For the past six months, Rebecca Gerber has been training nonstop for her first Freeride World Qualifier competition. Here, she describes her initiation into the Jackson big-mountain-skiing scene and the tough road she’s traveled on her way to achieving competitor status.
I’m so friggin’ nervous. Actually, I’m freaking out. But damn, I’m so excited, too. It’s Friday, January 31st, and I’m four days out from my first Freeride World Qualifier event at Crystal Mountain, Washington.
I grew up in Maine and ski raced throughout high school, but was never anything special at the gates. I moved to Jackson in 2011 to take a job in my career field of biology. I intended to finish that job, find another job, and move right to grad school. That was three years ago. I wound up with no job and no career reason to stay, but how could I leave? Jackson is called the black hole of ambition. I now know why.
My first winter here, competing wasn’t a thought; wasn’t on my radar. But skiing in Jackson is unlike skiing in any other place. It’s not just about the powder days and drinking when the lifts close. In Jackson, skiing is life.
You’re drinking at après. The inevitable first question: “What line did you ski today?” Once ski status has been established, things lighten up. Next comes, “Wanna meet in the tram line at 7a.m. and cook bacon? I’ll bring the camp stove.” You drink a spicy marg or two, make dinner, and are in bed by nine so you can wake up and get the first tram.
An organized event isn’t needed for one to compete in this town. You compete while skiing every day. With others and with yourself, every single day, to get better and better. It never ends. My first couple years in Jackson I didn’t have any chicks to ski with, so I skied with the boys. With them, there’s no sympathy. You fall? Better get your shit together and catch up, or you’re gonna get ditched. And it’s not like they’re offering encouraging words along the way.
I’m terrified of heights. I mean terrified. First winter, first hike up Cody Peak. If you’ve been, you know it involves a scramble up a rocky ridge with steep pitches and icy steps made by giant men. Falling is not an option. The boys are up ahead, looking back occasionally, taunting me, “Bec, if you’re too scared you can go back, we’ll see ya in the shop later…” If I bail, I’m weak. I’ll never be asked to ski with them again. I choke down the anxiety puke, and press on.
Rebecca making the scramble up Cody Peak.
It wasn’t tough love, it was just tough. But it pushed my skiing to a point where I was skiing things I’d never imagined. Terrified at the top, but all smiles at the bottom—smiles so big my face hurt.
The first time I considered competing was when I met AJ Cargill, the former Freeski World Tour champion. I met AJ working in a ski shop. She knew what it was like being a woman in this town. Men think you care more about your ski outfit than your skiing. And the women…they’ll scare you shitless. You move here, and all the women have their ski groups set. No one wants to put energy into a “90-day wonder.” It’s hard to break in, and it can be lonely. If you’re a bad skier, no one wants to ski with you. If you’re a great skier, well, no one wants to ski with you. You either slow them down or show them up. You have to earn respect. You have to earn your spot. “Make your own place in the valley.”
AJ was the first woman I really skied with. She skis without fear and with pure grace. She skis lines that some men won’t. She took me under her wing. She has the boys’ attitude, and she pushes me. “Do it! Jump off it!” If I hesitate for more than ten seconds, she’s onto the next feature and almost out of view. AJ scares me, often. At least if you puss out with a guy, he might still find you attractive at the end of the day. With AJ, you just let her down, and that’s worse than anything.
Now I want to compete. Last May, I contacted Mountain Athlete, where I’d be part of a small group of skiers training for the Freeride World Qualifiers in the upcoming winter. This was my chance to become the skier I wanted to be. I emailed the head coach, Rob. His response: “Simple deal. We only work with committed athletes. Monday through Thursday. You must make four days a week. See you Monday.”
I walked into the gym on day one. There stood Crystal Wright, Hadley Hammer, Pip Hunt, and about half a dozen other sponsored athletes. Talk about a reality check. An hour later, I felt like a dog that’d just had his nuts chopped off. Limping, speechless, mojo gone. I wondered what I was doing there, if I was good enough for this, if I was in way over my head. But big picture, not only did Mountain Athlete prepare me physically for the ski season, the training pushed me to truly commit. During the six months of hard dryland training, four days per week, I missed three days.
Jackson is a super expensive place to live, and paying for FWQ competition admission fees, transportation, lodging, food, and compensating for missing work is no joke. I haven’t done it alone. Co-workers stepped in to cover work. AJ hooked me up with apparel. Blizzard Rep Justin Harvey helped with skis.
I have self-doubt—I always have—and this town doesn’t help. You’re constantly being compared to others. And now I’m about to ski down a mountain face while being watched and judged by hundreds of people? What?! Talk about nerves. I’ve skied with the other competitors, and I know I’m at the bottom when it comes to technical abilities. But what if I have something they don’t? What if I can do it?
Crystal told me that the biggest challenge in competition is mental. Jesus, was she right. I’m not even in Washington yet, and I can barely sleep. I don’t want to fall. I don’t want to embarrass myself, and I really don’t want to let my friends and coaches down. But you know what? I took advantage of an opportunity. That’s what I did. I need goals in my life. I need to work toward something. I need challenges. And this is what I chose. Because why not me? I won’t be looking back later, full of regret for not trying.
Talk is cheap in this town. I said I’d compete this winter, and I’m skiing through that start gate next Tuesday.
Stay tuned for Rebecca’s post-comp report.