THE EXTREME SKI PIONEER: AN INTERVIEW WITH SCOT SCHMIDT
While anyone who holds the job title of “professional skier” is bound to be a tremendous athlete, there are certain individuals who rise above the rest, not only due to their immense talent, but also their contributions to the sport. Scot Schmidt is just such an individual, whose influence on modern freeskiing knows no parallel. Scot has been sponsored by The North Face since 1983, when he burst onto the scene to redefine what skiing could be. Since then, he’s been charging big lines and huge drops, and helped The North Face become the industry leader in technical ski gear. We caught up with him to learn how it all came to be.
How did you come to be a skier in the first place?
I grew up in Montana, and skiing was our family sport. I started racing as a junior racer and just fell in love. Skiing was going to be it for me, I knew at a very young age that I was going to stick with it. I wanted to become an Olympic racer, so when I was 19 I moved to Squaw Valley to chase my racing dream. I had won a bunch of races in Montana in 1979, so my coaches were encouraging me to go west and get into a bigger program. In hindsight, Squaw Valley was a good choice, because there was quite a scene going on there. I ended up falling out of racing after about three years because of the cost: Chasing FIS races and US ski team camps cost thousands of dollars that I didn't have working as a ski tech. But I started hanging out with all these longhaired freeskiers like Steve McKinney. They were just freaks: Crazy guys skiing on 220s with downhill poles in the early Eighties. Steve held the world speed skiing record for a number of years and he influenced a lot of freeskiers in Squaw Valley. So those guys would go up on their 220s and jump the cliffs while I was hanging out with the race team kids. But I was like, "These race guys are kinda stiff, I wanna go hang out with the guys who are having fun," so I started hanging out with them, jumping cliffs and going fast. I fell out of racing and next thing you know I'm in Powder Magazine and it just snowballed into this media frenzy.
For awhile I was just having fun with it, getting the occasional picture taken here and there. Then a Warren Miller cameraman named Gary Nate showed up in town. He was told by the marketing department to go out and shoot the ski school guys, but he said, "No way, I want to shoot the guys who are leaving the tracks off the cliffs, who are those guys?" So my phone rang that night and it was Gary asking to shoot me for the film. And that was the beginning of my Warren Miller career. Back then, if you left a track in the chimney chute, it stayed there. Not many people were doing it.
In hindsight it was good, because I dropped racing and started travelling the world with film crews and I was able to prolong my career. With racing there's kind of a short window of opportunity.
How did The North Face enter the picture?
That actually started before the Warren Miller thing. In the early Eighties there was this media group from San Francisco that came out to do a show. And Tom Lane, who was the skiwear director at the time, heard through a friend of mine that I was going to do this and said, "Let's get him in TNF gear," and that was the beginning of the relationship. And now that relationship has gone over 33 years continuously, which I think is a ski industry record.
In the mid to late Eighties, The North Face had some nice ski wear, with nice materials and stuff, but I felt the utility and design of it was kind of lacking. It was great product, but what I was doing was more specific, it was ski mountaineering. So I approached The North Face and asked to do something for ski mountaineering. It kind of fell on deaf ears for a few years but Lee Turlington happened to be an intern at that time and became skiwear director a few years later. He called me up in 1990 and said, "I want to do it," and that was the beginning of Steep Tech.
How has skiing changed for you over the years? Does your motivation come from a different place, or is it still the same childlike excitement?
Yeah, it's the fun and the thrill of it all that keeps me going. There are a lot of motions you go through and not every day is good. But when those days are good, it all pays off. You never know unless you go. I still get the same rush from skiing as when I was a kid.
But my career has also evolved. I'm getting back into it for myself. I ski more than I ever have before in my life, over a hundred days a winter, at a good pace with good people in great conditions, and I'm not standing around waiting for crews. No regrets, but doing two or three runs a day when you're working with a film crew is kinda tough. You gotta stand around on a ridge for an hour and then have the run of your life.