051: Mike Hattrup: The World Of Extreme Skiing
The whole game has changed in terms of the way people train today, especially in extreme sports. Legendary skier and erstwhile actor in Blizzard of Aahhh’s, Mike Hattrup can attest to that fact that everything seems to be much more organized at a much younger age. From weight training to all these other things that help lead towards being better at your particular craft. But despite all these modern men of steel, Mike remains unfazed. He understands that Sun Valley is not an easy place to work, but it’s also made him valuable. Mike Hattrup is on the pulse; he’s not sitting in an office in the city. This legendary skier prides himself with his direct connection to the community.
Listen to the podcast here:
Mike Hattrup: The World Of Extreme Skiing
I was living in Hermosa Beach and I was talking to Mike Hattrup. Between when we originally recorded it from Hermosa Beach all the way to Sun Valley, somewhere in there, I ended up buying a house here. Mike, how are you doing? You are my official new neighbor. You’re literally 75 yards away from my front door.
You made a good move. You’ll find that. I think you know that.
I do know that. I’m coming here on the tail-end of ski season. I’ve been coming over here for years. You’ve been living here for 24 years. Every single time I left Sun Valley, back in destination to Seattle or LA, I always had this sinking feeling. There’s no other place I’ve ever been in the world where I have that, “I’ve got to leave.” Sun Valley’s got that draw.
That’s for sure. Through my time in the ski industry, I’ve been to every major ski resort in the US. When I finally realized I want to live in the mountains, it was an easy decision for me. I came straight here.
You and I met back in college probably as freshmen. You were in one fraternity, I was in another. I was playing football. Something that was very distinctive that everybody knew about you was that you were this exceptional skier. The first thing I want to ask you is where did that come from? We grew up in the same town in Seattle and I played football and basketball and baseball at the same time. I don’t think I started skiing until about ninth grade, you probably started skiing earlier. Where was that? How did you get sticky in terms of your attraction to skiing?
My mom skied a little bit. She wasn’t a big skier. She didn’t grow up skiing but she learned sometime in college. She introduced us to skiing from the first time. I remember my first day still and I was hooked from the very beginning. Like you, I played everything growing up from soccer to volleyball and hockey and baseball, but skiing was the one thing that lit a fire for me.
[Tweet “Skiing was the one thing that lit a fire for me.”]
In Sun Valley you have a son that’s very talented, Axel.
Son and daughter. My daughter is very good too.
You’re a product of your environment. We’re literally across the street from the mountain.
They have no idea how spoiled they are. I told them that we used to drive an hour and a half to two hours to get to Crystal Mountain. They’re like, “You drove two hours to go skiing?” It’s like, “Yeah, and I only had one pair of skis too.” They’re both on the race team, they’ve got four or five pairs of skis and walks to the lifts and ski five to six days a week.
To your point, they are on a ski team. It’s part of the curriculum at school. With you back in those days, was there a ski team or a club team or anything in high school or growing up? How did that work?
We ended up buying a cabin with some friends up at Crystal Mountain, so we shared a cabin with some good friends of ours. That was where we spent all of our weekends and all of our Christmas breaks and spring breaks. There’s a race team up there but you had to live up there. There was no chance for me to do that nor was I interested in racing. I was interested in skiing moguls at the time. I learned to ski in the ‘70s when freestyle was at a peak. That’s what caught my eye and that’s what attracted me.
In college, around the time that you and I got to know each other, were you starting to get involved in more competitive races, bump races going down the mountain?
Yeah, I started as a freshman before, maybe as a senior in high school that I did my first competitions and did well. My team was taking winter quarters off from college, stretching a four‑year education into seven.
What did you call you guys? You called yourself the dirty rats or something?
The Goon Squad.
I heard from Dennis McNamara who was one of those guys that referred to you guys as a group. There was about six of you?
Yeah, six to eight, something like that.
Were you anchored in Sun Valley? Were you going to Tahoe? Where were you skiing?
We were all over. Goon Squad was a bunch of Seattle freestyle skiers. Everybody was all over the place, but there was a core of them when we came here first to Sun Valley. I went to Seattle Prep and Seattle U. There was a program called Matteo Ricci College where you go three years to prep and then three years to Seattle U. You’ve got a BA in Humanities in six years instead of eight, so your senior year of high school you spent at Seattle University. By the time I graduated from Seattle University, I had a full year of college credits. That’s when I went. I can take a winter off and still be ahead of all my peers seven years later.
Where did the trajectory of knowing or putting your eye on the ball? For me, I played for Roosevelt High School and I was very fortunate to get a scholarship at the University of Washington, but I still didn’t have it in my mind about what that meant and where I was going with that. It took a couple of years before I clued in. The end game was because a number of my teammates were going on into the NFL, that was something that I started to turn my focus on in terms of like, “This is what I want to do, but this is what I need to do to get to that point.” For you, how did that all mix together?
The goal was to try and get on the US Freestyle team. The Northwest had a small competition circuit, and so me and the Goon Squad, a handful of those guys, went down to Squaw Valley where they had a much bigger competition field. That was after moving here to Sun Valley. Sun Valley to Squaw Valley, then we moved to Colorado where there were 100 competitors at every race. All over the West, I competed. You’ve got to compete against different fields and different competitors and also experience all those different ski areas and cultures, what they were like, because they were all different. In Colorado was where the US Team Coach was and that’s why we ended up there for several years.
It is the arch then to make the US ski team and then once you proved yourself there, that is the platform that you then get chosen to go onto the Olympic team?
Yes. When I was competing, freestyle was not an Olympic sport. In 1988, it was a demonstration sport, so that was the year I was shooting for to be on the Olympic team. I just made the US team, so to have a shot at the Olympics was a pie in the sky. I was a super long shot.
Outside of just you then just in terms of the mechanics of it, so the pie in the sky was that it would have had to become a demonstration sport. You were saying that they didn’t have it at the Olympics at that point?
Right. It wasn’t an official event. I don’t know if they do it every year but every now and then, there are different events that say, “We want to be an Olympic event,” and they usually get a demonstration. If you’re lucky you get a demonstration, you get a chance to go, so you compete at the Olympics and whether that happens, whether they adopt that sport, depends on a number of different things. I don’t know exactly what those are, but freestyle made and it continues. Moguls is still in the Olympics.
You go to Colorado, you’re competing against pretty good field of skiers that can do this along with the Goon Squad, and you made the team. How many guys did they take on the team?
On the mogul team, there may have been six guys. It’s a small group for sure.
It’s a pretty elite group. That’s awesome.
You’ve got to put it in context. It’s a small field of people competing. It’s not like high school football where there are thousands and thousands of kids playing high school football. There are not that many people competing in moguls around the US. It’s a pretty small circle.
It is a small circle, but somebody has got to be there. They’ve got to pick somebody. Even though that might be a small group, it’s still a niche that has a lot of people trying to do what you did, either you make it or you don’t make it, and you made it. How did that first year go?
The first year went short. I was in Steamboat training for the first event and I crashed and tore my ACL, so that was pretty much it. At the time we all thought, “The ACL is a bad one. The meniscus isn’t so bad,” and mine was completely severed so I had two choices, either get it fixed right away or get a brace and go compete because people do function without ACL, so I’ve got a brace and went to Lake Placid for the First World Cup to ski in that. It was rock hard icy moguls and it was brutal, nothing you’d ever ski for fun. I crashed there and torn my meniscus and, in retrospect, that was the worst one because that one will haunt you. You can get a new ACL, but meniscus doesn’t recover. Two years ago now, I had my knee replaced because of that.
Especially too when you’re going down bumps, it’s like your knees or your shock absorbers. Maybe if you’re talking about your shoulder or your elbow or your hand joint or something, your fingers, it’s a different animal, but the legs and the knees are everything in that sport coming down that mountain.
That’s one of the things the doc said with replaced knee, no more icy moguls. I was like, “I’m north of 50. That’s an easy sacrifice.” I have been trying to avoid them for the last twenty years anyways.
I can completely appreciate that. The name of this podcast is called Finding Your Summit. At this point, talk about adversity that you’ve got to go through to where do you go from now because you’re on a certain trajectory in your life. You’re thinking you just made this team, you’re ecstatic, and all of a sudden, the moment hits. What do you do?
You take a step back. The way I looked at it is I’ll get my knee fixed and I’ve got a shot at this next year, so I can go back and do it next year. Still at 22 years old, it’s devastating to have your dreams dashed like that because that was my first big life disappointment. As a 22-year-old, that’s a hard thing to swallow. Of course in retrospect, everybody goes through hardships like this and it’s what you do with it on the other end. My attitude was get the knee fixed, I still got a spot, and I’ll go back and ski next year. I didn’t. I had a spot to go, but I ended up going to Chamonix to shoot a film instead.
Certainly from a career standpoint, it ended up being a much better move because the film we shot was Blizzard of Aahhhs, which despite being twenty plus years old now is a classic. It was for a number of different reasons, but it ended up being a good thing. It was a ton of fun and that led me down the path that I’m on now from a guiding standpoint. The Chamonix, the big mountains there, we skied in some wild places. I knew I had no business being there without a guide, but I was drawn to that terrain, so it was either hire a guide every time I go out, I wasn’t interested nor did I have the money to do that or go learn those skills yourself. That’s the path that I ended up going down.
Greg Stump is a film producer, and about that same time, Warren Miller was doing a bunch of movies.
Warren had been doing movies for 30 or 40 years at that point. Stump was new. You’ll get a kick out of this. Warren Miller would go all over the US and all over the world and shoot great footage and come back and show it. He’d have a little segment on each area he went to, but he didn’t know any of the people in the film and you saw him one year and then he was gone. Stump’s vision for this was to recreate in skiing the NFL through interview with players and talk to them about Super Bowl game and the plays, what they were thinking and what they were feeling. That’s what he was trying to recreate with a ski film. Because of that, he got to know the people in the movie. He only had a few skiers instead of 30 different skiers. There was three or five and you’ve got to know those people. The other reason that made that movie such a classic was it came out right when VHS came out, so it was one of the first ski films that you could own. Before that, it came to your local theater in the fall and you watched it and then it went away, whereas this one, people owned and they watched it over and over again. We run into people who can recite a bunch of the lines from the movie that they watched it every day that wore out their tape.
I’ve seen some of that stuff and it was you and it was Glen Plake, the guy with the big fan Mohawk. Who else was in there?
Scot Schmidt was the other one.
You were the three main characters. You were ahead of your time. From the standpoint of this reality TV has taken over and so you would beam them in. I remember watching a movie, but seeing these clips of you hanging out in the chalet or wherever you were and drinking beers or whatever, you’re talking about the day or goofing off, it was great footage. It was just going back to that reality TV. It seemed like it was that before it became what it is today.
That’s an interesting take. I never thought about it that way, but it was. I guess it was reality TV before it exploded.
It was reality TV on tape. It’s delayed twenty years. That’s awesome. How many movies did you make in all? That must have been a blast. You’re hanging out with your best buddies. You are going all over the world being paid to do what you love.
It was a lot of fun. It wasn’t anything that you can make a living at like people are now, but when we were doing it, if you’ve got to be in a ski movie, that was it. You went and skied in a movie, but it was cool because I’ve got to travel all over places that I wouldn’t have gone to. We’ve got to do a lot of special things, helicopter skiers and these events that we wouldn’t have gotten on by ourselves. It was a special time. As far as how many movies I did, I’m not sure how many it was. I don’t know, maybe there’s a dozen somewhere around there. Some were bigger than others.
I’ve got zero, so that’s not on my resume. The NFL though is another one of those places where people will aspire to go play which I did and you get to make a little bit more money, probably than you did in those days shooting movies, but you don’t take your team and like, “We’re going to Switzerland.” We can play maybe one or twice a year in Europe, London, or someplace, but it wasn’t where you’re literally transforming yourself. One of the places that I’ve gotten to in my life and it’s taken me a long time to figure this out, is leading more of a life of purpose versus necessarily chasing the dollar. The NFL case, I was doing that for the love of the game, but in so many cases you say, “I can’t do that. I’d love to do that by I can’t” just because you’re driven by responsibilities and you can’t go do that. To have that in your back pocket and with those guys, what a special time and what a great memory.
No question, and like you I did it for the love of the game, but unlike you, it didn’t come with a paycheck. You can go to all those places on your own, but I always looked at it as more a life of balance. Purpose is another way to say that. I never chased the paycheck either. It was more about lifestyle and experiences. Certainly, I have a wealth of experiences from all over the planet from that standpoint.
[Tweet “I never chased the paycheck either. It was more about lifestyle and experiences.”]
Give me a quick story. There must be something like they dropped you out of a helicopter at 30,000 feet and landed and off you went. I’m making that up, but was there a scene or two where you look back on it and you’re going, “Maybe that wasn’t the best idea?”
There are a few of those. One of them was that film Blizzard of Aahhhs in Chamonix and we had been there for a week and it had puked snow for a week. We never got up high. Finally the first sunny day, we’ve got to go up high in the Aiguille du Midi. It’s this ancient tram that was built in 1953 and this old rickety Volkswagen box that you ride up in and you are hundreds of feet above the ground in places and it’s caught a big rock. The tram goes right into a buck across this bridge that spans two needles. You go in through a tunnel of that and then you come out on this ridge line. The ridge line drops away maybe a thousand feet to one side and probably 5,000 eventually it goes all the way down to Chamonix on the other. We were planning on skiing down but we’re walking down this thing. Scott is looking over the edge at the steep couloir and Greg says, “You want to ski that, Scott?” and he goes, “Yeah, I’ll ski it.” Remember, I’m a ski area boy. I grew up skiing at Crystal Mountain and I’ve never had a harness on. I’ve never had an avalanche beacon on. I’ve never had an ice axe in my hand. I’m looking at this thing and it evens and drops out of sight and you go, “Holy shit.” He passed a can across to me and says, “Mike, do you want to ski it?” Inside I’m saying, “No,” but this meek little, “Yeah,” comes out and you can practically see the fear in my eyes through the mirrored lenses I’m wearing.
That was the first time I had skied something like that. I’ve got partway down this thing and my ski hit a rock and then my ski went shooting down to the bottom of this couloir. We’ve got a guide who’s from New Zealand and in his heavy New Zealand accent he says, “Mike, your skis stopped on the other side of a bergschrund so come in from the side.” I’m coming down there and I don’t know what a bergschrund is and I don’t know what he’s talking about. I get down there and I listened to them and I come in from the side. My ski was on the downside of a big crevasse and I went, “That’s what he’s talking about.”
You were not roped in. You go to this thing and you were going to some other country.
I’m as green as can be. I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. That was my introduction to the big mountains in reality.
Fortunately, nobody got hurt in that story. Hopefully in some of the other movies you did, nobody got hurt.
There was no major.
You’re progressing, you’re moving on in your career. I read that you became one of the first Americans to be the certified AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide. What does that stand for?
That’s American Mountain Guide Association.
How do you get that certification?
That goes back to that whole situation that I described. I liked being in this area. It’s cool. It’s unbelievable. It’s raw, it’s fierce. I have no business being out here. I started taking crevasse rescue courses and avalanche courses. At the time, there was an International Ski Guide Association or International Mountain Guide Association, but there wasn’t anything in the states for skiing. I went to Mount Rainier and started guiding on Rainier for the education. Shortly after I started guiding there, the AMGA, the Guide Association here in America developed a ski course. That’s why I was one of the first ones because I was one of the first ones in the program and there was a handful of us, single digits, to be certified to go through the program.
Did that lead you to where you are at today where you’re taking people over to France and Switzerland and other places to guide them on skis, ski touring?
There are different levels of certification. In the states, there are three different disciplines. There’s skiing, rock, and alpine. Alpine is climbing something like Rainier or the Matterhorn. To be an international guide, you need all three credentials. That’s what you need to guide in Europe, most of Europe. It’s different for every country. I’ve ski certified so I can guide ski mountaineering stuff in the States, but most of Europe, I can’t anymore because they’ve changed the rules there. To get those certifications, you’ve got to have years of experience of guiding trips, of climbing different peaks and traverses, and then there are two courses. There are two-week to ten-day courses for the AMGA that you have to go through, and then there’s another eight-day exam. My exam was over in Switzerland, great spot, but also an intimidating spot because it’s big and it’s raw. It’s different when you think about most of the back-country skiing in the US. You’re going out on a ski tour to ski this beautiful powder smoke. There’s avalanche hazard, which is dangerous, but it doesn’t look dangerous. It looks inviting. It’s a foot of new snow that’s sparkling in the sun and it’s perfect pitch. It looks all but inviting. Over in Europe, you’ve got crevasses, big glaciers, seracs, icefall, rock fall, and big rocks. It can be intimidating over there.
At what point in this long ski career that you’ve had does reality kick in and you’re like, “Movies are great. They don’t pay anything. I can’t ski anymore for the US ski team, so now I have to go to work?” You went to work for K2, right?
Yeah, I went to work for K2 right out of college. The year I got back from Chamonix shooting the Blizzard of Aahhhs, I got hired by K2. I worked at K2 two until a year and a half ago. I switched to Fischer Skis so I’m working for them now. My guiding and time in the backcountry helped my career at K2 as well because I started a backcountry division for them and ran that for years. Now I’m working for Fischer in a similar capacity.
What does that mean exactly? You get hired. You’re out promoting different products, their skis, and you’re also guiding. They’re allowing you to go over to Europe and do this guiding thing, this back country, and hopefully they’re going to use the K2 skis? How did that work?
I’m not guiding that much. I’m not a fulltime mountain guide. I don’t have the time to do that and work for a ski company. If either one of those was NFL wages, then I could do either. The work I do for Fischer now is promoting skis. It’s working with the Australian team to develop skis and boots and products, as well as market, promote, and sell it.
The best thing about that too is that you can remain in Sun Valley in Ketchum, Idaho.
For sure, which is unique. I’ve been lucky to be parked here for so long because there’s no ski company here and it’s not an easy place to work. The fact that I’m here has also made me valuable because I’m on the pulse. I’m not sitting in an office in the city without direct connection to that community.
I totally get that. It’s an opportunity for the company to have you there with your fingers right on the pulse.
As a guide, I’m talking to other guides and I’m guiding clients so I’m in touch with a lot of different people. The guiding in the States is very different than the guiding in Europe. You get to understand the different markets as well.
Didn’t you do Denali?
I did when I was guiding for Rainier Mountaineering.
Did you make it to the top?
I did and I vowed I’d never go back there again without skis because it’s a long walk down.
I’ve done it and I have to do it again. It sucks but it is what it is. I vowed that I’d never go back unless I was on skis and I had a ski up and ski down and I don’t have you to guide me unfortunately, so I have to pull my sled and put on my crampons and snowshoes and be on my way. It is what it is but fingers crossed, you know that it’s a tricky mountain and a lot of things are going on and the weather can be insane. I don’t know how it was for you when you’re up there.
We were there late in the year. We summitted in early July which is late in the climbing year. You’re going in May, that’s early. We didn’t have much tough weather except for summit day and we were the only ones on the summit. You’ve got your big thick 8,000-meter down parka and we were climbing in those. Usually those are for the rest breaks to sit down and put it on, but clay was blowing so hard, it was miserable up there. When we got to the top, “High fives and let’s get out of here.”
You made it man. You’ve got that one on your belt. That’s awesome.
If you’re going on skis, we’ll have to talk. Maybe I’ll try and join you.
I’d love to do that. You can still talk me out of it. I’m happy to do that. What else are you doing in your life? You’re skiing, you’re guiding, you’re living in Sun Valley, now you’re working for Fischer, you’ve got two small kids. Your son, he’s fourteen now? The guy is an insanely fantastic skier. That’s the product of raising a child at the base of the mountain.
For sure, and my daughter is a good skier as well. Both of them beat me in a race course and she’s only twelve. They’re both great skiers. It’s growing up at the base of the mountain, but they’ve also been on the Sun Valley Ski Team, the race team, from an early age, so they’ve had great coaching. I hate to say it, but they wouldn’t be as good a skier as if it was just me teaching them. They’ve got unbelievable coaching staff there and they’re producing unreal skiers.
The whole game has changed in terms of the way people train today versus when you and I were going up. There aren’t select teams and club teams. Everything seems to be much more organized at a much younger age, from weight training to all these other things that helped lead towards being better at that particular craft that you’re trying to do. It’s no different in skiing here in California. These kids are up 6:00 AM, they’re down on the beach surfing. There is a surf school. If your kids lived out here on the beach, they’d probably be fantastic surfers. It’s a product of their environment which has created what they are today. I’m not sure where that’s going to take them both, but I’ve seen video. He is a mountain biker too, your son. He’s bound to go do something athletic like that.
He certainly has a passion for both and hopefully he can stay injury-free. We’ll see how long the passion lasts.
Mike, we spent a lot of time talking about the guiding that you do in the states and in Europe. Is that open to the public?
What do you mean? Can anybody sign up?
Do you have a place where people sign up where you guide people around?
I guide for two different groups. One is Pro Ski Service and he’s out of north bend in Seattle or just outside of Seattle. He’s a Swiss guy who got a ski shop there called Pro Ski Service. He guides trips all over Europe as well as Japan and South America. Then there’s another group, Sun Valley Trekking, that I guide for here locally. Anybody can sign up for those trips and you need to be a pretty good skier, depending on the trip and the intensity. For most of the European trips, they’re week-long trips and you’re climbing board of 5,000 or 6,000 feet a day and so they’re long days but it’s super rewarding and spectacular terrain.
We are about equally the same age. Pretty much all my athletic skills have gone out the window. The only thing I can still do is ski. Not your level, but I can still go up there and feel like I was when I was 22 years old for a bit. It brings me some joy, so I definitely want to be one of those guys on one of your tracks. It’s been a remarkable story. You’ve always been a great friend to me and I appreciate that so much. You’re the envy of many that you get to live in this ski town and work in the ski industry and you’ve been able to do that for a long time. You’ve always had a great way about you and the way you see the world, so I appreciate that.
Thanks very much. It’s been fun. I look forward to getting with you.
Thanks. See you.