Adventure athlete profile: Sam Smoothy
When I called Sam Smoothy at our prearranged interview time, the phone went unanswered. ‘Odd,’ I thought to myself, ‘this bloke is a professional athlete’.
When I eventually got a hold of Sam later that day, he apologised profusely, explaining that when he left home for the beach it was a typical misty New Zealand South Island morning, but by the time he got there the sun was out. Gazing at the surf, he had forgotten to turn off his headlights and by the time he got out of the water to head back home his battery was flat.
While surfing is a passion of Sam’s, it’s certainly not the sport in which he’s made a name for himself. No, Sam Smoothy is known the world over for his exploits on snow, competing successfully for many years on the Freeride World Tour and starring in several ski movies.
A mountain town childhood
Sam grew up in Wanaka, known as the gateway to New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and with mountaineering parents it’s little wonder he learnt from the
age of two.
“I basically grew up skiing at Treble Cone ski resort,” Sam says. “I was really just pottering around the mountain with my little buddies and then we all got into ski racing.”
“I ski raced giant slalom and slalom until I was 17, and by that stage freeskiing had come along and I thought that looked like a good lark. We were sneaking off from race training to go do jumps and stuff anyway… so I moved into freeskiing and started doing a lot of Slopestyle, Halfpipe, Big Airs and things, just trying anything, a whole new style of skiing, and I had an absolute ball.”
By the time Sam was in his early 20s, he realised his talents lay in freeskiing, so he spent a few years competing in qualifier events for the Freeride World Tour. These were tough, self-funded years, and although there was one qualifier event in NZ, Sam had to pay his way to events in Europe and North America.
“I had small amounts of sponsorship then, I was lucky to have what I had, but still, it didn’t really cover much of the costs so in the off-season I’d be working my arse off at anything to raise funds for heading overseas… there were definitely quite a few years of grind before I managed to break through.”
That breakthrough came in 2010 when Sam was ranked in the top three on the qualifying circuit, which meant he would be on the Freeride World Tour the following year.
“My first year wasn’t very successful, I’d sustained some injuries on the qualifying circuit and those hampered me. You have to re-qualify at the end of each year for the World Tour as well, your results from the tour… and I didn’t actually make it.” Sam says. “I was pretty much like ‘Wow, you’ve tried, and you failed [laughs] and you’ve got a mountain of debt, maybe it’s time to give it up.”
Fortunately for Sam, a couple of his competitors injured themselves, and he was given a wildcard to compete in 2012. He won his first event that year and was leading the tour before the final round. There was to be no fairy-tale ending, however. “I didn’t actually manage to win the tour that year, I fell at the last event, but that was enough to have big companies like The North Face come knocking at my door and sign me up to contract, so I finally sort of made it as a professional skier that actually has, you know, made some money as opposed to just getting a pile of skis,” Sam laughs.
In addition to fighting for wins on the world tour, over the next couple of years Sam started doing some film work with a couple of European ski movie companies, then his big break came.
“In 2015 I won this competition, one of the world’s top ones, in Andorra (Spain) and the whole thing went pretty viral,” Sam says. “It was a pretty cool line, and TGR (Teton Gravity Research) picked up the phone and asked if I wanted to go and ski in Alaska with some of their big names for the next movie, so off I went and had an absolutely insane trip in Alaska, going heliskiing with some incredible skiers, and that’s pretty much what has become my main focus now, making ski movies.”
Of course, freeskiing is not without its risks, and one of the pieces of freeskiing footage Sam is most famous for is also one he’d probably rather forget, when he suffered a massive crash in Austria in 2019 that almost ended his life.
“Yeah, that was a solid beating,” Sam says of the crash. “It was really big. There was the obvious physical trauma, but also the fact that I’d had a seizure, it became quite an issue to overcome mentally.”
After the crash Sam started to feel the pressure of performing to a high global standard, and it led him to question why he was doing it. “It was a really big wake-up call, to be really honest with myself about how I was approaching things, and really trying to improve that margin of safety,” Sam says.
“It’s something I still really try and work on; it’s an ever-evolving process when you’re dealing with such
a high amount of variables that you have in a
mountainous environment, so it’s something you’ve got to be hyper-vigilant on.
“I’m definitely more inclined to err on the side of caution now. I still have big goals that I want to ski and achieve, but there’s more to life now than just skiing… you need to be honest with what the conditions and what the mountain is telling you, and really listen to that and make sure you’re making smart decisions and working with people that also feel the same way.”
It’s this attitude Sam took with him on his recent ski descent of Mount Cook’s Caroline Face, which he describes as “one of the biggest if not the baddest faces of New Zealand’s Southern Alps”. Sam admits he’d been looking at this descent for close to 10 years.
“I’ve been looking at how I would ski it for many, many years, and then just talking with people who have climbed it, trying to work out when the good conditions are, what kind of storms might produce the conditions that you need, what kind of seasons even, because the ice cliffs change year to year depending on snowfall and a variety of factors, and sometimes it doesn’t come into condition at all, all the ice cliffs are formed poorly, so I’ve just been monitoring it while I build my skillset up,” Sam says.
“I also had to find new people to ski with because a lot of the people I have been skiing with for a long time in New Zealand are incredible skiers but it’s really a mountaineering objective; I needed people that have even stronger
mountaineering skills than my own, so I went about that as part of the process and met some incredible guys, Will [Rowntree] and Joe [Collinson], and was finally convinced that we had the conditions, and we had the team and the skills. We flew in there and had a look at it and even then we still probably talked for two hours in the hut, and came around to the fact that yeah, we’re going to give it a go.”
And give it a go they did, completing the ski descent on 21 October, 2021. The footage from the descent is stunning, and you can watch it here.
A winter affair
Sam has recently featured in a new film called A Winter Affair which is about an attempt to climb Mount Tasman, New Zealand’s second highest peak.
“A Winter Affair is basically a project led by my friend Janina Kuzma who’s another The North Face professional skier from Wanaka,” Sam explains. “She set up a few objectives for her winter and I was involved in one of them where we tried to climb Mount Tasman, New Zealand’s second highest peak, from the West Coast, and ski the Stevenson-Dick Couloir, and it was a really great trip.
Unfortunately, the team didn’t quite make the summit, but they got close. “We got some pretty horrific conditions, as does happen in New Zealand – it can get pretty wild up there… we didn’t quite make the summit thanks to some gale-force winds on the top, we got to within 250m of the summit or something, heinously close… so we turned around but I managed to ski the Couloir in horrific conditions. It was just full ice, but I’ve gotten pretty used to skiing crap snow and it was like back to racing days, just short turns on icy hardpack, so it was a great mission with a lot of laughs, we had a lot of fun doing it and it’s just such an incredibly beautiful place to spend four days camping in the glacier and just being completely isolated from the rest of the world, and just there with some great friends.”
Always looking to improve
Despite his immense experience in the mountains, Sam is never one to stop learning, and is currently upskilling to become a NZGMA (New Zealand Mountain Guides Association) guide. When asked of his motivation to behind this new challenge, he laughs, “Because I’m an unqualified ski bum and I need a job!”
On a more serious note, he adds, “I think it’s smart, I’ve come this far with my skills, but I should get an accreditation that would enable me to work in doing something that I love after pro skiing has had its way with me. I think even if I never work as a guide, I think it’s just a great way to really improve my safety skillset, learn a whole bunch of new ways of doing things, and just make me a better operator in the mountains altogether… I’ll have a better understanding of how to keep others safe as well as myself, so it just seems like a natural progression to me and time well spent, just continuing to develop and learn.”
After competing as a pro in the Freeride World Tour, making a name for himself in ski movies, and conquering the descent of Caroline Face, what’s next for Sam? How about climbing all 24 of NZ’s 3000m-plus peaks. “Very few people have climbed all 24 peaks… and nobody has skied them all. I don’t actually think you could ski all of them, but I’d be really interested to see how many I could ski…”
Sam says he’s not putting a timeframe on his 24-peaks quest, and is well aware that he might have to wait several years until conditions are just right, especially if he wants to ski the peaks. “I’d rather do the ones I can in good style and safely than try and force the issue by putting a time limit on it,” he says.
One of those peaks is the 3033m Mount Aspiring, up which Sam recently took a ‘shortcut’ When he describes this climb there’s no hiding the excitement in his voice. “When we did Aspiring, I climbed a route on the right side, the shortest piece of the south face up to the Coxcomb Ridge on Aspiring, with good friend and mentor Gavin Lang, who is an incredible mountaineering guide…
“I mean that was just a beautiful day out… I’ve climbed Aspiring two other times, and both times got cloud at the summit, and I really wanted to see the full view of my homeland as I’ve always dreamed of from the top of the mountain, and we finally got there and it was a really magical day out, and I never really felt anything but just trying to have the best time, so that was a really special one.”
“Sorry, I just stood in paint,” Sam suddenly laughs. “I’m renovating a house and I stood in a massive puddle of paint.” It seems even mountaineers have to come back down to earth sometimes.