The second installment of Sentinels of Sport covers the wild life of freeskier Tanner Hall. As one of the most dominant athletes in any sport during the 2000s, Hall revolutionized freeskiing and made it one of the most action-packed and exciting sports to watch. His contributions to freeskiing are universally recognized as some of the most important in the sport. The road has never been easy for the 35-year-old, but the reward is worth every second of frustration and every ounce of pain.
Part I: Life in Kalispell
“He says, ‘I’m going to ski for money. People are going to pay me to ski.’ I says, ‘You know what, you go for it.’” – Darla Hall
Tanner Hall was born to an average American family on Oct. 26, 1986 in the small Montana town of Kalispell. The town sits north of Flathead Lake and has all the characteristics of a typical American town – a few cafes, a brewery, gas stations, the county fairground and blocks of neatly portioned single-level homes. But Kalispell, circled by tall mountains and pine-spotted hills, was the perfect place for a shaggy-haired redhead with ADD to nurture a passion.
“Growing up in Montana, it was pretty much a beautiful thing to have those mountains.” – Hall
Life for the Hall family was much like any other – school, sports and church.
“Tanner and I grew up like normal Americans, I guess. You know, we were going to church every Sunday, parents had us involved in all sorts of sports.” – Tyson Hall, Tanner’s older brother
And like any close family, the Halls spent much of their time together. Living in the North with long winters and soaring mountains meant it was only natural to bond at the local resorts, racing down the snowy slopes on skis. Tanner’s introduction came at the age of three and he showed immediate promise. “He took off right away with it.” – Darla Hall, Tanner’s mother.
Tanner spent his childhood exploring the slopes and testing the limits of his abilities. Ski culture swept him up in its arms, teaching him the doctrines of the skiing world with movies like “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s” and “License to Thrill.”
“That’s all I wanted to be. I seen [Glen] Plake for the first time… I was like, who the f*ck is this, man? Are you kidding me?”
In no time, Tanner Hall was spending every available opportunity on the mountain doing his best to emulate his heroes. Fortunately for him, his parents Gerry and Darla Hall supported his passion and took him to the slopes most days of the week.
“And Thank God for my parents — because it’s pretty cool for parents to drop their 7-year-old kid off at the resort and be like, ‘Ok, it’s 7:00 in the morning, I’ll see you at 4:00 in the afternoon.’ For them to just not worry about it, that was the greatest thing my parents ever could have done for me in the beginning phases of my skiing.” – Hall
Throughout his childhood, Tanner’s family and friends knew there was something different about him. Not only was he emerging as an incredible skier, but he was also frustratingly rebellious and had a hard time focusing — especially in school.
“School f*cking sucked, dude. The first time, I remember just sitting in there looking at my teacher like, ‘Yo, I’m never gonna need this shit.’” – Hall
Although they may not have known it at the time, some thought he struggled because of ADD, a condition which wasn’t officially recognized until the 1980s. Even so, it often went untreated, as may have been the case with Tanner.
“He struggled with his concentration. I don’t know if it was ADD. I mean, I don’t even know if ADD existed when we were growing up, you know?” – Tyson Hall
It certainly might explain some his quirkiest moments as a child, including a time when he stopped mid-race to hit a jump before continuing his run. “Of course the coach said, ‘He’s done.’” – Darla Hall
Fortunately for Tanner, Steve Knox had just moved to town to start a freestyle ski team in Kalispell. It was exactly what Tanner needed. “From the beginning you could tell he was seriously passionate about skiing.” – Steve Knox, Tanner’s first freestyle ski coach
To no one’s surprise, Tanner was outperforming everyone around him.
“There’s never been a kid to just show up and just do back flips on this jump. I mean, I don’t think anyone did it except for coaches — maybe.” – Kevin Miller, Tanner’s summer camp director
At age 14, Tanner’s parents discovered the The Winter Sports School in Park City, UT. The plan was simple: send him to school in Park City so he could practice his skiing in hopes that he could make the U.S. Olympic team for mogul skiing. During his time at the school, he was coached by Kerry Miller.
By age 16, Tanner was over moguls and wanted to devote his time to freeskiing. Soon he was competing in the U.S. Open for freeskiing, where the young prodigy placed 5th overall. He later quit moguls entirely, citing his dislike for the coaching element and the stricter rules.
“After that first U.S Open, it was over. I can’t take no more of this, I gotta do what I wanna do — cause I love skiing, but having somebody try to tell you how to do it when you know you’re better than them at it, it’s kinda retarded.” – Hall
Tanner started winning local slopestyle events, like the Jim Moran Benefit in Berthoud Pass, CO. With the victories came small sponsors and some extra cash, including a two-year contract with Rossignol and Oakley. For a teenager, life was about as good as it could get. The only problem was that Tanner only cared about skiing. It started to consume his life, crowding out many of his friends, crushes, other hobbies — and of course, school. “He started missing classes,” recalled Darla Hall.
It was also no secret that Tanner had started smoking marijuana in his early teens, and on the first day of his senior year, the school performed a random drug test. Tanner was suspended for five days. Later that year, he pulled up to the school and got out of the car with a joint in his mouth. Before he knew it, he was in the principal’s office getting expelled.
“I walked into the principal’s office, picked up my backpack, and basically gave the peace sign to him, and gave him a big smile and thanked him for putting me on the biggest vacation of my life.” – Hall
Part II: Dawn
“There was definitely a confidence level that I’d never seen before. Like he knew that he was the best at what he was doing.” – Tyson Hall
After his expulsion from high school, Tanner decided to hang up his academic robe for a winter jacket and pursue freeskiing full time. He and his friend Eric Iberg set out making freeski films and enrolling in competitions. Tanner’s parents were unsettled by his blind devotion to a sport that many thought was a fad, but they nevertheless allowed him to pursue his dreams for a full year under the conditions that if it did not go well, he would return home to Kalispell and seek different opportunities. Fortunately for Tanner, he was about to embark on one of the most dominant runs in the sport from 2001 to 2005.
After moving out to Mammoth in California, Tanner met up with two of his friends, Evan Raps and CR Johnson, both of whom he’d met in Mammoth prior. At 17, he signed up for the X Games to compete the big-air competition. The results were surprising but should have been expected.
“He skied over to me and he goes, ‘Don’t get too excited, but I might win this.’” – Darla Hall
Never being one to lie to his mother, Tanner secured himself the gold medal. On the podium in second and third were his friends, Raps and Johnson. Later that year, Tanner won bronze at the U.S Open in slopestyle before signing a contract with Red Bull.
In 2002, he won gold at the X Games again — this time in slopestyle. 2003 yielded even better results as he won two gold medals in slopestyle at the X Games and U.S Open. He also won silver in the X Games superpipe competition. Tanner was on top of the freeskiing world. 2004 was equally as impressive as he took home gold and silver medals in X Games slopestyle and U.S Open superpipe.
“That feeling is like… what’s that word? Euphoria.” – Hall
During this time, he also signed with a new company called Armada that was focused entirely on freeskiing. While Tanner cherished the opportunities he had with Rossignol and Oakley, he knew he wanted to be with a company that focused primarily on the sport he dominated. He was walking away from a lot of money, so much so that Armada offered him ownership in the company, which he gladly accepted. It helped that Iberg and other friends were the founding members. Tanner felt that this move was what was needed to propel the sport forward, proving to many doubters that he wasn’t in it for the fame and money alone.
The fame and money however, were as abundant as one might expect for a young superstar. Tanner was on top of world — signing contracts with big companies, winning competitions worldwide and, of course, enjoying his newfound popularity with the ladies.
“Yeah for sure, it was easier with chicks, man. Going up into ski towns and meeting girls — it just got easier and easier.” – Hall
He even bought his first condo at age 18. He was a part of the infamous C-Crew, a collection of freeskiers including Tanner Hall, CR Johnson, Raps and others. Life was partying, girls and skiing the days away. The start of 2005 yielded similar success to prior years, earning Tanner silvers in X Games slopestyle and superpipe competitions, and a gold and silver in the U.S Open slopestyle and superpipe. Tanner’s reign of dominance continued.
But like all good things, they eventually come to pass.
In 2005, Tanner was arrested at a bar in Vail, CO for public drunkenness, sparking a nationwide discussion in the skiing world about the character of the greatest freeskier on earth. One columnist for the Vail Daily wrote after the event that:
“The face of freeskiing is a 21-year-old with long, curly blonde hair, an unmatched competitive drive and a will to stump for the sport as long as it takes. The face of freeskiing is also an outspoken whiner, a high-school dropout, and, all too often, a black mark.” – Devon O’Neil, Vail Daily, 2005
The scathing comments moved Tanner enough to write a letter apologizing to the community, but it wasn’t enough to totally change his lifestyle. The girls, drinking and partying were there to stay. That was until Tanner found himself at the bottom of a hill in tatters with a career that was probably over.
Part III: What goes up must come down
“Bro, my ankles are broken! My ankles are broke!”
The infamous Chad’s Gap in Utah has called many skiers to its wide expanse since its discovery in 1999. The 120-foot gap is aptly named after its discoverer, Chad Zurinskas. Although a dream for many skiers to jump, it has ended the careers of numerous young men who attempted to soar over its gaping maw.
In 2005, Tanner attempted to land a Switch 900 over Chad’s Gap, which required that he hit the jump backward at nearly 50 miles per hour. He immediately knew something wasn’t right.
“I got up to the jump and then, you know, kinda felt something was off right on the take-off. Right at about 720 coming around, I could see the landing and I was just, you know, about a foot short.” – Hall
Tanner hit the landing short, shattering both of his ankles including his heel bones, and vaulted himself down to the bottom of the jump, screaming in agony along the way.
“It was terrible to stand up there and hear that sound. That really changed my career. My head was not the same after that. Took me almost a year to kind of get my confidence back.” – Jon Olsson, one of many who skied and competed with Tanner.
He was immediately rushed into the ER where the surgeon, Thomas F. Higgins, worked frantically to repair his damaged ankles. When all was said and done, Tanner awakened from surgery with his ankles held together by screws. The operation was a success, but there was serious doubt about how long it would take before he could ski again, if ever.
“They said, ‘Well, here’s the thing. You know, we don’t know if he’ll ever ski again. He might not ever walk again.’” – Darla Hall
Tanner spent the next few months bound to a wheelchair, doing his best to deal with the pain and trying to walk again. He was on morphine for a time, always uncomfortable and chronically in pain. Through it all, Tanner had his brother and friends to help encourage him and lift his spirits.
Through sheer will and determination, Tanner was back on his skis that same year. He started training and practicing for competitions.
“I know he was in pain that next year, cause I saw it. But he was able, like, to put that out his mind enough, you know, that when it came time — he could throw down.” – Evan Raps
And throw down he did. Just months after his horrific crash, Tanner was hitting rails in Finland and filming for a movie. Although in some pain, he felt more rejuvenated than ever to ski at his best and make the most of his opportunities. But the skies hadn’t cleared yet for Tanner and things got took another turn down a dark road.
Part IV: The Ski Boss
Later that year, Tanner got a call that his best friend, CR Johnson, had been seriously injured in a skiing accident. In Brighton, UT on Dec. 8, 2005, Johnson hit his head in a brutal crash. He fell into a coma and had breathing and feeding tubes threaded through his body to keep him alive. Tanner rushed to his bedside and remained there with him. At one point during the coma, Johnson contracted pneumonia in his lungs. Tanner wasn’t sure he would make it.
“Everyday I was in Utah, you know, I was there for awhile. I’d go there to his bedside and hang out every single day that I could. And I’m glad I did man, cause I remember the first day the motherf*cker opened his eyes” – Hall
Johnson woke up from the coma but was still paralyzed on one side of his body. He couldn’t eat or speak very well and was under serious care. Like Tanner, CR Johnson showed remarkable resilience and was walking in just a few weeks. The scare had a profound impact on both of them. For Tanner, it was a reminder that life is fragile; for CR, a call to live life more fully.
“…when he hit his head, he came back as like, an enlightened person. Like, I don’t know where he went in that coma, but wherever he did go, it was insane. Cause when he woke up, […] man, he was righteous. He was always preaching the righteous word, he was always, you know, talking about doing good to your woman, doing good to your family, doing good to your friends and he would live it out.” – Hall
The event spurred both of them to ski harder and not take life for granted. With a renewed mind Tanner began to dominate the sport more than he had before. In 2006, Tanner won the gold in X Games superpipe and gold in the U.S Open superpipe. 2007 saw him atop the podium again with golds in the same two events. In an unprecedented display of dominance, Tanner Hall won his third consecutive gold in the 2008 X Games superpipe, making him the first and only skier to ever 3-peat in an X Games winter competition.
The streak was finally broken in 2009, where he won silver in the superpipe. in that same year he took first place in two of the three Dew Tour halfpipe competitions. Tanner was skiing better than he ever had, Armada was growing faster than ever and life was at a new peak since his horrific injury on Chad’s Gap.
During this time, Tanner was also expanding his skiing horizons, taking on big-mountain backcountry skiing as a way to diversify his profile and prove to the ski world that he was more than just a park kid who hit rails all day. He wanted to be respected for the versatile skier that he was. He started jumping out of helicopters and riding steep mountain faces caked with waist-deep powder. He was making it known that he could ski anywhere at anytime. Though it seemed that for every mountain Tanner climbed there was a rocky valley to meet him at the bottom.
Part V: Not Again
“I just kept saying, ‘My career is over. My career is over. It’s done.’” – Hall
In May 2009, Tanner was skiing at Stevens Pass in Washington on a bright winter day while shooting another film. He and his crew had constructed a huge jump that had already claimed a few victims before Tanner gave it a run. This time he overshot the landing, and landed flat before tumbling some distance and coming to a halt.
“‘Um, we believe that he’s got broken legs,’ and I said, ‘Legs, as in two?’ Yeah.” – Darla Hall
In reality, it was even worse than two broken legs. Not only had he demolished his legs (bilateral tibial plateau fractures), but he had torn both of his ACL’s and had microfractures in his right knee.
“It was the equivalent of being smashed in the knees by a car going 45 mph.” – Dr. Vern Cooley, a 20-year veteran of high-profile injuries who handled Tanner’s case.
“I felt explosions in my legs. I was thinking the worst. I couldn’t feel anything below my waist. I thought I was paralyzed.” – Hall
Doctors wanted to rush Tanner to surgery in Seattle as soon as possible, but he was insistent that only Dr. Cooley be the one to operate on his legs. The only problem was that doctors told him he couldn’t fly there. With a heavy dose of morphine and tremendous amount of grit, Tanner and Tyson drove 14-hours straight to Park City, UT for the surgery.
After hours in the emergency room, Dr. Cooley emerged with news that the operation was successful. Similar to his first injury, they were unsure whether Tanner would ski again or even walk. But Tanner had been here before and this time his best friend C.R was there beside him, encouraging him to recover in the same way that Tanner encouraged him.
Tanner was prescribed an intense rehabilitation regimen as well as fistful of painkillers to swallow every day. Although they helped with the pain, they started to take a toll on the rest of Tanner’s body. He was losing weight, appetite and interest in the things he loved. He started to crave the painkillers above all else and needed them to feel normal.
“It was apparent that I had become a different person. Something was not right.” – Hall
His transformation didn’t go unnoticed by his friends and family either. Eventually, it was time for someone to step in, and that someone was C.R Johnson. He confronted Tanner one night, pointing out his change in mood and personality.
“So C.R came to me and he was really worried, and he just extended his, you know, his worry and told me that he’s here, and that’s what best friends do for eachother. That was the first time my eyes got opened up to it.” – Hall
He blamed it on the painkillers. In truth, Tanner didn’t really need them anymore and was taking them out of addiction. Hearing his closest friend be honest was enough to warrant a change. He weaned himself off the pills, causing him new pain where there hadn’t been any before.
“It felt like I broke my back.” – Hall
With the help of Johnson, other friends and his family, Tanner made strides in his recovery that shocked Dr. Cooley.
“His ability to recover and stay motivated is remarkable. I’ve never had a patient with this type of injury recover as quickly and as fully as Tanner did. He is in the top one percent of athletes I’ve seen.” – Dr. Vern Cooley
Despite Tanner’s impressive recovery efforts, tragedy surprised him yet again. On Feb. 24, 2010, C.R Johnson struck a rock while riding a steep run at Squaw Valley in California, sending him plummeting down the slope. Despite wearing a helmet, Johnson suffered severe trauma to his head and neck. He was pronounced dead on the scene. Tanner was in Kingston, Jamaica, building the early platform for his record label, Inspired Media Concepts.
“I locked myself into the bathroom for awhile, just f*cking balled my eyes out like I’ve never balled my eyes out before. That feeling is a million times worse than breaking your legs, breaking your ankles, breaking your heels, breaking your ACL’s. I mean, I’d break everything all over again to get him right back here.” – Hall
Tanner’s closest friend and ally had passed away after pulling him out of one his lowest points. He was just 26.
“I think that just destroyed Tanner. When that one person that was calling him out, that one person that’s been his friend the longest was no longer there, I don’t think he knew where to look for any direction.” – Eric Iberg
Tanner looked to the bottle, and began drinking heavily to help cope with the loss.
“When he passed away I just started drinking myself retarded.” – Hall
His partying increased and so did his drinking. He was doing his best to bury his feelings beneath alcohol and skiing, but it was slowly killing him. He was spiraling downward, just months after Johnson intervened in his painkiller abuse.
“Night time would fall and I would just want to drink myself away. C.R wouldn’t have been proud.” – Hall
He saw no way forward and wasn’t sure he wanted to fight for his career, family or life anymore.
“I thought I was done, not only done with skiing, done with life. I was at rock-bottom.” – Hall
Eric Iberg knew that something had to be done. He could see Tanner’s life withering away. He was “zombified, numb to everything, not caring about anything.”
“When the alcohol pushes you over the line where you’re disrespecting maybe only a handful of people that truly care and love for you. I think that was probably Tanner’s rock-bottom.” – Eric Iberg
Iberg knew he had to get real with Tanner in the same way that C.R Johnson had. He needed someone close to home to make it clear that he had a problem and needed help.
“Iberg pretty much stuck it to my face. He basically looked at me and he’s like, ‘You know what dude, I can’t do this anymore. I’m not gonna sit here and watch you kill yourself.” – Hall
Iberg called him out on his alcohol and drug abuse, citing that he was disrespecting the people he loved the most. The other problem was that Tanner and Iberg had business ventures together, and Iberg needed Tanner to be healthy in order for them to survive. When Iberg threatened to break away from Tanner and pursue his own path, Tanner finally listened and started to change.
“Drinking alcohol is the worst thing in the world. It’s totally asinine how poisonous that substance is.” – Hall
Tanner took hold of this attitude and started working toward sobriety. He surrounded himself with caring friends who checked in on him while holding him accountable. He also replaced his desire for alcohol with a new desire for exercise and spent every morning at the gym before heading out to ski for the day. Tanner was recovering and getting better every day.
Part VI: Looking Forward
“You’ve got to realize, I have zero pressure, nothing to prove.”
After a long battle with alcohol, Tanner has been completely sober since March 13, 2017. He currently exercises every day and surrounds himself with healthy individuals like Henrik Harlaut that inspire him to be his best every day.
“Being around someone like Henrik now, it motivates me to train. It’s hard to meet people who want to go to the gym and want to go really hard every day. Just put hours and hours into it, like work out until you’re hurting. It’s a pain you’ve got to be into and kind of a weirdo to enjoy.” – Hall
Tanner is enjoying recovery though and life is better than ever. He rides his stationary bike for an hour in the morning and an hour after skiing, followed by two and a half hours of stomach and leg exercises. Between the gym and skiing, there isn’t much time for anything else — and that’s exactly how he wants it.
“I don’t really hang out with anybody anymore. I’m literally on the hill and at the gym until 9:30 at night, then I go to bed.” – Hall
With recovery, Tanner’s skiing hasn’t slowed down either. He’s skiing more now than ever before, focusing his energy on big mountain riding in Alaska, Montana, Sweden and elsewhere. Tanner recently competed in a competition he has never skied before: The Freeride World Tour.
“It’s something that I have been searching for forever since I broke my legs and tore my ACL’s in 2009, and I’m starting to find it again. Just the fact that I could be in the starting gate again is very exciting.” – Hall
Tanner plans on competing this winter while working on a project with filmmaker Constantine Papanicolaou. He is healthier, happier than ever and ready to tackle whatever the world throws at him. His focus entering the new year?
“Just skiing, man. I love skiing and that’s what I want to do. I’m hungry, I’m healthy, I’m strong and life is good.” – Hall