He's not making a living at it - yet - but Juneau's Elijah Lee loves what he's doing.
Lee is participating on the World Tour of Freeskiing, and last weekend he posted his best finish in four years on the tour. Lee finished sixth in the Canadian Freeskiing Championships held Friday through Sunday as part of the "Big Mountain Experience" at Blackcomb/Whistler ski resorts in British Columbia.
"I got $150, which covered my entry fee," said Lee, who lists his hometown as Eaglecrest, Alaska, on the tour's Web site. "I'd like to try an make a living at what I love doing."
An aspiring travel writer and video editor (a short video Lee worked on about the Canadian event will be posted with this story later this week on the Juneau Empire's Web site, http://www.juneauempire.com), Lee has been living on money he made commercial fishing and through a couple of Juneau duplexes he owns with his dad, Richard. He also has several equipment sponsors, who help with expenses.
During the season he's based in Bellingham, Wash., but Lee spends the spring and early summer in Alaska. Once the tour ends in March, Lee said he follows the snow north, from Juneau to the Chilkat Mountains near Haines, then on up to Alyeska Resort in Girdwood.
"I'm maintaining my roots," Lee said. "Eaglecrest is my home resort. I haven't given up my Alaska driver's license yet."
Since he joined the tour four years ago, Lee, 29, has been able to ski the world. Last year, he took 10th place in the Canadian Freeskiing Championships and he was the top American when he finished 13th in the Red Bull Snowthrill in Chamonix, France. He finished tied for 20th place on the tour last year, but Lee said most of that was based on his 10th-place finish in the Canadian event.
"This is my fourth year and I finally feel comfortable," said Lee, who describes freeskiing as the sport that resulted from the "gradual evolution of hot-dogging in the early 1980s."
In posting his best performance on the tour to date, Lee scored 70.2 points for his two runs - a 36 the first day on the Ruby Bowl run and a 34.2 the second day on Diamond Bowl run. Lee said he'd hoped for a top-five finish, but was happy with his best performance of his career.
Manuel Gaidet of Courchevel, France, won for the second straight year with an 82.8, well ahead of runner-up Ian McIntosh (76.8) of Panorama, British Columbia. Lee finished one point out of fifth place.
"It's been a learning experience for me," Lee said. "I thought I was a good skier, but it's been humbling. There's a lot more to it than just going out and ripping it down the course. There's a lot of forethought."
Freeskiing has more in common with a Warren Miller movie than Olympic-style gate skiing, and Lee said there have been changes to the rules since the first World Extreme Skiing Championships were held in Valdez in 1992.
Under current rules, the freeskiers are judged on five criteria when they head down a mountain - line choice, control, fluidity, technique and aggression. Each of the five judges gives a score from 0-10 for each skier in each category, and the scores are averaged with 50 being the maximum score. Line choice - how difficult the skier's chosen route down the mountain is - is weighted more than the other four criteria, Lee said. If a skier chooses a line the judges rate a four, Lee said there's no way the freeskier will earn more than six points for his or her run choice, even if the skier has a perfect run.
"You can ski a perfect line on the hill, but you won't get 10s if they don't like your line choice," Lee said.
The other criteria are self-explanatory, with fluidity being a key. Lee said the freeskiers will spend days scouting the mountain, picking the best routes down, so when it's time for competition they know where they're going and can stay in motion.
"We close our eyes and visualize the course," Lee said. "There are times when you'll come up on a drop and you can't really see where you're going to land, and five degrees off could mean you land on the rocks instead of in that patch of snow. We're charging the venue, but you have to know where you're going. It's really important to maintain fluidity, but if you're side-stepping to the edge to look down you lose your fluidity."
In the early days of the tour, Lee said one of the criteria was air - tricks done during jumps. Lee said the first World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez had the air criteria, so skiers were doing backscratchers and grabs during jumps. Getting rid of the air criteria is one of the evolutions the sport has taken from its hot-dogging days.
"We're trying to make the sport more spectator-friendly," Lee said. "Before, skiers would pick the most-extreme line, but it might take them five minutes to get through some rocks and it wasn't very spectator-friendly and the judges might not be able to see them all the way down the mountain. If the sport is going to have a future it has to be more spectator- and judge-friendly."
Note: an artcle by Lee about this event can be found at
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.