Does Excessive Drinking Hurt Freeskiing or just the Freeskier?

Forrest after winning the 2014 Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Dick’s Ditch Contest, Pro Division.

By Forrest Jillson

I work as a bartender, a sober bartender. Weird, I know. I will happily provide a bottle of wine for a social gathering, or make you your favorite drink while you dine at my place of work. I won’t badger you for drinking nightly, I might make fun of your mug shot on the inmate list on Sunday morning, but ultimately, you’re free to make your own decisions and as long as those decisions are made responsibly. Have that stiff drink at the end of a long day. I get it, we work our asses off to stay afloat in this world, especially in a ski town.

Alcohol has been a part of my life from early on. I remember having a sip of my Dad’s beer as a young kid, 5 or 6, it was Miller Genuine Draft. I remember liking it.

Skiing has also been a part of my life since I was young, so being a drinker was not only allowed but almost expected of me once I was older. I started really drinking in high school. I would drink anything put in front of me if it made me hurl, I’d hurl and go right back to drinking. I’d sneak out of the house on weeknights to go party.

Drinking provoked what I consider now to be, foolishness i.e. jumping out of trees into rivers, jumping bikes over bonfires, skiing off roofs, shotgunning beers while riding on top of moving cars, you name it. That kind of drinking and debauchery lasted up until Friday, April 6th, 2007. I got especially drunk that night at a concert at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. I remember jumping in the back of a Subaru some cute girls were driving and said, “take me home!”

At work the next day, while skiing on my break, I made a series of hangover-induced bad decisions that led to the shattering of my femur. I recovered from that over the course of the next few years and rarely drank that heavily again, but I did keep drinking.

Fast forward ten years to July 25th, 2017. Celebrating the reopening of our commercial fishing season in Alaska with a game of “rage cage”, I blacked out. I woke up to vomit only to fall down the stairs and hit my head on the concrete. Waking up with blood on the pillow and realizing I wasn’t just hungover, I was flown to the hospital in Anchorage where I stayed for 5 nights. CT scans showed bleeding in three parts of my brain.

A professional athlete losing his balance, while drunk, resulting in one of the worst injuries he’s ever had. Lame.

I know the occasional drink seems harmless and you think you’re a light drinker all the time, but you’re lying to yourself (and you know it). Here’s the fine print.

Any supposed benefits from drinking are known to come from drinking red wine, but these health benefits aren’t solely found through wine. Enter resveratrol. Resveratrol is one of the most revered components of red wine. Found in the skin of red grapes as well as peanuts, cocoa powder and certain berries and roots. It is a compound which may help diabetics regulate their blood sugar and has proposed anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. A study published in the journal, Nutrition, found that a group of participants who took 250 mg of a resveratrol supplement once daily for three months had lower blood glucose levels than those who didn’t take the pill. Sure, this compound, at high doses had health benefits, but studies with supplements are far removed from normal diets, you would have to drink a lot of Malbec (like a case each day) to get similar doses of resveratrol as seen in the study.

There has never been a controlled study to see if wine will do anything beneficial for a person with existing health issues and resveratrol is just one of hundreds of potential health-promoting components found in food, so painting wine as some sort of Holy Grail is a fallacy. The argument that drinking small amounts of red wine is advantageous to your health, is negated by the fact that drinking enough alcohol to benefit from resveratrol would then bring about risks from excessive drinking like, hypertension, stroke, and heart disease – which is the leading cause of death in America.

Training at MTI.

Skiing and social drinking go hand in hand and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. The presence of drinking in the ski culture is very apparent and I do like the vibe from a loosened up group of skiers having food and drinks at the end of the day with 100 of their friends at the Mangy Moose – that’s the ski culture.

While lots of aprés drinking is done responsibly, there’s plenty of it that isn’t, which is why I think that excessive drinking in the skiing culture is a problem, I don’t think it hurts skiing as a culture, I just think it hurts the skier.

I don’t think that the marketing of alcohol in skiing is as extensive as it is in other sports, (think commercial breaks in the NFL) and therefore I don’t think it’s the result of marketing that alcohol is so present in the ski world. Skiing is too much of a family affair and while I know some resorts are affiliated with certain beer companies and you will see more of those beer brand logos at the base areas in the spring targeting the spring break crowd, I think the marketing of alcohol to skiers is relatively sparse which is why I think the huge presence of drinking in the ski culture is pervasive.

I think the habitual heavy drinking in skiing is formed through social interactions and social pressure and ultimately will affect the skier’s life outside of skiing in a negative way i.e. alcoholism, and reckless behavior. This is what happened to me, twice.

Circumstances surrounding me drying up were unique, and I don’t think I would have quit drinking if it hadn’t been for my tumble down the stairs.

I was a candidate for being an excessive drinker and where that would’ve lead, we luckily won’t find out. Others professionals in the sport have gone down the long road, letting the recklessness of excessive drinking run its course until one day they realized that they need to get sober – a responsible and bold move that I respect immensely.

Dash Longe has been an influencer of free skiing since before the flip phone. His pedigree is full of appearances in TGR films, and events like the Red Bull Cold Rush, which is the pinnacle of invite-only big mountain free skiing completions. From a young age, Dash was among the party scene of the ski world and didn’t know any other way. He didn’t know what people did with their weekends if they weren’t spending it partying. He spent his rockstar years going straight from crushing the slopes to crushing the party scene and admits that he really liked it. Who can blame him? But even Dash saw the writing on the wall and has now been sober for 2.5 years. With a wife, a kid and a career outside of skiing (don’t think Dash still doesn’t find time to make ski films) it was only a matter of time before he got sober.

“As soon as I was able to 100% own the fact that I had a problem, and look at people straight up and say ‘no I don’t drink anymore’, that was one of the most freeing parts of the whole process for me.” Dash says, “It was so easy to not realize how problematic it was for all those years, hanging out with the crew that I did.” He said he just recognized it as being part of the territory. “The big problem for all those years was, I could not say no because I was so worried that partying was such part of my identity and that people expected it of me, and when I hung out with these people who I thought liked me because I partied, then it became tenfold harder to say no.”

While talking with Dash, he mentioned the physiological side of it. Skiers are adrenaline fiends, our brains have been wired to crave that rush, and for some skiers at a high level we, in a sense, get paid to suppress fear as our livelihood. It’s scary to push your limits on skis! So it’s no wonder skiers are unapologetically quick to pop more than one beer at the end of the day, we have to find a way to come down from that rush and suppress the high that our bodies and addict brains have been on all day with alcohol. When asked if he’s happier now that he’s sober than when he was drinking, it’s a quick “yes”, Dash notes it’s been a fun journey of self-realization and it hasn’t been without its challenges.

Drinking is not the only way to come down and balance the barrage of chemicals freeskier brains receive while charging every day. You can celebrate a big day in the hills with a La Croix instead of a heavy dose of booze and actually treat your body well by doing so.

For me, the clarity brought about by being without alcohol for over a year now is one of the best feelings ever, and guess what, I feel this way all the time! With all the unknowns ahead of me – being as vital as possible is going to be a major factor in keeping this dream alive for as long as possible. Having the ability to cut out the bad and make room for the good is crucial. I don’t expect to get anywhere in life by half-assing anything, by cutting out alcohol, I feel like I’m giving myself every opportunity to succeed on this incredible journey.

Forrest Jillson is a professional freeskier based in Jackson, Wyoming.

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