"Livin' the dream!" --Rallying cry in adventure movies featuring brothers Reggie and Zach Crist
This is an article from the Nov. 18, 2002 issue
Start with a long, paved driveway outside a sprawling home in the San Francisco bedroom community of Atherton, where Roger and Diane Crist are raising three small children in the mid-1970s. Roger is a lawyer from Stanford, Diane a high school teacher from Cal. They are former hippies (Diane used to run with Mountain Girl, Jerry Garcia's longtime girlfriend), yet now they are perilously close to selling out. Their sons, Reggie and Zach, play with their Big Wheel Ride-Ons, but unlike most little boys, the Crist rugrats ride theirs off jumps, catching air before crashing to the asphalt in a litter of plastic and blood. The other moms are aghast at Diane's parenting. How can you let them do that?
A couple of years pass, and the parents feel their walls closing in. "Our life was becoming familiar," says Diane. "We thought, There must be more to life than this. We need to take a break from suburbia and get out of here." So they move with Reggie, Zach and daughter Danielle to Sun Valley, Idaho, to spend one year among the brown humpback hills that turn powdery white in the winter, transforming a small village into a world-class ski resort. One year becomes two and then three. And then more than 20. The kids are raised on simple lessons, and none take better than Diane's favorite: "Follow your passion."
Today the three grown Crist kids sit at a wobbly wooden table in a rustic breakfast joint just off Sun Valley's main drag. Reggie is 34; Danielle is 32 and pregnant for the first time; Zach is 29. (Asked when he will turn 30, he answers quickly, "Never.") Each has blond hair, blue eyes and the unmistakably tan, weathered skin that comes from a lifetime in the sun, wind and snow. It is a source of great humor to each of them that their mom's advice has led them to pursue uncommonly spirited lives, as far from familiar as Silicon Valley is from Sun Valley. "Can you imagine if Mom really knew what was going on?" asks Danielle. "I think if she did, she would just say, 'Ohmigod.' Just 'Ohmigod, what did I do?'"
Mom did this: She raised two boys who each skied at least seven years on the U.S. ski team before embarking on second careers that have made them superstars in skiing's freeriding new order. Since 1998 these big-mountain studs have filmed (and starred in) five ambitious adventure movies, won two X Games gold medals in skiercross (Zach in 2001, Reggie in 2002) and bagged countless first descents on gnarly peaks from Alaska to Greenland to the Himalayas to New Zealand, all while mixing in a little world-class kayaking and surfing. "There might be eight or 10 guys in the world as good as they are on big mountains," says Jeremy Nobis, who is typically included in that group. In addition to their skill and daring, the Crists are also among the planet's most innovative and savvy skiers. Their movies aspire to tell stories that reach beyond powder spray and wipeouts, yet the brothers are reliable subjects for mainstream photo shoots and films that make sponsors happy.
The beauty of it all is that Reggie and Zach Crist aren't working in any traditional sense--they're living the dream. "Even though it's a business for us to go out and ski powder, there's a certain peace in knowing that you're skiing by your own rules," says Reggie. "And it beats sitting behind a desk."
Reggie was named to the U.S. ski team in 1986, at age 18. Zach took a spot five years later. Both were speed skiers, downhill--Super G specialists, yet they were dramatically different athletes. Reggie was--and remains--a ripped 5'11" and more than 200 pounds, a powerful glider who trained year-round as if he were preparing to fight Lennox Lewis. "He worked his tail off; he was always in the best shape of anybody on the team," says Nobis, who was on the U.S. squad with both Crists. Yet Reggie spent his career on the fringe of the top seedings, without ever breaking through, despite making the '92 Albertville Olympics, where he finished 28th in the downhill. "Good technical skier, good jumper, just didn't turn quite as fast as some of the other guys," says Bill Egan, the U.S. men's coach.
Zach is just 5'8", 180 pounds, a flashy, dynamic turner. ("A more gifted skier than Reggie," says Paul Major, U.S. Alpine director during the Crists' national team careers.) Yet Zach chafed at the squad's rigid schedule. "He always seemed to feel as if the team was dragging on him," says Egan. "The U.S. ski team puts a lot of money into each skier and makes a lot of demands. Zach didn't want that." Both Crists attended UC Santa Barbara during the off-season and earned degrees, a rare occurrence among members of the national team. "The team and I had a difference in philosophy," says Zach.
Reggie was the first to branch out. In the spring of '98, while Zach, freshly retired from ski racing, was completing his studies in environmental science at Santa Barbara--and "surfing and drinking a few beers," he says--Reggie joined an expedition to kayak three of the most formidable canyons in the world, including the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, in British Columbia, a nasty, unforgiving tunnel of foam that to this day has been run by fewer than two dozen people. At the time Reggie had been kayaking seriously for less than three years. The Crists' father, Roger, and National Geographic cinematographer Bob Poole helped expedition members turn the run into a riveting, 26minute film. In it, expedition leader Gerry Moffatt says, "To attempt that type of river with [Reggie's] limited experience was pretty much unheard of."
With that film Equator Productions was formed. (Moffatt's Nepalese kayaking company is called Equator Expeditions; Equator Productions is part owned by Moffatt, Roger Crist and Reggie Crist, among others.) The Crists would help take the company onto snow after Zach encouraged the idea in 1999. "Zach totally inspired me," says Reggie. "He retired from the World Cup and said to me, 'Hey, we're not done yet. There aren't many guys in the world who can ski like we can. Let's stay with it. On our own terms.'"
In the spring of 2000, Equator filmed an arduous, 30day expedition along the southwest coast of Greenland. A six-person team made up of the three Crist siblings--in addition to being one of the world's top female big water kayakers, Danielle was a U.S. ski team member herself from 1988 to '90--along with Moffatt, Sun Valley--based former U.S. Olympic downhiller Pete Patterson and Inuit guide Friik Lennert paddled across a fjord in ocean kayaks, hiked into the mountains and skied 60degree steeps nearly to the ocean, creating breathtaking film sequences with their digital cameras. "Every run was a first descent," says Zach. "Pretty amazing."
Says Reggie, "There's something about standing at the top of something that nobody has ever skied before that raises your blood pressure a couple of points."
Six months later Reggie, Moffatt and Patterson led another small expedition to Nepal, where they hiked to the top of 21,000-foot Mera Peak, gazed out at five of the tallest mountains on the planet--Everest, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu--and skied an ungodly first descent on nearly frostbitten toes. Not satisfied with that, the team hiked down to 9,000 feet and kayaked the roiling Dudh Kosi river, which drains off Everest, to civilization.
In the spring of 2001 Reggie, Zach, Danielle and '01 world Super G champion Daron Rahlves, a longtime friend and former teammate of the brothers, filmed first descents and killer runs in Alaska. Like the Greenland film in particular, the Alaska film, Ultimate Descents, included some of the most harrowing skiing on earth. "First run, my heart was right up in my throat," says Rahlves. For nearly a month the three Crists and Rahlves ripped massive lines down the glacial faces, outrunning miniavalanches and jumping rock outcroppings and yawning cleaves in the slope. "No surprise," says Reggie's and Zach's former coach Egan. "Those kids can ski anything."
Also like their previous films, Ultimate Descents tried to bring something more to the screen than extreme skiing. In this case it was the backstory of 1936 U.S. Olympian Dick Durrance, a Sun Valley legend whose skiing was extreme long before that term was coined. During clips of their runs in the Himalayas, a Nepalese narrator brought local perspective. From Greenland, Inuit history was explored. The brothers film and help edit their own work. Framing stories is their attempt to distinguish their work from what they call ski porn.
"If you can sit in a bar, watching a film with no sound, drinking beers, and enjoy it, that's ski porn," says Reggie. Which raises the question, Are the annual films made by the renowned Warren Miller in fact ski porn? "High-end ski porn, but still ski porn," says Zach.
"Like the difference between Playboy and Hustler," says Reggie.
Some might find it hypocritical, then, that the Crist brothers are featured prominently in this year's Warren Miller film, his 53rd annual feature, called Storm. Max Bervy, a former Warren Miller skier and now Miller's talent scout and coproducer, approached the Crists to film a segment in their native Sun Valley. "I had known of them for a long time," says Bervy. "They're two of the better-known skiers in our world. It was a great situation for everybody. They've got years of Alpine training that they've translated to the backcountry, and they're willing to put themselves in risky situations."
But it is ski porn. "I consider Warren Miller soft-core ski porn," says big-mountain veteran Chris Davenport, who is also in this year's film. "But the fact is, for Reggie and Zach to be in a Warren Miller film is an honor for them. His films have far more distribution than any other ski films. From a marketing point of view, they had to do it."
No argument. "You don't say no to Warren Miller," says Reggie.
They are consummate businessmen, even if their business is others' leisure. The Crist brothers have endorsement deals with Columbia Sportswear and Atomic Skis that push their earnings past six figures a year, rarefied air for freeriders. Skiercross has also helped milk the commercial cow, putting the Crists in front of a new, young audience in a TV-friendly event. Just as significant, the sport--which involves up to six skiers racing simultaneously at more than 40 mph down a course filled with turns and jumps--has stoked their competitiveness. Skiercross is dangerous (Reggie fractured his pelvis in a 2001 race) and capricious. That makes it all the more remarkable that in every race in which a Crist has been entered, a Crist has made the podium, a streak that spans five years.
The brothers struggle to explain their success in this evolving event. Reggie has the strength to endure daylong heats. Zach has the nimble feet to make passes in tight spots. "Bottom line, it's ski racing," says Davenport. "Zach and Reggie grew up on a great mountain, raced on the national team.... They're naturals." And despite a huge yearly influx of good skiers into the event, they aren't bailing, because the World Cup is adding skiercross races this winter and the 2006 Turin Olympics may include some events as well.
Meanwhile, the brothers seek new movies to make, new stories to tell. In September 2001 they went to New Zealand's South Island and made first descents that ended near the ocean, where they stripped down and surfed huge swells rolling in off the Indian Ocean to beaches otherwise accessible only by airplane. (The film of that expedition hasn't been edited or sold; four of their previous films were sold to Outdoor Life Network, one to National Geographic Television. The top price was $90,000.) They have other locales in mind for future films, but they aren't disclosing them. Ideal sites have one thing in common: big mountains near the ocean, where wet snow sticks to nearly vertical peaks. Japan. Alaska. Russia. (Dry inland snow blows off rocky faces, increasing the likelihood of avalanches and making many peaks unskiable.)
In the end they aren't simply chasing mountains, rivers or oceans. "There's no limit to freeriding," says Zach. "It's how big do you want to go? Life is what we make of it. Let's go find the best snow we can and do something cool." Now they are standing in shimmering moonlight outside their father's house in Sun Valley. The hills are speckled with autumn snow, and the air crackles with expectant cold. What the brothers Crist are chasing is freedom, and they're gaining fast.
FAMOUS FIRSTS A look at history-making ski descents--and those yet to come
Querying the thrill-seeking set about the next wave of skiing first descents is a little like asking Saddam about the whereabouts of his nukes. "Dude, you can't be serious," says one prominent ski mountaineer. "Top secret, O.K.? It's my 2003 paycheck you're talking about!" Even with the recent burst of high-profile firsts, a half dozen of which are noted below, there remains a world of possibilities for powder hounds in search of history. With the (grudging) help of a handful of ski mountaineers, we've identified several untapped frontiers for future firsts.
POTENTIAL FIRST DESCENTS
Mount St. Elias, Alaska In April 2002 four American mountaineers attempt the world's longest vertical ski descent on the U.S.'s second-tallest peak, a summit-to-sea run of 18,008 feet. Two die and the two others are dramatically rescued by the National Guard.
Cordillera Blanca, Peru This range has recently become a popular venue for ski mountaineers because of its relatively easy access. The south face of Artesonraju (19,767 feet), has been conquered, but a number of untouched peaks remain.
Antarctic Peninsula An almost surreal setting in which 2,000-foot descents appear to rise straight out of the ocean. Though well-known Antarctic adventurer Doug Stoup and five other skiers bagged several first descents during a February 2000 expedition, there are countless untapped routes.
South Georgia Island, Antarctica Few trodden peaks, in large part because the trip to this island 1,000 miles east of the southern tip of South America is such an ordeal. Among the prized peaks: Nordenskjold, at roughly 7,500 feet the continent's second highest, with its 45-to 55-degree faces.
Tianshan Range, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Because of regional instability and the area's remoteness, there are a vast number of untapped peaks in this 1,500-mile-wide range, dozens above 16,000 feet.
Mount Robson, British Columbia In 1995, after several failures by others, Ptor Spricenieks and Troy Jungen of Canada ski the north face of the Canadian Rockies' highest peak. Perhaps North America's most spectacular descent, the 3,000-foot route is particularly perilous near the top, falling off at nearly 60 degrees.
Greenland In the spring of 2000 Reggie and Zach Crist, along with four others, bag more than a dozen firsts along the southwestern coast on peaks rising as high as 8,000 feet straight out of the ocean.
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania In February 1997 Stephen Koch of the U.S. completes the first snowboard descent of Africa's tallest peak. Late next summer Koch will attempt to knock off Everest, thus becoming the first to snowboard each of the Seven Summits.
The Five Holy Peaks, Mongolia Located in the Tavan Bogd range hard by the border of Siberian Russia, this famous knot of 13,000-foot peaks--named Khuiten, Nairandal, Burgis, Malchin and Nardaq--is conquered in May 2002 by Americans Melissa McManus, Hilaree Nelson, Kasha Rigby and Margaret Wheeler.
Mount Shishapangma, China In May 2000 twins Mike and Steve Marolt of Aspen become the first skiers from the Western Hemisphere to descend an 8,000-meter peak when they knock off the world's 14th-tallest mountain (26,290 feet). Next up: a planned ski descent of Everest's North Face.
Mount Everest, Nepal Yuichiro Miura of Japan is famously known as the Man Who Skied Down Everest for his 1970 attempt. Miura, in fact, ended up tumbling down the mountain's South Col. The first continuous summit-to-base-camp descent of Everest belongs to Davo Karnicar of Slovenia, who pulled off the feat in October 2000.