You don’t know Schmidt
The father of extreme skiing, Scot Schmidt, is at home in Montana
By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor
In a training run at the 1979 Northern Division Championships downhill race at Bridger Bowl, Scot Schmidt crashed high on the course, flew into the fences, and was knocked unconscious. Covered in bruises, he wasn't sure if he’d compete the next day.
But he rallied, and then he won.
Race officials thought something was wrong with the timing—there was no way this skinny 18-year-old had beat all the NCAA racers. But the next day Schmidt did it again. And the following day, he won the Giant Slalom in his class.
It was the winter before Schmidt’s high school graduation, and he’d already won the Hancock Cup downhill at Red Lodge, as well as a handful of other races in the Northern Division that season. Every weekend during high school, he traveled from Montana City, his hometown south of Helena, to train and race with the Bridger Bowl Ski Team near Bozeman.
After the last race, Schmidt was helping clean up the course, hauling gates off the hill, and his coach pulled him aside.
“You’ve got a shot at this. You’ve got something here,” the coach told Schmidt. “If I were you, I’d look into a bigger and better program.”
That’s when Scot Schmidt decided to be a skier. For life.
Skiing was a family sport for the Schimdts. They started at Belmont, the small hill north of Helena now called Great Divide. Scot remembers trying to ride the rope tow with his father, and sometimes falling off in the rutted track. The area was scattered with old mine tailings, which the four kids used as jumps. “Mine Dumps” was one of Scot’s favorite runs.
They loved it, and took a week’s vacation every year to Big Sky, Bridger Bowl and other spots around the state.
In high school, Schmidt worked summers at a local ski shop called Sports Montana. The shop also sold skateboards. He picked up skateboarding, which taught him to pump curves and use terrain to accelerate.
“I used that in the Northern Division Championships,” he said. “It had a lot to do with my success racing.”
At 18, following his coach’s advice, Schmidt moved to Squaw Valley, Calif. and joined the ski team. He raced well, but quit the team after three years because he couldn’t afford it.
That same year, in 1983, filmmaker Gary Nate was in Squaw filming for Warren Miller. Locals told a skeptical Nate about Schmidt, so the two went out to the K-22, a notoriously craggy part of the ski area. Schmidt, sporting 220 cm downhill skis, peered over a cliff as Nate’s camera rolled.
“It was sheer rock with a few patches of snow,” Nate recalled. “It looked impossible.” He thought Schmidt would hit the couloir to the side.
Instead, Schmidt linked up the snow patches, arced into the avalanche debris beneath the face, and never even bobbled.
Later that week, Nate filmed Schmidt jumping 100-footers higher on the mountain. Sparks flew as he launched big, his edges nicking rocks.
Nate couldn't believe his eyes. He’d seen the best in the world, but never an equal to Scot Schmidt.
Schmidt, who’d never even seen a Warren Miller film, didn’t think much of it. “I was just doing what I did every day, free skiing Squaw,” he said.
That footage ended up in Warren Miller’s “Ski Time” and launched Schmidt’s film career, which spanned the next two decades and included Hollywood productions like “True Lies” and “Aspen Extreme,” and over 40 ski films by masters like Miller and Greg Stump.
A 1989 appearance on NBC’s “Today Show” alongside wild-man skier Glen Plake marked what Stump calls “the launch of extreme in America... From that moment on, it was a word in pop culture.”
Watch the mid-‘90s ski films “Blizzard of Aahhh’s” (1988) or “P-tex, Lies and Duct Tape” (1994), and Schmidt’s skiing is elegant and efficient, punctuated with explosive power bursts.
This career took Schmidt from the Rockies to the Alps, across Europe and Alaska, to New Zealand and Siberia. It earned him sponsorships from K2, Salomon, Stockli, and The North Face, where in the early 1983, he became the first-ever endorsed free skiing athlete.
In his 28 years with The North Face, Schmidt has been an expedition athlete, a poster boy, and is now a mentor for younger skiers. He was instrumental in developing the brand Steep Tech, and some at TNF even credit him with inventing the color yellow.
Schmidt’s professional ski career also brought him back to Montana, where he skied for the camera at Big Sky and in the backcountry north of Bridger Bowl.
At Big Sky, he starred in Warren Miller’s 1992 “The Scot Schmidt Story.” Schmidt said the days were beautiful but cold. It was 20-below zero, and he had to keep his face covered. Regardless, he says, it was an easy spot to work and conditions were just right. The pre-tram footage is memorable: Schmidt launches into chutes weightless, hip checking to dump speed, driving hard downhill with his knees—absolutely ripping.
He returned many times that decade, skiing in Miller and Stump shoots in the Northern Bridgers. There, longtime local Lonnie Ball worked as the guide and safety coordinator, and admired Schmidt’s skiing:
“Scot was a very good planner of his descents. It was fun to watch how he studied a slope, and if it was technical, how he skied it.”
On one of these trips, Ball says, Schmidt showed what kind of person he was:
Their helicopter was hovering near a north-facing couloir called The Great One, and the crew was about to unload. Ball knew the slope was safe, so figured he’d stay in the chopper out of the way of the filming.
Schmidt looked right at Ball. “If you don't ski it, I’m not going to,” he said.
“I was there to guide and point the way, but he wanted me to be part of the whole thing,” Ball said. “To Scot, it wasn’t just making a movie. It was more, ‘we’re friends, and we’re out here together.’”
Schmidt gets along with everybody, according to Stump. “Scot is humble and sweet... He’s not affected at all by his fame. He’s still Scot Schmidt, a normal Montana guy.”
The living ski legend now splits his time between Santa Cruz, Califoria, and Big Sky. This summer, Schmidt spent his 50th birthday in Montana, and he came back when the lifts start turning in mid-December.
It’s Schmidt’s ninth season working at the Yellowstone Club, and his third year living there all winter. In the past, he chased bookings all over the Rockies, and he’s now glad to be in one place all winter.
“I’ve always loved Montana, and I’m glad to have an opportunity to ski full time here,” he said about working at the club. For this upcoming winter, he’s anticipating skiing 120-plus days. His work includes guiding guests, members and prospects, and “sniffing out the soft stuff.”
“I had no idea what the [Yellowstone] Club was about before my first visits,” he said. He found interesting and diverse people and great skiing—a combination that keeps him coming back.
Schmidt skis out the pearly gates and heads over to the big stuff next door at Big Sky and Moonlight whenever conditions allow.
“To be able to ride the tram and ski down into Moonlight Basin… It’s Euro-style descents up there. You’re skiing big couloirs and faces; there’s a pretty good pucker factor.”
Being in Montana, Schmidt sees his family more, especially his mother and older brother who still live and ski near Helena. He’s also able to get his three kids (two girls ages 20 and 17, and an 11-year-old son), out several times a season for some turns.
Full circle for a man who says he learned how to live through skiing.
“Really, it’s been my life. I made a conscious choice at a young age that’s what I wanted to do, and I’m fortunate to still be doing it and loving it.”
This story was first published in the winter 11/12 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.