Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Ted Davenport gets down to earth
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
BASALT – It’s a Tuesday, and Ted sits across the table from me at Saxy’s in Basalt. Immediately, he throws it down: “Just don’t sensationalize,” he says. He pauses. I think he means to ask it as a favor, but after he says it, his eyes narrow, his lips tighten. They emphasize.
“I’ll try not to,” I promise.
He’s not convinced. “It doesn’t need it,” he says. He writes the sentence for me. “You can say something simple like, ‘Ted Davenport is recovering from an injury where he broke his leg during his attempt to win his third World Heli-skiing Championship …'”
He does this several times – giving me leads on sentence ideas. I actually like it. He always apologizes shortly after, but he doesn’t need to. “I know you’re the writer,” he says.
None of what the Aspen-bred professional athlete was telling me needed sensationalizing. For Ted’s whole career, writers and videographers have fallen for this trap, using words like “gnarly” and “freakish” to describe his life and ruining the story. They only call back when he crashes. They print pictures of him in hospital gowns. They call him “Chris’s brother.” He’s been burned so often I can still smell it. We both fear: I might be one of them.
But he has a point. His story deserves a better spin. Google “Ted Davenport,” and the first three headlines that show up are: “Bad crash landing for Ted Davenport.” “Ted Davenport breaks leg.” And “Ted Davenport explains incident at Anvil Points.”
He can’t escape it, hence the limp when he walks. Even when he watches television, there is a chance he’ll see his endorsement in a commercial for Aspen Valley Hospital, which includes a line saying he is “back doing what he loves.” Due to the injury he described above at the Championship in New Zealand in August, that means working at Performance Ski in Aspen and going to physical therapy a few days a week.
I get it. The irony is not lost on Ted.
For a moment, let’s go back to 2010, when Ted was healthy and spending a month in one of the most remote regions of the planet, Baffin Island, a rare geographic landmark in the barren Arctic Circle. To get to camp, it took nine hours of snowmobile riding from the nearest village, the expedition’s nearest hope of a rescue should something go wrong.
Others have skied Baffin – the first in 1977 – but truly, nothing had ever gone down like this. At one point, Ted climbed up a mountain and skied off a waterfall, engaged his parachute and flew over a mighty white glacier below him, and then landed and later blogged about it. Later, after another successful jump, he turned around to see two dozen other expedition members fly around a band of nearby cliffs. During the 30 days, the crew completed more than 300 jumps – all of them down to the chalky white floor of the Arctic.
“We had a massive base camp,” Ted said. “But we all got along. It’s hit or miss usually on a big expedition, but everybody worked hard together to help each other, to jump as often as possible.”
I wish that ended the story. I should mention that one of the members of the expedition died, and I should tell you it was a guy named Jim Mitchell, a father, a close friend of everyone there, and I should probably let you know how they all rallied and continued, like they always do. It also seems prudent to tell you that when asked about it, Ted said, “Shit happens. Anything can happen. We all get the risks, and so did Jim, and he was a great guy, but we all understand it is part of this, that one little mistake and you can die.”
Should I mention all that?
Perhaps I should not.
That’s what people end up always writing about Ted.
So let’s go to a new subject – Ted Davenport is also a movie star.
The dramatics in Baffin Island landed Ted, who has a business degree from Denver University, in the Ski Channel’s recent cinematic release, “Winter,” a feature-length film that primarily shows skiers in plain clothes talking about what they do and why they do it.
Steve Bellamy, the film’s director, debuted it in Los Angeles to 1,400 fans and gave Ted the red carpet treatment. Bellamy even surprised himself by putting Ted in the closing segment – the action sports film equivalent of the starring role.
At first, he thought Davenport – who has two Warren Miller credits and was in Teton Gravity Research’s classic “Tangerine Dream” – was a dud. In fact, some of Bellamy’s first words to me were, “I didn’t know Ted.”
“I didn’t know if I could get Ted in the film in the beginning,” he elaborated.
Bellamy soon learned. “In the end, Ted ended up coming out the top athlete,” he added.
I asked Bellamy what stood out to him in this film.
“Ted, of course,” he replied perfectly.
Other than Ted.
“We had a guy eaten by a crocodile in this year’s film,” Bellamy said. “This year these people are playing for keeps. … You see all these people on the absolute razor’s edge for 90 minutes, and then the last three minutes, you see the closing, and you get the punch line. It makes you leave inspired to get every breath the rest of your life.”
Ted’s life is getting more complicated. With more than 600 base jumps notched in his belt, Ted is turning into a veteran in the sport, but it goes beyond his day job. The 31-year-old bought a house in Basalt in 2010, is engaged to his fiance, Amber, and is rightfully protective of all of it.
(He’s pretty sweet about Amber. In every interview I read with Ted in the last two years, he mentioned how much he loves her. He mentioned her several times in our interview.)
That’s another thing the movie “Winter” is about – love. Love of sport. Love of person. A now famous segment shows Rory Bushfield and his wife, Sarah Burke, cuddling on the couch and talking about why they ski professionally. Rory rubs her wedding ring, and she looks him in the eye and smiles. Sarah fell in a halfpipe practice in January and died nine days later. Ted knew Sarah well, and had just met Rory.
“Absolutely crushed,” Ted said.
Ted gets emotional.
“Anyone on the mountain could have died the way Sarah died. She caught an edge and fell on her head wrong,” Ted said. “That’s why I have to stay humble. This is the inherent risk. Fatalities. Injuries. The way it makes me feel when I do it is why I do it. … It’s not an easy thing to put into words.”
Ted puts every jump into words.
When you hear Ted Davenport tell stories about his friends who clip mountain peaks while doing 140 miles per hour in a wingsuit and live, and believe the guy when he says he feels fearless standing two inches from a 300-foot cliff, and then also see him correct himself and say, “Not fearless. I did not want to say fearless. When I’m at the exit, I’m shitting my pants. I’m scared …,” you would not imagine him also sitting at a computer – ever – and entering data into an Excel spreadsheet.
“Base jumpers are a bunch of dorks,” he says.
Ted’s spreadsheet is a complete record of his base jumps. For each one, he enters data for location, weather, day and time, and adds a quick summary of the overall experience. The first two entries in his 2009 worksheet, a year where he completed a prolific 150 jumps, read like this: “1st SkiB.A.S.E, huge front, so sick, top5jumps”; and the next: “Ground strike, should be dead, PC hesitation, fckn gnarley!!”
Then he did 148 more.
Ted wishes everyone had a comprehensive spreadsheet. It would be a lot safer that way, he says. The base-jumping community, fueled by exposure on YouTube and nationally distributed films, inspired a lot of athletes like Ted to learn the relatively new sport. But, as they say, it also planted a few ideas who grew up into idiots.
“You’re not going to get a lot of respect if you order a pack online and show up and start jumping,” Ted said. “You could stay alive, for awhile. But then at some point, your chute is going to malfunction or something is going to happen and then you’re going to get hurt. Or die.”
You might “PLF,” as they say in his sport. “Parachute Landing Fall.” It’s when the chute opens late and you tuck and roll and hope you get out of it. Like in the war movies. Those are big mistakes, the spreadsheet’s bad data cells.
Each line is just a few words, but tells a story.
Entry no. 43 in 2009: “CRAZY landing for me!”
Entry no. 61 in 2009: “rally jump, cool gainer, still need to SLOW it down!”
They reach a climax after an unimaginable streak of jumps, including number 94, when he flew through a foggy whiteout for nine seconds. “Top 5 jump for sure!” he exclaims after his more specific notations.
“We’re very critical about everything,” Ted tells me. “You want the jump to go perfect from start to finish.”
Nothing goes perfect from start to finish. That is, unless you fly off cliffs in a wingsuit.
Then it can go perfect.
Ted leaves the interview and says, “This went better than I thought.”
I feel like I ignored him and went to my car. I was buried, trying to figure out how to write a story about a base jumper who crashes and a big-mountain skier who breaks his leg and not make it sensational.
Then it came to me, as plain as the notes in my notebook. Moments before, when we were still at the coffee shop and I had a chocolate donut sitting in front of me, he gave me context. He gave me my chance.
Ted told me what he thought was sensational.
To Ted, sensational is three scenes represented in the Ski Channel’s movie. The first is when Mike Wilson does a quad-flip off a rope swing – a spontaneous, dangerous trick that showed style, ingenuity and a little bit of athletic freakishness.
The second is one you have to see, when Kris Holm rides his unicycle against a forest seemingly sliding downhill toward him, all while inches off a cliff edge, the bottom of which is hundreds of feet below. Hell, the unicycler even scared Ted.
And there was one more.
That scene with Rory and Sarah, in love. They are on a couch, and in the backseat of a moving vehicle, and skiing, and telling stories about their engagement.
“We get through it because we have a close community,” Ted said. “That’s what the people saw at our movie premiere in L.A., and people who do not know about us will learn from this movie.”
Ted’s serious. He believes in this film. Its mission – to bring these athletes down to the level of normal to a mass audience – is not so different than where he is in life, in protecting a home while progressing a career.
“The film does a good job at showing we are not really crazy,” he said. “… that we can help each other, love each other and console each other. That we are not these freaks, that we are real people.”
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It’s that time of year — hikers and mountain bikers must be aware that seasonal closures are taking effect on multiple trails in the area today for the winter for the benefit of wildlife.