How Extreme Skiing Works

By: Tom Scheve
Person enjoying extreme sports outdoors in winter snow.
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When it comes to exciting (or terrifying) yourself with skis strapped to your feet, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination -- and good sense. While alpine (downhill) skiing is extreme enough for a good many of us, others quickly master it, grow bored and look for something more challenging.

Extreme skiing, also known as "big mountain skiing" or "free skiing," involves skiing down steep, forbidding slopes that offer at least 45-degree descents. The run is often a "make it up as you go" course of previously untouched powder. Skiers must make lightning-fast decisions throughout the run, lest they careen into a tree, a rock or off the side of the mountain itself (unless they're actually trying to ski off the side of the mountain, that is).


The slopes used for extreme skiing are sometimes not fit for climbing, let alone skiing. The first issue can be solved with helicopters, but extreme skiers embrace a belief that nearly every snow-covered landform is ski-able, and when they reach a portion that isn't, they just catch serious air and try to land on something that is.

The term "extreme skiing" for many people indicates any adrenaline-pumping form of skiing. It should be noted that the term, when used exactly, refers specifically to steep-hill skiing. However, as the practitioners of that sport have themselves taken on newer and bigger challenges (such as using wingsuits or airfoils to catch superhuman air at ridiculous speeds), they have expanded the generic meaning of extreme skiing without breaking it, because the evolving hybrid forms still often contain the steep-slope element.

And there's not much these extreme pioneers haven't tried. Skiing off ramps and flipping twice before sticking the landing? Check. Skiing off the roof of a building and parachuting to safety? Doable. Soaring off a mountain top in a flying-squirrel body suit? It's been done. Making up the course of your run on the fly as you ski down virgin powder from a summit that could only be reached by helicopter? You could book that trip online right now if you wanted.

If those possibilities don't excite you, you may just need someone to ski beside you and inject adrenaline directly into your heart. And, given their lust for the next great ski high, that too may already be old-hat to some extreme skiers.

Next we'll talk about some different ways you can careen down a steep mountainside.


Types of Extreme Skiing

Freestyle tricks add extra extreme to extreme skiing.
Freestyle tricks add extra extreme to extreme skiing.

In the beginning, any steep downhill skiing was extreme skiing. Since then, extreme skiing has mutated from its origins as a steep-slope run into a variety of hair-raising winter adventures:

  • Heli skiing began with Canadian skiers in British Columbia, who started using airplanes and helicopters in their ascents, allowing them to make run after run without trudging up remote mountains. After all, you can't have the backcountry, mountainside run of your life if you can't get to the top of the mountain.
  • Ski jumping is an Olympic sport, and prominently features two elements extreme skiers and spectators alike love: raw speed and big air. Skiers may reach speeds of 60 mph (97 kph)and can travel the length of a football field before landing. While ski jumping and extreme skiing are different sports, extreme skiers sometimes perform big jumps in the middle or end of a run and use aerodynamic techniques associated with ski jumping.
  • Freestyle skiers perform aerial stunts and tricks anywhere there's something to ski off of, but in competition, this takes place in downhill mogul runs or on half-pipes. Extreme skiers find and make opportunities to perform long jumps, high-altitude drops, extreme vertical drops, or stunts that consist of some variety of freestyle spins, flips, and ski- or board-grabs as they careen down mountain slopes at highway speeds.
  • Snow kiting involves skiing while harnessed to a large sail or kite that pulls the skier across (or above) the terrain, enabling the snow kiter to catch massive air. Snow kites allow skiers to ski down dangerous mountainsides, taking flight when necessary to sail over rocky terrain (or directly into it).
  • Ski-BASE jumping is an offshoot of BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumping, in which enthusiasts ski off cliffs at speeds of up to 50 mph (80 kph), detach their skis and deploy a low-altitude parachute. Ski-BASE jumping has even spread from snowy cliffs to Las Vegas casino roofs and other decidedly nonmountainous locales, where skiers ski off ramps and parachute down to pavement.
  • Ski gliding (or "ski flying") involves skiing off a cliff while strapped to a hang-glider, and it's exactly as crazy as it sounds.

Extreme skiing pioneers continue inventing new types and hybrid forms of extreme skiing and show no signs of stopping. But you can't drop thousands of snowy vertical feet each day without a little technique, and we'll talk about that next.


Extreme Skiing Techniques

Proper technique will come in handy.

You don't want to engage in any extreme skiing until you've mastered the standard version. Advance slowly, and don't get impatient -- you have to have a comfort level before you can push yourself out of it. Skills like being able to make tight swing turns and linking turns (basically zig-zagging your way down) should be second nature to you. Become proficient at skiing on slush, deep powder and debris. If you've got your eye on a big jump, start out with very small jumps and take your time working your way (and your nerve) up to the task.

As with any kind of extreme skiing, the learning curve for off-piste (off-trail) stunts and tricks is steep -- there isn't much in the way of a practice backflip, for instance. You're either doing a complete backflip or you're not. Once you decide you're going to attempt a flip or any other stunt, it's important to commit yourself to the stunt -- success will only be had by seeing it through.


A good run is also dependent upon the extreme skier's ability to read the snow. Snow conditions can change not only from day to day, but also from hour to hour. Some extreme skiers prefer fresh powder, while others like a firm base beneath a softer surface, as is found more often with springtime snow. Less welcome is icy snow or slushy mix of debris and trouble.

The many forms of extreme skiing carry their own specialized techniques. Ski-BASE jumpers, for instance, must get enough distance from the jumping surface to ensure that they won't be carried back into it once their parachute deploys. Snow kiters must learn to steer their giant windfoils using a bar that operates much like a bicycle's handlebar. Ski gliders use collapsible poles that can be packed away once the hang glider is in flight.

Extreme skiers who perform long jumps borrow technique from ski jumpers and sail through the air with their skis forming a "V," increasing the height and distance a jumper can achieve. Studies performed in wind tunnels have shown that the "V" arrangement increases lift by as much as 28 percent [source: United States Ski and Snowboard Association].

But there might be danger ahead. More on that on the next page.


Dangers of Extreme Skiing

ski crash
When gravity wins.

For the extreme skier, the dangers of treacherous slopes only increase the glory of conquering them. Though legends have been made of extreme skiers who have conquered mountains thought unskiable, cautionary tales spill forth from this dangerous activity as well, such as the 2008 death of extreme skier Billy Poole and the death of Shane McConkey in 2009 (both while being filmed for planned videos).

Extreme skiers are at increased risk of racking up all kinds of injuries, from lost teeth and broken bones to ruined knees and spines. In rugged backcountry and virgin snow, avalanches are a risk. When swept beneath a crashing wall of snow, extreme skiers can be crushed or suffocated if not quickly located and rescued.


In 2007, there were 38 ski-related deaths in the United States [source: Naito]. These deaths were spread over the spectrum of all ski and snowboard activities, but for the small percentage of skiers who embrace extreme skiing, the risks remain high. That's not to say extreme skiers aren't cautious and mindful about staying alive and healthy. It's just that any deviation from flawless execution of a stunt or trick can have disastrous results.

In McConkey's case, he was attempting a trick he had performed many times before: executing a double backflip, releasing his skis, and gliding away in a special wingsuit (think flying squirrel) and deploying a parachute during a 2,000-foot drop from a cliff. Once airborne, McConkey couldn't free himself from his skis, which is necessary to prevent your parachute from getting tangled up in them, and he was killed from the impact.

The ability to conquer death-defying runs and mind-blowing stunts -- especially on camera -- places professional extreme skiers in the peculiar position of being endorsed by ski-gear companies and other corporations to find more elaborate ways to risk one's life on skis. Many "in the biz" make a living starring in extreme videos featuring their daring feats. Even when executed safely, the jaw-dropping skiing featured in these movies can in turn prompt less experienced skiers to attempt dangerous feats that are far out of their skill set or ability.

Now that we know some of the dangers, we'll discuss on the next page some of the safety measures adopted by extreme skiers.


Extreme Skiing Safety

Though extreme skiers may consider themselves a different breed than your run-of-the-mill double-black-diamond skier, they must adhere to many of the same basic safety precautions, plus some.

There is always some risk of avalanche, and it's a leading cause of death for skiers across the board. The risk is increased when you're taking off from out-of-the-way cliffs and ledges and coming down hard and fast on improvised landing strips. Extreme skiers should always have transponders that enable rescue workers to locate them in case of avalanche, and GPS devices are a must for any extreme skier who is going off the beaten path. Avalanche-specific training is never a bad idea, either.


A good rule in general is that you should wear a helmet for any activity that has the word "extreme" before it. Beneath much of that fluffy powder are rocks, stumps and packed ice that can crack your head open, cause a concussion, or worse.

Of course, you don't want to engage in any extreme skiing until you've mastered the standard version. Advance slowly, and don't get impatient. You'll also need to become familiar with the exact terrain that you'll be hurtling your own body down. Plan carefully and always stay abreast of weather conditions. And one of the best safety precautions an extreme skier can take is to ski with a partner who can help out or call for help if something goes wrong.

Extreme skiing is a dangerous pursuit, but if you take the necessary precautions, know your own limits, and prepare yourself to the best of your abilities for the eye-popping feat you want to pull off on skis, you can have an extreme skiing adventure that's minimal on danger but big on adrenaline.

Want more extreme sports articles? Try the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • ABC of Skiing. "Skiing Disciplines: Extreme Skiing." (Dec. 3, 2009)
  • Dean, Josh. "Extreme skiing through the recession." CNN. May 22, 2009.
  • Huckzone. "Trick tips." (Dec. 3, 2009)
  • Jarvik, Elaine. "Friends remember extreme skier Billy Poole." Deseret News. Jan. 23, 2008.,5143,695246642,00.html
  • Latimer, Clay. "How ski-BASE jumping feels." Rocky Mountain News. Jan. 19, 2009.
  • Murphy, Austin. "Death of Shane McConkey rocks extreme skiing community." Sports Illustrated. Apr. 2, 2009.
  • Naito, Jon. "For freeskiers, risk is a part of the culture." Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Feb. 22, 2008.
  • National Geographic. "Jumping into science." 2002. (Dec. 3, 2009)
  • Skiing. "Sylvain Saudan: The Father of Extreme Skiing." (Dec. 3, 2009)
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  • United States Ski and Snowboard Association. "What is ski jumping?" (Dec. 2, 2009)
  • Vinton, Nathaniel. "Ski-Base jumping skier Shane McConkey dies in freak mountainside accident while filming stunt." NY Daily News. Mar. 27, 2009.