Skiing prodigy navigates the slopes

Staci Matlock
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Eliza Donahue poses for a photo in Santa Fe on Dec. 17. Donahue is ranked fourth among 15- to 18-year-old free style skiers across North America, including Canada.

SANTA FE — Eliza Donahue was only 13 when she followed her ski-racing coach off a 5-foot-tall rock on one of the towering mountain slopes in Taos.

“It was way bigger than I thought it was going to be. But I landed fine,” said the Santa Fe teen, now 18.

Her coach, Andrea Krejci, was watching from below. She hadn’t told Donahue to follow her. She just wanted the teen to have a little fun coming down the ungroomed, snow-covered slope and choose whatever route she wanted to ski.

When the teen reached the bottom of the slope, Krejci told her, “You’re going to ski big mountain.”

A couple of years later, Donahue was placing in regional and national free ski competitions. In 2014, she ranked fourth among 15- to 18-year-old skiers across North America, including Canada, in this burgeoning sport.

“Eliza is a really great technical skier,” Krejci said. “Maybe she wasn’t the fastest, but she’s great going into tighter areas of the mountain. She can really make it down places where a lot of people can’t, like a little billy goat.”

Big mountain skiing, also dubbed freeride, freeski and — at the adult professional level — extreme skiing, is based on more than speed.

In competitions, freeskiers are judged on the route they choose on an ungroomed mountain face from start gate to finish, as well as their fluidity, control, personal style and aggressiveness — or “attack” — on the slope.

As an organized sport, freeskiing is still a new kid on the mountain, launched in 1996 by the sport’s beloved pioneer and favorite joker Shane McConkey. Known for trying all kinds of stunts, McConkey founded the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association. At that point, the sport encompassed all the skiing disciplines outside of alpine racing. Freeskiing includes big mountain, aerials, half-pipe, slopestyle and skier-cross.

Early on, a lot of people outside the sport thought it extreme, filled with adrenaline-seekers who pushed the sport right to the edge of personal demise. This was the sport in which skiers were dropped by helicopter onto tiny ridges at the top of sheer cliffs and then flew, more than skied, down the slope. Or they launched themselves off massive cliffs, executing a few flips before landing.

While the stunning feats involved in the sport have only grown, people’s perceptions of it have changed, Krejci said.

“When it started, people were nervous about it, ski areas included. The International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association has done a really good job of organizing events and educating people so they know this is not something where people die just because they jump off of a cliff.”

Donahue and Krejci said the sport has exploded in popularity, especially at the junior level and among girls.

Krejci started the freeski part of the Taos Winter Sports Team five years ago, with Donahue as the first team member. The slots for the junior competition sold out in 90 seconds.

Now there are regional and national freeride tours.

“It’s crazy the things these kids are doing, but people understand they have coaches and a lot of training,” Krejci said. “The sport has definitely grown in a very short time.”

Donahue was practically born on skis. When she was a baby, her father, longtime Taos Ski Valley coach Peter Donahue, would plop her in a backpack, strap on his skis and whoosh downhill. One year, she yelled, “Look at me! Look at me!” all the way down the slope.

As a toddler, she had her own set of skis and walked around the house wearing them. “That’s how my parents got me used to them,” she said.

Her parents were big outdoor enthusiasts. Donahue and her younger brother grew up camping and hiking. Donahue also learned to climb mountains.

She tried traditional ski racing, but the camaraderie and fun of freeride skiing hooked her. “It’s one of the only sports where you get to the bottom, and all your competitors come up to congratulate you and say ‘great job,’” Donahue said.

She likes the challenge, too, of each new route.

“When you ski down, you want to find a route that plays to your strengths. I’m really good at tight technical skiing. I am looking for small chutes or tight little turns. Some people are good at really big skiing. They look for air,” Donahue said.

Donahue has worked carefully under Krejci’s tutelage over the years to tackle bigger challenges on the mountains. People ask her parents all the time if they are nervous about her freeride skiing, but they said they support their daughter’s passion for the sport.

“The way I see it, it’s all very calculated. All the things I do, I’m confident I can pull off. I’m actually a very cautious skier,” Donahue said. “When you are actually in it, it doesn’t feel scary.”

When Seattle’s internationally ranked big mountain skier Ingrid Backstrom talked to a young Donahue a few years ago, she told her the sport doesn’t need to be scary. “She told me, ‘You do a one-foot rock, then a two-foot rock, then three. Eventually, you are doing things that other people think are scary,” Donahue said.

But like any sport, freeride has risks, especially for those who push the limits in order to advance. McConkey was 39 when he died in 2009 doing a practiced, signature move while BASE jumping in the Dolomites, Italy. BASE stands for the places and structures from which one might jump: building, antenna, span (like a bridge), and earth, such as a cliff.

Even Donahue has had some terrifying moments. During a competition last year, she crashed coming off a rock. She slid down the mountain. “It’s scary, especially going head first, which is what happened,” she said.

In 2014, she and a couple of friends climbed Kilimanjaro, without their parents along.

As a reporter for The Santa Fe New Mexican’s Generation Next section at the time, Donahue wrote about reaching the summit, saying, “climbing a mountain isn’t about reaching a particular elevation but about the journey to reach one’s personal summit — wherever that may be.”

Donahue graduated from Desert Academy in May and is headed off for several months of travel and skiing in France and New Zealand. Then she’ll attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, with an eye toward becoming a journalist, a novelist or a travel writer.

She doesn’t know if she’ll pursue freeride to the professional level. But she thinks that such a sport — or any endeavor that inspires passion in a kid — should be encouraged.

“There are so many benefits, if a kid is self-motivated to try these things. It is incredible for your self-confidence. It gives you this outlet and this perspective on other challenges in life,” Donahue said.

Still, Donahue has mixed views on extreme sports like the one that draws her.

After the death of renowned BASE jumper Dean Potter in May, Donahue wrote: “I love that so many people are pushing the boundaries of their sports, but at the same time I wonder when our obsession with taking it to the next level will be a step too far. There is a certain balance to taking risk, a line where the costs of accomplishing the extreme outweigh the benefits. The tricky part comes in identifying that boundary.”

Because only in pushing the boundary does anyone find the limit of the sport or themselves.