Faith in Gravity
Photography Greg Epstein
An avalanche is chasing Reggie Crist down a steep headwall. Trying desperately to escape, Reggie is swallowed by the swelling white wave of snow. “Oh, my God, he’s done!” gasps his brother, Zach.
Reggie and Zach are filming in Alaska—big mountain descents, steep and unpredictable—and Zach is sitting in the helicopter beside the cameraman, watching in horror as his brother disappears. The seconds tick by as the camera tracks the avalanche. Miraculously, Reggie slowly emerges, rising to the surface like a seal in the ocean coming up for air, and rides his skis aggressively, linking turn after turn, sending rooster tails of fresh Alaskan powder skyward. It is Reggie’s “ultimate descent.”
“All of a sudden I just got slammed,” he said later. “The lights went out and I couldn’t see a thing. I just felt my skis slipping sideways down the mountain.”
The Crist brothers are skiing champions. Both were members of the U.S. Ski Team and have stood on the podium to receive medals many times. Reggie won the U.S. Open twice and was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1992. Zach won the North American Championship in 1996 and was a member of the World Cup team from 1992 to 1998. Both are X Games champs, winning back-to-back titles—first one brother, then the other, in 2001 and 2002. They dominate the X Games’ skier-cross event, a rough-and-tumble competition that has more resemblance to the running of the bulls in Pamplona than a traditional ski race. Instead of racing against the clock, the skiers start en masse in a pack of six and compete head-to-head. “Limited contact” is allowed as they plunge toward the finish line, soaring over jumps, banking tight turns, and jostling roughly for position—at forty miles per hour!
The brothers still race, but their main interest now lies in filmmaking. As partners in Equator Productions, they recently produced Ultimate Descents, a film documenting their journey to ski the big peaks and steep slopes of Alaska. Unlike many of the ski films being produced today, theirs is not simply a series of fantastic clips patched together. “There’s a little too much ‘ski porn’ out there,” Reggie says. “Watching most ski films is like watching a music video with a skiing theme. We’re trying to break the mold and create a story from beginning to end.”
For Reggie and Zach, an important part of that story leads directly back to their roots—a slice of skiing history right here in Sun Valley. In their new film, they trace the history of skiing in America back to Dick Durrance—four-time collegiate champion, U.S. Olympic team member, three-time winner of the Harriman Cup, and the local Sun Valley-resident skiing legend in a town filled with many legends.
“There’s a mountain up north named after him,” Reggie says, “and his name comes up time and time again when you talk about skiing history in Sun Valley. You start to figure out that he’s the guy who was up there chopping down trees and cutting runs with his bare hands on the Warm Springs side of the mountain. He had a direct influence on us, as well as on skiing in general—not only in Sun Valley, but in all of America. Durrance was the first American to beat the Europeans. He let the world know that Americans can be good skiers, too.”
Like many skiers raised in Sun Valley, Reggie and Zach strapped on a pair of skis not long after learning how to walk and soon began formal training, which continued through high school and beyond. The brothers acknowledge that their accomplishments are a direct result of growing up as members of the Sun Valley ski team. “I would never be the skier that I am right now without the coaches,” Zach says. “Those guys taught me discipline. They taught me how to ski. They taught me how to have fun skiing. They taught me about life.” Their surroundings also helped produce these champions. “I think our environment is unique,” Zach says. “Where else do you have lift-service terrain that lets you go out on any afternoon and, in two hours, ski more than the average guy skis in a week? It’s inevitable that really strong skiers would come out of this place.”
“We’re in a town where everybody is pushing their limits, whether it’s mountain biking, kayaking, skiing, or something else,” Reggie says. “Growing up in that environment is like having fifty big brothers and fifty big sisters, with everybody pushing each other. It’s that kind of atmosphere and energy that drives us to be at the front of what we do. We are a product of our environment. And it’s not just about who’s the best—it’s also about going out there and having fun with your buddies.”
Zach and Reggie emphasize the importance of their parents’ encouragement, too. “Our parents have definitely played a huge role, by allowing us to follow our interests,” says Reggie. “Now we’re at a point where we can make a living doing what we enjoy.”
Recognition and financial rewards are simply by- products for these two on their chosen path. “A big difference between the way we were brought up and the way some other kids may have been brought up,” Zach says, “is that we were always encouraged to follow our passion and do what we really wanted to do, rather than whatever everyone told us to do. I don’t think money was ever a goal for us. And,” he laughs, “it shows!” After a momentary pause, he continues, “It’s more about trying to go out and enjoy every day.”
Not long ago Zach and Reggie were just little tykes bombing down the slopes of Baldy. They evolved into powerful ski racers and have now made a successful transition into filmmaking, turning their enthusiasm for skiing into a career. Reggie says, “I figure if you follow your passion long enough you actually create your own niche.” In Ultimate Descents it is clear that they continue to be passionate about skiing. They take on slopes unimaginable for most skiers, often claiming the first descent of a run. They have absolute faith in their ability to ski radical, precipitous terrain.
Most of us spend our lives fighting gravity; the Crists embrace it. They hunt it down and jump into its arms, knowing that if they befriend this powerful force it will take them on a wild, breathtaking ride. And while they are the supreme fun hogs, there is also a very serious side to their pursuits: The slopes they ski are unforgiving. One mistake—catch one edge—and you may be on the last ride of your life as fate intervenes and drags you tumbling to the bottom of the face.