Former halfpipe world champion Kyle Smaine has shifted focus to human-powered adventure
For those unaware, images of Lake Tahoe-based skier Kyle Smaine ski touring and embarking on human-powered shred trips across the world would likely draw a pause. “Huh, what’s the 2018 World Halfpipe Champion doing scaling couloirs in the middle of nowhere?”
Smaine retired from freeski competition in late-2018 and, while you can still find him ripping his local resort, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and tearing up the park, he’s put more and more effort into the adventure side of skiing. Whether that’s ski touring the plentiful terrain in the surrounding Lake Tahoe area, or hitting big spring objectives in the Eastern Sierra, Smaine has put more and more emphasis on backcountry skiing.
“I love just spending long days in huge mountains. I’ve always just looked for ways to challenge my skiing and abilities to feel like I’m able to progress as a skier,” says Smaine. “Skiing halfpipe allowed me to hone in air awareness and be able to [enter] a strong mental space when it counts on contest day. These trips bring in a whole new set of challenges and knowledge to be able to understand how to safely move through the mountains.”
Smaine is a skier in the true sense of the word and has never defined himself purely by competition, whether it be racing in his early days or halfpipe contests later on. Discovering new aspects of the sport is really what keeps his love aflame.
“To discover this entirely new aspect of skiing is amazing,” he says. “That is what I love so much about skiing. It is just sliding down a mountainside with wooden planks on your feet, yet there are so many different disciplines to try and learn that you can always find a new challenge.”
This newfound focus culminated in a trip to Idaho’s Sawtooth Range in April 2019. Over three full days based out of the Williams Peak Hut, Smaine and a group of friends ski toured and climbed the jagged Sawtooth mountains to the tune of over 30 miles and 14,000 vertical feet. Smaine was a last-minute addition to the trip and didn’t commit until nearly the trip start date, but realized that he needed to get as much out of the spring as he could until the snow melted.
“I was out touring in Lake Tahoe earlier in the winter and showing my buddy Nat Houston around some of the rad lines we have at home. Over the course of the day he mentioned this hut trip to the Sawtooths, that some people had bailed and there was room on the trip and he thought I’d really enjoy the trip and the people that were going,” Smaine remembers. “I had been to Sun Valley to ski and I’ve been in the Sawtooths in the summertime to bike and hang out. I knew how stunning that mountain range is and how rad Sun Valley and Stanley are. The closer it came to spring time the more I felt it would be stupid to pass it up. So I just called and asked if the invite was still open and booked my flight. It was part of a final push to have as much fun and adventure as I could before I had to go back to my summer job.”
Smaine loves the mental and physical challenge of these big backcountry trips, but, it’s still all about enjoying the downhill experience. When making gear choices for these types of excursions, he keeps this in mind, preferring skis and boots that excel on the downhill, rather than sacrificing performance to save weight. Smaine is a Fischer athlete, and relied on the Ranger 94 FR, mounted with Marker Kingpins, and Ranger Free 130 boot.
“I typically end up with a slightly beefier set-up than most people have. It’s a personal choice to have 110-percent confidence in the capabilities of my gear so that the only question at the top is how aggressively I want to ski that line in those conditions,” Smaine describes. “I have been really impressed with the capability and confidence of the Fischer Ranger skis and boots. For the trip to Idaho, I chose a Ranger 94 Fr at 185 centimeters with a Kingpin binding. With it being spring, I didn’t need a super-wide ski but wanted something super stable and confident in a variety of conditions. When we got into some steeper lines with firm or variable conditions I loved having a stiffer ski that could really hold a strong edge and not worry about deflecting off some icy patches.”
Smaine came away most impressed with the capabilities of the Ranger Free boots. He relied upon them all season—both inbounds and in the backcountry—but the big days of travel in Idaho really allowed them to shine in his eyes.
“I’ve owned so many pairs of boots over the years that try to blend touring ability with skiing performance. The Ranger Free is the first one I’ve ever been in that doesn’t feel like I have to make any sacrifices,” he says. “It’s crazy light with over 60 degrees of cuff flexion for hiking. Then when you go downhill it rips. It is the only boot I used all season. Whether it was taking runs through the X Games pipe in Aspen, hiking couloirs in Idaho or just charging on deep powder days in Tahoe I always felt like I could trust the boot to perform and provide sun up to sun down comfort.”
Moving forward, Smaine expects to embark on more and more of these kind of ski trips. He believes that being based in the United States actually provides an advantage for the travel-experienced backcountry skier.
“I absolutely think I’ll be doing at least one trip like this every season or at least a few objectives close to home that are similar to this trip to the Sawtooths,” Smaine describes. “One of the unique things about being in the U.S. is how many undeveloped regions still exist and mountain ranges that rarely see human traffic. So getting to explore these places with friends is always a new adventure and learning experience.”
Smaine looks back on a single moment on the second day of the trip, with gear strewn about the hut and outside deck in an attempt to dry, where he watched the sun fall behind the mountains and reflected on that day and truly felt the embrace that skiing rewards its participants.
“ Disconnected from the outside world and engaged with new friends, it was important to share those experiences and be able to connect through passion,” he says. “That is what skiing is really about. Every type of skiing. It is about the excitement, challenges and the adventure of sliding down a slope with wooden sticks on our feet. It is something so simple and joyous yet each one of us has built our lives around being able to continue doing this silly little sport we call skiing.”