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Making tracks with Stump & Company

Its either my greatest dream or worst nightmare — trying to follow Glen Plake, Scot Schmidt and Mike Hattrup down Blackcomb Mountain, B.C. Here to star in Greg Stumps new ski movie, License to Thrill, theyve been imprisoned by fog and storms for 13 straight days. But this morning condo fever finally drove them all out to let off steam, and now theyre going wild — just funhoggin in the fog.

Avalanche danger has closed the mountains extreme terrain, so this morning Stumps bad boys are low-level bombing on intermediate runs. Down they come, vaulting off bumps, goofing with duck turns and royals, playing chicken with tree trunks.

Their styles are as distinctive as their outfits. Plake, in a lightning-yellow suit, skis like a warrior, his turns saber slashes at the snow. Schmidt, the ice man, is aloof from the other skiers and even from the snow itself, a part of him held back even here in his ultimate element. Handsome Mike Hattrup, in a fluorescent chartreuse suit, skis powerfully, solid as a locomotive. Hes unflappably cheerful, seeming somehow the team leader: a bit older, more comfortable with life and liftlines.

Tagging along, Im struck by their speed and, equally, by their ability to swoop unperturbed through Blackcombs notorious fog. Frequently its so thick that I literally cannot see the skis at the end of my legs, but Stumps bunch sail through the airborne muck, magically guided by some internal radar, protected by snake-strike reflexes. They are as much at home here as hawks in air currents — and as beautiful to watch.

Producer/director Greg Stump isnt decompressing with them. For him, being storm-bound has more serious implications than condo fever — this kind of delay can bust budgets. And bad weather kept Stump from getting critical footage at Chamonix, France, and Squaw Valley, Calif., earlier this season, so he needs this Blackcomb shoot in the worst way. Without it, License To Thrill will end up more like Permit to Bore.

And yet this morning, while others pace the condo like caged cougars, Stump is cool as a Cheshire cat, tossing off one-liners, fielding phone calls from London and New York, frying up Cajun bacon to the slam-dance rhythms of Nasty Rox, Inc. A small, muscular man, hes a glider, one of those select few who seem to not quite touch the ground, nor to feel the weight of problems — like this two-week whiteout — that might crush lesser mortals.

Hes also a natural entertainer and team leader. When world-class talent convenes for a location shoot like this, the potential for psychic fireworks is immense. But Stump keeps everybody loose with low-key leadership and his quirky Robin Williams-like humor.

Stumps directorial skills are a natural outgrowth of his background. Son of a drama history professor, he was U.S. National Junior Freestyle Champion at 17, and co-star of Dick Barrymores Vagabond Skiers when he was 18. Over the last decade he has made a series of self-described “low-budget dirt bag” ski films which attracted cult followings but not much money. His work finally came up from underground with last years Blizzard of Aahhhs, the eye- and ear-popping mélange of bad-ass music and rad skiing that had much of the ski world talking.

Skiers Schmidt, Plake and Hattrup contributed the extreme work to the high-octane sound of bands like Nasty Rox, Inc. and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Perhaps most important, though, was Stumps unfettered creativity, which would have earned laurels in any filmmaking genre: mounting helmet cameras for point-of-view shots, interviewing his stars off-snow in train compartments and hotel rooms, tossing in delightful outtakes, shooting candid chats with colorful locals like Tellurides Rasta Stevie and Snowbirds Dick Bass. In his ability to make creative risks work, Stump is much like Woody Allen, who happens to be one of his heroes.

Blizzard brought almost overnight fame to Stump & Co. Schmidt and Plake, in fact, were treated to that ultimate certification of American celebrity, a spot on the Today show, during which blasé Bryant Gumbel completely failed to hide his astonishment at Glen Plakes hair and Scot Schmidts skiing.

Speaking of Plake… This morning, he is almost a week overdue from Chamonix, where hed spent the winter. No one has heard from him, and his absence is beginning to be almost as unnerving as the whiteout. But right after breakfast, the front desk calls Stumps suite.

“Ah, theres a man down here asking for you,” the manager says.

“Yes?” Stump says.

“A very unusual man…” the manager whispers.

“Plakes here!” Stump announces gleefully.

Im not sure why, but Ive been expecting a real mean punker, the type who might knife you in an alley and laugh while you bleed to death. But Plake, while no shrinking violet, is more Dennis the Menace than Sid Vicious. Though he makes an outrageous entrance in combat boots, a red/yellow/green shirt, fatigue pants and a flame beret, he eventually surprises me with his easy warmth. He talks affectionately, for instance, about his father: “My dads a pretty cool guy,” the 28-year-old Plake says. “Hes the fire chief in South Lake Tahoe. We had a real good talk last night.”

The self-styled bad boy next reminisces reverently about his ski hero Patrick Vallengant, recently killed in a climbing accident. “Im gonna dedicate every turn for the rest of my life to that guy,” Plake vows, genuinely moved by the great skiers death.

The morning wears on. People drift in and out of the suite. The fog gets thicker. We watch raw footage of bungee-jumping on the VCR. Plake kills a Molson six-pack and smokes Gitanes. And always there is music, a steady stream of Nasty Rox, Led Zeppelin, ACT, Marilyn Monroe (a Plake favorite), AC/DC, Doors. I mention the omnipresent music to Stump, which starts him talking about his filmmaking.

“For me, the music is critical,” Stump says. “I look at film like a visual VU meter, matching the intensity of the action to the intensity of the music. The sound is just as important as the action. Blizzard of Aahhhs is a visual record album.” To illustrate, Stump provides a frame-by-frame tour of one of his most remarkable sequences, the “Squaw shootout” between Schmidt, Plake and a couple of Warren Miller regulars.

While most filmmakers put music to action, Stump works the other way. “I had this piece of music, ‘Escape From New York by Nasty Rox, Inc., sitting around my studio for a long time,” Stump says. “When I saw this footage, I knew I finally had some skiing to go with it. Its mean music. For mean skiing.”

Stumps favorite films? “All of Woody Allen, Brazil and, especially, My Life As A Dog.” The latter, in fact, is Stumps grand champion. “If I could make a movie like that, Id be happy forever,” he says.

Would he, then, like to make other kinds of films? “Sure, I want to make real movies,” he admits. “But I have to ride this out first.”

Blackcombs fog discourages even the superskiers by mid-afternoon, when they retreat to the mid-mountain Rendezvous restaurant for late lunch. Scot Schmidt sits off by himself, digging into a huge salad. This fondness for greenery only reinforces his quintessential California (by way of Montana) image. Hes naturally blond and blue-eyed, blessed with perfect white teeth and a muscular, no-fat body. But today Schmidt looks tired and pale, with dark circles under his eyes. I ask if such are the perils of stardom.

“That and driving up here from Bozeman, Montana, in a cranky van with a sick wife,” he says. Before I can ask another question, Schmidt says, “All the articles about me have said exactly the same things. Could you maybe say something different?”

Such as? Schmidt has his agenda ready. Hes not shy, as some writers have assumed. He does speak softly, but hell look you straight in the eye, radiating forceful energy. Most annoying, though, is “the stuff about me being crazy, suicidal — that kind of thing. It isnt true and I get tired of reading it. I back off more jumps than I take and I never do anything without checking it thoroughly first.”

Schmidt is neither suicidal nor crazy. Hes reflective rather than impulsive, naturally cautious, a professional. Earlier this season, Stump filmed Schmidt and other regulars bungee-jumping off a 100-foot bridge in southern California. (Look for it in Stumps upcoming License to Thrill.) The jumping is interesting, but no more so than footage that caught Schmidt making safety checks on the belays, the bungee cords, the harnesses — all the critical stuff. He was the only one who did that, and it is the same attention to detail that has allowed him to leap off all those cliffs without a single injury.

“That done, I ask how he compares himself to World Cup racers — Girardelli, say — a seemingly valid question given the racing techniques Schmidt exhibits.

“I dont compare us. They do what they do; I do what I do. Two different things.”

Does he ever run gates these days? “Hardly ever.”

But did he learn anything from racing, or racers? “Oh, yeah. [Ingemar] Stenmark was my hero. I followed everything he did. What I learned from watching him helps me with what I do now. There was also a book by Rudi Baer — Pianta Su — one of the first World Cup technique books. I read it over and over.”

And what about his own racing?

“In 1978, when I was 17, I beat everybody in the Bridger Bowl downhilll. After that, I raced in the Northern Division. I moved to Squaw in 1978, after high school, to get better competition and coaching.”

But a lack of money forced Schmidt to work five days a week in a ski shop, and he could only train on weekends. His racing performance suffered. The break point, he recalls, came “when Squaw coach Warren Gibson gave scholarship money to a racer named David Kong, rather than me.” After that, Schmidt started skiing the cliffs in Siberia Bowl, and the rest is history.

But could he, with support and training, have made it as a world-class downhiller? He grins at the question. “Its funny.

Ive been thinking of trying to make a comeback. Before, I never had time to train. Now I have time to get in shape and really train.”

I think hes definitely serious and ski movies have made such options possible. “In the movies, I get more visibility and exposure than any racer.” But the rewards have been slow in arriving. “Its been a long, hard road. Ive been in seven films, but nobody knew who I was until Blizzard of Aahhhs last year.” Last year was also his first in the black; he thanks Greg Stump for that welcome change. “Before last year, Id have to borrow ten bucks from Terri [his wife] to put gas in the car to go windsurfing.” Here he pauses, as if considering his next words carefully. “Look, Warren Miller deserves a lot of credit for getting the ski movie thing going, but its sometimes frustrating working with his film company. A lot of stuff I think is great ends up on the cutting room floor. And I never got much help with endorsements. But working with Stump tied the knot for me with the ski companies. Last year my contract with North Face, for example, went from $2,000 to $20,000.” Thanks to Stumps help and aggressive representation by former world speed record holder Franz Weber, Schmidt now has similar contracts with Salomon, K2, Swatch, Vuarnet and Leki, the Swiss pole company. “l used to get paid in product,” Schmidt says. “Now I get paid.”

And how does he like his newfound fame? “Its nice,” says Schmidt, “but theres been a price. In the old days, at Squaw, I was at my peak. We never worried about anything. I was doing the raddest stuff, pushing it to the max. Now everybody thinks I have this great life. Ski, windsurf all year, get paid for it. Schmidt shakes his head and the smile disappears. “Now its a job.”

Whats in the future for Scot Schmidt? “I cant spend my life doing ski movies. Id like to get into acting, but I have nightmares about doing something like Hot Dog. If I act, it would have to be something right for me.”

Finished eating, Schmidt gets fidgety. Hes one of those people who are most comfortable in motion, so we go out together for a run down a trail called Honeycomb. Were not together long. After 200 yards, Schmidt accelerates like an F-16 on afterburner and I lose him. He never looks back.

That night, the Stump bunch convenes for a party at one of the condos. For a while its like your average neighborhood get-together, with pasta and Chablis and Dan Quayle jokes. Schmidt hangs off in a corner with his tall, beautiful wife Terri. In another corner is Mike Hattrup, who also works as a product information manager for K2 skis, feeding his computer data from a ski test. At the main table, Stump is regaling a dozen people with offbeat routines. And for a while even Plake behaves, slipping out onto the balcony to sneak Gitanes. Pretty soon, though, a Blackcomb local called Bungee Lee arrives with bottles of genuine Mexican mescal, and things loosen up. Plake starts opening magnums of Mumms champagne with his skis. AC/DC drowns out the TV. When I glance over at the normally mild Hattrup, he grins and sticks out his tongue, upon which is perched an iridescent green mescal worm. This he swallows like a goldfish, chasing it with the bottles last swig. Stump and Plake have a conversational slam dance about skiing, toward the end of which Stump declares, “Theres a fine line between great skiing and insanity!”

To which Plake retorts gleefully, “Yeah, and I erased it!”

About midnight, the party moves to Cheetahs, a local disco where Stump heads to preview the talents of a young woman named Ace who has expressed interest in skiing for his camera. The pneumatic Ms. Ace, who stays sharp by dancing go-go, turns out to have more curves than Stowes Nose Dive. “She can ski for me anytime,” says Stump, coming away mightily impressed.

Plake, his consciousness substantially altered, roars out at closing time so loudly that even the normally imperturbable Stump asks him to quiet down. He does, but at lunch the next day, Plake lies prostrate on a bench while the other Stump skiers chow down.

“Hey Glen, howd you like those new skis?” Hattrup asks, winking at the rest of is.

Unnnggghhh,” Plake says. Its the kind of Big Spit groan that only a shattering hangover can produce.

“Dont lie down, Glen,” Schmidt advises. “It only gets worse. You should go skiing.

At that, Plake turns guacamole green.

Speaking of skiing… there isnt any this day, either. But the next morning dawns bright and clear, and by 8 a.m. Stumps condo is controlled chaos. Its a shooting day, and you can feel the electricity in the air.

Everyones on snow by 9, when suddenly the light goes bad and stays bad until mid-afternoon. By 3 p.m., though, the skiers are in position, cameras are ready and the light is good. Stump himself has set up with an Arriflex camera at the bottom of the high cliffs that rim Blackcomb Bowl. Co-cinematographer Bruce Benedict, with another camera, is up high, tied into a cliff face. This is perfect extreme skiing terrain. Theres a whole vast amphitheater of walls from 20 to 100 feet high with steep chutes between the rock bands.

I wait with Stump beside his camera while the skiers choose their lines on top. The radios crackle with constant chatter, but everything stops when Scot Schmidt steps out onto the lip of an ice cornice to survey a line.

Benedict radios down in a whisper, “Scot is standing in a very gnarly place, Greg. One slip and its all over.”

“Im getting it,” Stump whispers back, never taking his eye from the viewfinder.

After many minutes, Schmidt steps carefully back up onto the bowls top. Something about the line worried him and, true to his word about caution, he chooses another.

It takes an hour for all the skiers to pick their routes and take final positions. By then, crowds have collected at the bowls top. Stump calls these onlookers “the Indians,” for the way in which they mass along the horizon, watching and whooping, finally charging down the flank after Stumps last skier has descended.

Finally, at 4:03 p.m., Tom Jungst goes. A newcomer this year and anxious to prove himself, he skis an unbelievable line down a rock spine between the 40-degree Saudan Couloir and a neighboring gully. The route is more rock than snow. Jungst vaults like a mountain goat from snow patch to snow patch. He misses one landing and his skis, on rock, make a sound like gravel being crushed. His aerobatics make my teeth grate, but he finishes the run intact. Straightening up from his camera, Stump is dismayed by the extremity — and near calamity — of Jungsts line. “I didnt enjoy shooting that one bit.”

Darrin Johnson is next. He cuts across a near-vertical face, crouched like a surfer, then launches a 30-foot jump. The crowd goes ahhhhh. Johnson lands nicely, cuts his speed with wide GS turns and finishes up grinning.

Kevin Andrews is next, skiing an elegant line, blowing up some steep powder pockets, spinning a heli off a cornice, then drawing applause from the crowd. Nice.

Then comes Schmidt. He radios down his line. Stump cant believe it. “Scot, repeat that, will you?” Schmidt does. Overhearing, I try to figure out where Schmidt will ski. His route is a line beyond radical, beyond extreme. Its really… no line at all, just 300 vertical feet of rock flecked with doormat-sized patches of wind crust. I think: He cant do that.

But he does, flicking down the vertical face like a stone skipping over smooth water, more like skydiving than skiing. Hes so deft, his touch so perfect, that his skis never once grate on rock.

After hes down, I think: How did he do that?

Theres no time to ask. Its Plakes turn. He has skied to the bowls far right side and climbs higher than anyone else, even Schmidt. He has no radio, so were not sure where hell ski. Looking at the face beneath him, in fact, there doesnt seem any place to ski. Hes standing atop a 50-foot strip of snow that tilts away at 60 degrees, then a lip and nothing but clear air. For a moment Plake stands there, his yellow suit glowing against the blue sky like the heart of a vast flame.

Then he goes. Straight down the 60 degree ramp, over the corniced lip, lifting up into his tuck like a diver off a board.

Jesus,” Stump says. Somebody in the crowd gasps. Plakes “line” is like Plake himself: blatant, scary, purely direct. Seventy feet of clean air, the jump executed perfectly — hands forward, knees nailed to his chest, skis together, airborne an unbelievably long time. He lands perfectly in an explosion of powder and then, where everyone else has cut speed with GS turns, Plake finds the fall line and holds it all the way — screaming down Blackcomb Bowls steep flank faster and faster, so fast that just watching him requires an effort of will, like watching a suicide jumper who will soon hit. The crowd roars. Stump gasps. I clap and scream like a maniac. Plake pulls up at last and waves to the yelling crowd.

The filming goes on long after patrollers clear the mountain. Its almost 7 when, at the bottom, the company surrounds Stump in a multicolored mob: skiers and girlfriends and roadies and groupies milling and yelling and slapping backs, juiced on adrenaline, high and wild and riotous. Just watching them makes as a pagan me grin, but my mind Im still seeing what they did up on those cliffs and Plakes long, straight, unbelievable track down that bowl. Come summer and sun, their tracks in the snow will fade, but their mark on the sport will not soon disappear.