With 47 winters under his belt since his mid-20s, Sam Masters has a thing or two to say about how to get the most out of your time on the snow.
What was your first experience with snow?
Falls Creek in Australia. I’ve got my parents to thank for that. Falls Creek was a great place to learn to ski. It’s super mellow and there used to be heaps of snow gums there; an incredibly beautiful endemic species.
The Falls Creek Ski Company has decided to remove most of them, which is a bit of a shame.
I had a helmet with SAM written on it. That was before most kids had helmets so if mum and dad wanted to know where I was they would just ask the liftie, “Have you seen Sam?” And they’d say, “He’s not here, he’s over on Ruined Castle.”
All T-bars and pomas at that stage except for the gully chair. You didn’t know anything different if you grow up skiing in Australia in the 1970s. You don’t think, “I wish I was skiing Japanese powder.”
Were you always a keen skier?
I wasn’t competitive or super-passionate about it. I would be happy to sit in the lodge and have a hot chocolate or play cards or read a book.
I think it was my last year in high school that I decided skiing was something I wanted to follow.
I don’t know. Who knows what occupies the mind of a teenage boy? Don’t even go there! Going back into the cesspool of my own teenage mind scares me.
But for whatever reasons - the innate beauty of the sport or the terrain in which you get to participate in - it draws you in.
I really started to get into it. I had a trail map of Whistler on my wall at school. If you were at school in the 80s and liked skiing, Whistler was the Shangra-la. Horizons weren’t that broad but it was regarded as a pretty cool place to ski. I’ve definitely come 180 degrees on that and now much prefer little resorts that have no one who skis better than me.
The worst thing in the world for me is to turn up at a ski resort and there’s a whole lot of super-hot skiers and snowboarders hopping out of their late model cars with all the latest equipment. I get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach because I know that there’s less powder for me.
Did you get to Whistler?
I did. It was quite a bit later. Somehow my parents convinced me to go to university (which I can tell any readers is a complete waste of time). The day after my last exam, I hopped on a plane to Vancouver and I went to Whistler and I got there in November and it was chocker full of Ozzies and Kiwis looking for jobs without any relevant experience - and that was definitely me. I couldn’t find anywhere to live or anywhere to work so I ended up in Banff and lived there for a year.
For the next little while I skied a lot in Austria, in the Arlberg region in a place called Lech. I’ve probably done seven or eight seasons there.
When I gave up any attempt at having a regular career and chucked it all in to work in the ski industry, that was in Thredbo, working as a rental boot fitter.
After that I came to New Zealand and was still alternating with seasons in Austria - and that is still one of my favourite places to ski. Everything - the culture, the mountains, the lift access and just the amount of snow they get.
Did you ever count up how many winters you did?
Well, I missed one once - that was 98 I think.
You had a summer in 1998?
It was a long, long summer. Don’t do it people.
So, apart from that, you have skied in the Northern Hemisphere every year…
Some of those were quite curtailed. In 2015, on my third run of the season in Japan, I blew out my ACL. But they were three amazing runs.
Can you describe your most harrowing ski experience?
I think it was when I got buried in an avalanche in Austria due to my lack of knowledge. It was a definite chink in my armour. Getting the old washing machine treatment and thinking, “I’m too young to die.”
It’s a great run actually, skiing from the top of Steuben am Alberg to Langen. You catch the train back. It’s just a typical, awesome Euro experience. I was fortunate to be skiing with two good mates who were all over it and dug me out. Lost a pair of skis and goggles. I had one pole.
How long were you buried?
Not long. I worked one hand free and was able to dig a little tunnel to breathe after the snow locked up - which is the only way to describe it. It’s the most unpleasant sensation in human existence when something so soft sets - it’s definitely like concrete. But because I was able to move that hand, fairly directly I knew I wasn’t going to die.
Something like skiing that’s so enjoyable, I guess it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a downside. It’s the irony of human existence.
What jobs have you done in the ski industry?
All sorts - washing dishes, fitting boots, tuning skis, as well as writing and taking photos and guiding people around - not as a mountain guide but whatever an unqualified and un-knowledgeable person who takes people skiing is called.
I was a level three professional ski buddy.
How did you get into writing?
I was travelling with photographer Alex Guzman and he asked me to write down my thoughts for the winter of 1997 and he thought they were funny enough to start sending in articles so that’s what we did.
Yeah, so I did a lot of jobs in the ski industry and it took a long time to get to the glamorous end of that but it’s still no money.
So editor of Powderhound was the most glamorous it got? How many years did you do that?
Well, I was associate editor for five or six and then two years as editor of Powderhound. We took over at quite a seminal moment of skiing - about 1999. The owners of the magazine were tired of the format and we had been submitting articles and just trying to get this more freestyle orientated, big mountain oriented side of skiing into it. Up until then it was still very much race oriented. It seems ridiculous to say now.
So once Alex Guzman became editor, he totally changed the direction of the mag and I used to write a fair bit of it and Guzman eventually bailed out and I was foolish enough to take over.
And around that same time, you became one of the co-founders of the Ski and Snowboard Surgery?
I think it was 1999 when we purchased the machines from Ski Windsurf City and set up our workshop in Struthers Lane. I was living in Springfield so I would ski all day, work all night and then drive back out to Springfield.
Did you think that was going to be your long-term play?
I didn’t have any long-term plays at that stage. Alex [Herbert - of Kingswood Skis and The Ski & Board Surgery] and I both thought that if we wanted to ski, we couldn’t let someone else dictate how that was going to work because it doesn’t.
If you want to ski, you have to work for yourself in some way shape or form.
You have to take control of that aspect otherwise it’s too much a conflict of interest between someone who’s trying to run a business and make money and someone who’s trying to ski as much as possible. Those two things don’t fit together, regrettably.
How do you make that fit now that you have three kids and some sort of job?
My two eldest have just got good enough that we can ski together and it makes sense and that’s definitely changed things up from being a chore to ski with the family to it being a lot of fun. That’s what’s changed this year and that’s been awesome.
But as always, you have to look at extracting the most joy from your ski day.
What are your tips for that?
You’ve just got to be continually looking at the mountain, thinking, ‘What’s best today?’ I mean, usually there’s some soft snow on the mountain so that’s what I tend to gravitate towards, but you know if you’re with the kids just running through the terrain park 100 laps that’s still fun. Or at Mt Hutt recently, hitting the little kickers along the side of all the trails, which is how I remember skiing as a kid at Falls Creek. There were no terrain parks. It was all about hitting those little goat tracks through the trees. I’ve definitely come full circle.
So just playing around close to the piste. That’s you again?
Yeah, at the moment, on certain days.
There’s always fun. Even if it’s bulletproof ice you can still drink coffee and make it work.
But I always think of the shitty snow days as training for when it’s double-overhead pow.
If you want to make the most of a good day, you have to stay ski fit.
It’s all that glass-half-fulledness, which pisses me off when people talk about it, but it’s a good attitude to life. If you can be that guy, that optimist.
So what keeps you going? Can you describe the reward point that fuels the addiction. Do you think you have an addiction?
I still love it after all these years. I don’t have any pithy comment on explaining the rewards, but sometimes it’s not about those huge goals.
You can perhaps define a successful life as having enjoyed a lot of good turns - or even a few.
Or when I go skiing now, it’s defined by quality, so if I can get four good turns in, that’s the day made. Go home happy.
There’s a great interplay of adrenaline and endorphins and it’s always easy to scare yourself no matter how good you are. And that’s always pretty satisfying. And that’s often why people who are just starting are having so much fun.
And you have seen a big evolution in skiing?
My first season in Austria in 1996, there were probably a couple of hundred people working there and I was the only one under 30 who still skied. Everyone else snowboarded. Plainly snowboarding was better for riding in powder than a pair of 207cm slalom skis that were 50mm under foot.
I remember snowboarders ripping around me in a gully. I was essentially in the bottom of the gully poling along.
It is ludicrous that my loyalty to skiing overrode what was plainly the wrong choice of weapon that day.
When did you first learn about fat skis?
When I was in Jackson Hole in 1991, I saw this guy with black gear and duct tape and he was skiing on the Atomic Heli-Guide - the first real fat ski - and I just thought this guy was the biggest loser. He was in his 30s and to me he was just some ancient crusty. And now I ski around in black Gore-Tex with duct tape and fat skis.
So, he was right and I was wrong. It was brand new. A snowboard had been sawn in half only the year before by some genius at Atomic as the inspiration for the Heli-Guide ski.
Can you remember your conversion to fat skis?
It was definitely a conversion at Damascus. The clouds opened and I floated across and God held me in the palm of his hand for a little while.
No, I can’t actually remember the first time I clicked on fat skis, I’m sorry to say. But I must have loved it.
And you have been close to the Kingswood story from the beginning...
Well, I skied on the first pair that came out of the press. We went down to Treble Cone, of all places. They were pretty good, that first ski, made with the Subaru tyre jacks. I don’t know whether that means Alex is a genius or it’s really easy to make a pair of skis...
It’s been amazing. I have the skis I’ve always dreamt of and I had a small part in suggesting some of the more amply-girthed - shall we say - of the skis.
Can you remember those conversations?
Well, I wanted to go 200mm under foot I think. Because I think it’s all about surface area.