naturally. Just by looking at what passed for X Games gold in 1997 (360 mute grab) and what topped the podium in 2015 (which can inadequately be described as a Screamin' Semen double safety rodeo 1260) can we see the development in talent level and time investment. Freeskiing evolved from the Charmander of Doug Coombs ducking ropes at Jackson Hole to the Charizard of Olympic competition.

No caption that I can think of does this picture justice.

The unfortunate externality of this progression of ski bum culture is glaringly obvious with a quick analysis of the inferred data. What began as a outlet of self expression against the dominance of ski racing has itself become a behemoth to be reckoned with. To quote Nietzsche: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." The upper echelons of the freeski world are now held in a rigid conformity of double corks and flawless grabs, accessible only to those who had the pampered opportunity of athletic investment from a young age--the exact same crisis that preempted the freeskiing movement in the first place. The original user base of ski bumming--the derelicts, punks, drunks, seasonally unemployed, unemployable, degenerates and powderhounds--are now a far cry from the media image of freeskiing with the professionally manicured jumps, stringent scoring system, Olympic endeavors and decades of necessary investment. Once again, an original and genuine idea has been co-opted by the colossus of capitalism into a system of profit creation.

Any generic economist can try to explain the development here, and the ones who don't have their heads stuck too far up their sphincters will start with a theory of Joseph Schumpeter: the TLDR is that innovation creates profit. And in its unquenchable thirst for profit, our modern economic paradigm saw the potential for profit in freeskiing, co-opted the innovation and homogenized it, mass marketed it for worldwide sale and sold it in single serving sizes from Buttermilk to Blackcomb. This theory is not unique in it's application to skiing, however. A brief overview on the development of skateboarding in the last 50 years shows the same trajectory. A bunch of hodge-podge, devil-may care kids took something and made it new, made it fresh, spurning the flat concrete square of competition and opting instead to trespass onto private property and skate drained pools instead. Fast forward 40 years (and add polyurethane wheels instead of shaped skis), the top skaters of the world are skating with the same rebellious style. Instead of skipping school in order to skate, however, they are going to schools that encourage them to practice and hone their craft. What does this mean for skiing?

Studying for the upcoming exam.



Despite what sounds like a the pessimistic prophesy, it is not here that the hopes and dreams of ski bums worldwide die. Like any good obstinate child, the lowest ski culture has bowed its collective head, rose back to full height, shrugged its shoulders and generally said, "Well, so what?" The fact remains that no matter what mutated, many-headed media monstrosity freeskiing has evolved into, the ability to enjoy skiing in all its varied forms is not mutually exclusive. Freeskiing as a mass media image can and does exist simultaneously with freeskiing as an actual ascetic lifestyle. Both types can successfully coincide with the weekend warrior and the once-a-season destination visitor as well. The existence of any single style does not negate the existence of another. Our style of skiing, our lifestyle of skiing, can and will remain a bastion of personal self expression, our tracks a strange athletic mandala fueled by gravity, creativity, athleticism, bravery and skill. This lifestyle of freeskiing is the strange loop in which I have chosen to lead my life--couch to couch, floor to floor, seasonal job to seasonal job, chasing the winter wherever it may lead me.

The house is quiet now. The dogs have circle their beds and closed their watchful eyes, the processed elk meat sits in the chest freezer and the countertop has been cleaned. The crisp night outside is brimming with stars. The living room has been evacuated and a corner of the floor is now mine for the sleeping. The sun will surely rise on the morrow and by then, with luck, I should be gone.

"I'm already gone."

Share this post