By Devon O’Neil | Photographs Stacey Adams
The blinds in Aaron Estrada’s corner office are drawn, obscuring his view of San Juan Capistrano. It’s May 2016, another sunny day in Orange County, California. A school clock hangs on the wall above two wilting plants. Estrada wears a charcoal suit. Sitting before him: a furious thirty-something drug addict. The man’s parents and wife have been feuding while he’s been in rehab at Monarch Shores, a $30,000-a-month residential treatment facility where Estrada is the clinical director. The man hurls his cell phone against the wall. “I’m sick and fucking tired of it!” he yells. “Fucking assholes!”
Estrada calmly picks up the phone and hands it back. “Relax,” he says, his tone soft and reassuring. “These are problems. You know we all got ’em.” Then the addict stands and Estrada wraps him in a 20-second bear hug. The tension eases.
A decade ago, nobody would have believed such a scene possible, least of all Estrada. In 2011, he was a judge’s gavel crack away from a prison term for his fourth DUI. He had overdosed on heroin twice in seven months, revived by emergency responders’ cardiac paddles each time. After the second overdose, a social worker deemed him a risk to himself and shipped him off to a psych ward in northern California. He panhandled for money to buy a bus fare home, wondering how a self-described Aspen silverspoon baby and big mountain skiing savant had fallen so far.
Perhaps you recognize his name. During what Estrada, 39, refers to as “my old life as a skier,” he became the only man to win the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte, Colorado, three times. Chris Davenport, a close friend and former ski partner from Aspen, calls him “one of the smoothest, most catlike skiers I’ve ever seen. And I don’t say that lightly. He had incredible natural talent from a very young age.”
But just as swiftly as he set the sport on fire at the turn of the millennium, Estrada vanished. Only a handful of people knew what happened. Years later, he resurfaced as an addiction counselor in Orange County, helping substance abusers rebuild their lives the way he once rebuilt his.
Estrada is hardly alone in the ski world. As long as we’ve had ski stars, we’ve had high-profile alcoholism and drug addiction. Why did Estrada and so many others like him fall prey? And what can be done to break the link between skiing and substance abuse?
Skiing and partying have been inextricably linked since at least the ’50s, and probably longer. “There’s a history of it in the sport,” says original extremist Glen Plake, 51. “As skiers we end up doing some things more than the next person.”
Plake grew up with a “double dang-it”—living not only in a ski town, but a casino ski town. He and his South Lake Tahoe friends took advantage of the loose rules skiing afforded by experimenting with a range of substances. Plake’s first arrest came in 1978, at 14. He spent much of the next 15 years in and out of jail on various drug- and alcohol-related charges. During those same years, the filmmaker Greg Stump helped him become the biggest star in the sport.
The list of high-profile skiers who paired rare talent with heavy substance abuse includes stars from every discipline. Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller, the greatest male alpine racer in U.S. history—and a notorious partier on the World Cup circuit—became a pariah when he told “60 Minutes” that he competed while he was drunk. Jeremy Nobis, a two-time Olympian and the premier big-mountain film skier of his generation, twice made headlines for leading police on drunken car chases—including one in 2011 that ended with his fourth DUI. Before he got clean a few years before his death, Jamie Pierre, skiing’s version of Evel Knievel, mixed heavy drinking and drug use with world-record cliff drops, including a 255-footer in 2006.
“You’re exposed to partying everywhere in the ski industry,” Nobis says. “That’s just the way it is. There are a lot of people who say no, but if you’re young and want to fit in, it’s easier to say yes. It gives you a release—when you come home alive at the end of the day, you don’t want to think about what just happened, you want to turn your brain off.”
Estrada grew up ski racing in the Sierra, the son of San Francisco hippies. His father, a former bail bondsman, helped found the band Santana. (Carlos Santana is Aaron’s godfather.) But he struggled with heroin addiction and spent years in and out of rehab. Aaron remembers his dad nodding off at his Little League games, humiliating him. As a preteen, he swore his life would be different.
When his father died at age 53 of complications from a liver transplant, Estrada, 17 and living in Aspen, experienced a “stabbing, gut-wrenching pain” that he promptly buried. He quit ski racing and took work in a bar, where booze and cocaine dulled his sorrow. Three more close friends died within two years—one in a climbing accident, two in a drunk-driving wreck.
Estrada already had addiction in his genes. Now he would add another trigger: high-risk competitive freeskiing. He entered his first big-mountain contest in Crested Butte, in 1998. A crash knocked him out of a qualifying round, but as he stood at the bottom of the course, the father of organized big mountain competitions, the late Shane McConkey, walked up and said, “Dude, you killed that run. You have to do this again.”
Estrada returned to Crested Butte in ’99. But while drinking with friends the night before the competition, a cop arrested him for DUI. He got out of jail in time to make his qualifying run, barely squeaking into the main event. There, on a pair of borrowed skis from Davenport, he stunned everyone by winning. The result launched his pro career.
“The rate of substance abuse is much higher in resort towns than it is in the general public,” says Jeff Decker, a clinical supervisor at the Curran-Seeley Foundation in Jackson, Wyoming. “It’s a cultural thing, and the type of people who are attracted to these towns are freer thinkers, freer livers, and have a penchant for riskier endeavors.”
Still, skiing is sold part and parcel with partying. A mountain biker might enjoy a beer or two at the trailhead after a hard ride. Skiers, on the other hand, arrive at the base of a resort to find a brochure’s worth of gin mills. “There’s a bar at the bottom of every mountain—sometimes many, many bars,” says Decker. “There’s just more of a drinking culture associated with skiing, and there always has been.”
Estrada, who looks like Antonio Banderas and is built like a middleweight boxer, immersed himself in that culture as his profile continued to rise. He won the U.S. Extremes again in 2001. But during his run two years later, he lost control and hurtled into a tree. He underwent 10 hand surgeries and didn’t ski for a year. Instead, he did so much cocaine and ecstasy, and took so many painkillers, that by the end of the summer of 2004 he weighed 112 pounds, down from his normal weight of 155. Davenport called Estrada’s mother. “Diane,” he said, “I think Aaron has a real problem, everybody is just scared to tell you.”
Diane Estrada tried confronting her son, but he wasn’t ready to listen, and before long he’d turned to heroin. One night in Boulder, he shared heroin with a friend who never woke up. More guilt to bury. More pain to dull.
People around Aspen started to wonder whether Estrada was next. He and his longtime girlfriend moved to Tahoe, hopeful that a change in venue would help. Instead, he sank deeper. California police busted him for his third DUI and he spent three months in jail. By the spring of 2010, he’d pawned his skis and clothing to buy drugs and stopped skiing.
How does one who is so far gone climb out of the hole? For Plake, it began at a rowdy après ski party in Jackson Hole in 1992. He smashed a beer bottle over a guy’s head during a brawl and found himself again behind bars. It was the last time he ever drank. “I got sick of sitting in jail,” he says simply. “It was just: I do not want this to be part of my life anymore. End of story.”
Plake is still the most recognizable skier in the world and continues to make his living on snow, signing autographs and skiing with kids all over the country. He still goes to the bar for après and industry socializing—only now, he stays sober. “It really isn’t difficult,” he says. “I think we have to realize that people don’t, in fact, care whether you drink or smoke.”
The pivotal moment for Estrada came in March 2011, when facing three to five years in prison, a judge offered him a deal that his counselor, Cyndie Dunkerson, says she has only seen three times in 13 years working in the addiction field. At the time, he had already been in treatment for two months and had made enormous progress, not only getting sober but finally addressing the traumas at the root of his problems. During a group therapy session, for instance, he admitted—for the first time—that he thought he’d murdered his friend in Boulder. His biggest lesson came when he realized he could live through pain without having to numb it with substances. Instead, he worked out at a gym and ran 20 milers.
When he rose in court, the judge said, “You can be a poster child for a life change and remain in treatment for one year, or we can take this to trial.” He took the deal and cleaned toilets to repay the rehab facility, Hope by the Sea.
Eventually, Estrada earned his counseling certificate, using empathy to connect with clients. “Most addicts, alcoholics, they don’t trust anyone—especially some dude who’s sitting across from them in a suit,” says Estrada. “But once they see that I understand what they’re going through, then I can break through.”
While at Hope, he fell in love with another recovering addict, Zeinah. The couple married last spring and are expecting a daughter in October. January 10, 2016, marked five years of sobriety for Estrada. “I absolutely look at this as a rebirth,” he says.
Estrada has no urge to use substances now. But he knows that’s easier to sustain in the city, far from the ski towns where he imploded. In May, he returned to Mammoth Mountain for his first real ski day since 2010. The last time he came, in 2007, he won a contest then spent the night snorting coke in his hotel room.
This time, I watch Estrada’s eyes dart to and fro as we pass through the sleepy downtown and its still-closed bars on the way to the mountain. He doesn’t blame skiing for his addiction. “Skiers like to enjoy themselves, and most of the ones I know take risks,” he says. “At the end of the day, being social and carrying on comes with it.”
Still, he doesn’t deny that the environment compounded his problems. Says Davenport: “Towns like Aspen and sometimes the people who live there have a propensity to let things go, because it’s part of the culture. Whereas maybe in a more normal American town, friends might step up sooner. I mean, I saw what was happening, but I didn’t go out of my way to say, ‘You gotta stop this.’ And neither did anyone else.”
Compounding matters, mountain towns—unlike major urban areas—often lack the services for substance abusers to get clean. There are a handful of inpatient treatment centers in Lake Tahoe, and a few in peripheral towns like Carbondale, Colorado (outside Aspen), and Squamish, BC (near Whistler). But in Jackson Hole, where people die of alcohol-related causes at a rate four to five times greater than the national average, there is no rehab facility. “The choices are the jail, which is the worst place, or the hospital, where there’s way too much care and it’s very expensive,” the county coroner, Dr. Brent Blue, lamented in a local newspaper article in August.
Estrada was lucky to escape. Not every big-name skier who struggled with substance abuse has been able to let go. Nobis, who is 46 and now works as a handyman and waiter in Moab, quit drinking for two years in his late 30s before picking it up again. He takes a couple months off here and there, but has no plans to quit for good. “I like to get drunk sometimes,” he says. “I’m not hiding. I know who I am.” Since Plake sobered up, he’s made a point to be there for others who are still struggling. “I don’t want to give anyone a guilty conscience, but you might be able to influence someone by saying something,” he says.
This much is clear: Estrada’s self-diagnosis—finally admitting he could not control his habit—saved his life. Now, standing on top of a mountain where his fate seemed so dire a decade ago, he is quiet. The toothy Sierra Nevada surrounds him. It took a few runs to get his touch back this morning, but before long he was hucking cornices and skiing top to bottom, flashing the same boyish smile that everyone fell in love with. Someday, he confides, he hopes to open a treatment center in a ski town, to give addicts the peace he now feels.
“I feel so removed from this lifestyle,” he says, and for the first time in years, he is only talking about skiing. “I forget how much I miss it.”
From the Early Winter 2016 issue.