The Swiss really have the whole primary education thing mastered — there's reading, writing, arithmetic and freeride.
That, at least, is how it turned out for Liam Peiffer when his family moved from his birthplace in Utah to a small mountain village in Switzerland when he was nine years old. Already an alpine ski racer from his time in the States, Peiffer was excited to learn what he'd be doing in his Swiss elementary school.
"Every Tuesday and Thursday in the winter, (physical education class) was skiing," says Peiffer. His teacher was into freeride skiing — a technique that takes you off the groomed trails and into harder-to-reach areas looking for fresh powder.
"It was pretty scary," Peiffer says about those first forays into the famously daunting Alps. "I got to see some of the bigger mountains and ski some of the bigger resorts and it really opened up my eyes. That's when I put away the race gear and picked up my powder skis."
Peiffer's family only stayed in Switzerland for a couple of years — they next moved to West Vancouver and have stayed there since — but it was long enough to inspire a passion for freeride skiing in the young athlete.
Now a Grade 12 student at Rockridge, Peiffer has followed that passion all the way to a berth in the Freeride Junior World Championships scheduled for Feb. 7 at the Grandvalira resort in Andorra, Spain. Peiffer and two other Canadians will compete in a field of 60 of the top junior free skiers from around the world. The competition will see the racers hike up a mountain for 30 minutes before skiing a run that will be rated by a panel of judges who are scoring in categories such as line choice, fluidity, style and energy, and technique. So what type of terrain is 17-year-old Peiffer hoping to see?
"Just picture a big, steep face — with cliffs," he says. "Something that looks not ski-able. I like to find a way to ski it."
Cliffs, in fact, are a must-have item if you hope to make your run stand out, he said. Drops can be as long as 40-60 feet.
"If you hit no cliffs, there's a good chance you won't qualify. . . . Hitting cliffs is a must. Even doing tricks off of cliffs is a must sometimes," he says, adding that there's nothing quite like jumping off a 60-foot cliff on skis. "You go off, you see where you're going to land and you realize (you) are very high up. And then you start to hear the wind rushing past you. You can't hear yourself, but then you definitely have time to think. It almost feels like you're in slow motion because you have time to think."
Then comes the landing which is accompanied by kind of a dark thud, says Peiffer — you never really see the landing so much as experience it.
"The landing is something you never really remember," he says. "It's a really unique feeling to be falling that far and then trying to land."
There is, of course, an element of danger to carving down a steep, rocky cliff face on skis.
Peiffer had his scariest experience just a couple of weeks ago when he was Snowcat skiing with a group near Revelstoke. The group finished a run and noticed that one skier was no longer with them. They went back up, skied the run again and found the missing skier buried under the snow, unconscious but alive.
"It was truly a wake-up call that even the snow pack is something that can kill you," says Peiffer. "She didn't even have that big of a crash. She just got stuck under the snow, couldn't get her way out and passed out."
Peiffer does a lot of dryland training to make sure his body is prepared to handle whatever a mountain can throw at him "Hitting a 40-foot air is no easy task on the legs," he says. "If you're skiing as hard as you can for that entire run, you get to the bottom and your legs feel like Jell-O."
While the concept of free ride has been around as long as there have been mountains, skis and people crazy enough to say, "Hey let's climb up and ski down," free ride competitions are relatively new, particularly for juniors. There was no funding to pay for Peiffer's trip to the world juniors so he started a campaign with makeachamp.com and was able to quickly raise enough money from friends, family, sponsors and anonymous supporters to get him to Spain.
"I couldn't be more thankful for that," he says, adding that he can't wait to represent Canada internationally. "It's pretty awesome, to be honest. I just hope I don't mess up."
The concept of free ride skiing comes from an ethos that is much different than the highly competitive world of alpine racing, but once a competition starts Peiffer has one goal in mind.
"Win. Plain and simple," he says. "In the days leading up to the competition, everybody is friends, everybody is skiing together, having fun on and off the hill. Just chilling. And then as soon as we have to compete it's like, 'Good luck man. Hope you do well.'. . . It's game on. There's no friends."