Steamboat Springs This was the moment Steamboat Springs snowboarder Chris Rhodes had anticipated for 13 years.
He roped in, got to a ledge he built and put on his snowboard. He cleared his mind.
“I shut everything off,” Rhodes said. “I sort of blacked out and focused on doing exactly what I needed to do.”
He radioed down to buddies below and to photographer Aryeh Copa, who was waiting one-quarter mile across Fish Creek Canyon.
Now was the time.
“I told myself, ‘You can do it. You can do it. Just do it. You’re here,’” Rhodes said. “I told the guys on the radio there was no time like the present. I shut my mind off, said a couple Hail Marys and Our Fathers.”
With that, Rhodes rode the spine at the top of Hell’s Wall in Fish Creek Canyon, popped off 5 feet before snow met cliff, did a grab and free fell to the landing. The cliff, which measures 80 to 120 feet tall, has become backcountry lore in Steamboat Springs.
Rhodes wasn’t the first snowboarder to drop the famed cliff, but he’s one of only a few.
“I think it’s definitely the biggest thing around here,” said skier Kerry Lofy, the person who most recently dropped Hell’s Wall in 2009. “It’s definitely the biggest around the ski area. For a snowboarder to do it is huge. ... I’m super stoked for Chris that he did it. It’s not for everyone, I can tell you that.”
The cliff is dangerous, and it takes a calculated person and a near-perfect landing for everything to go right.
The top portion of the cliff has at least a 50-degree slope. From there, the line rides a spine at the top with the same slope. On skier's left is the aptly named Chainsaw Gully. To the right are 90-foot lodgepole pines. One bad move and that’s it.
“It’s a death fall to the left and death fall to the right,” Rhodes said.
It takes someone with experience, like Rhodes.
He moved to Steamboat in 2000 from Ohio with worn-out ski boots and skis. His friend introduced him to snowboarding that year, and Rhodes was able to ski five days each week while going to class at Colorado Mountain College.
From there, Rhodes started to venture into the backcountry. He said that during the past 13 years, he has more days in the backcountry than at Steamboat Ski Area. He estimates he has dropped more than 600 cliffs and spent about 800 days in the backcountry.
“I’ve ridden past Hell’s Wall for 13 years,” he said. “I knew it was a possibility, but I just had to be 100 percent dialed on my research.”
With what he called “adrenaline-seeking behavior,” Rhodes knew this was the year.
He started casing the area early in the season and then got serious about it in late January. He probed the landing, packed in the top section and thought of every scenario.
He knew the landing spot was 25 feet wide, one side encased in giant boulders and the other in dead trees.
He waited and waited for the right conditions. Finally, after two recent storms hit, Wednesday felt like the right day. There was plenty of snow at the landing, and by about 2 p.m., the sun poked out.
Now was the time.
He rode off the spine, hucked himself, did a double mute grab and then went into the coffin position with his hands and arms across his chest to land.
He landed on his shoulders, back and tailbone and popped up.
The landing hole was the size of a Volkswagen bug. A 30-foot splash of powder flew out in every direction.
“The biggest thing was, it had been executed perfectly,” he said. “I over-prepared myself in every way I could.”
Rhodes rode down, had one beer at the T-Bar and then met his wife, two children and in-laws for dinner.
For him, it was a dream come true and just another day in Steamboat.
“People in Steamboat say you’re living the dream,” he said. “It’s so true. It really is.
"I love this place. The bottom line is, I love Steamboat. I love that canyon. That’s why I live here. That’s why I’m happy to have my wife, kids and business all here.”
To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com