Skiing: Crazy gang hooked on an extreme yearning curve: A dangerous downhill activity begun by three French musketeers has seized the imagination of skilled madcaps. Jeremy Hart reports

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EXTREME skiers have an unofficial motto, 'If You Fall You Die'. It is meant to be a psychological safety net, vital to a sport where skiing safely is the barrier between winning and losing.

The trouble is that extreme skiers are vain. They always have been, since the late 1970s when three flamboyant Frenchmen got bored with even the best off-piste Alpine skiing and looked to cliffs and couloirs for their thrills. All three died gory deaths, on mountainsides too wild to tame on skis.

'As long as someone sees them dying that's all that matters,' said Charlie Silverton, one of two Britons in Valdez, Alaska, for this weekend's World Extreme Skiing Championships, which are judged for control, fluidity, difficulty of line, style and aggressiveness.

Thirty-five of the world's craziest skiers, whose idea of ecstasy is to weave through serrated boulders at 60mph and leap off cliffs up to 150 feet high, have flocked to the Chugach Mountains to impress the panel of judges who peer at them through binoculars and a haze of marijuana smoke.

'You do ski better if you are stoned, but I won't smoke and ski. It affects my skiing too much,' admitted Silverton, who once threw himself from a second-storey window showing off to school friends in London. 'We take about seven minutes to drop 3,000 vertical feet at angles up to 70 degrees. Downhillers drop only about 500 metres at 40 degrees.'

Silverton has finished as high as 10th in the World Championships at Valdez, two years ago, when he was only 19.

'The joke was I couldn't go into the awards ceremony afterwards because there was alcohol in there and I was under-age,' he said with a shrug.

Ironically, the engineering student at Edinburgh University can now drink in Alaska, but not in celebration. This year he will only be spectating, leaving Britain's hopes at the feet of Dave Swanwick, who won last month's US Extreme Championships in Crested Butte, Colorado.

That Britons can compete and even win in extreme skiing does not say a lot for the sport. Although both Silverton and Swanwick have been skiing since they could stand, neither would admit to being in the same league as Valdez's most famous son, the Olympic champion, Tommy Moe.

'If I see Tommy I'll be sure to congratulate him,' Swanwick, unsure exactly what Moe had won in Lillehammer, said. 'He'd make a good extreme skier.' Which means he would have to forgo the nicely groomed pistes on which the World Cup downhills and super-G's are run, not knowing exactly what was over the next rise and whether the thousands of spectators were there more for the death than the glory.

Swanwick's last visit to Valdez was a nightmare. Breaking every rule (and there are not many) in the extreme skiing book, Swanwick's room-mate Wil Madsen was killed walking out on to a precarious cornice, a lip of ice hanging out from 42 Mile Mountain. 'I kept falling after Wil was killed and only got ninth,' Swanwick remembers.

This year, 42 Mile Mountain has been renamed Madsen's Mountain and Swanwick is determined to become the first to win on it. 'In Crested Butte I won because I was really skiing tough, flashing the line (flowing) and going for the freshies (fresh tracks), none of these karate-turns, skidding and spraying lots of snow up. That doesn't score well,' Swanwick, whose parents are from Sussex, said.

'For a good run you need to concentrate real hard. There are no trees to get your bearings off, just the rocks. It is a bit like a sailor looking across the water for wind currents. We have to watch the snow for avalanche debris or soft powder. It is changing all the time. In seven minutes we make probably 150 turns. When we get to the bottom we're completely tapped out.'

With Swanwick in line for the World Championships and Silverton looking at defecting to the more sterile world of World Cup downhills, Britain's skiing resume is looking more respectable.

'It is not the traditional route to follow, but extreme skiing has taught me a lot,' Silverton said. 'Next year I am going to try in races for FIS points so that I can start in the World Cup after university.' Spectators had better watch out, just in case Silverton decides to take short cuts.

(Photograph omitted)