Mark Sullivan

Jack Farrell has stumbled into a deal too good to be true. Rising swiftly from a low-level loan officer in Chicago to a successful investment banker in California representing the interests of a Central American entrepreneur, Farrell blinds himself to what he is really doing — laundering money for a drug cartel — until it is too late.

On the run from both Federal agents and the drug lords, Jack flees to the Utah mountains where he once skied as a student. With a new name and a face altered by plastic surgery, Farrell struggles to lose himself in the steep chutes and couloirs.

But his solitude is short-lived. Farrell is drawn to Inez Didier, the enigmatic French director who recruits him and a handful of fellow skiers for a documentary film that forces them to take mind-numbing risks.

Treading the hazardous line between his addiction to thrill-seeking and his need to confront the horrors of his past, The Fall Line reveals Farrell’s darkest secrets as it races toward an explosive climax amidst some of the most dangerous terrain in the world.

Out West, winter storms begin as collisions of cold and warm air in the Gulf of Alaska. The two battle for control, cold winning, then racing southeast to land, across the coastal mountain ranges to the deserts of the Great Basin. There the fronts accelerate and gather fury, boiling high over the purple sage and the brine flats until they draw one last infusion of moisture crossing Utah's Great Salt Lake and then slam in to the chill, nearly-vertical wall of the Wasatch mountains. One canyon, the Little Cottonwood, seems to suck the dark storm clouds into itself, up its nine-mile rip, up 8,000 feet to the half-dozen peaks and ridges that form the series of alpine bowls called Alta. Trapped by the jagged crags and the frozen cirques, the clouds are squeezed as if by a giant hand milking udders and a snow like no other falls.

The snow drops on the snake-like two-lane road that climbs the canyon to the base of the mountain. It falls on the series of steel towers and cables that make up the lifts that hoist the skiers high into the alpine terrain. It covers the five small lodges at the base of Alta's spires and ridges - shelter for the powder addicts who come to fly through the perfect snow the locals call "Peruvian."

After years of experimentation, each die-hard skier develops his own system of grading powder. Jack Farrell was no different. When he was a young man skiing at Alta for the patrol, his method of classification ran lead, dough, oatmeal, flour. Three months after his return to the canyon, after a nearly twelve-year absence, he had reappraise his system; he decided that the finest powder snow, which falls only in the Little Cottonwood during January, February and March, resembles air more than frozen water. "White ether," Farrell called it, an infinitely elastic and friable snow that when deep - that is, measure in increments of feet rather than inches - will flood the lungs and leave the skier thrilled that he had flirted with the sensation of drowning.

By early March, four months after he'd fled his former life, Farrell had almost fully succumbed to the pleasures of choking. He compared it to nitrogen narcosis, the rapture of the deep, the hallucinatory dream state he'd entered once scuba diving far off the coast of California. There he'd twisted and sighed and almost drifted off into the blackness. Deep powder was different: in the snow he had no artificial lung to keep him sane. The deeper the powder, the more Farrell had to hold his breath and deny his brain oxygen, so that at times he felt flush with a sense of invincibility, and at others, inexplicably hysterical with laughter. No matter how many turns he made through the white ether, it stirred in him a constant battle of terror and joy.

Within the ecstatic black dream of these past few days, as dark clouds dumped sixty inches of new powder on the steep slopes, he'd been visited by phantoms - one a skier, the other a snowboarder - who'd shadowed him as he skied off in the woods each day, dropping into chutes and gullies that swirled with fresh snow, shooting off ledges far from the marked trails, dancing on the line between control and abandon.

There! The skier darted through the trees off to his right. Then the snowboarder in a flashing arc of neon burst onto the open slope to his left. In a mad rush to lose them, Farrell let his skis run and he dropped off a twenty-foot ledge into a spruce glade, dodging the sharp branches of the trees as he sailed through the air. He landed and burst into an opening in the woods, understanding that he'd lost the snowboarder, but not the skier. Farrell accelerated and aimed himself at the thickest stand of firs he could see, recklessly disregarding the damage their thick limbs might do. He picked a tight opening and charged into it, splintering the dead branches in his path with his armored gloves and aluminum ski poles.

Farrell was out there now, approaching the extreme, where a mistaken reflex demands penance. Pressure built behind his eyes. His chest thudded with the thick blows of a boxer. A strange static noise rang in his ears. Behind him he heard branches snap as the skier followed. Farrell grunted as he popped onto a narrow shelf of snow. He took a turning leap, twenty-five feet off a quartzite cliff, made one turn on a ledge, whipping the ski tips like scythes through the brush, then fell again, fifteen feet and felt the deep snow burst over his head as he landed. Far above him someone cursed.

Farrell skied away, reconfirming a basic truth about himself: that though he loved the jolt of falling, the blast before the nod, it did not sate his need. No, Farrell knew that as much as he craved the swell in his throat as he glided through the air, what he needed most was the numbing, deep powder landing, snow fountains bursting about his head, a cold, wet opiate dulling the ache of lost love and the sick-saccharine scent of spent cordite.
“An extremely deft first novel...Not many investigative reporters have the sensitivity and poetry that are exhibited in this exciting story of dare-devil skiing."
- New York Times Book Review’s annual notable books of the year issue.
In the late 1980s, I was assigned by my editor at the San Diego Tribune to cover the drug culture. I worked stories about drug cartels and their ties to domestic organized crime, politicians and money launderers. The story led me into the halls of power in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., all along the southwest border and into Mexico. It also took me to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, the notorious hubs of international money laundering. When I wasn't overseas, I spent many of my days in neo-natal intensive care units, watching nurses care for crack babies as part of a series looking at the lives of children born into the families of addicts.

At the same time, the "extreme" sports movement was gathering steam in America. I'd grown up a skier in New England, spending my formative years at the region's ultimate hardcore area -- Mad River Glen in Vermont. But on my vacations skiing in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, I was seeing younger skiers doing things I considered downright suicidal: jumping off eighty-foot cliffs, performing first descents on 50 degree slopes and generally reinventing the sport as a form of personal assault and adrenaline addiction. I was fascinated.

Others were as well. Filmmakers were documenting these daredevils and making them into media stars. That winter several young men died trying to make a name for themselves.

I became convinced my first novel was somewhere in all of this. I took a leave of absence to immerse myself in the world of thrill seekers and to write the book. I moved to Utah for six weeks and skied with people who frankly scared the bejesus out of me. We skied couloirs out of bounds in the Little Cottonwood Canyon. We cliff jumped and skied in powder so deep we needed snorkels. At night, I talked with them about what made them tick. Then I went on the road again, skiing some of the most dangerous lines at Lake Tahoe and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Back in San Diego, I tracked down convicted money launderers and interviewed them about their motives. To my surprise, there was a remarkable amount of overlap between the white-collar drug guys and the extreme skiers.

As you might expect, part of what drove the money launderers was greed. But one guy I spoke to who was about to go to prison for four years for his role in a money laundering scheme admitted that he got involved with drug smugglers out of sheer boredom. He loved the thrill of trying to beat the system and not get caught.

Out of all this research, the character and story of Jack Farrell emerged -- a man on the run from his past who becomes part of a film about the meaning of extreme, a young banker, skier and thrill seeker who got sucked down into the world of money laundering at the same time his wife, Lena, a nurse, watched the crack epidemic ravage a generation of babies.