The Mountain Times

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Dan Egan: Story and insight from a founder of extreme

Photo by Chandler Burgess, courtesy of Killington Resort

In 1990, Dan Egan and his brother John joined an international expedition to climb and ski Mount Elbrus in Russia. With bad weather, John decided not to attempt the summit, but Dan pushed on and was trapped with others above 18,000 feet for 36 hours in a raging snowstorm. It was a nightmare with 33 people dying on the mountain.

Dan came close to freezing to death himself and found himself  "having apparitions. It was a peaceful feeling that I was going to be okay, but it would be hard on my brother John when I died," he recalled. But he and a Russian climber had taken over the role of leaders to a group of about 14 people they were trapped with. They did "three crevasse rescues and eventually led the group to safety, climbing down to the valley and arriving at midnight."

From this ordeal, Dan had learned the fallacy of the idea in extreme sports-and among extreme sports onlookers-that you die with a smile on your face when you're doing something you enjoy. Egan doesn't buy that these folks "died doing what they love" so it makes their deaths alright.

Death is final. They don't come back and some don't get to raise their families, he said.

"I'm opposed to that. They didn't choose to die," he said of 25 professional athletes and friends of his who have died pursuing their passions over the years.

Because of these direct and painful experiences, Dan does not believe in, nor advocate, unnecessary risk. He will be discussing sane approaches to enjoying the beauty and challenge of natural terrain, as he teaches jumping and steeps and avalanche safety, backcountry awareness and an overall approach to skiing out of bounds. "I try and temp people's level of risk," he added.

But his approach to risk and challenge in his clinics is also informed by his own understanding of how extreme or freeskiing became popularized. He agrees that there is an irresistible 'siren call' via monetary reward and fame, that benefits the experts, in addition to the incredible feeling of accomplishment. But he emphasizes the need for instruction and practice and expertise before one heeds this siren call.

For backcountry adventures, it is important to have certain skills like the ability to read conditions and the knowledge of preparedness for what is involved.

"Instruction is a good way to gain that knowledge on what to practice and how to improve; let alone tackling moguls, backcountry, jumps, etcetera," Egan says. His clinics will explore the trees and the new zones Killington has outlined for adventure. (He also teaches clinics in Big Sky, MT and Val D'Isere, France.)

Q&A with Dan Egan
How did you get into "extreme" skiing? 
Growing up in New England we always found the challenging conditions on hard trails fun. So whether it was narrow trails, moguls or trees, my brothers and I always pushed our limits. 

When my brother John spent the winter 1983 in Squaw Valley and skied in his second Warren Miller film (the first was at Sugarbush Resort a few years prior) his reports back to me on the terrain were so amazing that I moved to Squaw in 1986 and skied there through 1992. 

That resort changes the way you see the mountain and has been the jumping off location for many serious skier looking to break into the pro skiing scene. It was at Squaw that John and I together joined the North Face Extreme Team and launched our pro skiing careers as the Egan Brothers.

You often speak of how ski videos popularized extreme. Can you relate one of the unexpected experiences you had?
In the early 1990s I had a letter from a family who had seen one of our extreme skiing films and in the letter they complained about the cliff jumps and the crazy skiing. That motivated us to start and to run ski camps and clinics around the world to teach safety and the skills needed to ski the steep and wild terrain. I have always been proud of having an education side of my ski career to expand peoples view on the mountains and help them get to where they want to go safely.

Some of the athletes regularly court death on the flanks of big mountains. Do you think that today's videos and films are as much a glorification of tempting and cheating death as they are about lines and beauty?
Today's tricks and aerial maneuvers performed by X-Game athletes are as death defying as skiing 55 degree pitches in the Alps as I did in the 80s; the difference is they are doing them on manmade kickers within the resort boundaries and in the backcountry. No longer are natural terrain features enough to highlight brains, brawn and athleticism. These pros are building hits in undeveloped valleys and using snow mobiles to pull themselves into and up to new heights, while at the same time, blogging and posting "Go Pro" videos of their experiences in real time.

The winter culture is being blended into a multi-sport culture. Shane McConkey and his buddies crossed into this realm when they started to "ski base" and now the "speed fliers" are going places and placing lines on the side of cliffs that no one could access with out these gliders and parachutes. 

This multi-sport culture is pushing the real limits of life and death.

And there is no stopping as long as companies continue to sponsor the athletes and films. It is here to stay.

The mistake the X-Games culture is making is that they are searching for freedom in the face of fear and living under the delusion that dying doing what you love is a good death. 

Are the athletes doing it for the money, the desire to challenge themselves, or the wish to gain fame as 'the person to ski the steepest lines on the planet?'
The athletes are professionals, the pros have big time contracts.  From where we started in the 1980s to where it is now, once the athletes make it on to the big stage of a major film or competition, they are being well paid and the sponsors are building their brands around the athletes and their personalities. This is all part of the social media marketing and the conversation between consumers and the athletes via twitter and Facebook. Fame or popularity is a major part of the success. Athletes today are being paid by their distribution or reach via social media. Much like we were via our distribution of the VHS, but the contracts in some cases are five times as much as we made.

Do you worry that as we see trained athletes going on expeditions where they have to avoid seracs, rock fall, and glacial crevasses or outrun avalanches that we are somehow encouraging people to push their own limits when they should not be doing so?
Well, Alaska has made this idea popular, the idea of out skiing falling snow and in some cases avalanches. But the reality is that is particular to Alaska and the snow conditions there and the terrain is perfect for this big fast, major air and straight lines. Out side of Alaska, this is hard to duplicate. In Europe, nearly impossible because the escape route doesn't exist and the consequences' are too high. Many of today's "rock star" skiers come to Europe and seek myself and others out to learn how to ski the steeps and chutes because their straight line techniques don't work over there. The want-to-be skier won't have the guts to try what they see in the movies. It's just too intimidating.

One relatively new extreme skier's life was recently said to be "defined by lofty ski objectives, and he's experienced plenty of loss along the way. It's insane-and utterly captivating."
This may be seen as an insidious 'siren call' that is trickling down to the inexperienced and dangerously so. Do you agree?
I always say stay away from so-called experts that are in love with their lifestyle. That is a very dangerous place to be - people operating from this concept are misguided and self-seeking. I often get the questions, "how do I pick a good guide?" 
My answer is always the same, "If a guide starts off by telling how cool his lifestyle is, find another guide. The guide's first words should be about safety, and what you want to achieve." If someone is chasing a lifestyle of self indulgence stay clear.

What action can the experts and parents of those whose judgment is not yet fully formed, take to temper the siren call?
Well, when it comes to ski resorts in the North America, the best place to start is with the ski school.  If skiers and riders are looking for adventure on trail or off-the-beaten path, the ski and snowboard schools have plenty of programs from park and pipe, free-riding, coaching backcountry skills and so much more. Unfortunately, we have developed a culture in this country where we look down on ski schools and guides. It's not like that in Europe, over there having an instructor or guide for the week is the standard and in my experience has produced adventure, fun, safety and a structure of professionalism not found in North America. It is, however, what you do find when you go on a Heli or Cat Skiing vacation because those operations are set up to deliver safe fun adventure.

What responsibility do extreme skiers and media have, if any?
I believe anyone making a living promoting himself or herself has a responsibility to think about how their actions will affect others. However, there are plenty of examples in pro sports and celebrities who don't agree, or don't care, what others think. 
There was a famous skier from New England who when they first made it to the Olympics in Japan, the local community got together and sent his family over to watch him race. Years later at his third Olympics, in an interview with me, he mentioned that he didn't owe his fans anything. That he purely raced for himself. 

And I instantly thought of the fundraising efforts made for his family to watch him win his first Olympic Medals and found that statement very sad and off-track.

As my mother always said, "Dan, people are watching you, rooting for you, praying for you. Don't forget that. You're being helped by people you don't even know.  Be nice, be gentle and be grateful for the things you have and don't forget about the people who look up to you."