by Dawne Belloise
The big smile and sparkle of Avery Bernholtz radiates the youthful spunk of a 16-year-old born and raised in the nurturing community of Crested Butte with the wilderness and the mountain as her playground. She is articulate beyond her years and full of determination and hope for her future.
Like most Crested Butte kids, Avery can throw down on the slopes. Avery has stood on the podium for her performances in Big Mountain Freeskiing since she started competing at 11. This past week, she headed out to Squaw Valley for her first national competition of the season, after which she will travel to A Basin, Breckenridge, and Snowbird to compete to qualify for the finals.
“I was a one year old when my dad put me on skis and pulled me around the yard with his ski pole, and 18 months old when my parents first brought me up to the mountain and put me on the magic carpet to learn to ski,” basically, as soon as she learned to walk, Avery says, and at two she hopped on the lift. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t go up to the mountain and ski every weekend.”
Avery loved shussing the slopes with her classmates during the school’s Ski for PE, where the elementary kids went up one day a week for five weeks with their class. “That was an opportunity to go up with your friends and not just with your parents.”
It’s no secret that the Crested Butte kids have an exceptional childhood growing up in a close-knit community with all the perks of living in an outdoor paradise. Avery says, “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to grow up, just being able to live in the outdoors. Two summers ago I went to the National Youth Leadership Camp for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM], a six-day camp at Olin College of Engineering in Boston, where we learned about robotics, programming, researching, conducting experiments, and all the areas of science. The kids were from all over the country and couldn’t believe I grew up in a K through 12 school with only 50 people in my class, where their high schools were huge and [they saw] Crested Butte as a vacation destination and couldn’t believe I was living here. My childhood was different from theirs. I feel like I had more freedom than others who lived elsewhere.”
Avery says, “It’s such a small town and tight community that there weren’t many places you could go that your parents or neighbors didn’t know what you were doing. You spent as much time in the outdoors as you could and you didn’t want to come inside. We played in the rivers and streams, even though it was freezing cold it was just what you did. We hiked and played in the park with our friends and just explored. There were certain times you needed an adult with you, like playing by the bigger rivers right after the snow melted. As a little kid, you had your bike, and I still ride my bike around.”
Avery competes as a junior in the extreme skiing event, Big Mountain Freeskiing, a point-based, judged event held on extreme ski terrain around the country. Now in her fifth year, she started out in the u-12 division. “It was the first year they offered that division for that age [10 to 12-year-olds],”Avery explains. “In my first comp, I was the only girl in my division. It was held on Hawk’s Nest, so it was good because I was familiar with the terrain,” she says of starting off on her home slopes at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. “I got first place that first year and went to Sunlight Mountain near Glenwood Springs, where I won that competition.”
She went on to the championships in Grand Targee, Wyo., her first time traveling out of state to compete and took second overall for the year for 2014.
“Ever since that, I’ve fallen in love with the sport, just getting to travel to new places. We try to choose places we’ve never been before. There are comps held all over Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and California.”
The competitors are limited to only three nationals and three regionals, with the top two scores considered for each one of those. “From there, you’re trying to qualify for championships. The maximum amount of qualifying points you can have is 3,000. I’ve been to Aspen, Winter Park, Taos, Breckenridge, Snowbird and Alta. Last year, the championships were held in Kirkwood, Calif. I had an amazing year and won almost every competition except for Monarch, where I came in second and went to championships with maxed-out points.
“I ended the year on more of a phenomenal note when I won the overall championship in my division,” says the North American champ. “I was on top of the podium with two of my teammates, Jonclay Patterson and Dagan Schwartz, who were also the overall champs in their divisions. Our team was amazing. We’re one big family. We had 11 athletes from Crested Butte who traveled to the championships and we comprised 10 percent of the competitors. Our little mountain town represents so well.”
The low snow this year has been a challenge, Avery says, and the competitions have been cancelled or postponed and rescheduled. She traveled to Jackson Hole where she moved up to the 15 to 18-year-old division. “Unfortunately, I crashed the first day, but it’s okay,” Avery grins, “because I was going big and having fun. The snow was so soft and they had lots of it. Usually if you crash, you’re disqualified and don’t get to compete the next day but they let me compete and I won that day. I ended up fourth because I was too far behind in points since I crashed but it was like a bonus day. It was really just a great training opportunity because they had snow and steep terrain.”
With this year’s challenging snow conditions, her team has been working on drills and technique and Avery said it paid off in Jackson Hole. “Last year, I didn’t really huck a lot of cliffs or hit a lot of features, like tree or bush jumps, I did more straight lining but in Jackson, I hit everything I had the opportunity to. I went bigger than I did last year and probably hit more cliffs in that one trip than I did all last year.”
Avery feels that skiing is about 98 percent mental and 2 percent physical. “The mental part of skiing is huge, especially in the extremes, because you put up mental barriers, like when hitting a cliff, you put up barriers because your psyche says, ‘I don’t want to jump this,’ so being able to break those down can definitely be a struggle sometimes but, more times than not, it’s a good reward to stomp the landing and it’s a relief and then you have tons of adrenalin because you just hit this cliff.”
Avery will graduate from the Crested Butte Community School in 2020 and as a sophomore she has time to consider which college and direction she’ll take. One thing’s for certain: Skiing will most definitely be part of her future so the college needs to be where she can go shred some slopes. “I can see myself as a future ski coach, teaching others what I’ve learned,” Avery says.
She currently trains five days a week with the ski team, which she joined last year. “I felt myself improve so much.” She feels joining the team has been beneficial to developing her style. “I’d ski extremes with my dad and hit little things, but he’s my parent so he wasn’t into me hucking big cliffs,” she laughs. “When I joined the ski team, not only did I feel my technique improve but also my ability to hit bigger things on the mental and physical side.”
Envisioning her future, she would love to make the Freeride World Tour, which she can qualify for when she turns 18. She’d also like to be in ski films.
As she turned sweet 16 this past week, like any kid, she excitedly ponied up for her driver’s license last Tuesday. “Living in town, you don’t drive a lot on a daily basis but I hope to take some road trips and explore a little more, trips oriented toward adventure,” but she confesses, “I don’t have a car because I spent all my money on skiing.” She feels the expenditure was well worth it.
In the summers, Avery’s worked for the Last Steep and Brick Oven Pizzeria, “to support my ski habit,” she grins, but she also has many sponsors who enable her habit of ripping down the slopes, like Alpine Orthopedics, Julbo Eyewear, Eleven Experience, MDV (Marker, Dalbello, & Völkl) and Big B’s. “Because of my sponsors I’m able to train five days a week and compete as much as possible.”
As far as trekking off to college and the world, when the time comes to leave the place she’s been all her life, Avery says, “I have mixed feelings about moving away because I’d love to explore the world and I know there’s so much out there but at the same time, I’ve lived in the little bubble that is Crested Butte, Colorado my whole life and don’t know much else. I don’t know where the future will take me, but I’ll never leave this place forever. I’m not sure if I’ll come back and live here or live somewhere else, but this place will always be my home.”