In the spring of 1991, a Crested Butte ski patrolman named Tim Caughlin had just returned from the inaugural World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska, when the gears in his head began to turn. Figuring his home mountain had plenty of gnarly terrain to stage a similar contest, Caughlin enlisted the help of resort marketing wizards Gina Kroft and Bob Gillen, and within eight months, an event that would come to be known simply as "The Extremes" was born.
This week, the Extremes -- formally known as the Subaru U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships, the fourth of six stops on the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour and the longest running big-mountain competition -- celebrates its 20th anniversary on the same hairball steeps that got it started. Although the people who have been around for all 20 editions are few, their memories endure.
"The first one, we skied Hawk's Nest for the qualifiers and the finals were on Headwall. Dean Conway won it," recalled Eric "H" Baumm, a local patrolman and former competitor who has been involved since the outset. "He skied a line that no one else has skied since then -- he basically changed how this mountain could be skied. He dropped a 40-foot-plus air in the Keyhole and stomped it, but flattened the honeycomb in his skis. No one skied the mountain that way back then."
The next year, Kent Kreitler narrowly edged out a 19-year-old ex-racer named Seth Morrison, who was attending college down the road in Gunnison. It was hardly the last time a previously unknown skier left the Extremes with enough respect to start a career.
"Some of the names that have competed in this event are amazing," Baumm said. "Coombs was here, Cummings, Conway, Morrison, Kreitler, Swanwick, Reichhelm, McConkey."
Two-time world extreme skiing champion Wendy Fisher credits a random stop in Crested Butte leading up to the 1996 Extremes with "saving" her. Burned out after an Olympic ski-racing career, Fisher stayed with Kim Reichhelm and used a U.S. Ski Team gold pass to get on the mountain. "I was on a road trip to ski one last winter before I never skied again," she said Thursday. Of course, once she got a taste of Crested Butte's steeps, she figured why not enter the Extremes, and after she placed third in the first big-mountain event of her life, she figured why not keep skiing. Shane McConkey talked her into pitching herself to sponsors, and two months later Fisher won the first of two straight world titles in Alaska.
Fisher moved to Crested Butte for good that fall, and in 2005 she won the Extremes while unwittingly two months pregnant with her son. She said she still gets the urge to compete every year, but at 39, she opted to teach a pair of private lessons this weekend instead.
"This is probably the most technical contest you can have," Fisher said, "in terms of how much billy goating you can do and just how rocky it is."
Sharp, exposed and intimidating, Crested Butte's famed "Extreme Limits" terrain features cliff-band pillow lines and big drops into tree stands. There is no margin for the slightest lurch in a landing, as competition venues like "Body Bag" and "Dead End Chutes" suggest.
"The skiing here is just a different style," said Rex Wehrman, who won the Extremes in 1998 and 2000 and has spent the past five years judging the new guard. "It's not wide-open super G skiing like a lot of competitions." The scene is unto itself, as well. "Just the Crested Butte vibe and all the locals coming out," Wehrman said. "The spectators look forward to this event all year. It's the thing to do."
Although heavy snow wiped out Thursday's qualifiers, the action is scheduled to resume today with finals likely slated for Sunday. Stay tuned to ESPN Freeskiing for a recap.