Julian Carr and Owen Leeper put their Jedi master cliff dropping skills to use in northwest Wyoming
INTRO • Donny O’Neill | PHOTOS • Greg Von Doersten
Sometimes the greatest projects and collaborations come together at the last minute. Such was the case for pro skiers Owen Leeper and Julian Carr, along with photographer Greg Von Doersten, last March. A massive storm was forecasted to hit northwest Wyoming, and the trio made a spur of the moment call to head to the Tetons for some deep powder skiing and massive cliff hucks. Carr was on his way to southern Colorado for a photo shoot with photographer Jeff Cricco when he checked out the weather forecast in Wyoming.
“They were calling for 30-plus inches over the next few days. In my head I was like, ‘Man, oh man, that means all the cliffs will be prime,’” explains Carr. He called Cricco and asked what the status was. Cricco informed him that they had gotten more than enough photos and that if Carr had the opportunity to hit the Tetons for this storm, then he should go for it.
“I hit the brakes and turned the Subaru around,” recalls Carr. “I immediately texted photographer Greg Von Doersten, ‘You want to meet me in the Tetons? It’s about to go off!’
“Luckily, he wasn’t on a trip and texted back, ‘Game on!’
“I responded, ‘Call Owen!’”
Leeper was in, and over the course of the next few days, they reaped the benefits of a storm that dropped over 50 inches of snow on the Grand Teton backcountry.
“In the middle of the storm, we got to ski the lightest, deepest powder I’ve ever skied in my life,” explains Leeper. “Greg tried to shoot photos, but you couldn’t even see the skier under the snow. I took out my GoPro stick and started skiing down, having to stop every few turns to see where I was going. With 55 inches over the course of the storm, they were the best days of the season for me.”
When the clouds parted and the sun came out, the crew headed out into the Teton Range’s western slope, with the intention of hitting a handful of the massive cliffs that litter the area. Carr is well-known within the ski world for his signature front flips off cliffs of unimaginable size, as well as his ability to come out of them unscathed. Of course, Leeper is no slouch in the cliff-dropping department, either, as anyone who has watched his season edits can attest to.
Here, Carr and Leeper reveal how they use “the force” to conquer the mental and physical strength needed to safely hit these monstrous rock formations.
CARR: There is a special type of snowpack that enables you to hit big cliffs. You want the right base depth, and you want a few recent storms that culminate in a really deep immediate storm. Basically, base depth plus recent storms and a big, fresh snowfall. The conditions we experienced hit all the boxes on the checklist; it was so deep that it wasn’t a question if it was deep enough. The only question was if we could find the energy to probe, hike, prep and hit all the cliffs in five days. Even after getting up early and heading straight to the zones, we were only able to hit three sizable cliffs each day. Plus, we skied a ton of head-deep powder for ourselves and logged some pretty serious hours at the Trap Bar at Grand Targhee Resort for après. It was a serious celebration each day. The entire place was wall to wall with smiling, super happy people.
LEEPER: Safety is the most important aspect when attempting any airs that big. It’s important to probe the area where you are going to land, checking the snow depth and looking for any hard wind or sun crust layers that could ruin the landing. After Julian did all his tests and the takeoff was ready, we all discussed our safety positions. I was up top and could easily ski down to him, while Greg and Julian’s girlfriend, Jana, were off to the side and ready to come in and dig him out if he got buried upside down. Julian hit the diving board first, a 50-plus foot cliff, landed safely and called up to me and said, “It’s good, you should hit it.” I’d been perfecting my skills in Jackson and decided this was the right time with good conditions and was within my ability to go for it.
THE MENTAL GAME
CARR: I consider the mental aspects of lining up big cliffs as rewarding as the obvious physical enjoyment. It’s like Jedi training for your mind: remain calm in the face of fear, learn how to steer your fear, use the fear as fuel and critically assess the parameters to the cliff. When you pull up on a cliff, typically it’s scary, and usually that fear is what keeps all of us alive in the long run—instinctual self-preservation. It’s wild, but you have to sit with the fear for a moment, recognize it, greet it, then say to yourself, “OK, I didn’t come up to this cliff to figure out if it was scary or not, I came over to this cliff to figure out if it’s doable or not. Scary? Of course, it’s scary.” At this point, you’re 100 percent scared but with full awareness. Once you recognize the fear, you can keep calm and start checking off your checklist with fear fueling your critical concentration.
My protocol is to align myself spiritually with each cliff I take down. It’s hyper-awareness; of the snow layers, of the trajectory, of the take off, and making sense of, and truly developing a relationship with, the air and distance I know I’ll pass through. Being on top of cliffs with another Jedi master, Owen Leeper, was really enjoyable because these internal mechanisms are different for each of us, but no matter what path Owen takes to mentally be ready for when it’s go time, I can trust he’ll be there once we’re all set up. Additionally, to shoot with Greg Von Doersten, a.k.a. “Geeves,” is reassuring because he’s been around the world with all the high-level guys, in high-level situations, and his protocol is also dialed.
LEEPER: This is where the mental game comes in. I was standing on top of the in-run with Julian’s tracks going off a seemingly 1,000-foot cliff. I had to calm my heart rate down and focus on exactly what I was going to do. Once Greg called out that he was ready, the millisecond before my skis started moving, my mind cleared, and I was perfectly focused on the air.
I took good speed off the cliff and sent the biggest front flip I’ve ever done. I landed exactly where I was aiming, roughly 90 feet below the takeoff in very deep snow. That was the first air of the trip, and over the next three days, we took turns sending everything in sight, including one simultaneously.
CARR: I’m not sure how I ended up being the “cliff guy” in skiing, but I’ve found my own cheat code. I kid you not; it doesn’t hurt at all when I land these cliffs. I don’t feel the landing, and that is part of the Jedi mental training. When you land, you must be as relaxed as if you just woke up from a long nap in a warm bed on a brisk day. There must be absolute relaxation upon landing from tall cliffs—if you have any air in your system when you land, it’ll pop. There are many paths to failure but only one to success. You have to be aware of all the false paths, but you must focus, with the right intent, on the one correct path.
The cliffs we experienced, none of them were monsters, but big enough that you still have to apply the cliff discipline and meditation to each and every cliff. The second you take a step for granted—break protocol—is the second you open yourself up to serious injury and worse. In this day and age, big cliffs are attached to images of slamming a mountain dew and just sacking up, but that is far from reality. For me, at least, dropping big cliffs is an act of artistry. I love it. I love the mountains. I feel like the mountains acknowledge my intentions, and that is why they have let me in on their secrets from time to time.