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Home / Articles / Adventure / Adventure /  Fear is part of the fun of catching air
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Thursday, December 10,2009

Fear is part of the fun of catching air

By Tom Winter

Ever since Icarus launched his illadvised flight to doom, man has attempted to fly. It is one of the most primal of all instincts. Fortunately, it’s one that every skier and snowboarder can indulge in frequently here in Colorado. And, with an abundance of soft, snowy landings, we don’t have to pull an Icarus on the re-entry.

Hucking is one of the greatest joys of skiing and snowboarding. Sure, groomers are fun, but after you dial in your short wing, your long swing and your straight-line down the fall line, what’s left? Nothing, really, except to charge off a roller and catch a little air.

Why is air so fun? Perhaps because it’s so scary. “When I stand on top of a really big cliff,” admits former Boulder resident Jeff “Spack” Robertson, “I’m pretty much ready to piss in my pants. But that’s the best. That’s when the adrenaline is pumping. And when you stick it, you’re a hero.”

Robertson, who relocated to the mountains to be closer to the cliffs, is known for his foolishness: amazingly big drops off of 60- or 70-foot monsters in the backcountry. But anyone can tap into the rush. All it takes is a bump, some guts and enough speed to escape the pull of gravity, if even for a moment. As with anything, technique is essential if you want to fly, rather than tumble into oblivion like a Greek hero.

“I try to exhale as I’m going towards the lip, and release everything, all of my thoughts,” says Colorado resident, ski-film start and two-time North American extreme skiing champion Rex Wehrman. “I pick up my feet, tuck them under my butt and keep my hands in front of me. The idea is to be carving a turn through the air. It’s like carving a turn on a groomed run, only you’re dropping 60 feet.”

Easy for him to say. Still, even a skimeister like Wehrman will admit that you can stack the odds in your favor.

“I like deep powder,” concedes Wehrman, discussing his ideal choice for a landing. “Steep and deep.”

For neophytes, this advice is critical.

Flat landings suck. They break your bones, jar your back and make you feel like a modern-day Icarus hitting the flat, hard ocean from two miles up at 100 miles per hour.

The ideal landing is soft. And it’s also steep.

“The steeper the better,” says Robertson. “It smooths out the impact, and that’s the crucial thing.”

Then there’s the jump itself. If you are hitting a small kicker, you want the ramp to be smooth and even. Think of the beautifully crafted launches at Vail’s Golden Peak terrain park or in Keystone’s Area 51. Ruts, bumps and any other debris that can suddenly change your trajectory at the point of takeoff are to be avoided at all costs.

But not all jumps are kickers, and not everyone likes the scene at terrain parks. Perhaps that’s why God invented cliffs.

“I like cliffs because they give you the feeling of being on a rollercoaster,” says Wehrman. “You lose your stomach. The feeling of dropping off and the speed at which you fall, that’s what makes big air off of cliffs fun.”

With cliffs, according to Wehrman, the key is your speed on takeoff. Avoid the temptation to step up to the edge and take a peek over. If you do that, hike back up. The goal is to stand back, line it up and let it rip.

“Speed gets you away from rocks, and rocks are bad,” says Wehrman.

So where to go and what to do when you want to throw your body into space? Vail’s Chair 4 cliffs, as well as the drops under Chair 11, are obvious hits at that ski area. Both enjoy the advantage of a major hero factor, because everyone on the lift can see you when you go big. A similar level of visibility is enjoyed at Eldora, where the road under the Cannonball and Challenge chairs makes a nice launch pad. But this visibility comes with a price: Crash and you’ll enjoy a good heckling from the peanut gallery above.

Terrain parks are also a nice place to start. With their controlled environments, as well as jumps of all sizes, they offer plenty of options. Two of the best are at Breckenridge and Keystone resorts. But even smaller ski areas like Loveland (which also offers a nicely sized cornice off of The Ridge, with the kind of steep landing recommended by the pros) are starting to dial in excellent park features. Then, of course, there’s the backcountry terrain of Berthoud, which features a nice assortment of cliffs and plenty of deep snow.

If Icarus were still around, he’d be stoked.

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