Carston Oliver isn't so much setting the bootpack as he is floating uphill. We're halfway through a four-hour schlep up the Super C couloir, a narrow 5,200-vertical-foot chute that spikes up the vertical rock face above Chile's Portillo Ski Area.
It's late August and Carston, a pro skier from Salt Lake City, Utah, is in Chile taking photos and testing ski apparel for his sponsor, Patagonia. Today, however, he's taking a day off from the photo shoots to climb and ski the iconic Super C. Nobody has skied the chute since two back-to-back storms walloped Portillo, so we're skinning and then bootpacking up thigh-deep sugary snow, the first people to lay a track.
Carston, 24, is out front, magically crawling uphill at an astoundingly fast tempo. He makes it look effortless. I, meanwhile, am hundreds of yards below, slogging slowly and exerting as much effort as a hippopotamus attempting to climb a ladder.
At the top, two hours later, I find out that Carston has been patiently waiting nearly an hour amidst freezing winds for me to reach the top. He looks perfectly at ease, not irritated or anxious in the slightest. "I'm totally fine," he says after I apologize for my snail-like pace. "Shall we go ski?"
When it's time to drop in, Carston cleans the entire mile-long chute in a matter of minutes, laying meticulous turns with perfect steep-skiing technique. At the bottom, he's again waiting patiently for me and the two other guys in our group.
This is just a typical day for Carston Oliver.
"Carston skis without fear or recklessness," says pro skier Paul Kimbrough, who grew up skiing with Carston in Utah. "Although human (I think), he often appears to be a calculated robot able to ski down, through, or off anything faster than anyone else. His stamina, strength, and flexibility exceed even the best freeskiers, likely a result of his impressive work ethic."
Carston appeared in the 2011 ski film from Sweetgrass Productions, "Solitaire," and photos of him have graced the pages of ski magazines for a few years now. But he's one of those hard-charging athletes who tends to fly under the radar. And that's just the way he likes it.
"I've never strived for the spotlight," says Carston.
Born and raised in Salt Lake City by a father who's a hydraulic engineer and a Finland-born schoolteacher of a mother, Carston got his start exploring Utah's Wasatch Range.
He stumbled into pro skierhood the way a recluse might emerge from the woods in need of whiskey. "I never set out to become a pro skier," he says. "Skiing is super expensive, so I just reached a point where I either followed the pro skier path in order to make it affordable and have a ton of time to ski, or I worked enough to be able to afford it but then not have time to ski. So I chose the former."
He entered a few Freeskiing World Tour contests, started shooting with ski photographers, and picked up a couple of sponsors. It was all an effort to enable him to ski as much as humanly possible. He's currently put on hold his half-finished engineering degree at the University of Utah to focus solely on his sport.
Isn't Carston a beast? He's so committed to his skiing and he's hard as nails. The guy does it all and never complains.” -- Sweetgrass Productions co-founder Nick Waggoner
For two years, he filmed with Sweetgrass in South America for the movie "Solitaire." At a lean 5-foot, 8-inches tall and 145 pounds, he was the guy who once carried a 130-pound generator on his back 2,000 vertical feet uphill in the middle of the night for a film shoot, and without complaint. And deep in the Andes, he's the guy who, on off days, would walk and take a bus to the only gym within 20 miles in order to get on an exercise bike.
"Isn't Carston a beast?" says Sweetgrass Productions co-founder Nick Waggoner. "He's so committed to his skiing and he's hard as nails. He's one of very few people who can motor up mountains on skins and lay down ridiculously stylish lines with huge airs, spins, and more. The guy does it all and never complains."
For Carston, he films not because he wants the publicity or the attention. But because he loves the challenge. "With filming, unlike competing, you can wait until the conditions are right and then ski the line you choose and the way you want to ski it," he says.
Last winter, he joined the Sweetgrass crew in Nelson, British Columbia, where they're working on their next two-year project, due out in the fall of 2013. He plans on spending a lot of time filming in BC this winter, and he hopes to squeeze in a trip to Japan and maybe Alaska. Mainly though, he wants to have enough time to simply ski for himself.
"I try to keep a balance," he says. "It's important for me to have those freeski days with friends or by myself to keep my skills up and to keep my mental sanity. I ski because I love it, and I want to make sure I keep it that way."
After we dusted off the Super C couloir, it was time for empanadas. Our group of four headed straight to the hotel bar at Portillo.
The rest of us offered to buy Carston's lunch in exchange for him setting the entire bootpack, making it easier on all of us, and for him having to wait. "It was no big deal at all," Carston says modestly.
If there are two things Carston Oliver is known for in the ski industry, it is this: His supreme strength and his even more supreme humility. "Beyond all of his skills, he's humble," says Sweetgrass' Nick Waggoner. "He's got a lot of respect for skiing and the community, and he skis at a higher level than a lot of people who have more recognition than he does."
At lunch, Carston gobbled up a vegetarian sandwich and downed a couple of glasses of water, and then, he sat in his bar chair looking just a little bit antsy. Although it was 3 p.m. and the chairlifts were open until 5 p.m., I was cooked for the day. My legs felt rubbery from the climb and I'd already replaced my ski boots with sneakers.
But not Carston.
"I'm going to head out for a few more runs," he told the rest of us. We looked at him like he was a foreign species. "You're a machine!" someone at the table said.
Carston just stood up, smiled and said goodbye.