From the slopes of the Flathead Valley, Tanner Hall became an iconic pioneer in the sport of freeskiing. Now at 33, he’s enjoying life as a professional ski bum with a few tricks still up his sleeve.
Story by Dillon Tabish | Illustrations by Dwayne Harris
A high school dropout who became one of the most accomplished athletes the Flathead Valley has ever produced and one of the greatest freestyle skiers of all time, Tanner was right where he wanted to be on Oct. 26. Among family, friends and fans, Tanner premiered his new ski film, “Ring the Alarm,” a 30-minute epic that took two years to produce atop some of the biggest and baddest mountain peaks of Alaska, British Columbia and Oregon.
On this rowdy night in Whitefish, as he took the stage, the atmosphere felt more like a homecoming celebration than a screening.
“His name is a household word. Everybody here is very proud of you,” said Billy Marcial, a teacher in Whitefish who grew up skiing with Tanner and helped establish the Smoking Aces Tour, which has developed into one of the largest slopestyle tours for skiers and snowboarders in the region.
The event, which raised funds for the Whitefish Mountain Resort freestyle team, where Tanner started as an enthusiastic child prodigy 23 years ago, was sold out. More than 170 people, including awestruck teenagers, crammed into the second-floor bar for an evening devoted to the hometown icon.
“Ring the Alarm, this is two years of work. This is real skiers. We feel this. We bleed this. Like, this is our life,” Tanner said, holding a microphone and addressing the crowd.
“I don’t know nothing else. Probably not the best thing to say in here for you parents, but I quit school for this. When school wants to teach me that Christopher Columbus founded the United States, I think I made the right choice.”
Ever the showman, Tanner was in his element, stirring the conversation with the unapologetic boldness of a true Montana maverick. Tanner Hall is many things — a freeskiing pioneer, one of the true rock stars of the sport — but he is most certainly not a conformist nor someone worried about following the rules. These traits once helped him rise through the ranks of his sport, but over the years have gotten the Kalispell native in trouble and, in many ways, alienated him in an industry that he helped thrust into mainstream venues, including the Olympics.
But here in this ski town, Tanner’s audacious words, much like his bold risks and tricks, elicited cheers, a proverbial and collective amen. The Ski Boss was now leading more of a Sunday sermon than a simple screening.
“My culture is being destroyed by some dumb social media Internet type s**t. That’s unacceptable,” he said. “Parents, take that iPhone out of your young child’s hand. I didn’t have an iPhone until I was 25.”
By the time he was 25, he was also a superstar with major sponsorships and untold accolades. The kid from Kalispell, who started as a talented 10-year-old on Big Mountain competing with the ski area’s moguls team, had led the freestyle revolution, blending the colorful style of Glen Plake with a daring craziness and creativity that was more akin to skateboarding than skiing.
Much the same way that grunge evolved from rock n’ roll, freeskiing emerged from the traditions of moguls and ski racing in the 1990s. And Tanner, defined by a brash, devil-may-care attitude, was among its rock stars. Along the way, he pushed the boundaries of skiers’ expectations as competitors and rewrote the record books, both on slopestyle courses and in half pipes, where he earned seven gold medals and four silvers at the X Games, making him the most decorated skier ever, which still holds true today. Only snowboard sensation Shaun White has more X Games medals than T-Hall.
“I’ve known Tanner since we were young kids. To see him grow through skiing has been phenomenal,” Marcial said prior to the Whitefish screening. “He was a part of that huge innovation in the industry and in skiing itself. He’s really a pioneer who has shaped the sport.”
But those days, in terms of mainstream competition, are behind him. Tanner is now 33, a milestone he also celebrated with the crowd in Whitefish in late October.
He’s not someone who’s imprisoned by his past, but the occasion — “another lap around the sun” — brought reflection.
It’s been quite the journey to get back here, back home where it all started. The odyssey of a self-made man, someone who ventures away from home as a teenager in pursuit of a lofty goal, can be perilous, lined with pitfalls and trials that try every inch of his soul.
“You can lose your way,” he said, clutching the microphone and looking out into the dark, quiet room. “All of a sudden, it just falls off. And to stop that from happening takes zero effort. Instead of falling off, stay on point. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in my life. Just stay on point.”
For as much success that Tanner has achieved in the last 18 years, he has collided with equal amounts of obstacles and challenges.
In just the last decade, Tanner went from being a decorated gold medalist to a troubled star, suffering career-threatening injuries in 2005 and then again in 2009, battling drug and alcohol abuse, and coming to terms with the death of his best friend, C.R. Johnson.
“Everyone else would have quit,” Tanner’s longtime friend and film producer Eric Iberg told Freeskier Magazine recently. “They would have quit after the first injury, or they would have quit after the second. And that’s the most amazing thing about Tanner: He ain’t going to quit. He’s a skier.”
At the same time Tanner was sidelined tackling his demons, the sport he helped establish moved on, further progressing into the mainstream and reaching the highest summit: the Olympics. Half-pipe and slopestyle skiing made their Olympic debut in 2014.
Although relatively old in a sport defined by youth, Tanner mounted a momentary comeback a few years ago, eager to achieve success atop an Olympic podium.
“The time when the Olympics came up, I even fell into the hype. I was really excited and I started going through the motions,” Tanner said in an interview two weeks before appearing in Whitefish.
“But when you start going through the motions and you run into the level of ego and the Olympics … That’s what shied me away. There came a point where you either commit and make that your life and deal with those people. But at some point, you got to remember why a lot of us left mogul skiing to come to a thing where you don’t have to conform to what somebody says and you don’t have to live by a life of rules.”
It was around 2012-2013 when Tanner left the competitive ski world behind at the same time that his long-standing Red Bull sponsorship ended. He found himself at a crossroads. He chose the path leading to the mountains, up the peaks and into the powder, back to his roots.
“At the end of the day, I ski. I’m a skier. That’s so cool to say. It’s not a bad thing,” he said at his parents’ home in Kalispell recently. “I got wrapped up and was focusing on things you don’t need to focus on. At the end of the day I worked hard for a lot of the opportunities that I’ve been given. Why let something take my energy away from something that brought me everything?”
The result of his odyssey into the mountains is reflected in Ring the Alarm, a passion project he spearheaded with friends and up-and-coming skiers whom he wanted to showcase. Riding his favorite Armada Magic Js — one of many popular mainstay skis from the company he co-founded 16 years ago — Tanner proves just how far he’s advanced in the high country, tackling peaks few could ride. He attacks monster drops with the freestyle skills of a slopestyle star but the detail-oriented acumen of the best backcountry skiers. His creative flair is still unmistakable and feels as original as when he first emerged on the bumps at Big Mountain.
Tanner is now inspired to stoke the flames that fuel his passion for the sport he loves. And to do that, he sold his home in Utah and returned to Kalispell this summer. He trained daily at the gym and spent time with his mother, Darla, and father, Gerry.
Like the true ski beatnik he is, he’s now traveling the West in a 24-foot-long Winnebago, his new home on wheels, in pursuit of powder and the lifestyle he loves most.
His destination? Wherever the road takes him.
“Once you make your own choices in life, that’s when you know you’re doing the right thing,” he told the crowd in Whitefish.
“All of us are here for a reason. We all have purpose. So at the end of the day, if you just stay on point, life will get better.”