Authors: Stuart Archer Cohen
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No one brings me closer to how it really sounds.
One great joy
of this book is that it was usually hard to separate “doing research” from kicking back with really interesting people and talking about whatever.
In Beijing: Jane Zhao and Gary Song were always generous about opening any door they could, and there were many. Also Cecilia Han and Michael Pettus.
In Shanghai: thanks to Vivian Chow and Debbie Cheung. In Suzhou: Xu Xingfang, who has walked with me through an infinity of gardens.
In New York City: Rachel Templeton and Jamie Freundlich, Danny Kramer and Judy Mogul, Whitney Tilson, Jon Jacobs, and Jim Prussky, for their insights into the financial world. A big thanks also to Adam Shore for breaking down the music business for me.
In Los Angeles: Maybe I'm stupid for not seeing the deception and superficiality that I'm told Hollywood is rife with, but what I found was thoughtful, busy people willing to help someone who could offer them nothing. Thanks to Amy Zvi of Throughline, Howard Bragman of 15 Minutes, Eric Kopeloff, Steve Jensen, Vicki Hamilton, Rich Silverman, and Marc Cantor. A special thanks to my agent, Matthew Snyder, for his wisdom and his sardonic laugh. And to Jed Cohen and Paul Lance, who not only put me up when I'm in L.A. but put up with me, year after year.
In Juneau and Haines, Alaska: Elijah Lee, former Free Skiing Champion of Bulgaria (and North America). Dane Harlamert, my snowboarding guru. Lucas Merli, for proofreading the backcountry parts (and generally being awesome). To the Dawn PatrolâDr. Powder, Aroma, and Fuzzy Bear (known after 8
as Peter Otsea, Andy Romanoff, and Ray Imel). Thanks also to Bruce Griggs and Herky Deppner, and SeanDog Brownell, of Alaska Heliskiing.
In New York: great gratitude is due to skiing supervillain and tireless agent Markus Hoffman, of Regal Literary, and to George Witte, of St. Martin's Press, for his steadfast support and his agile editing. Also Jill Haberkern and Josh Morsell, of the Mintz Group, Bill Newlin, Brett Dillingham, and Leigh Huffine.
A few people deserve extraspecial mention:
The late Sid Woodcock, whose extraordinary spirit slyly crept into this book and started pulling all the strings, as was his way.
Bob Martin, whose kindness, hospitality, intelligence, and amazing wee-hours tours of 1930s Shanghai shaped this book decisively.
David Perk, who with a single sentence made this book feel possible, when it had been feeling pretty damned impossible for a very long time.
The way that can be spoken of
is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
In those days
Harry didn't recognize that the price of admission to the life he wanted was surrendering his tickets to all the other lives he might have had.
He was, according to the few measures that existed at that time, the greatest extreme skier in the world. His first year on the circuit he won at Crested Butte and then won at Kirkwood with a separated shoulder. He took the King of the Hill prize in Valdez, Alaska, then went to Verbier for the European championship and beat the locals on their home mountain in a competition where one skier was paralyzed and another was killed. He was nineteen years old.
It was a sport that had no rules and no set course. A few dozen skiers climbed to the top of a steep mountain and hurled themselves down one at a time by whatever route they chose. They popped back flips off cliffs and made desperate cuts to avoid boulders. They raced along beside hissing avalanches. The judges scored them on their grace and creativity. For six years he won every single one of the tiny competitions in Europe and North America that defined the sport, not simply ranking highest, but awing the young men who competed against him, leaving them in despair that they would ever be that fluid, that brave, that beautiful.
He'd met Mitch skiing up at Tahoe. Mitch was a few years older and was obviously an outsider. He drove a two-seat Jaguar XKE with a tiny ski rack, wore a white puffy with a fox-fur ruff. He made music videos in Los Angeles. Some of the inner circle of ski bums joked behind his back about his brand-new, top-of-the-line gear, but Mitch loved to ski, and he could more or less keep up on the lines without cliffs in them. That made it possible for him to see up-close what Harry did, and it astounded him. At the end of the day, when they sat down for beers, he took Harry aside and said quietly, “Do you have representation?”
Harry looked at the smooth face, which even with its skier's stubble and matted hair still seemed astute and worldly in a way his other friends' didn't. “What do you mean?”
“An agent. Do you have an agent? Because I think you've got something that very few people have.”
By then, Harry was twenty-five and a legend among the few thousand people in the world who knew what extreme skiing was. The prize money in competitions where people were frequently hurt and sometimes killed might be several hundred dollars and some free helicopter time. The best skiers had sponsors that kept them in gear and paid for their stays in cheap motels, but even the top dogs had to work in the summer, and he spent the warmer months working construction with his dad and fishing out of Bristol Bay.
Harry smiled slowly. The idea of an agent had never occurred to him. “What would I do with an agent?”
“You'd just be you. Your agent will do the rest.” Now Mitch leaned in to him. “Don't get me wrong: I'm not an agent. This isn't about me. I don't want to sound weird, but what I saw today blew my mind. I make music videos, and I can say that what you do: it's music. You deserve to be rewarded. I mean, what do you make from skiing in a year, winning every competition: a few thousand dollars? A couple of new pairs of skis? Basketball stars get millions in endorsements, and what they do doesn't have one-hundredth of the risk and spectacle of what you do.”
Harry wasn't sure what to say. “Well, a lot of people play basketball.”
“It doesn't matter. You're the best in the world at a high-end sport. You shouldn't be sharing a room at a Super 8 Motel. You could be endorsing liquor, or luxury items like Swiss watches or cologne. It's just wrong that you do something so amazing and no one knows about it.”
Harry hadn't thought about it much. All the skiers knew that the big names in the Olympics and the World Cup tour were making real money, but nobody had shown much interest in extreme skiers or even made specialized big-mountain skis that they could promote. Mitch went on, “Why don't you come down to L.A. with me this week and I'll introduce you to some people. You can stay at my house. Have you ever been to L.A.?”
He had already finished up a photo spread for
magazine and happened to have a few days before shooting a part in a low-budget ski movie. He asked Guy about it and his old friend liked the idea. “It's good,” he said. “You'll bring honor to the hometown.” So he left his skis and winter gear with Guy and tucked himself into Mitch's tiny Jaguar. By the time they'd made the long drive down out of the mountains, he'd stripped off his fleece to end up in a T-shirt in the spring heat of Los Angeles.
Mitch lived in Hollywood, which Harry hadn't realized was an actual physical place with houses and palm trees. He was used to mountain towns, with their inclined streets and scruffy inhabitants. This place was flat in every way a place could be flat. That was the weird thing about L.A.: on its surface it was the most nondescript set of strip malls and parking lots he'd ever seen, but, even so, you were always on the lookout for some kind of glamour, some movie star that was just out of reach.
Mitch started calling around that very night, and Harry listened in, intrigued by his new role as a commodity.
He's the best extreme skier in the world. In the world! He's a legend. Yeah. I've seen him: he's amazing. And he's from Alaska! He wrestles grizzly bears, man.
Yeah, yeah, he's a good-looking guy. You could shine him up a little bit, but I don't know that you'd want to.
By the next morning, Mitch had set up appointments with two management companies, and soon had a roster of lunches, meetings, and cocktails that stretched over the next three days. The
piece hadn't hit the newsstands yet, but Harry had a prerelease copy with its glorious cover shot of him sailing into space. Mitch showed it at every meeting.
The people he was introduced to were friendly and relaxed, like it was just a social visit. They asked him about his sport, and they tried to compare him to downhill skiers whose names they'd seen, like Jean-Claude Killy or Billy Kidd. He ticked off the competitions he'd won, making sure to add the words “World” and “North American” and “European” to each of the titles, as Mitch had instructed him. He had a hard time explaining to them that these weren't races exactly, that he just went down mountains.
Mitch took over for him. “Four words,” he said. “Incredibly beautiful. Extremely dangerous.”
“Have you ever come close to dying?” one agent asked him.
He thought about it. “How close is close?”
“Close, like, you thought, âI may not make it this time.'”
The time he'd been swept over a cliff band by his own slough. The time the slope had given way on his left, then he'd cut right and that whole piece had dissolved beneath his feet, and somehow he'd managed to dig his skis into the bed and watched a couple megatons of snow go roaring to the bottom below him. “No. I never think that. If you spend much time wondering if you're going to make it, you're probably not going to make it.”
Mitch intervened. “Just describe some of the hairier situations you've been in.”
“Oh.” He mentioned a couple of things that had happened, telling them in a detail that would start to feel a little stale by the time he left Los Angeles. “ButÂ â¦ I wasn't, you know, afraid. I was concentrating.”