When Mark Abma was 14 years old, his mom took him to register for the freestyle team at Hemlock Valley, a humble and quiet resort with a few chairs in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Mark recounts the prophetic exchange with his soon-to-be coach: “He asked me why I wanted to be on the freestyle team,” Mark laughed. “And I said I wanted to be in a Warren Miller movie.”
Mark’s path to freeskiing notoriety wasn’t clear-cut or direct, but he eventually got his Warren Miller appearance, and more—a lot more. After a breakout trip to ski the enormous lines of Bella Coola in 2004, he won Powder Video’s Male Performer of the Year Award in 2005, and again in 2007. Since then, he’s been featured in a staggering number of ski films, fluidly sending cascading pillow lines, prodigious spines, and everything in between.
ROAM caught up with Mark to talk the underpinnings of a career nearly two decades in the making. Mark’s secret? “It’s just balance,” he says. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a pro skier more balanced than Mark: He chases the world’s biggest lines, while also seeking to minimize his environmental impact (His truck, for example, runs on used vegetable oil from local restaurants). He’s serious about having fun. He’s constantly experimenting with different fuels to be at his best—physically and mentally—during long days in the mountains (Pro-tip: Athletic Brewing’s non-alcoholic craft beers make for a pretty sweet midday pick-me-up). More than anything, though, his status as a freeskiing legend is balanced by a conspicuous humility.
ROAM: Before you became one of the biggest names in freeskiing, you competed in slopestyle and halfpipe. And before that, you were a mogul skier. What was it about skiing that reeled you in in the first place?
MA: I think right away skiing kind of represented freedom to me. You can just go wherever your heart really desires, and quite quickly, my heart started pulling me outside of the ski area. And because I was always a pretty curious person, I was like, ‘Alright, cool—I skied the ski area, but I see all that terrain over there, and I just gotta duck the rope and then I’m in a whole other world.’ Curiosity definitely always got the best of me. And it still does. I always want to explore what’s in the next valley or what’s around the next corner. And for me, that’s what keeps skiing really interesting.
ROAM: In 2004 you went to Bella Coola to film enormous lines with Matchstick Productions, a trip that ultimately launched your career as a pro freeskier. What was it like to find yourself in those mountains, skiing terrain that before you had only seen in magazines and films?
MA: It was a super scary experience. Absolutely. Like the first time I hopped out of the helicopter, I didn’t even know how to open up the basket to get my skis out, and I’m yanking on this basket while the pilot’s trying to hover with the helicopter, and I’m just being such a rookie. And then I finally get my skis out and the helicopter pulls away, and I’m left on this knife-edge ridge with a 1000-foot cliff on the backside and this huge 2500-foot line below me. It took everything in my power just to move super slowly, put my skis on, and stand up… I’m looking down this line but there’s a roll over maybe 50 feet below me, so I’m staring into the unknown. Back then we had little digital cameras—the screen was literally an inch and a half by an inch and a half—and that’s what I was trying to study my line on. Meanwhile, Hugo Harrison is on a peak right next to me, and he drops in first. He hadn’t crashed in five years or whatever, but he had this crash where he tomahawked like, 18 times…. And then they get on the radio and tell me, “Abma, you’re next!”
ROAM: And that was your first line of your first heli trip?
MA: Yeah, exactly! I took the biggest gulp of my life and dropped in…. The line didn’t make the movie because I think I was definitely in survival mode, just trying to get down. But nonetheless, getting the opportunity to be there, and then ski down, and survive—I let out the biggest scream of my life, for sure.
ROAM: Even on gnarly terrain, you always seem to be having the most fun. Do you have a serious face, too?
MA: At the end of the day I’m always trying to remind myself to have fun. When you get into higher consequence lines, it can get to be a little bit more serious…. But that’s the cool thing about where I’m at in my ski career now. I’m not trying to do the biggest jumps, cliffs and whatnot like I used to; I’m just going out there and enjoying myself as much as possible. It’s been really enjoyable to rediscover how fun it is to ski with your buddies. You know, we get to the bottom, we’re hugging and we’re laughing, and it’s the best feeling ever. I want to be 90 years old, skiing the resort every day, and still have the biggest smile on my face.
ROAM: You’re regarded as a bit of a health guru, probably one of the healthiest guys in professional skiing. Was it always that way?
MA: No, no! You know, after the bar, I used to go to 7/11 and get a burrito, and I would go to the cheese machine and get a cup full of cheese and dip my burrito in it…. But now, I really just try to focus on eating organic, whole foods as often as possible. I’m not vegetarian, I’m not vegan, I don’t avoid wheat. I definitely dabble, but I’m not limiting myself to any of those, and that allows me to be a lot more curious and fun with food as well, and not get too serious about it—Especially when I’m traveling. When I’m at home, I start off with lemon water and then my morning smoothie or coffee concoction, where I’m adding algaes and mushrooms and all those kinds of fun things. But when I’m traveling I kind of throw all that out the window, and I’m like, ‘Alright, what are we having this morning?’
ROAM: Any rituals you do strive to maintain when you’re filming in some far-flung zone?
MA: My daily ritual is, ultimately, reminding myself to be in a state of gratitude—for being surrounded by awesome people and beautiful scenery.
ROAM: In your skiing, you seem to place just as much emphasis on a healthy mind as on a healthy body.
MA: I think skiing is such a great tool for learning self awareness. As you’re navigating around the mountains, you’re constantly making decisions based on how you’re feeling. Ultimately, you tune up your brain and your body so that they can perform at the highest level when you need them to. And so the mountains are the testing ground, but there’s all these moments leading up to it that help you prepare for that time. For myself, that’s meditation, and yoga. That’s diet, and exercise.
ROAM: Is that mind/body balance in some way connected to your recent work with Athletic Brewing?
MA: I really I love the flavor of beer, and after skiing or biking or whatever, having a beer is kind of part of our culture now, right? I always found it really interesting that you have this amazing day, and you go back to the trailhead or back to your house, and you have this satisfying beer—and that first sip is always so all-time, you know? And then maybe you have a second beer, and then a half hour later, you’re like, ‘I feel like I’m gonna take a nap right now.’ You just went from this high, and then all of a sudden, you want to take a nap. The rest of the day might be kind of a write-off. Whereas with Athletic Brewing, it doesn’t have that effect on me…. I can stay at that energy level. Right now, I’m trying to maximize my day and get as much done as possible, and it really fits my lifestyle very well. And the flavor is so good, like you wouldn’t even notice the difference.
ROAM: Does your truck still run on used vegetable oil?
MA: Yeah, it does. I’ve got my veggie oil truck; I’ve got an electric car… but then I’ve got my snowmobile.
ROAM:The age-old debate of outdoor recreators, right?—How to balance getting out to do the things you love with a desire to be kind to the earth.
MA: I think hypocrisy is inevitable. You’re going to be taking from the earth no matter what you do. So what can you do to try to minimize that? I think it’s good to get an understanding of what your impact is, and try to minimize impact where you can.
ROAM: Back to ducking ropes at the ski area as a kid…. Where’s your curiosity taking you now?
MA: I’m trying to push myself into zones that I’ve never skied before. Just around Squamish, or the Pemberton area, we’ve got a lot of really beautiful, prominent peaks that I stare at every day when I’m driving on the highway. But I’ve never put the time or the effort into getting there, so this year, I’m going to start dabbling in some of those prominent peaks. Although I’ve been skiing in the Whistler area for the last 20 years, I really have only scratched the surface. So that takes that level of curiosity to a whole new level.
Follow along on Mark’s adventures on instagram @markabma and learn more about athletic brewing at athleticbrewing.com.