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Sam Smoothy: Lessons Learned from a Nasty Crash

Sam Smoothy has cultivated a reputation as one of the world's most aggressive freeriders, always on the lookout for steep, rocky, and generally terrifying ways down the mountain. He made a name for himself on the Freeride World Tour, ending up on several podiums throughout his FWT career, largely on virtue of that same no-holds-barred style. Early this season, while filming with TGR in Austria, Smoothy took a nasty fall which put him in the hospital and out of commission for much of the early season. We caught up with him to hear his thoughts on the crash and what he took away:

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Sam and Fabian Lentsch get some exercise in the Austrian backcountry. Austin Hopkins photo.

So you started the season with a trip to Austria alongside Griffin Post and Fabian Lentsch. How was it?

Yeah, I flew straight to Munich in early January and linked up with the TGR crew over in Austria. It was a great start to the winter there— it had been snowing super heavily and it was like huge AK spines already.

Had you spent much time skiing with Griff and Fabi before?

Yeah, we’ve skied together a bit. We all competed on the Freeride World Tour, and I had also been hanging with Griffin in other places, and I’d skied a bunch in Alaska with Fabian before while filming for Legs of Steel.

And had you skied much in Austria before?

I’ve skied a bunch in Austria, but it was cool to have Fabian taking the lead. He took us to a bunch of spots that I’d heard of but never gotten to ski. We did a lot of on-foot touring out of resorts, and then getting a beer after skiing those big lines was pretty amazing.

The Austrians have skiing figured out, huh?

Yeah, it’s pretty sick. They’ve been skiing there at a high level for such a long time.

Sam and Fabi take in the views. Austin Hopkins photo.

Now to the hard bit. Tell me about the fall.

We were at Kappl, an Austrian ski area where I’d won a Freeride World Tour stop a few years prior. We had one mission there already that was super successful on some smaller lines, and we really wanted to come back and try to do some bigger ones. We showed up and there was just feet more snow again, and we got up on top of some huge spines with a lot of exposure— really technical, not just like simple perfect AK spines. We all got a good line in the bag and were super fired up. The snow was super deep and was sloughing like crazy, super heavily and super fast, so it was really exciting skiing, just riding the spines and watching slough rip past you. I was really feeling it, or so I thought, and I’d seen another line— almost like a closeout with a massive cliff at the bottom, but with one way through it that I thought would work. I could tell from the previous line that it would probably slough super heavy, and so I planned this safe spot on a big spine that I was pretty sure would divide anything that moved. I didn’t want anything to pop off when I was lower, so I hammered my first couple of turns pretty hard. It did pop, so I just pulled onto my safe spot and waited. I’ve realized that I’d gotten a little ahead of myself, and was so concerned with the primary danger of a slide that I was a bit casual about how much exposure I was in. When I went to restart, I dropped down to the choke and the slide had ripped off all of the good snow. I had intended to ski down the spine, but as I skied off of the choke and onto the spine my tips just hooked in the crust that the avalanche had exposed. It hooked my skis and pointed me straight off of the closeout cliff. I flew off of it in a rag-doll and just landed square on rocks, and was knocked out.

When did you come to?

The only thing I can really remember is the helicopter people being there, and them packaging me up. There was a woman asking me questions that I didn’t know the answers to. I don’t remember the helicopter flight or anything like that, just that one memory of being packaged up and then I was in the hospital, the next thing I knew.

Ridge walking with Sam, Fabi, and Griff. Austin Hopkins photo.

But it turned out that you got pretty lucky?

I was lucky in the mechanics of the fall. It gave me a lot of speed, and I rode off the cliff on one ski and managed to clear almost all of the rocks, so that part certainly could have been worse. I landed pretty heavily on my back— I crushed the back of my helmet, but also my backpack had my shovel in it that had some pretty nasty gouges in it, and then I had another layer, my metal ascent plates, which were bent to the shape of my spine. Those two layers of metal between me and the rocks saved my back from getting really messed up.

How long were you in the hospital?

I was only in overnight, and then they released me, which was nice, and Fabian gave me his granddad’s apartment to rest up in while the rest of the team pushed on.

What did your recovery look like?

I had about five weeks of rehab. I was going to physio every day and working super hard. I had a great program there, and had to throw everything at it that I could to get healthy quickly. And then I went to Jackson to follow the snow, and managed to get hurt again [laughs].

Tough season.

Yeah, I think I only got about fifteen days of skiing total.

Is there a silver lining here? Are you going to approach some things differently or is it just business as usual?

I definitely wouldn’t say business as usual. I feel physically strong, and I think that I learned a lot from it mentally. I’ve always prided myself on trying to make safe decisions, but I was really motivated this year to try and put out a really gnarly part of just gnarly lines. I didn’t want nice, pretty shots, or beautiful this and that— I just wanted it to be just badass lines. I realized afterwards that I’d let my ambition and ego override my normal safety protocols. You can learn a lot about what’s going on in your own head from these situations. It really forced me to re-evaluate and to make sure that I’m constantly assessing my decisions and not just assuming that I’m making the right call.

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