Most sponsored skiers don’t have the kind of alternative life experiences and down-to-earth philosophical approach to skiing when they start getting paid to do what they love. But Twisp, Wash., native Michael “Bird” Shaffer isn’t your run-of-the-mill professional skier. He grew up on a 7-family commune and cut his ski teeth on hand-me-down gear in the hills above his home and eventually at Loup Loup Ski Bowl. He has worked as a tree planter, river guide, and wildlands firefighter, a seasonal gig he still relies on to ski all winter in places like Chamonix, France. Eventually, thanks to an unrelenting focus on his passions—sliding down mountains, and through the air, on skis—Bird got his later-in-life break: ski industry sponsors and Warren Miller appearances.
Bird, a nickname he unabashedly embraces with feathered attire and avian arm flapping on film, is a fitting name for this affable 47-year-old who is known for his speed riding feats and free-spirit approach to the mountains. For Bird, speed riding in Chamonix, which combines free skiing and flying on a speed wing, is the ultimate expression of freedom. This season, Bird lands his second Warren Miller appearance in the Chamonix segment in “Face of Winter.” (He skied Montana steeps in last year’s “Line of Descent.”) Chamonix is far from Washington’s North Cascades, but the French extreme-sports mountain town has become Bird’s second home, one where he seems to fit right in with the other eccentric personalities with which he shares some soulful, extreme skiing in “Face of Winter.”
Despite his impressive feats of athleticism and recent Warren Miller exposure, Bird is quick to note that being out in nature is what it’s really all about. “Skiing is just the icing on the cake,” he says. “If we can spend most days plugged in to a real energy source and then on top if it get to ski, that’s a real gift.”
Unlike some of his skiing friends who picked up sponsors earlier in life and made a career out of it, Bird spent his younger years working summers so that he could ski the rest of the year. For a long time he worried that the responsibilities of sponsorship would get in the way of his skiing, but eventually things lined up and he connected with a couple great companies that were the right fit. “It’s relationships more, and because I was pursuing my passions on skis, these windows became available and I’ve made it more of a profession now because I can,” he says.
Working with the French, independent ski and apparel brand Black Crows and Norwegian, eco-conscious outdoor apparel company Norrøna matched his values and approach to life. “If I can work for companies I believe in and at the same time keep a perspective of why I’m there in the first place—to plug into that natural source and be able to share that with people—then I feel like I’m doing a good job and can keep that lifestyle going.” Bird’s path to being a professional skier was a little backwards, he says, but it all worked out for the best. “I got to discover myself first and see where I fit into this thing called life, and now that I’m in a place where I’m more secure I have these companies backing me that are helping me go a little bit further. I feel really fortunate these days.”
Bird still migrates back and forth between Chamonix and the North Cascades but has recently settled back into the family property near Twisp. “It’s a pretty cool thing to come back home to a place where you’re so connected and know everybody and know the landscape,” he says. Being right there in the mountains, many days when the snow is down low he’s able to hike up and go skiing out of his backyard. “I don’t need a sled or a trailer. It’s awesome. I really appreciate the walk up. It calms my brain waves.” Bird’s unpretentious approach to skiing isn’t typical pro-skier talk, but it’s a good reminder that when you break it down and look beyond the hype, skiing really just is sliding on snow through the mountains. It’s also something of a spiritual practice for Bird. “Not to sound too hippie dippie,” he prefaces a deeper dive into the meaning of skiing, “but I really get into plugging into nature. I feel that energy, and when I come back down to the valley, I have an excess that I can share and be a better guy.”
To wrap up our wide-ranging conversation that left me energized to get out on the snow, I asked Bird what advice he had for aspiring skiers or snowboarders. “Follow somebody that’s older than you. Take time to listen and watch them. Learning from someone who has more experience is invaluable because you can’t just Google it or watch it on YouTube to really understand. It’s got to come through time and experience. If you find one of those guys or gals, you’ll make a big, positive jump in your life and skiing.” //
Derrick Knowles is Out There Outdoors’ co-publisher. He wrote the Intro about climate change in the September issue.