“I got this collar [tattoo] done on my chest. It says ‘my friends, my family, my saviors,’” Smoothy explains. “I think as a man, your place of pride is your chest. It’s like how a gorilla puffs his chest out in the wild. So, I [put that tattoo] where it counts.”
That confidence, reminiscent of King Kong beating his chest atop the Empire State Building, is emblematic of the 29-year-old’s demeanor. One only needs to watch his winning run from the 2015 Freeride World Tour (FWT) stop in Vallnord Arcalis, Andorra, for proof.
Snow conditions were suspect, but that didn’t curtail Smoothy’s aggressive brand of skiing. He began with a hefty cliff drop onto an ultra-exposed strip of snow, which
sat directly above a sinister abyss of jagged rock. After landing, Smoothy barely cut enough momentum to navigate skier’s left into a three-tiered cliff band. He cleaned each crag and landed three more drops before crossing the finish line.
“The zone stood out to me as the most exposed area in the whole venue,” Smoothy describes. “I spent a lot of time looking at it from a bunch of angles. It struck me how committed it would be airing into that line and how that would ramp up my score right away.”
Back in New Zealand where a shallower snowpack prevails, Smoothy and friends often shred the skinniest lines on the mountains during the spring. “I felt I had an advantage over the rest of the field; I’m comfortable skiing narrow runs with limited snow.”
And when it came to choosing a line, it was no surprise that once Smoothy eyed his winning route, he wasn’t going to back away from it. “Take it from me, never question Sam on a line he’s decided to ski, you won’t change his mind,” says Fraser McDougall, a friend and ski partner of Smoothy’s. “He knows what needs to be done, relies on his experience and plays to his strengths.”
And even less surprising, according to fellow friend, ski cohort and FWT competitor Charlie Lyons, was that Smoothy chose that line when no one else touched it. “[His
biggest strength] is his natural power and ability to look at and manipulate big-mountain lines with a unique eye,” explains Lyons. “Often I ski around with Sam or watch him compete and think, ‘Damn, why didn’t I think of that?’”
But procuring enough points to top the podium wasn’t the main motivation for Smoothy’s line choice. The Cromwell, New Zealand-native, who first made the cut to compete
on the FWT in 2011, changed up his approach following a 20th place finish in the preceding 2015 tour stop in Fieberbrunn, Austria. “I was a bit sick of playing the World Tour game,” Smoothy reveals. “I wanted to ski something that really inspired me, something to the end of my ability. I didn’t want to play a tactical game or play it safe. It was an all-or-nothing moment in picking that line.”
That’s a breath of fresh air on a point-based circuit where poor finishes can relegate a competitor to lower levels of competition. Smoothy still cites an overall FWT title as a goal for him but says he doesn’t “like skiing conservatively, to the program of just trying to get top 10s, not really pushing yourself or the sport.”
Ironically, pushing himself and the sport was exactly what he needed to take the top spot in Andorra. “It wasn’t that I didn’t care anymore, I was just over the idea of ski tactics and lining it up just to win the overall title. I was just like, ‘Screw it. I’m going to let it hang out there and give ’er.’”
His soulful, down-home outlook on skiing can undoubtedly be traced back to his upbringing. A mere three weeks after entering the world, the infant was strapped into his mother’s backpack while she arced turns down Treble Cone. Both of Smoothy’s parents are avid outdoorspeople, who are out shredding the resort nearly every day, regardless of conditions. That love for outdoor recreation—skiing, biking, climbing—was obviously passed down to Sam.
His father is an avid climber who would travel the world during Smoothy’s childhood making ascents in countries like Peru and Bolivia, and bringing back souvenirs to his family in New Zealand. This influence, most notably, manifested itself in a trip Smoothy took with Johnny Collinson and The North Face to Bolivia this past spring to retrace his dad’s climbing roots in Latin America. “It was a super personal trip,” Smoothy explains. “It was a cool way to get to know [my father] better, to understand his motivation for traveling to this far-off place and what he was looking for in the mountains.”
The crew climbed and skied a handful of peaks that Smoothy’s dad had summited more than twenty years prior. The trip turned into a quasi-spirit quest for Smoothy as he found himself at a crossroads in his career following his success on the World Tour, which had propelled him into the spotlight.
“Through that trip, I began to understand why I’m living in the mountains as I am and how my attitudes are changing and perhaps becoming more like [my father’s],” he explains. “It’s not just about winning medals and shit but more about that full experience of being out there, isolated with just you and your friends, relying on each other to create an adventure and getting through it by the skin of your teeth.”
His need for adventure, to ski to the brink of his capabilities, push the limits and, most importantly, have fun, extends away from competing. Smoothy can often be found in places like Haines, AK, filming with Legs of Steel. When skiing for the cameras, Smoothy still approaches his lines with a competitive ethos yet treats his runs as art, injecting soul into a final product. “I appreciate the different challenge of creating an image and not just ripping a run,” he says.
While he may be thinking more artistically when standing atop burly lines, ready to get the shot, his demeanor is far from quiet and reserved. “If [he’s about to] ski a really big and aggressive line with consequences, like when we were filming in Alaska this year, then there can be quite a lot of roaring and hollering going on,” explains Legs of Steel photographer Pally Learmond. “Think of Braveheart [William Wallace] standing at the top of a mountain before going into battle.”
Despite being someone who prides himself on skiing high consequence runs, Smoothy’s knowledge and awareness of his limits will aid in keeping his body intact and firing for the foreseeable future. “Sam is different from other skiers in the sense that he knows where he is at, at all times,” describes Cam McDermid, another of Smoothy’s go-to ski buddies. “If he is having an ‘off day’ he will take it easy. This is a big difference I find with Sam compared to other skiers, is he knows when to push it and when to stop and give not only his body a break but his mind, too.”
When he’s not filming or competing, Smoothy focuses his attention away from himself. Down the road, he hopes to transfer his career success into more philanthropic acts. “Skiing is such a selfish endeavor, but it’s the one life you’ve got so you might as well treat yourself a little bit,” Smoothy says. “At the same time, I’d like to use [my success] to change things for the better and help some other people have as good of a life [as I’ve had].”
Smoothy mentions the late JP Auclair’s work with Alpine Initiatives and Jeremy Jones’ reach with Protect Our Winters as two influences on his charitable mindset. Smoothy has begun giving back in his home country, enlisting as a guest judge on the newly formed New Zealand Freeride Tour, a big-mountain competition circuit for youth skiers.
“They’ve had two stops now, and I’ve been along judging, but it’s not really a competition,” describes Smoothy. “[During down time] everyone rides together and hangs out. I’ll just be out there riding with the groms, giving them feedback and breaking down those barriers between us. We’re all just ski bums, it’s all the same thing, just on a different level.”
It’s that jovialness, sharp-wit, approachable demeanor and love for the sport that will lead to longevity for Smoothy. He just fits in, no matter where he is or whom he is with. “He’s part jock, part white trash, part rock star and part businessman. His personality transcends financial classes,” says McDougall. “He could hang out with the rich and famous in Verbier but then talk fondly of white trash bars [he’s visited] in Canada and Alaska.”
His fun-loving attitude is epitomized in one amusing anecdote from a trip Smoothy took with friends to Thailand that resulted in a tattoo on his arm reading “Wolf Pack.”
“[We were] out partying pretty late — well, by this stage it was pretty early in the morning,” he describes comically. “We were deciding between tattoos of the words ‘Wolf Pack’ or a portrait of the King of Thailand. It came down to the fact that, if we got the [more expensive] King of Thailand tattoos, we probably wouldn’t have enough money for more beer.”
Regardless of what ink Smoothy brands himself with in the future, he’s certainly whipped up the necessary recipe for a long career in the mountains. Rest assured that we’ll continue to see the spirited Kiwi atop ultra-exposed lines in far-off locales, beating his chest and roaring emphatically before dropping in.