Free skiiers go extreme

Extreme skier's passion drives him to do big tricks

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009

Free skier Jarret Thomas is part of the younger generation of Juneau's extreme athletes who are perform maneuvers that their parents never dreamed of trying.

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Scott Baxter / For The Juneau Empire
Scott Baxter / For The Juneau Empire

A photo in Thursday's Juneau Empire featured Thomas pulling a double backflip off a cliff, a prohibited maneuver at Eaglecrest because such high-risk tricks could result in paralysis or death if a skier misses the landing or doesen't clear the second flip. Thomas, however, stuck the landing and was rewarded with the extreme rush that comes with extreme sports. An element of danger is all part of the game

As an amateur athlete, Thomas isn't paid to risk his life and most of the time only his buddies are there to witness his daring tricks. But it's not money or recognition that drives Thomas to try these dangerous stunts: It's his passion for skiing and the natural high that comes from landing a big trick.

"You have to be thinking when you're in the air," Thomas said, describing his mental state when performing a double backflip. "When you go around the first time, you have to spot your landing before you go for the second (flip). You have to have a pretty decent-sized jump in order to do it."

The double backflip is a dangerous maneuver, but less so for a rider like Thomas who has been practicing tricks for years. Thomas possesses an enthusiastic confidence that only comes with years of practice on the slope, and more than a few bad landings.

One of those bad landings occurred in late 2006 in Breckenridge, Colo., when Thomas was 17. Thomas was skiing at a trick park and hit two consecutive jumps. On the second jump he had too much speed and sailed 60 feet into the air before landing on his back.

"I compress fractured my lower vertebrae. It was pretty bad," Thomas said.

But Thomas was back on the slopes after eight weeks of wearing a back brace.

Thomas started skiing at Eaglecrest at the age of three when his father taught him to ski. Later, during school field trips he attended mandatory ski lessons.

"When you go up with classes and stuff they make you take lessons," Thomas said. "I would always try to ditch out of it as fast as I could because it was so boring."

He tried ski racing but didn't like having to wait his turn to ski. Thomas said he learned by skiing every day and watching videos.

"I kind of learned my own way by skiing ... however I felt," he said. "I didn't need a pole to tell me how to turn right. ... I fell in love with free skiing."

Like most extreme athletes, Thomas doesn't ride the mountains alone. Instead he rides with a band of ski brothers, a motley crew of like-minded souls. The friendship among riders is part of the ski and snowboard culture that has quietly flourished in Juneau for years.

Thomas's skiing buddy, Dylan Wenzlau, the filmmaker of their crew, enjoys the independence of free skiiing.

"You want to be free when you're doing it," he said. "You don't want to follow directions from someone else telling you how to ski well. Everyone has their own style in freestyle skiing, that's what makes it free style. That's how we see all these new cool styles coming out."

Among his ski buddies is 18-year-old high school senior Sam Buck, who is finishing high school through correspondence classes so he can have more time to ski. Buck is a snowboarder but he rides the mountains seeking the same thrills as free skiers.

"The feeling of landing that one trick you've been working on for so long, and putting it down perfect overcomes all the pain you go through trying to get there," he said. "Part of you is just so excited because your body just did something most people will never get to do."

Buck broke several ribs last year while practicing for a competition. Despite the injuries, Buck lives to ride and remains passionate about his sport.

"Imagine being blind for you entire life and then one day you can see and your standing in front of this beautiful sunset. That's what it feels like when you get that hard carve," he said. "It's a mixture of adrenaline, fear, excitement, and happiness."

• Erik Stimpfle is a writer living in Juneau. He can be contacted at

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