Who Are The Pioneers Of Big-Mountain And Extreme Skiing? 1960-2022

by Travis McCullough | Updated On: September 29th, 2022
extreme skiing

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Over the years, countless skiers have pushed the limits of what was previously considered possible. Every year the borders encapsulating the definition of extreme skiing are expanded, but what exactly is extreme skiing, and who are the sport’s pioneers?

Extreme skiing refers to treacherous off-piste terrains like 45+ degree slopes, giant cliffs, bare ground, crevasses, and avalanche danger. Although most skiers would agree that Sylvain Saudan was one of the first to set the bar, many have come after him to push the idea of extreme skiing even further from its humble origins.

Powder Snow Down Slope

Pioneers Of Extreme Skiing (1960s – 1980s)

This group of skiers is highly regarded as the forefathers of extreme skiing, also known as big-mountain skiing. On paper, their feats might not look as impressive as what today’s giants are throwing down, but these are the folks who laid the groundwork for everyone that came after.

Sylvain Saudan (1936 – Present)

This Swiss-born shredder holds the title of “Skier Of The Impossible,” and he began his reign as one of the foremost extreme skiers of his time all the way back in the 1960s.  

He has conquered 18 of the most harrowing descents known to humanity across North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Some of his most famous drops include Mount Denali, Kilimanjaro, Nun, Mont Blanc, and Mt. Fuji (with no snow). 

Saudan coined the “windshield wiper” turn, which involves slashing the tails of your skis back and forth to avoid getting too much speed on a steep slope. This updated technique allowed skiers to speed-check on steeper terrain without catching an edge above a fall zone.

Yuichiro Miura (1932 – Present)

Miura is most known for breaking the record for the fastest speed on skis in 1964 (172.084 kph/106.93 mph) and being the first person to ski Mount Everest in 1970.

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His speed record was subsequently broken the next day, which spurred him to become one of the first and fastest people to ski Mt. Fuji.

His skiing career almost ended early on Everest when the parachute he used to slow down malfunctioned and sent him careening toward an open crevasse down the mountain. Luckily he survived, allowing him to continue to push the sport’s boundaries for many more years.  

Bill Briggs (1931 – Present)

Briggs was one of the first American skiers to start tackling North America’s more prominent peaks, especially in the Teton range.  

He gained notoriety in the scene when he successfully skied Jackson, Wyoming’s Grand Teton, in 1971. Briggs figured no one would believe that he had accomplished this feat, so he hired a pilot to fly him around the mountain to photograph his tracks.

Briggs didn’t stop there, as he became the first skier to descend Mount Moran, Mount Owen, Middle Teton, and South Teton. He put American extreme skiers on the map and helped spawn the movement that is still alive and well in the states today.

Stefano De Benedetti (1958 – Present)

This Italian powerhouse spent ten years making the first descents down mountains across France, Italy, and Switzerland. During this decade, he made his way down more than 80 slopes that were previously considered unskiable.

Even though he decided to hang his skis up much earlier than others in his field, he is nothing short of an extreme skiing legend.

The Next Generation Of Extreme Skiers (1980s – Present)

ski down a slope

Here are the heavy hitters of the past few decades that molded extreme skiing into what it is today.  Most of us are very familiar with the names on this list because they are a part of our generation and have set the bar that extreme skiers who come after us will have to surpass.

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Scot Schmidt (1961 – Present)

If you watch Warren Miller’s early films, you will notice that Scot Schmidt is a regular in many big-mountain skiing scenes. Schmidt’s unprecedented extreme skiing style was the catalyst that sparked the flame behind the Warren Miller franchise’s decision to start filming more off-piste and backcountry skiers.

He is one of the world’s most filmed extreme skiers, making him so pivotal in the growth of the extreme skiing movement. The odds are that if you have watched a feature film about extreme skiing in the last 40 years, Schmidt had a role in at least a few of them.

Doug Coombs (1957 -2006)

This American skier hailed from Boston, but he made his name in the skiing community from his accomplishments out west.  

He became the first World Extreme Skiing champion in 1991, which took place in Valdez, Alaska. Coombs fell in love with the area and made the Chugach range the backcountry skiing hub it is today.

His hundreds of first descent titles are spread across five continents, making it easy to see why he has been such a driving force in extreme skiing.

Glen Plake (1964 – Present)

You would be hard-pressed to find a skier that isn’t familiar with the extreme skiing legend that is Glen Plake. Plake co-starred in the film Blizzard of Aahhh’s, which single-handedly defined what modern extreme skiing is today. 

Known for his massive multi-colored mohawk and controversial takes about the ski industry, Plake gave an entire generation of young skiers the idea to go against the grain and ski freely.

Shane McConkey (1969 – 2009)

Shane McConkey is one of the most influential people in history in ignoring other people’s perceptions of what can and can’t be accomplished.  

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He famously combined the art of extreme skiing with BASE jumping and wingsuits. McConkey once landed a triple backflip off of a 400-foot cliff in Lake Tahoe, and it was only one of many of his triple-digit jumps.

Unfortunately, he passed away in 2009, due to a binding malfunction that led to him not being able to deploy his parachute in time.  Even though McConkey’s time in this sport was cut short, he is arguably the most influential extreme skier of all time.

Seth Morrison (1973 – Present)

Last but certainly not least is the living legend, Seth Morrison.  This man’s list of awards, feats, and movie appearances is only rivaled by a handful of other skiers.  He is famous for his 100+ foot backcountry cliff drops.

Morrison grew up in Colorado, which is where he got his taste for big-mountain skiing.  He went from his school’s ski team to a fully sponsored K2 Athlete in no time.  He is widely known for his pro model skis, including the obSETHed and Annex.  

Honorable Mentions

It’s impossible to fit every extreme skier that has revolutionized the sport into one article, but it wouldn’t be right to leave out these crucial innovators either.  These riders have been nothing short of directly influential on big-mountain skiing.

If you haven’t seen any footage of these athletes in action, then you should make haste and immediately do so.  Each and every one of them can be seen climbing to new heights, dropping massive cliffs, and attempting to break land speed records on more than one occasion.

skiing in Beaver Creek
Photo by Snow Snow licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Conclusion

The lengths that extreme skiing has come to since its inception are nothing short of spectacular. It doesn’t look exactly like it did during its inception almost a century ago, but the spirit that convinces us to push boundaries and reach past what is possible still rings true.

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