The look on his face was the same one every time Niki “goes for It.” Wide eyed, with an even wider, laughing smile, his strawberry blonde hair flying behind a warriors body poised for a physical assault. Niki’s ability to make a decision in the moment, to do it on-the- fly, is part of what has made him known as the best telemarker on the planet. That split second decision to go instead of stop, is also what has brought his ski season to an early, painful end.
Late in the afternoon last Tuesday Niki was in the flow, he said it himself. For the last run of the day, he and his friends wanted a little more air , after an amazing speed flight that morning, they decided to go for a run through the Snowmass terrain park. As he neared the end of a nice fluid run, he pointed his skis and committed to finishing it. Blue eyes sparkling, he laughed once and accelerated toward the last jump, the 80 footer with a deck that angled towards the jumper. He hit the take off with speed and confidence, but it was not enough. He missed the knoll by two feet. He crumpled like an expert in the field of falling, and those above thought he was ok below. when he didn’t ski on his friends came to him. First he said “I’m so sorry,” then he said “My ankles are broken.”
Ski patrol came quickly. Niki didn’t cry out in pain once. He was using all his energy to keep a smile on his face and keep his friends laughing. He even took the time to take his phone out for a picture so he could tweet it later, as he had been instructed earlier in the day to do constantly for the Surf Gravity project. He was already trying to find the positives and silver lining as they put him in the ambulance.
Now Niki is bed ridden with rods coming out of both shins, Both ankles are shattered. The situation is serious as doctors try to figure out how to tackle this injury once the swelling has gone down. Niki will receive all the support his friends and family can give him. He will heal, and dance again, like the super human he is. Niki has enjoyed a life lived by few, spending the last ten years as a competitive skier traveling the world and advancing his skill as well as his awareness and spirituality. Niki does amazing things everyday that inspire those around him, and he will continue to do so on a less physical plane for a while. Niki has been teaching us all how to surf gravity for years. We don’t know what form he will do it in now, but his expression will still be beautiful and have deep impact on his community and world. Many who know Niki are heartbroken to see such a peaceful warrior downed, but at Surf Gravity we are excited to see a new being rise.
I’m on my hands and knees in the station again. I blink away a tiny bead of sweat, and take a moment to laugh at my current situation. A tour bus must have just been let out, so now to make matters even more ridiculous, i am being gawked at by a group of twenty or so Asian tourists. Two elderly women chatter behind me, and the language barrier is thick, but i can only imagine that they are scrutinizing my technique based on decades of refined origami expertise. Pardon the stereotype, but for all I know packing a parachute is just like folding a paper crane, just with slightly higher stakes. I glance at the clock. Shit, the cable car leaves in ten minutes. I push my headphones into my ears and do my best to focus… Two minutes. I put my last closing pin in, and look up to see my friend Rami step into line. We have a little high five, show the operator our passes, and cram ourselves onto the tram.
There is not an inch of free space. Most of the tourists managed to stake their claim near the breath fogged windows, cameras on quick draw, while the nucleus of the people mover is made of piled paragliders, speed wings, BASE rigs, and like minded people in search of a thrill. Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, with its towering cliff walls and ease of cable car access, makes for a veritable grown up playground. Six Flags on steroids. Free spirits from across the globe flock and gaze up at the walls, wide eyed and drop jawed. Paragliders envision their next acro maneuver, speed flyers pick out features to graze on their way down, and BASE jumpers size up exit points, and potential lines of flight. Today Rami and I are about to do a little BASE jumping, and more specifically, we will be tracking. Tracking is using nothing but your body and a pair of fancy inflatable MC Hammer style pants to fly forward. Unlike wing suit flying, its more sensationalized counterpart, tracking offers freedom of movement and faster free fall. You can run, jump, flip, gap protrusions, and outfly ledges using precise body position.
Rami crushes a Capri Sun and pockets the empty pouch. “Flower Box?” He asks through a seemingly irreverent yet somehow still reassuring smile. When I first showed up to Lauterbrunnen, my sights were set on Flower Box as my goal for tracking. Its tricky because a precarious, but necessarily fuerte, push from this exit point puts you out and over a small protruding ledge. It then opens up into a bowl, and while the cliff in total is just under 2000 feet tall, you only have about 800 feet until impact. This means that you need to use the little airspeed you have and your fancy pants to outfly a ledge at 800 feet in order to gain the entire free fall. If you are not going to make it over the ledge the a quick decision to deploy your parachute early can be made, but that can put you in a messy situation because you have very little separation from the cliff that you just jumped off, and the direction that your parachute faces as it opens is more sporadic at slower air speeds. So, Flower Box, just slightly more intimidating than the name would lead you to believe.
The doors crack open, and the people flood out, sending each other off with wishes of good jumps and fun flights. Rami and I stroll through the hanging town of Murren, and after a quick stop at the grocery store for a chocolate croissant, we find the trail head of the via ferrata that will take us to our exit. As I clutch the safety cable that parallels the dicey trail Rami looks back at me, “Nervous?” He asks.
“Just a little bit”
“I would be,” he replies through a Finnish cackle. He can laugh because he has probably done this jump more than 100 times, but in truth I had a nervous hair ball clutching tight to my Adam’s Apple, and it felt like my left leg was uncontrollably trying to shake it loose. As we round the corner to our gear-up cave I do my best to stifle the nerves. After a quick gear check, and we walk to the fixed rope that runs to the edge. As I wrap the rope tight around my hand and lean out to get a better view, a deep breath hits me and I’m finally able to calm down and focus. I back up and try to sort out some of the little things, like the best place to jump from, and where exactly my feet should go. My helmet is buckled and the goggles are pulled down over my face. It seems like we are ready to send it.
After two strong strides and a boosting jump, Rami is off. He disappears for a few seconds until i see him burn out over a ledge down below and deploy his parachute. Ok, i thought, just like that, more or less. So, right foot here, then left foot there. No, left foot, then right foot, then off with the left. Sure, that should work. Inhale, exhale, 3,2,1, see ya… I push off and watch the first protrusion rip past my feet, and the visual sucks me in for almost too long. Oh yeah, track, i almost forgot. On every jump like this there is a moment of weightlessness. You need to wait for the downward speed to build before you can really start moving forward. In that moment intense focus is met with relaxation, commitment with a sense of letting go, and the mental snap shot is so powerful that it gets emblazoned on the mental etch-a-sketch in such a way that it can never to be shaken loose by matters of trivial concern. At this point the ledge down below is coming up fast, but i can feel the forward speed coming on strong, and i know without a doubt that I will make it. I clear the ledge and fly out into the open. As the trees down below begin to swell at a rapid rate, i grab my pilot chute handle, give it a hard toss, and prepare to be snatched out of the sky. My parachute opens and I can’t help but give out a little victory laugh. Is this life real? Did that really just happen? If it is and if it did, then I am one lucky kid.
After almost every jump in Lauterbrunnen I landed with that over whelming sense of disbelief and gratitude, and it has stuck with me all the way home to Colorado. The friends I met and the adventures I was able to have over there will keep my smile big for years to come, although, I’ll be honest, I am already looking for plane tickets back to that magic little adventure paradise.
Rami Sending It
A couple weeks later with a little more comfort
This piece was originally done as a journal entry for Rome apareal . Check them out at thisiswhereiroam.com for more stories and fresh nomad gear.
Jay Beyer Photo
All the stars aligned this day and DeVore found himself intuitively shredding alongside a freight train of sluff in the promised land of Valdez Alaska. The upper ramp was like a perfect barreling left point break. Once safely at the bottom he humbly remarked that he could now die a happy man, and still to this day the memory of this dream line reminds him that everything from here on is just a bonus.
Tele Skier Nick Devore crushes the World Heli Challenge in Wanaka, New Zealand.