Who are the pioneers of big mountain and extreme skiing? 1960-2022
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Over the years, countless skiers have pushed the boundaries of what was once considered possible. Every year the boundaries surrounding the definition of extreme skiing are expanded, but what exactly is extreme skiing and who pioneered the sport?
Extreme skiing refers to dangerous off-piste terrain like slopes over 45 degrees, giant cliffs, bare ground, crevasses and avalanche danger. While most skiers agree that Sylvain Saudan was one of the first to set the bar high, many have followed him to push the idea of extreme skiing even further from its humble origins.
Pioneers of extreme skiing (1960s to 1980s)
This group of skiers is highly regarded as the ancestors of extreme skiing, also known as big mountain skiing. On paper, their feats may not seem as impressive as what today’s giants are throwing, but they were the ones that laid the foundation for all that followed.
Sylvain Saudan (1936 – Present)
This Swiss-born shredder holds the title “Skier of the Impossible” and he began his reign as one of the greatest extreme skiers of his time in the 1960s.
He conquered 18 of the most heartbreaking descents known to mankind across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Some of its most famous falls include Mount Denali, Kilimanjaro, Mount Nun, Mount Blanc, and Mount Fuji (without snow).
Saudan invented the “windshield wiper” turn, which consists of cutting the heels of your skis back and forth to avoid having too much speed on a steep slope. This updated technique allowed skiers to check their speed on steeper terrain without catching an edge over a drop zone.
Yuichiro Miura (1932 – Present)
Miura is best known for breaking the record for the fastest speed on skis in 1964 (172.084 km/h/106.93 mph) and being the first person to ski Mount Everest in 1970.
His speed record was then broken the following day, prompting him to become one of the first and fastest to ski Mount Fuji.
His skiing career almost ended at the start of Everest when the parachute he was using to slow him down malfunctioned and sent him heading into an open crevasse down the mountain. Fortunately, he survived, which allowed him to continue pushing the boundaries of the sport for many years to come.
Bill Briggs (1931 – Present)
Briggs was one of the first American skiers to begin tackling North America’s most prominent peaks, particularly in the Teton Range.
He gained notoriety in the scene when he successfully skied in Jackson, Wyoming’s Grand Teton, in 1971. Briggs thought no one would believe he had accomplished the feat, so he hired a pilot for the fly around the mountain to photograph its tracks.
Briggs didn’t stop there, as he became the first skier to descend Mount Moran, Mount Owen, Middle Teton and South Teton. He put America’s extreme skiers on the map and helped start the movement that is still alive and well in the United States today.
Stefano De Benedetti (1958 – Present)
This Italian powerhouse has spent ten years making the first descents in the mountains across France, Italy and Switzerland. During that decade, he sped down more than 80 trails previously considered unskiable.
Although he decided to hang up his skis much earlier than others in his field, he is nothing short of an extreme skiing legend.
The Next Generation of Extreme Skiers (1980s-Present)
Here are the heavyweights of the past decades that have made extreme skiing what it is today. Most of us know the names on this list very well because they are part of our generation and have set the bar that the extreme skiers who come after us will have to exceed.
Scott Schmidt (1961 – Present)
If you watch Warren Miller’s early films, you’ll notice that Scot Schmidt is a regular in many big mountain ski scenes. Schmidt’s unparalleled extreme skiing style was the catalyst that ignited the flame behind the Warren Miller franchise’s decision to start filming more backcountry and off-piste skiers.
He is one of the most filmed extreme skiers in the world, which makes him central to the growth of the extreme skiing movement. Chances are if you’ve watched any feature film about extreme skiing in the past 40 years, Schmidt has played a part in at least a few of them.
Doug Combes (1957 -2006)
This American skier hails from Boston, but has made a name for himself in the skiing community through his accomplishments out West.
He became the first extreme ski world champion in 1991, which took place in Valdez, Alaska. Coombs fell in love with the area and made the Chugach Range the ski touring hub it is today.
His hundreds of first downhill titles are spread across five continents, making it easy to see why he has been such a driving force in extreme skiing.
Glen Plake (1964 – Present)
You’d be hard pressed to find a skier who doesn’t know the extreme skiing legend that is Glen Plake. Plake starred in the Blizzard of Aahhh’s, which single-handedly defined what modern extreme skiing is today.
Known for his huge, multicolored mohawk and his controversial takes on the ski industry, Plake inspired an entire generation of young skiers to go against the grain and ski free.
Shane McConkey (1969-2009)
Shane McConkey is one of the most influential people in history by ignoring other people’s perceptions of what can and cannot be achieved.
He combined the art of extreme skiing with BASE jumping and wingsuits. McConkey once landed a triple backflip off a 400-foot cliff in Lake Tahoe, and it was just one of his many triple-digit jumps.
Sadly, he passed away in 2009, due to a linkage malfunction that prevented him from deploying his parachute in time. Even though McConkey’s time in the sport was cut short, he is arguably the most influential extreme skier of all time.
Seth Morrison (1973 – Present)
Last but not least is the living legend, Seth Morrison. This man’s list of accolades, achievements and film appearances is matched only by a few other skiers. It is famous for its over 100 foot cliff falls in the backcountry.
Morrison grew up in Colorado, where he took a liking to big mountain skiing. He went from his school’s ski team to a fully sponsored K2 athlete in no time. He is widely known for his professional ski models, including the obSETHed and the Annex.
It’s impossible to cram all the extreme skiers who revolutionized the sport into a single article, but neither would it be fair to leave out these crucial innovators. These racers were directly influential in big mountain skiing.
If you haven’t seen any videos of these athletes in action, you should hurry and do so immediately. Each of them can be seen climbing to new heights, dropping massive cliffs and attempting to break land speed records on more than one occasion.
The lengths that extreme skiing has come since its inception are nothing short of spectacular. It doesn’t look exactly like it did when it was created nearly a century ago, but the spirit that compels us to push boundaries and go beyond what’s possible still rings true. .
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