Every crew has one.
Whether attempting a black diamond for the first time or speed-checking the road gap, there’s always the first to drop, send or otherwise attempt the once-unattainable. And while there are many names for this O’brazen One, a single term truly resonates in the halls of ski lore: the guinea pig.
Growing up, that was my friend Sam. Sure, TJ stood up to the beastly Mount Snow rainbow rail and Chris sent (and landed) the first backflip, but there’s little doubt that Sam was the guy when it came to sketchy inruns and unproven landings.
Crashing was a charge he took in stride. I mean, the dude was a homing missile for personal destruction; the one who cleans a 30-foot urban rail and then still finds a way to veer out of his way to hit a fire hydrant in the landing. One weekend at Sunday River, he exploded both of his bindings—on two different pairs of skis. He taught me the word “hematoma.”
But Sam was more than just a human crash dummy—he was a revolutionary. Speed-checking the razor-thin line between progression and chaos, he inspired our teenage crew to action. Where some may have seen a wonky step-up, Sam saw potential. Completely overlaunching the transition, he showed us what was possible in the most impossible of situations, and we built upon his lead. Okay, a little less speed and a little more pop. We can do this. And, because of Sam, we did.
Guinea-pigging is a practice as old as humankind. How do you think we figured out that fire can cook? Yeah, somebody went and got singed. A few finger blisters later, we have filet mignon.
Sam was our modern explorer. Evolution has an invisible barrier, one rooted in fear of the unknown. His antics—whether purposeful or impulsive—broke that wall with a sledgehammer, and opened a whole new world of opportunity. Thanks to him, we all became better skiers, attempting lines and maneuvers we would have never dreamt of pulling off on our own. Our collective love for the sport blossomed, something that stayed with us long after we left our New England hometown in the rearview.
After college it was me who moved West, the first to chase that love toward bigger mountains and the ski culture we’d idolized since we watched Sam’s copy of Session 1242 that first time. Suddenly I was the guinea pig, edging out over a much more consequential line. Over the last decade, I’ve worked my way into that ski world, taking bigger and bigger risks and crashing a whole lot.
Sam stayed back East, heading to Chicago for a grown-up job in a buttoned-up world. But last winter he followed suit, ditching his comfortable Midwest setup for Colorado and a life built around the mountains.
In December, we met on a chairlift in Aspen. He’d already skied the lift line twice and was overly excited about the two inches of fresh camouflaging the previous day’s refreeze. As we approached the top of the chair, I spotted a mini cliff band off of a blind rollover. The tranny was small, but if you hit it just right, the runout looked smooth. It seemed flowy and fun, but jeez, I’d need someone to check that landing first. On closer inspection, I noticed a faint track out from what actually appeared to be a heinously frozen impact zone. Looking back across the chair, I caught Sam smiling.
This article first appeared in The Ski Journal Issue 14.2