At night, halogen spotlights shine on Ethen Whattam’s backyard practice ski run — a piece of plywood converted into a makeshift hill — so he can work on his tricks.
Though his Richland home in the high desert is at elevation of 380 feet, Ethen is frequently thinking about tearing down a snowy 6,400-foot mountainside.
The 15-year-old Richland High School sophomore has a White Pass map pinned above his bed. He even joined the Bomber swim team to be a better skier.
“I just get to hang out with really cool people and do the sport I love,” he said. “It’s the best thing ever. Getting to play in the snow, throwing flips, throwing tricks every weekend — what’s better than that?”
Ethen gets to combine his two loves — skiing and competing — as part of the Schweitzer Alpine Racing School, or SARS, Freeride Competition Team based in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Last season, he won a regional skiercross title to qualify for a national competition. He has qualified again this year after three first-place finishes.
Hurtling down an icy slope isn’t for the faint of heart — or for worried parents — but Ethen’s mom and dad, both avid skiers, support his passion.
When he has weekend practices at Schweitzer Mountain, Ethen and his family leave the Tri-Cities on Friday night. They drive to their home in Hayden Lake, Idaho, and stay the night before making the 50-mile trek north to the mountain early Saturday and again Sunday.
“The three-hour car ride to the cabin, I normally sleep, but other than that, not really,” Ethen said.
Rest is a sacrifice Ethen has been willing to make as he climbs the ranks of the United States of America Snowboard Association as part of its Inland Northwest Series.
The series offers five disciplines — slopestyle, skiercross, snowboard, Alpine (giant slalom and slalom) and rail jams — and takes competitors to Silver Mountain, Lookout Pass, Schweitzer, White Pass, Ski Bluewood, 49° North, Mt. Spokane and Loup Loup. Ethen competes in slopestyle and skiercross.
“It’s like ski racing but with jumps and sharp turns,” Ethen said of skiercross. “Think of BMX racing but put on snow. “Then there’s slopestyle, which has jumps and rails; and then big mountain freeride — it’s like you pick your own line, and there’s cliffs and natural features that you have to choose.”
Series director Nick Morgan of Kennewick said about a dozen of its 285 members are from the Tri-Cities.
“We’re trying to get more people from all over,” said Morgan, whose children, BreAnna, 20, and Jaymin, 17, compete in and help judge Inland Northwest events. “The series is based in Spokane, but it’s kind of migrated west. We picked up Bluewood and White Pass. We’re just trying to keep the ball rolling and keep these kids going.”
Ethen was one of 40 competitors and the only one from the Tri-Cities at a Jan. 26 slopestyle competition at Schweitzer. On his two runs, Ethen got down the hill with few issues, but hitting the ramp at the bottom, he couldn’t land his last trick. He finished fourth out of seven.
Last weekend at White Pass, Ethen was in fourth after the first run, but the event was called before the second run because of fog.
Today at Bluewood in Dayton, he hopes to stomp his tricks in slopestyle.
“Hopefully it will land me on the podium,” he said.
RISE TO THE TOP
Ethen started skiing when he was 3, but as he got older, he was mesmerized by those who could ski and jump and flip in the air. His parents, Kevin and Maxine Whattam, wanted him to be able to do what he loved, but they also wanted him to learn how to safely perform the skills.
They found the SARS Freeride program, which coaches snowboarders and skiers 9 years of age and older. There are varying levels of commitment, from one day a week to three, as well as a holiday camp in late December that introduces athletes to the program. The two-day SARS Freeride Competition Team lets Ethen test himself against other skiers, and he has risen to the challenge.
Last season, he won the Inland Northwest skiercross title in the Skier Men (13-15) class. In the 2012 opener at Silver Mountain in Kellogg, Idaho, as well as last weekend at White Pass and Saturday at Bluewood, he took first place in skiercross.
Ethen qualified last season for the USASA national skiercross competition at Colorado’s Copper Mountain, but he couldn’t go because he was visiting family in England. He and his older sister, Vanessa, have dual citizenship because their mother was born there.
This year, with ski events from January to April, Ethen has decided not to play varsity soccer at Richland High so he can focus on his skiing.
But he picked up swimming this winter at the suggestion of his sister, who competed for Richland at the WIAA Girls State Swimming and Diving Championships.
“You use more muscles, and it really works your legs, which is what you need in skiing,” said Ethen, who primarily swam the 50-yard freestyle. “It makes them stronger, so you can have more stamina and be more agile.”
He also dived with the Richland team. Though he missed several meets because of his ski schedule, he picked up plenty of pointers from practice.
“This is just really helping me get more flips and more comfort in the air so I can go to the snow and put it there,” he said.
A TWIST ON TRADITION
Though Ethen has proved he is physically capable of succeeding on the mountain, he also realizes that he’s at a disadvantage because he’s not there all the time.
Of the 10 members on his team, Ethen is the only one who’s not from Sandpoint.
“One of my friends does online school, so he’s up there most every day on the mountain,” Ethen said. “Others have the advantage of going up there almost every day and learning new tricks, whereas I have only two days to put my best work into it and see what I can do.”
Living in the high desert, Ethen has had to get creative with his training off the mountain.
In his south Richland backyard, he refines and tries out aerial tricks on a trampoline. He also practices his runs on a makeshift hill — a slab of plywood covered with AstroTurf.
It mimics dry snow, but Ethen often pours water on it to re-create mountain conditions.
“It gives you speed to hit the jump and hit the rail,” he said.
He climbs up a ladder to a platform almost 51⁄2 feet above the ground, skis down the AstroTurf and pops up onto a “rail” — a PVC pipe mounted onto wood.
He and his father, Kevin, worked to find an angle to help him achieve optimum speed.
His father never has had qualms about helping his son build the ideal practice area, buying season ski passes or driving around the Inland Northwest all winter for practice and competitions.
“There’s certainly a time commitment or cost commitment, but it’s supporting your kids in the sports they want to pursue,” he said.
Ethen saves money he makes from mowing the family lawn, but he wants to get a job at REI or a law office this summer. “If skiing doesn’t work, I’d like to be a lawyer,” said Ethen, who has a 3.8 grade-point average. “I’d like to get experience to make law school easier.”
Because Ethen has qualified for nationals, his family will travel with him to Colorado in April. He wants to reach the top 15 so he can attract sponsors to help pay for his skiing.
His coach, Nick Rizzuto, believes it’s an attainable goal.
“His drive, his strength, his awareness of his body — this year, he’s progressing leaps and bounds every single day,” Rizzuto said.
“There’s a lot of kids out there with supernatural talent. They’re literally learning a new trick every single time, but they almost get careless at times. At big events, you see guys who expect to win, but it’s not them who win. It’s the guys who come from behind because they have the motivation to do it.”
Ethen hasn’t won every event, but his commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.
After the slopestyle event at Schweitzer, the USASA Inland Northwest crowd gathered in front of the Lakeview Lodge for the results.
When it was announced that a kid from Richland had finished fourth in his class, a guy on a balcony overlooking the group said, “That’s a haul.”
But for Ethen, it’s one well worth making.
-- Katie Dorsey: 582-1526; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @katies_dorsey