Home MBE Articles Adventure Freeskiing with the spirit of Elijah Lee

Freeskiing with the spirit of Elijah Lee

Elijah Lee skiing at Mt. Baker Ski Area. Courtesy photo

By Luca Williams

As the snow falls, Elijah, or Eli, trudges up the hill with his skis, alongside the other first chair fanatics. It’s still dark and the hoards of mountain lovers haven’t arrived. While they wait at Chair 5 for the ski area to open, they banter and scope out their lines. Meanwhile, Eli warms up his back and hamstrings by bending over and stretching his legs wide, preparing for his signature move, the spread eagle. The bombs drop, avalanches crack and the group shuffles back and forth to keep warm. Eli is surrounded by his community of skiers, all of them but one: The one he carries with him every time he skis, everywhere he goes.

Eli was five years old the first time he skied at Eaglecrest Ski Area in Juneau, Alaska. At the top of the Platter Pole run, he immediately hit a jump, broke his femur and fell in love. After they splinted his leg in the first aid hut, his mother and he hitchhiked down the mountain to the hospital. Determined to learn how to ski, Eli spent the next 12 years in race programs in Alaska and Utah, often ditching school to hitchhike up the mountain.

Eventually, all that skipping school and back talking to his teachers caught up with him in his senior year and he was kicked out of the ski program. Burned out from skiing, he turned to commercial fishing and traveling for a few years until he broke both of his wrists. Restless, unable to work with his hands, he took up skiing once again. The snowfall from the 1998-99 powder season, the shaped powder skis and hiking the backcountry reignited his passion. He entered his first freeskiing competition at Whistler Mountain around 1999. Contestants were judged on the line they chose, their execution and ski ability.

Elijah Lee points at a “First Chair” Washington state license plate. Courtesy photo

Standing at the starting gate, he learned that the area he had planned to ski was now closed so he needed to quickly adapt and choose a new line. Scattered, he fell, lost his ski forever and never finished the competition. He was hooked. For the next few years, he entered competitions around the world with his friend, Cody, and his brother, Tobias. Then disaster struck.

Eli lost his brother in an avalanche while touring in the backcountry of Mt. Baker. Although Toby’s death was incomprehensibly sad, Eli insists that what happened that day was not a tragedy: Toby died doing what he loved, on a beautiful day, with his ski boots on. From that day on, rather than skiing with his brother, he skied for his brother. Toby is with him wherever he goes.

Bullheaded, determined, Eli did not give up on skiing. He turned to his ski community for support and continued to compete for his brother and for himself. Tobias’ spirit may be what fueled Eli to become the 2009 Bulgarian Freeskiing champion. Since 2010, Eli has judged junior freeskiing competitions. At the end of each competition, he howls for his brother, invoking his spirit, sharing his love and passion for skiing with young skiers from all over the country.

These days, Eli can be found skiing the slopes with his daughter and wife or hiking the Shuksan Arm with his friends. When he’s not skiing, he manages vacation rentals and plays competitive pickleball – his new passion. Whatever he does, he brings the determination and the lessons that he learned from skiing: Find something that you love and don’t give up. Find community to support you. Celebrate each other. 

When the ski patrollers are done bombing and ski cutting, Eli loads Chair 5 and scopes his line. He treats Gabl’s like a competition — by being first chair, he will get the line he chooses. As he descends, he pops off cliffs, catches air and spread eagles at 48 years old. At the bottom, he celebrates his line, the storm, his community and the mountains. He’s won and Toby is with him, in him, beside him once again. TBL; Tobias Botkin Lee. The Beautiful Life.   x

Luca Williams is a certified rolfer in Glacier. She helps snowboarders, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts get aligned and out of pain. Website: lucasrolfing.com Blog: movingwithgravity.wordpress.com