25 Nov 2012

Sit skier Josh Dueck reaches new heights in The Freedom Chair

Cliff jumps, backflips, and powder snow so deep you need to dig out the snorkel – allegorical staples of the ubiquitous “extreme” ski movie.  Then along came Josh Dueck.  He isn’t your average skier. In fact he’s never been your average skier.  And his film The Freedom Chair has changed the sport forever.

Dueck thinks nothing of “hucking” 30ft drop offs deep in the Canadian back country.  So what?  Well, he does it in a sit-ski – a kind of chair on a ski designed for wheelchair users.  And earlier this year he successfully landed the first ever backflip – yes, on a sit ski.

I saw The Freedom Chair during the Paralympics this summer, and vowed to track this Dueck chap down.  I wanted to figure out what makes him tick.  Were the risks he was taking really worth the buzz?  And how on earth did they make the film?

Josh’s story starts a decade ago, when a flip on skis went wrong.

He recalls in The Freedom Chair how “the weight of my ski boots smacked me in the back of my head and it was lights out”.  He’d broken his back.  He returned to the mountains within months, in a sit-ski – but was restricted to the kind of skiing he’d always mocked: wearing spandex, on the racecourse.

Paralympic Success

Nonetheless he found great success – triumphed at the Paralympics and X Games.  But he was missing something.  The freedom of the back country.

“I’m not a ski racer – I’m a free skier”, and, he says in his film, without giving his dream an honest effort – he knew he would never be happy.

And it was with Josh’s apparent quest for personal nirvana resonating that I met him at the Kendal Mountain Festival in the Lake District last week.

Watch The Freedom Chair and you’ll understand in an instant why it’s not just another ski movie.

It has the azure skies and deep deep back-country snow. It has the insane cliff jumps.  But its terrain few in a sit-ski have ever nailed before.  Its narrative is simply irresistible.

Awards nomination

And it’s wowed audiences, indeed collected awards the world over. Earned Josh a nomination for National Geographic Adventurer of The Year.

But watching it is one thing.  Producing it was clearly another.  How on earth does one make a ski flick in the backwoods of beyond – with a guy who can’t walk around and inspect his terrain?

Can’t hike up, down and around the big jumps he routinely soars over?  It meant stretching “trust” to its limits.  It meant, Josh told me, having “100 per cent faith” in the judgement of the people that he was working with.

For the production team it meant a very different kind of pressure.  Pro freeskier Mike Douglas produced and directed The Freedom Chair.

He’d known Josh for a long time – and that was crucial.  Because “when it came to some of the bigger cliffs” Mike explained, “I would help map it out – but Josh really had to rely that we were sending him the right way”

And laughing, the casual aside that underpinned the whole project: “I’m impressed that he trusts me that much – I’m not sure I’d trust myself that much!”

‘Step outside comfort zone’

But while making his first film, Josh had another idea. He wanted – in his words – to “step outside the comfort zone” – and attempt the first ever backflip in a sit ski. The kind of stunt that had put him there in the first place.

The risk of sustaining another traumatic injury weighed heavy – and Josh says he “contemplated it deeply”.

“Is it fair”, he says he asked himself, “to my family, and my wife, just for my desire to do something scary?”.

The answer, he concluded, was no – unless absolutely everything could be controlled. So, he practised – again and again on an airbag.

Then his friends built a jump designed specifically for a sit ski. It sat unused in the British Columbia back-country for three weeks until the weather cleared. With several feet of soft fresh snow.  The backflip was on.

It took him seven attempts to get it absolutely right – one involved landing on his head with 40lbs of sit ski crashing down on top of him.

‘The money shot’

But a black eye later – and an hour sat quietly gathering himself for another run – Josh delivered what they call in the business ‘the money shot’.

The perfect backflip on a sit ski – the perfect landing – all on camera. Josh hooning off down the mountain, fist raised, into the distance.

And when I asked him to describe to me the sensation of ‘going upside down on snow’ his voice, his face, his entire body glowed as if lit by a dazzling winter sun.

“That moment of anticipation, when everything builds,” he recalls, and then paused before adding: “you can feel the breeze, and the wind – you see horizon the come and the sky go – then you bring it around”

Josh’s arms rise slowly to his sides, his focus shifts subtly to the far distance, his hands circle slowly in sync with his thoughts.

“It’s the best that I can put words to it – it’s incredible.”

I guess one can say that yes, Josh Dueck – freeskier – is happy.