It takes a rare of breed of man to willingly stand at the 12,481-foot summit of Kachina Peak in Taos, N.M., and not submit to the doubts creeping throughout his body.
Howling winds screaming into a rider's ear can whisk away any shred of confidence left in him. The mountain feasts on this fear. At the 2013 Taos Salomon Extreme Freeride Championships, Summit County freeskiers proved to any curious spectators that you do not simply compete in a freeski event - you survive it.
Taos Ski Valley hosted the ninth annual three-day event which started Feb. 28 in the rugged and steep double-black-diamond cliffs of the West Basin. The finals took place on the infamous hike-to terrain of Kachina Peak on March 2. This was a four-star Freeride World Tour Qualifying (FWQ) event, one of only a few held around the world. Not just anybody can attend, either. Athletes are selected based on their overall FWQ points - which drew more than a dozen Summit County competitors.
In his first year competing with the big dogs in the adult male skier category, 18-year-old Ian Borgenson, skiing out of Arapahoe Basin, won first place in the men's skiing division in this competition geared for big mountain extreme skiing and riding. Being judged on choice of line, style, fluidity and control, Borgenson was the only rider in the field of 52 to have two runs scored at nine points or higher.
Finishing first at the four-star event earned Brogenson 1800 points toward his Freeride World Tour Qualifying ranking. The FWQ season will end on the 30th of April and the top three scoring skiers will ski in events around the world as part of the Freeride World Tour.
Also skiing out of Arapahoe Basin was 33-year-old Ryan Banker, who earned points for placing eighth in the event. He finished behind Breckenridge's Matthew Potter, who placed sixth behind Crested Butte, Taos and Grand Targhee skiers. Banker has attended every Taos event since its inception, and raves about the environment Taos Ski Valley had to offer.
"It's a good place for things like this because it's an arena of terrain with cliff bands. There are so many options to choose from for skiing," he said. "They're a good bunch of people there. It's family-owned, so it's a little different than the resorts around here. It creates a different type of atmosphere and brings you back to the heart of the sport."
Although a fierce competitor, Banker wasn't too concerned about his standing, rather the love of the freeriding rush.
"It's fun most of all. It keeps me in it year after year. There's a lot to deter you: It's expensive, you can get hurt - but most of all it's fun. And I love it. I'd love to stick with it, promote the sport and watch it grow," he said.
Amidst that euphoria is the reality of the sport: the aches and pains, and the throbbing lows of injury.
Yearning to join his friends in triumph over the mountain, 34-year-old Darrell Haggard, who owns and runs Alpine Fire Mitigation, recently emerged from the hospital, showcasing the dangers of freeriding.
Sitting in seventh place after Day One, Haggard dropped to 14th in his Day Two run - the same one that earned him a high finish the day before. Haggard knew he needed a strong final run, but he had also already selected his line on Kachina Peak for the finals. He knew what he would ski, how he would ski it - and hopefully how it would end - before even seeing the rankings sheets from the two days of preliminaries. What he didn't know is that tragedy would strike.
Haggard jumped into a chute towering well above his own height, at about 10-12 feet, to begin his run. He gained speed to avoid any debris in his way. As a drop quickly approached, Haggard aimed for a pocket of snow between some trees and beyond a small rubble pile. But instead of flying left, his right ski snagged, pulling him right - into the wall of the chute. He smashed the wall at roughly 30 mph, first keeping his skis below him but then losing control on the second impact. Despite armor and a full-face mask, he shattered his femur in the collision that sent him tumbling to a stop below.
With his adrenaline raging, Haggard was stuck in an extremely difficult spot for help to reach him.
"The area I went into, even for guys who are patrollers and excellent skiers, this is a really rowdy part of the mountain. It took patrol a few minutes to get to me. They were able to evacuate me," Haggard said.
Once in the comfort of a sled, the chaos slowly calming down, Haggard realized it wasn't a simple knee injury. It set in that he had shattered the longest, strongest and most difficult bone to break in the human body-his femur.
"It's definitely painful. My leg is four times the size of the other one," Haggard said, adding that he was still able to ask the patroller to pause at the base of the mountain so he could see his ski buddy, Banker, complete his run.
The swelling is a normal reaction for the human body when a femur is shattered in four different places, including the head of the bone. A titanium rod and additional hardware was inserted into Haggard's leg at a nearby hospital in Santa Fe before Haggard headed home to recover with the help of his girlfriend.
His tree business gets going here soon - they're bidding on the Breckenridge Peak 6 expansion project with another company - and Haggard hopes he'll be able to work from home until he can return to the field sometime between August and October.
"I'd be ecstatic," he said of a late-summer return.
Although a friend is down, Borgeson and Banker will continue competition. FWQ events at Moonlight Basin, Mont., Crested Butte and Snowbird are next up for the skiers in the four-stop event.
More than a dozen men and women athletes from Summit County competed in both the skiing and snowboarding divisions of the competition, including snowboarders Darien Giedd (Breckenridge), Caitlyn Randels (Breckenridge), Pete LaRue (Breckenridge), Aaron Smiley (Arapahoe Basin) and Jake LaRue (Breckenridge). Female skiers included Sarah Wilson (Copper Mountain) and Kristina Nina Minchow (Arapahoe Basin), and other male skiers included Arapahoe Basin skiers Alan Fraser and Daniel Gish. Additional athletes from Chile, Canada and New Zealand added international flavor to the event.