Steamboat Springs Like so much about it, the exact height of Hell's Wall is up for debate.
"Between 80 and 100 feet," 22-year-old Steamboat Springs extreme skier Kerry Lofy said. "Probably 90."
Gabe Nicholas, who lived in Steamboat for more than a decade, guessed a hair higher.
"I figured it's at least 100 feet," he said, trying to remember the massive rock wall that awaits skiers brave - and foolhardy - enough to venture through the out-of-bounds gates at Steamboat Ski Area.
Lofy thought again.
"It's 120 feet without any snow," he said.
He certainly got a good look.
Lofy spent 30 minutes last week standing on the edge of the cliff, eagerly peering over as his friends and, on this day, documenters, skied, climbed and crawled into position to photograph and videotape what was about to happen.
And then, as the sun ducked between the clouds on the front edge of a spring storm, he jumped.
'My true passion'
The son of two ski patrollers, Wisconsin-born Kerry Lofy has been skiing longer than he can remember.
"It's the only thing I'm really good at," he said Thursday, "Well, not the only thing. I'm good at other things, but skiing is my true passion."
His skiing dreams were strong enough that he moved to Steamboat Springs four years ago and consistent enough that he has worked to master nearly every element of the sport.
He has competed as a freestyle skier, then joined the Colorado Mountain College Alpine skiing team after moving to Steamboat.
He competed a year ago on the skier cross circuit but still coaches in the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Alpine Program.
None of it has been enough to hold his attention, however.
"I just get bored easily," he said, shaking his unkempt hair with a laugh. "I've done it all. Extreme skiing is the one discipline that incorporates everything together."
He spent this winter on an extreme skiing circuit across the region. Competitions led him to heli-skiing adventures in Telluride and over a series of large cliffs near Aspen.
He never forgot the cliff that looms over out-of-bounds skiers at Steamboat, however.
"If you go out of bounds and into Fish Creek Canyon, there are only so many runs, and you can see the wall from half of them," he said. "I just looked at it and - wow. Sick."
'A beautiful cliff'
Among the lingering questions about Hell's Wall - all 80, 90 or 120 feet of it - is how many people actually have jumped it.
The harrowing jump is highly treacherous and not at all recommended for skiers, snowboarders or daredevils. It should, at the very least, only be attempted by those with vast jumping experience and skill.
The number of jumpers may be as low as four. There are rumors of someone in the 1980s making the leap, though at this point, that's little more than a story.
Gabe Nicholas certainly jumped it.
"I did it in January of 2003," he said, speaking over the phone from his home in Lexington, Ky.
His feat was featured almost a year later in the December 2003 edition of Skiing magazine.
"It really is a beautiful cliff," the extreme skier turned civil engineer said. "We called it the crown jewel of Steamboat."
Nicholas and Lofy each spent about two weeks before the jump thoroughly scouting the takeoff and landing points.
Aware of the danger, Lofy brought along two friends with EMT training and slipped word to other friends on ski patrol and search and rescue.
Just getting to the top of the wall can be difficult.
"The approach is really steep," Nicholas explained.
He made the jump by pushing away from a tree line about 50 yards above the cliff, then making a few turns before going over.
"You have to follow this spine. It's narrow. Off to the left, it goes down into a meat grinder and to the right, it's death, too," he said. "It was like skiing on top of a church.
"I made about four turns. It happens fast."
Nicholas said he flew off and stuck the landing. He lost a ski on impact but still coasted away through a cloud of snow.
Lofy, who perched atop the edge of the cliff and jumped instead of skiing down from the trees, also lost a ski.
He said it's a far more complex operation than simply hurling oneself over a cliff in hopes of a safe landing, and he only tried the Wall after having spent a lifetime managing smaller jumps and a winter knocking out more treacherous ones on the freestyle skiing tour.
Seven feet of fresh snow last week convinced him the conditions were good enough. He used more than half of that cushion when he landed.
"I was four feet deep in the snow," he said. "Then I got out, yelled and did a front flip."
'It opened a lot of doors'
Nicholas' feature photo in Skiing a year later was only the start of his Hell's Wall huck's side effects.
"It opened a lot of doors for me," he said. "I started shooting with more photogs, which led to more publications. I was in Powder magazine twice, Skiing three times."
He even landed a few equipment sponsorships out of the deal.
Lofy has similar ambitions. He had six friends along to help record the experience, three with cameras and three with video cameras and hopes to land one of the photos in a magazine.
Lofy graduated from CMC and plans to return to school and pursue a career in the medical field. But his season of big mountain skiing, capped by the Hell's Wall jump, could mark the beginning of something entirely different.
"It's not about the money," he explained, contemplating some sort of daredevil skiing career. "I just always have to push the envelope."
In fact, he might not even be finished with one of Routt County's most treacherous leaps.
"In competition, you might hit three or four big cliffs," he said. "I usually will do a front flip or a trick. I was debating that for Hell's Wall.
"I think I might go back and do it."
He paused for a moment, waiting to add some certainty to a foggy section of Steamboat lore.
"Yeah," he said. "I will."