Author Bill Kerig talks big mountains, big dreams in Aspen
ASPEN For skiers accustomed to the American model of the ski resort, Chamonix can be a mind-boggling experience. The vertical drop from the Aiguille du Midi, at the top of the towns cable car, is a staggering 2,807 meters more than 9,000 feet. Trails are not necessarily well-marked; in some areas they are not marked at all. A guide is practically a necessity and ropes are a strict necessity to maneuver around or over crevasses. It is not so much a ski area as a mountain that people ski down.Picture a tram that drops people off at the top of the Maroon Bells, for $35, said Bill Kerig, attempting to describe the Chamonix experience in Aspen-friendly terms. You can go from sipping a cappuccino to risking your life in five minutes. Put your cup down, click in and youve got 9,000 vertical, two mandatory rappels, ice that might do anything.There isnt a chair lift to the top of the Grand Tetons. Thats what Chamonix is.Chamonix, then or at least its most famed and dangerous routes is not the place to bring a 15-year-old with whom you are barely acquainted. Even if the kid has the skiing chops, there are the questions of maturity, decision-making ability, experience with the upper-end of extreme terrain. Besides, who would want to take responsibility for the teenagers well-being in a place that earns its title as the Death Sport Capital of the World?When Kerig led Kye Petersen, a 15-year-old from the ski town of Whistler, British Columbia, to Chamonixs most difficult slopes, in March 2005, it was not without ample reflection. Peterson was already a sponsored skier, building a career in action films. Kerig, a writer, filmmaker and former professional skier, had assembled what he called an A-Team of support, including iconic extreme skier Glen Plake, and some of Chamonixs most highly regarded guides. In The Edge of Never, Kerigs account of the episode, published in November, Kerig began questioning the wisdom of the adventure almost from the moment he had the idea. In one of his first pitches to a film production company, Kerig himself backs away from the venture, and instead begins pitching a safe history of big-mountain skiing, one that can be made from existing footage and interviews.I know Im leaning away from the abyss, Kerig says in The Edge of Never, but the sensible arguments are persuasive.Sounds smart, mature, responds the president of the production company.Itll have a greater chance of making money, says Kerig.Write it up, answers the money guy.But there was more than money at stake in Kerigs proposal. Kerig had a grand vision of making a film that was beyond the ubiquitous ski porn. He had aspirations to make the definitive history of big-mountain skiing, and one that penetrated to the reasons people risk their lives for extreme adventures akin to what the documentary Dogtown and Z Boys did for skateboarding, and what Riding Giants did for big-wave surfing.And then there was Petersen. This 15-year-old wasnt picked merely because of his skiing abilities, but because of his backstory. A decade earlier Petersens father, the noted skier Trevor Petersen, had been killed in an avalanche, on the slopes of Chamonix. Kerig planned for the poignancy of the Peterson story the son visits, and hopefully conquers, the mountains that claimed the father to be the center of his documentary on big-mountain skiing.The adventure was a success in at least one aspect: Kye Petersen skis the runs the Glacier Rond and the Exit Couloir where his father died. The mission was not without its mishaps. The run took nearly four hours, making it dangerously late in the day when the crew hit the bottom of the mountain. One team member, a vastly experienced Chamonix guide known as Fanfan, falls into a crevasse and sustains serious, though not critical injuries.But Kerigs goal of making a film remains largely unfulfilled. Shortly after the Chamonix trip the projects backer, TV news anchor Peter Jennings, died, altering the films course. Kerig was pulled off the project; the entire Petersen family saga was scrapped. The project eventually was released as Steep, a documentary that had a 2007 theatrical release and whose reviews were split right down the middle. Kerig earned a co-producer credit.I was certainly disappointed at the time, said Kerig from his home in Salt Lake City. We released Steep, which is not the story I meant to tell. But it is a good movie, with high production value, and Im proud to be a part of it.And I got to tell the story I wanted to tell. Only in print.Much of Kerigs career had, in fact, been as a print journalist. A native of the Boston area and a former Vail-based skier on the World Pro Mogul Tour, he had written for numerous magazines and served as a contributing editor for Skiing Magazine for 17 years. He had two previous books to his credit: The Snowboarders Total Guide to Life and Utah Underground. Among his more recent jobs was founder, editor and publisher of the quarterly magazine, The Wasatch Journal.The Edge of Never interweaves several elements. Foremost is the story of Kye Peterson, a disaffected, disinterested teenager who develops respect and maturity on the mountain where his father died. There is the adventure skiing Chamonix, battling sun, craters and shifting snow conditions. And there is Chamonix itself, with its allure for the most passionate of athletes, and the colorful characters who live there. Layered under all of it are the eternal themes of extreme sports: the desire to stretch human potential further than it has gone before, and facing the consequences when things go awry.Youre on your own to take responsibility for yourself. Thats the beauty of it; thats whats so refreshing, said Kerig, who appears at Explore Booksellers in Aspen on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. for an event that includes a slide show, video presentation, reading and Q&A session. You dont have to risk your life to become responsible for yourself, but its a good way to focus your mind. You cant blame anyone if you miss a turn, shatter your femur. Its just you. Its a way to be truthful to yourself.Kerigs book has added to the debate over exactly where the dividing line is between expanding human boundaries and acting like a dadburned fool. He especially likes the perspective added by Carbondalian Lou Dawson, on his blog, wildsnow.com. Dawson tries to imagine the point of view of Kyes late father: Would Trevor support it? Dawson sides with Kerig, but several responses to the blog entry took issue.To risk a 15-year-olds life how can that be the right thing to do? asks Kerig. If it was a kid from Des Moines, who didnt live and breath this, who wasnt on this track already, who didnt have this family history, it wouldnt be the right thing. I felt we were taking a risk, and it was worth it. But it wasnt for me to say. It was for Kye and Kyes mom, and Trevors mom.The people closest to Kye have given Kerig their approval. According to Kerig, Trevors mother (Kyes grandmother) said that trip absolutely changed Kyes life. Paddy Kaye, who works for Kyes sponsor, Rossignol, thanked Kerig for taking Kye to Chamonix: Hes more responsible, became a man and a professional, Kaye told Kerig.The other story told in The Edge of Never is Kerigs own. Kerig originally set out to tell a pure adventure tale, leaving himself out of the picture.But that was dishonest, said Kerig, who has bought back his Chamonix footage and is still working on making his own film. I put everybody there. I made the trip happen. I had to be part of the story.So Kerig writes of his desire to land a good-sized paycheck, hoping to move his family out of a sketchy Salt Lake City neighborhood whose inhabitants include a meth dealer. He details his own doubts about the film project. He gives an insiders glimpse into what goes into pitching a project. And when things go bad on the slopes of Chamonix, he allows a peek into his mind: Does he take the role of the detached professional? Or of someone concerned above all with the well-being of his team member? The first-person approach adds another dimension to the idea of risk.Isnt that life? he said. Thats life. Thats life if its lived. Im sure there is a safe way to go through life without regrets but I dont know it. I havent been wired that way. In the end, there are no guarantees for any of us. Especially when you go into dangerous terrain.Kerig acknowledges that there is a realm that has little to do with risk, guarantees, precautions. There is fate: Some people survive the steeps of the Aiguille du Midi; others dont make it across the street.Is it your time or not? said Kerig. Did you get lucky or unlucky? Did you step off the sidewalk at the wrong moment?
Bill Kerigs The Edge of Never, slide show, video presentation, reading and Q&A session takes place at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24 at Explore Booksellers in Aspen.firstname.lastname@example.org
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