Q&A: The benevolent wisdom of Sammy Carlson
In this interview with Sammy Carlson, FREESKIER’s Skier of the Year for the second time in a row, we explore a variety of skiing-based topics: how Carlson gathers the courage to go bigger every season, the spiritual connection he feels with the mountains and beyond. From start to finish, the Hood River, Oregon-native tells all with honesty and elaboration.
Truly down to earth, despite often miraculously flying far above it, this guy quintessentializes all that is positive about freeskiing. A winner of X Games slopestyle gold and three consecutive X Games Real Ski Backcountry gold medals, among numerous other achievements, Carlson has some serious knowledge you’re going to want to tap into. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, we give you the 2016 Skier of the Year, Mr. “Sammy C.”
All photos by Daniel Rönnbäck.
Let’s say you’re going out to ski some big lines, hit some big jumps and push it for a film. How do you prepare? When does the preparation begin?
The mental preparation comes first and it is so far beyond normal life—and I feel like I don’t want to disrespect other areas of life—but it’s been a lifetime of mental preparation. When I go on a trip to Alaska, for example, kind of weeks prior to it, I’m mentally preparing, thinking about what I want to accomplish and how I want to accomplish it. Once I get there [Alaska], I just try to keep my energy and focus high. I think music is such a big part of it, to just get such a good vibe in the head and keep it.
What kind of music do you like to listen to on those big days?
Hip-hop. Lots of hip-hop. It gives me the confidence I need. Like, there’s an attitude behind it and I think you can see that attitude behind the tricks I’m doing. My skiing is my voice—my way to express myself—and there’s definitely a lot of attitude behind the tricks due to the hip-hop inspirations involved.
You spend some time in the gym to help prepare, too. What sort of work do you do there?
Core. Core workouts involving balance. There’s balance incorporated in every workout I do. I’m not trying to do super heavy workouts. I’m not lifting a lot of weights. I call it “ninja training.” Just trying to be more able to control my body so I can be faster, more explosive.
What’s the progression been like for you in terms of learning new tricks like double flips and triple flips?
I remember when double corks became part of the sport because I literally thought that was the end for me in competition because I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up; I come from zero gymnastics or trampoline background. All my air-awareness, at that point, came from being on my skis.
So, I remember the thought of doing a double cork at that point was so out there. Even a double flip rotation was so beyond the level where I was at, but I just started working at it. Like, I started going to diving boards and just started flipping there and I’d do double flips into the water. And then I did my first double flip on skis, and I continued do more of them, and I learned more, different kinds of double cork rotations. I just did them so many different times to where those tricks were embedded in my head, like I understood every part and felt really comfortable in the air when I was doing them.
I knew where I was to the point where I was doing switch double flips at the snowboard Superpark one year to make it feel easy for me. And, all of a sudden, I was like, “Man, I think I could do three.”
When you’re really pushing it on the hill, can you visualize everything before you do it, like really intensely?
Oh, yeah. Everybody does who’s really pushing themselves and really trying to progress themselves. Like, there’s certain athletes in the sport that are going to continue to push it and those athletes really are the ones that take what we do seriously.
We all understand the risk and I guess that’s why we all take it so seriously. Others understand it but they’re not going to put the time and energy in to prepare for it. And I guess that’s what separates some of us from others. Like Bobby Brown and all these other guys pushing it—they’re preparing basically 24/7, 100 percent. Even if you’re not “working” every moment, you’re still living in that mental space.
Speaking of other athletes, do you like to watch other people’s videos online?
I don’t spend that much time watching ski stuff right now. I watch more snowboard stuff, surf stuff and different sports to inspire me—get me psyched up on crossing back to skiing. Those videos get me stoked.
Can you try and describe exactly how it feels to by flying through the air and pulling off a big trick?
Here’s the thing; it feels still. All of a sudden you reach the stillness where gravity starts catching up with you, and it’s pulling you back down, but there’s that moment where right before the gravity really pulls you, that you just feel like you’re kinda floating in space, and that’s where I feel the most confident, probably more than any area in my life.
When you’re in the mountains, is there any sort of spiritual connection going on?
As I get ready, there’s a spiritual connection that I develop with the mountain, for sure. It all started on my home mountain, Mount Hood. I’ve had times when I’ve been not “on it,” and been trying to act like I am “on it,” and the mountain, like, boom, will let me know. People say the world makes noise if you’ll just listen. You know, I feel like the mountain will give you signs if you’re just aware enough to recognize them.
So, you’re reading the mountain speaking to you.
Yeah, exactly. And there’s this thing I have on Mount Hood where I base the whole session around the ravens. I feel like they recognize me and my crew up there.
If you look into it, ravens can recognize faces; they’re pretty smart animals. There’s been tons of different tests on them. And I really feel like over the years they’ve recognized me up there. And they always come. Literally, we’ll be up there jumping and they’ll come fly at the same time down, in the run, and, boom, get up all high, as if they’re hitting the jump, and do these big barrel rolls.
Any other noteworthy stories in relation to a spiritual connection to the mountain?
There was a day up on Hood when there was just this weird feeling, and we got up there and we were just kind of hanging out, and I just had this bad feeling, and I kept telling the boys that something really crazy was about to go down—something crazy was about to happen. And then, all of the sudden, this big crevasse opened up a couple hundred feet wide, a couple hundred feet long, maybe 20 feet thick; it was just the most powerful feeling I’ve ever felt on the mountain.
I was standing on the caldera, the crater of Mount Hood, right on the skirt of it, and I could literally feel right under my feet the mountain shaking from that snow hitting the core of the mountain, like it dropped in so much snow just, boom. It’s such a raw feeling.
Alright let’s go back to preparation. When you’re about to drop in, is there any sort of ritual you like to do? Anything to get set?
Not necessarily; I’m not superstitious like that. But I like to listen to music a lot when I ride. If I’m riding lines, I’ll put my iPhone in my pocket. I won’t have headphones on, but just let it play through the speaker of the phone, just because it gives me that familiar feeling. When you’re out on the ridge all alone, you feel really small and it’s amazing how much confidence you can get, how much putting just a little bit of familiar feeling back in your mind can give you.
Let’s talk about the feeling of actually dropping in. How do you usually approach that?
When counting down, “Three, two, one,” I always take an extra “One, two” to myself. I just take an extra moment, and make sure I take an extra-deep breath, and find myself; not worry about the camera, but find my moment again, find myself and then I drop. That feeling is pretty cool because once you drop in, you’re not gonna stop ’till the bottom. You can try, but you’re gonna get smoked by sluff. There are certain ways you can do it; you have safe zones where you can pull up and stop, but on certain lines there isn’t that option.
How do you go about selecting lines out there?
For me, I’m not trying to ride lines where if I fall, I’m dead, type of deal. I’m trying to ride lines where I know that I can f#ck up, where I can take a tumble, but I’m not going to fall into some crazy hole. That’s when I would rely on other people to get me out of that situation, which I don’t want. I’m always trying to stay safe—always relying on myself out there to stay safe. I think that’s the most important. You can’t always count on your buddies to save you. But you gotta have confidence in them if sh#t does go wrong. Sometimes sh#t happens.
And, just so you know, I hate when people say I’m an adrenaline junkie. Because, sometimes I do feel adrenaline, but rarely on my skis. I don’t feel that. I hate that feeling of adrenaline. Usually, if I feel it, I just have to stop, sit there for a minute and really breathe.
When do you feel adrenaline?
Well, if I’m driving down the road and an elk runs in front of my car and I almost hit it, that’s adrenaline to me. And when I’m skiing I definitely don’t feel that life-or-death kinda feeling. I’ve definitely had moments where I have felt it, but usually, if that’s the case, I’ll stop and sit down and just try to chill out.
But I’m sure there’s a high that you’re going for with skiing, you know? Probably dopamine-related or serotonin.
Oh, yeah. I guarantee it, but I wouldn’t call it adrenaline. Maybe there are forms of it, for sure, but that’s not the feeling that I’m seeking. The feeling when you’re doing a double flip and you’re tweaking a grab, you know exactly where you are, and you’re flying through the air—that’s the feeling I like. Not like “I’m scared as shit,” freaking out. That’s not what I like.
Like you said, the people that are excelling the most, they’re not only training, crazily, really putting in the work, but they’re also reaching that height of enjoyment, too, right?
Yeah. Where we’re at, for sure. Riding these steep climbs, it’s definitely this feeling of floating, like all the way down the mountain and with not that much holding you on the wall, so you feel pretty light through all those turns; they’re pretty powerful. It feels amazing, for sure.
It’s almost like being in the air and on the ground at the same time.
Yeah, and then when you hit the bottom, you know you had something, you visualized a dream, and now you’re living it and you’re creating feelings that you dreamed about. That’s pretty cool.