Adventure December 8, 2010

High Flying Idaho Boys

Heath Frisby and Isaac Sherbine

The bar is crowded, the lights are flashing, and a room full of the world’s most extreme (probably mildly insane) athletes erupts in cheers as Heath Frisby takes the stage. Just a few hours earlier, Frisby had claimed his first X-Games gold medal for Best Trick in Freestyle Snowmobiling, a well-deserved accomplishment for a 25-year-old who has been dominating the scene for over a decade. This isn’t why the crowd is cheering, though.

The masses hush as the beat starts, and with a touch of his flat-brimmed hat, Heath shouts, “Yo VIP, let’s kick it! Ice, ice baby…” That’s right, leave it to Frisby to celebrate a lifetime accomplishment by bringing his talent from the snow to the stage and captivating an entire room with a Vanilla Ice karaoke routine.

This young athlete grew up in Sand Hollow, Idaho, a town he describes as “Not really a town, but more of a freeway exit with a gas station and a bunch of farms.” The Frisbys work hard on their farm throughout the spring, summer and fall, but as soon as the ground freezes with the coming of winter, the family takes to ripping around on snowmobiles, both in the backcountry and on the race circuit.

Heath began competing when he was 13, at a time when the only well-developed snowmobile event was racing. The completely new sport of freestyle snowmobiling was, however, in the beginning stages of a rapid, athlete-driven evolution, and young Frisby was ready for it.

Freestyle snowmobiling began to develop in the late ’90s, as snowmobilers riding in the backcountry started to mess around with tricks from freestyle motorcross. Although his dad initially wanted Frisby to focus on racing, Heath was inherently drawn to the new progression of twisting, turning, and hucking himself off of anything he could on his snowmobile. He attended one of the few snowmobile freestyle competitions of the time and won. After winning, Heath promptly decided to hand over the $300 cash prize to his dad for gas money.

Jason Moriarty, owner and founder of Slednecks, the leading snowmobile film and apparel company, remembers the first time he ran into the small, wiry, 14-year-old in West Yellowstone. At the time, Moriarty was a well-known filmmaker documenting the ever-advancing, jaw-dropping development of freestyle snowmobiling.

Describing their first encounter, Moriarty chuckles and says, “I can remember this little kid running up to me, all excited about all the tricks he had and how he could land backwards. There was something different about him. People were coming up to me all the time and saying they could do that stuff, but I could tell he could actually do it. So I said, ‘OK, let’s see what you got,’ and out of that our friendship was born.”

“Little Friz,” as he was called, continued to impress people throughout his early career, and by the time he was 15, Heath was invited to try out for a national freestyle team that was in the makings back East. The team already had two riders signed from Alaska, and the manager didn’t know if he really wanted a third member. Nonetheless, he offered the young Frisby a one-time chance to make the team, so Heath ditched school and drove all the way to North Dakota, where he showed off his skills in front of 19,000 people packed into the Fargo Dome.

During practice, the two existing team members hit the big jump and crashed, which immediately led to talk of changing it. While higher-ups discussed the issue, Little Friz grabbed a snowmobile and nailed the jump—gracefully, stylishly, and cleanly. He was immediately hired by the team for a year.
Frisby defies gravity with a “KOD (Kiss of Death) backflip.” Heath Frisby

Left Frisby defies gravity with a “KOD (Kiss of Death) backflip.” Right Heath Frisby.

In no time, Heath Frisby, the youngster from a barely-there town in Idaho, was showcasing his freestyle snowmobile talent in enormous arenas across the country. By his junior year in high school, Heath had won the Freestyle Snowmobile Indoor Championships and a total of $25,000, which sure beat the income of a typical 17-year-old kid.

Despite missing a lot of school, Heath was able to attend summer sessions and graduate a semester early, just in time to fully devote himself to another winter of competition. He again won the Freestyle Snowmobile Indoor Championships, but lost his love for the team, so, as he simply stated, “I quit.”

Politics, paycuts, and slipups had hit the team hard, so Frisby decided it was time to find a different outlet for his relentless drive to project himself off large jumps at high speeds. Heath soon partnered with Red Bull, the well-known energy drink company, and a start-up called SCS Unlimited, a group of riders out of Missoula, Montana, who were looking to take the sport of freestyle snowmobiling to the next level.

Frisby was growing in the sport, just as the sport itself was growing. He was creating new moves, new records, and a new community of riders. “I always wanted to do better,” Frisby recounts. “I just kept doing it and every year there were more shows and more competitions.”

Frisby was a big name in snowmobiling at that point, so when Isaac Sherbine, a high school snowmobile racer from Bellevue, heard from one of his older sisters that she had started to date Frisby, Sherbine was, needless to say, pretty psyched.

Frisby flies high doing a “one-handed backflip.”

Frisby flies high doing a “one-handed backflip.”

Similar to Heath, Isaac grew up in a setting with uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents living just down the road. The two local boys also had other major aspects of Idaho family life in common: farming and snowmobiling. Isaac was riding on a snowmobile as early as 18 months old, and had been on one ever since.

He started competing in snowmobile races when he was 12, and continued every winter until he made the switch to freestyle during his senior year in high school. With Frisby suddenly in his world, Sherbine jumped full-throttle into the sport under the guidance of one of the best competitors out there.

Heath’s expertise and Isaac’s newfound passion inspired the Sherbines to build a freestyle snowmobile training facility on their family farm in Bellevue. Ramps, landings, a foam pit, and a crane all slowly came together with the help and support of Isaac’s family. And little by little, Heath showed Isaac how to jump and eventually how to do more challenging flip moves.

In the sport of freestyle snowmobiling you have to be good to get noticed, and you have to be incredible to make a career out of it.

Ultimately, a majority of the winter is made up of demos and exhibitions in which you are the main show. With Frisby as his mentor and teacher, Sherbine made the cut.

In the winter of 2009, the Red Bull Revolutionary Machines Tour took on Russia. Frisby and Sherbine excitedly hopped on a plane, ready to bring the art and insanity of freestyle snowmobiling to a global audience.

After a series of long, overnight flights, the Idaho boys stumbled bleary-eyed off the plane in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city. A big problem met them there—their bags were missing. While the athletes obviously couldn’t check their own sleds, they did always travel with their body armor and custom bent handlebars, which allowed them to swing their feet through for tricks such as heel-clickers. “Without the handlebars,” Sherbine states, “it’s pointless to ride. We might as well have turned around and gone home.”

So, without knowing a grunt of Russian, Frisby and Sherbine engaged in a frustrating and fruitless game of charades with the Russian customs agents in an effort to track down their crucial pieces of luggage. Getting nowhere fast, the guys finally tracked down their Red Bull guide who promised he would figure it all out.

Dressed only in jeans, T-shirts, and hooded sweatshirts, Frisby and Sherbine walked out of the airport and got their first glimpse of Russia.

They probably could have used some shots of vodka, but instead they were blasted with minus-40-degree temperatures. They had to suffer through a whole week of brutal Russian winter weather in what might as well have been beach attire.

Eventually, Red Bull tracked down the missing bags. They were found at the International Airport in Moscow, but, as their importance to the riders had been heavily emphasized, they were now tagged with a mysterious $1,200 release fee. Grudgingly, Frisby and Sherbine paid the fee and got ready to do what they had come to do—ride.
Issac Sherbine Sherbine tightens up his sled.

Left Issac Sherbine. Right Sherbine tightens up his sled.

At their first show in Russia, there were over 76,000 spectators—the most people to ever watch a snowmobile event. “Just to be a part of that,” Sherbine remembers, struggling to find the words, “we were all stoked to ride in front of so many people.”

After a solid month of being on the road in a completely foreign culture on the other side of the world, the team was ready to return to their favorite place—the familiar confines of the Wood River Valley.

The riders’ international success at such young ages can be attributed to a combination of natural talent, intense dedication, and hard work. Being a professional freestyle snowmobiler is not just a pick-me-up jaunt in the park. It takes an enormous amount of technique, practice, and strength to flip, twist, and maneuver one’s body and a 500-pound sled while projecting through the air at speeds of over 65 miles per hour. During the winter, Frisby and Sherbine train on their snowmobiles and in the gym every day without fail.

Describing Heath’s training regime, Jason Moriarty notes, “He’s really serious and considers himself a world-class athlete. He’s in the gym daily trying to get stronger, and he practices on his snowmobile year-round as much as he can. Heath looks at freestyle snowmobiling like it’s his job. He takes it seriously and he wants to be the best.”

All the hard work culminates for Frisby and Sherbine at the Winter X-Games, held in Aspen, Colorado, every year. The scene at the X-Games is nothing short of extreme—cameras on zip-lines film the athletes’ runs and cameras at the top and bottom of the course film every reaction and move. ESPN sponsors the event and covers every minute of it, determined to get the full story—smeared blood, brutal crashes, waving moms, and incredible tricks.

For the 2009 X-Games, 18-year-old Sherbine went as an alternate and got the opportunity to compete. Not even knowing that he was going to ride when he arrived in Aspen, Isaac was stoked on his sixth-place finish in freestyle. And although he didn’t do as well in 2010, he’s looking forward to competing and finishing higher in 2011.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! No, it’s Isaac Sherbine launching a “double grab.” Up close and personal with the takeoff ramp. Sherbine soars on this “stripper.”

Left It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! No, it’s Isaac Sherbine launching a “double grab.” Middle Up close and personal with the takeoff ramp. Right Sherbine soars on this “stripper.”

At his first Winter X-Games in 2007, Frisby received the bronze medal in freestyle, but was just two-tenths of a point shy of first place. He notes, “I thought that I should have won it.” As with any judged sport, the athletes have to take what they get, and a bronze isn’t all that bad.

The following year, Heath won another freestyle bronze, and was two points away from the gold medal. The year after that he won bronze again, once more finishing a mere two-tenths from freestyle gold. “I was feeling like I was never going to win it,” said Frisby.

By last winter’s X-Games, Heath was starving for gold. Another competitor had a clear lead in the Best Trick competition until Frisby’s last jump, when he pulled out a mind-boggling, gravity-defying, clean “Tsunami Indy Flip,” in which the rider does a full back flip with the sled and then extends his body and crosses his legs while the snowmachine is still completely upside down above him, before bringing the snowmobile back around for the landing. After a lifetime in the sport, Frisby had finally claimed his first X-Games gold medal with an incredible trick.

No matter how many medals they amass, Frisby and Sherbine will always be hard-working Idaho farm boys. When asked separately where the best place they’ve ever been is, both answered, “home.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us that the Wood River Valley unwaveringly holds the hearts of the extreme.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.