Autonomous Skier: The Evolution of Sammy Carlson
In 2014, Sammy Carlson was skiing on home turf, the Windells park lane on the Palmer Snowfield at Timberline Lodge. High Cascade Snowboard Camp had just opened its superpipe to skiers for the first time, and to access the long forbidden fruit, Sammy skied through the High Cascade lane along the way—a poach he’s been doing every now and again since he was 14. When some angry diggers told him to take his skis off and hike out, he skied off, spraying a small crowd with snow along the way. The diggers followed Sammy to the superpipe and told him he’d never ski it again. Sammy let them know how he felt. When he returned to the area at the end of the day to meet his friend, pro snowboarder Tim Humphreys, the diggers started up again with Sammy, who, for skiing’s sake he says, chirped back.
Sammy’s got a strong personality,” says Humphreys. “If he thinks something’s whack, he won’t even think twice, he’ll tell people what’s up.”
Sammy’s pushback was ill-received, and he took off with six diggers on his tail in what looked like a James Bond chase scene. Sammy ollied onto a cat track and looked back to see 15 diggers in tuck positions. The chase escalated through the public park, on the lower portion of the glacier, where Sammy started taking diggers out.
“They were trying to tackle him, and he was elbowing them off,” says Humphreys. “At one point, he had four dudes on top of him and kicked them all off.”
As he neared the final pitch, Sammy gapped two snow patches and lost all but two of his pursuers. He hit the pavement and sprinted faster than he ever had in ski boots toward patrol headquarters, where four snowboarders were already blocking the entrance.
“He threw his skis in the middle of them,” remembers Humphreys. “Then as one went to grab him, he did this crazy spin move out of his jacket, pushed someone to the side and made it to the safe zone.”
Sammy wonders how his hotheaded comments and actions escalated things to such a level and why he put his body on the line to speak up for skiing. But passion and spontaneity often override self-control. Those exact character traits correlate to Sammy’s genius in skiing—his success in this sport owes more to imagination and creativity than restraint.
A decade into his career, on the heels of back-to-back-to-back gold medal performances in the X Games Real Ski video contest and the release of a two-year film, The Sammy C Project, the 26-year-old Oregonian finds himself on top of the sport after pioneering an independent route to success.
Despite a controversial decision in 2013 to leave a thriving competition career to progress the sport in the backcountry and on film, Sammy retained sponsors, fans and relevance. His anti-formula proves you don’t need a coach, industry contacts, an agent or even a ski town to excel in professional skiing.
Growing up in Oregon and skiing with guys like [Eric] Pollard helped inspire that [independence],” says Sammy, who lives in Hood River. “From early on, I was confident I could do it my own way.”
In eighth grade, he wrote a list of lifetime goals that his mom, Judy Carlson, still has today. One was to become a pro skier. Another was to win X Games gold.
“It’s not luck,” says his older sister, Rachael. “His determination and will have driven him to be where he is now. He’s passionate about things, and when he gets something in his head, he’s going to do it. His word is what happens.”
Sammy grew up in Tigard, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, as the youngest of three with parents who loved to ski at nearby Mt. Hood.
“We’d load the Suburban up with kids and friends,” says Judy. “We had to have the leaves all picked up by Thanksgiving or no skiing. All the kids who wanted to ski would chip in.”
Judy and Rich, Sammy’s dad, paid for two ski lessons for each kid at age 4. Rich still remembers Sammy straight-lining into a snowbank, jumping up and smiling. When Sammy was 9, he tried ski racing but lasted less than a season. Rachael, 28, remembers one particular powder day when the coaches couldn’t find her brother. Sammy had built a jump to practice throwing backflips.
Judy noticed headstrong tendencies early on. “If he made up his mind about something, he would do it—no matter what,” says Judy. “My mom [Sammy’s grandmother] said ‘Don’t break that—it’s a good thing to have.’”
Sammy opted out of organized skiing and followed his older brother, Zach, and friends around Hood. They would ski the park, but maximize Hood’s plentiful natural terrain along the way, hitting cliffs, skiing trees and smiling, even if it was raining.
Film producer Shahn Hughes first filmed Sammy for his 2002 flick, The Hood, and introduced him to Windells coaches Tommy Ellingson and Seth Warner, who, along with Pollard, greatly influenced Sammy’s skiing and direction in life. He won his first contest, the Scotty Graham Memorial at Mt. Hood Ski Bowl, at age 12 and earned a trip to Mammoth with his dad.
“He just kept doing this S-rail every day,” says Rich. “I’d say, ‘Let’s go skiing.’ He skied a little bit, but he spent most of the four days on that rail. He just wanted to master it. He finally got to where he could do the whole thing.”
Rich says that tenacity lasted throughout Sammy’s competition career. “If he had a good or bad day, he was the first one out there and last one to go in,” he says. “If he had a bad day, he would just keep going to the top and doing it over and over again. The worse his day was, the more he would go back and do it.”
Determined to spend an entire summer glacier skiing, a 15-year-old Sammy aerated lawns on the weekends to earn the $900 he needed for a summer pass and befriended a couple who worked at Timberline and offered him daily rides. Sammy spent all day, every day at the Windells park, learning tricks that he displayed in front of an audience for the first time that fall. When he skied alongside Peter Olenick and Simon Dumont at an REI rail jam, Sammy’s style grabbed the attention of Salomon, who signed him to the team by the end of 2004. As did Oakley.