After days and weeks of stormy weather forcing us to ski in the forest, suddenly a glimpse of hope, a bright tear in the thick layer of cloud… We took our sleeping bags, did a half-hour shopping trip and managed to catch the last lift up Rosetta. That night, we slept in the hallway of the gondola to catch the first rays of sunlight in the morning.
Often, when we see a beautiful action photo, whether a powder turn or a big drop, we never know what happened before and after that single moment… I also love skiing for everything else that it involves, enriching our lives with a million special moments.
Photos Luca Loro di Mota
Bird lives in Leavenworth, 38 miles from Stevens Pass in Washington state. Untamed mountain, few locals, and a ski area just a hitchhike away are what draws him to this part of the American north-west. He spends autumn and the early winter there, before taking off for Chamonix, Okaido and Scandinavia. Bird, aka Michael Anthony Shaffer, a member of the squadron from the beginning, is one of a kind, with who we’ve created all kinds of trouble between zero and 4000m altitude. A big hearted entertainer, high mountain skier and speed rider, this charming individual has a weakness for sports which get his pulse going. Full speed and full wingspan my friend.
How did you discover skiing and what is your first memory of sliding on two pieces of wood ?
I discovered skiing because I knew that it was possible to come closer to flying with these sliding things on my feet. I used to tie a cape around my neck and try and go fast enough to have the cape fly behind me and then I was my own super hero. The first time I skied at our ski hill I went up on an old poma lift. The weird cool guy working at the loup loup ski bowl would load so much tension on the pulley that when he pulled the release for the t-bar to attach to the cable a little guy like me would launch 5 meters up the hill and then have to climb the rest of the way up. If I fell off the poma, which happened often, I’d hang on for dear life ending up like a giant snowball, or if I could not hold on I would be lost in the trees for the next hour. It was worth all the work because now I’d could go so fast, I flew.
You have been a ski bum for many years, living this particular way of life in the skiing world, what do you see when you look back?
When I look back I can’t remember shit.. No man the reality was it was actually the first place I felt accepted for who I really was. The mountains in the beginning were my escape from the dictates of society. Then I was able to see how far I could go and what I could do and I slowly found out who I was. There I found peace and an energy that elevated my senses.
It was there that I felt connected to sell nature, all creation. Alone in the mountains, I could talk to myself; my spirit was filled with the mountain spirit, god’s spirit or all goodness in the whole universe. If I was able to ask, I was given the answer, if I wanted to change and learn, I could envision it there. Basic human needs became clear: the need to stay warm and not freeze, the need to eat correctly so I had strength, the limits my own body imposed as I sought to go higher, harder and deeper. The lesson of learning to trust others and rely on them, helped me to grow strong as I Knew that I must be at my best if others were to rely on me.
I learned about real hunger, a lesson not available in the valley. I lived off potatoes and dreamed of the BBQ season to come with Stian, Molde, Milash and Nick while we were living in Montroc and skiing Grand Montets. We took care of each other, lifted each other up; each day was a celebration of each other, not a competition to better the other. We all lived to ski and we could share our journey with all we met, an easy connectedness because of skiing. I realized this was my family, one I’d chosen and one who had chosen me. The rules of this family were much like my family of origins rules. Never put your dish in the sink for someone else to do, take out the trash, walk the dog, be thankful for the roof over your head and make sure you reciprocate when friends stay with you. Troy Jungen and Ptor Sprecnicks helped me form my ski bum habits as I discovered the meaning behind this amazing age-old way of life.
And what do you see when you look ahead?
Actually it feels good to finally be able to look ahead. It took almost until now to see a future in anything. I had lost it when I went to university, and studied the natural environment and the human impact on the earth. I took lsd and realized that we were not going to save the earth but needed to figure out how to save ourselves. We over use and we want more of everything, especially in America. What is good about personal freedom is smothering what we love, our planet? I love the natural world, I know who I am in nature and want to protect IT. I have a petroleum eating car, a house wired with electricity, and wear fleece made from plastic. The young, that is where we look. If we can encourage the young people to ski and love the mountains and understand all in finite we may have our planet a bit longer.
You say you like to share the energy from the mountain with people, can you explain this transfer.
YES, one of my favorite. I have been very fortunate to fall in love with the energy of the mountains, to be addicted to that energy. I have a gift to give to others and I love to share this incredible energy with others I meet. This energy cannot be contained; it is the fuel that makes all possible, a wild and raw energy. It is the one time to be completely selfish, the time is just for you and then go back and share that sweet energy with others. It is like being plugged in and once the energy is stored you live off that battery and tell all you meet. People living in the valley ask what makes you so happy and then I get to share the wonderful secret of the mountains. I LOVE IT. Anything I can share with others that inspires them to be themselves, let go, dream and go all the way makes me I feel like I have done a good job.
You like steep skiing, how would you describe the joy and balance it brings you.
It usually stops my add brain from bouncing all over the place and I can focus on what is right in front of me. If I do not put my all into the next turn it could mean my life. Once I move past thought into a place that is apotheosis, one with the creator, it is a dream state, and I trust it completely. I am on big cliffs with imminent exposure and I can let go and flow but still know that I have to be apart of this one if I want the life game to keep on going.
Does life taste better when it’s on the edge?
For a long time I didn’t know where the edge was but the mountains have been lenient with me and I am fortunate to have found a balance without going to far and ending it all. I have lost so many greats, we all have. Sometimes I wonder if it is flipped around: they are found and we are lost. I do like to know where the edge is now and it is fun to go there and keep the balance going, The Big Scale.
Can you recall a particular adventure in the mountains?
When you get to be my age there are some really special ones, fuck, hmmm lets see.. Maybe it was when I was with Gus
Hurst, Marco Seffredi and Phillipe Forte up Aguille. It was my second time. Fresh from university,1997, with a full moon in April. We hid in the back, brewed tea and smoked trophies. I was wondering what all the black holes were. It was amazing, walking down the James Bond trail back to Cham, having the moon over head, damn, this was it and it is still the same.
Since a few years, you also use the wing, what does flying brings you?
When I fly, everything is real. I have to completely believe in my abilities to stay aloft. Once I take off it is up to me alone to fly and only I can land it. I guess it is confidence, a belief in myself. It is something I do not always have when I am walking around.
Is it a totally different sport or do you relate it to skiing
I think it is an extension. It has helped my skiing my life in so many ways. I can ski faster in special places because the exposure doesn’t carry the same power. It is interesting because with the wing I always have to really be looking all the way to the bottom. I am sure there is a great philosophical point about life with that last sentence.
You have been sharing the message with kids, how important is your connection with the new generation of skiers?
I love the young skiers; I search them out wherever I go. I remember studying Maslow’s Theory of need in school and it makes sense. To be fully actualized, a person reaches a place where there is a need to pass along to a younger generation that which is important. I remember guys doing this for me and it is natural to want to share this gift. If we don’t share with the kids, how does it get passed on? My name is Bird. Bird signifies a simple life, not needing much, free to follow my passion. Kids get that. They have a crazy understanding and ability to know; they are not yet cluttered. If I can be a positive life coach for following dreams then I have made it. There is nothing more. Most guys feel this sense of accomplishment having their own children, but I have other people’s kids and I see it as an honor to pass down what matters in life. I live to be an example and know that this is an important calling in my life. If I can inspire a kid to formulate creative ideas or make a mistake and be real and talk about it so they see what not to do, it is all significant. Birds go down if they go the wrong way and fly too long against the wind…
You made a short film recently with a Finnish, and you also film more and more, what is your purpose ?
It helps me exercise creativity. There are so many ways to inspire and I like giving credit to the companies that are good and sponsor me. Film is a way to do that. In film I can bring in my friends while I create something to share with others. I call it a mission when I am putting a film together. It focuses me and helps to put a train of thought in to a tangible form that others can understand. Words can only do so much. When my thoughts can be put to film, that really excites me now. It is so much fun to share my story this way.
Washington is your home, how would you describe the mentality of the people / skiers there ?
In the mountains where I live in Washington people are the same as any mountain people. Keep life simple. A deep and long history in the alpine has kept me a kid still. The mountains help keep that child like imagination running. It has been easy to build a solid base with lots of support for Birdwhere. It feels safe up high but in eastern WA there is always the fucking red necks to watch out for. Now that weed is legal and gay marriage has won out the lizards are dying off with nothing to base their hate on. Oh there is still Obama. The lizards hate having a black man in their White House. There is a new generation of open-minded creative kids evolving to play the mountain life game, so hope goes on. The Cascade Mountains offer a challenge even to the most proficient skier. There are still wild places that have never seen a ski track. Two years ago there was a big avalanche that took the life of three legends and our small community has really pulled together. We all ski at Steven’s Pass where I am an ambassador (birdbassador).You hear kwaas from across the mountain in my home nest The support for Birdwhere keeps me going so I can dedicate my life to skiing. Sometimes I feel like I am on TV, just being myself. When in my home nest I have a very unique opportunity to share my lifestyle.
Are they much different than Chamoniards, your second base camp ?
Yes quite different. The mountain culture is so old and families for generations have lived in the mountains of Cham. It is like the difference between going into Notre Dame and comparing that to a strip mall church. I am filled with wonder and awe to be accepted by my Chamoniard family. I can fly my freak flag high; the Cham French brothers honor my choosing to go all the way, no explanation needed. That does not mean that I won’t be told I am on the edge. I would definitely be told that I could die, but if I made that choice, I would be told to go ahead and, “Bon Chance”! I do believe that everyone should have the choice to live or die, or to live like this day may be your very last. In Cham there is a powerful commitment to life and a more natural acceptance of death. I do not feel this in Washington.
And from the Nordic people, also one of your base ?
The Norwegians helped me not to take things so seriously and just be my kid self, Muppets on skis. The norgie tribe, is my family again; there is nothing they won’t do to help me. My Viking friends would sail to the end of the earth for adventure; to keep writing the jOURney. Cool thing for me in Washington is that during the depression many Norwegians moved here because it reminded them of their home, all the water and mountains. They brought skiing to my base Leavenworth in 1932 in the form of ski jumping. One of my best friends is Kjell Bakke, whose father started ski jumping here in 1932. At the little ski hill in Leavenworth, kids are still jumping off the same wooden jump, but only if Kjell wants to open the rope tow up to it. He makes sure the kids do everything right for safety. He is a great guy, still giving back.
Cham, Norge, and WA: it’s the Birdmuda triangle giving me my balance, my joy for ski and life!
What does skiing mean to you ?
Skiing is the foundation for who I am. It is a strong foundation on which I have built my life. It has shaped me, helping me to know what is important. I have learned to rely on my friends’ strength and that has allowed me to become strong. It is my friends who have saved my life. I am not a drug junkie but a ski junkie. How right to be searching for a greater high, a way to elevate my senses, up on the mountain and not down in the street. I could have ended up as a heroin junkie, lying in the gutter with a toothless girlfriend. I do owe my life to skiing, the mountain, and my friends all over the world.
And which pair do you take with you on these adventures?
Bird : The corvus 175 with low tech bindings. I can go anywhere with them: from steeps to a soft layer of powder, and into the magic of the trees with their pillows of love.
You have known the Black Crows team founders for a long time even before its conception. How did you connect with the brand and what is your feeling towards the BC concept, family and friends?
I believe it was late night after another special day of skiing in Cham. I was there at Camille place along with Bruno and some other crazy friends. We were high on possibilities, dancing and dreaming, the creativity between us flowing like the wine. The Brothers told me about the concept of making a ski brand and calling it Black Crows, and being the “bird” it was destiny i be apart of it. Now after many incredible years skiing together, i am thankful to be apart of a team that has kept the soul of skiing in mind, has the technical ability to build some of the best and definitely the most beautiful skis in the world, and who has not forgotten that skiing and the community surrounding the mountains is what makes our lives more complete.
The idea was to bring together a group of passionate off piste skiers for a weekend, a mix of pro skiers and a team of Vieux Campeur mountain equipment salesmen, to share their technical know-how and tips and put together educational workshops on mountain safety.
You couldn’t ask for more than a uber-motivated team of Vieux Campeur salesmen and the two black crows old hands, Julien Regnier and Bruno Compagnet. This jolly crew was hosted by La Plagne, Julien’s home-resort and there were favorable weather conditions at the start of this difficult season and the weekend was intense and interesting.
“The different workshops, ARVA searches and snowpack training were really educational and we also got to enjoy a few good runs in the Plagnard forest. It’s always good fun to put in a few turns with Bruno and other enthusiastic people and to get the chance at the same time to share opinions on skiing and the mountains. Here’s a short video and a few photos from our 2 days together” says Julien Regnier.
Photos : Thomas Allemoz