January 21-23 marked the return of every big mountain snowboarder’s favorite competition, The North Face Masters. Day one kicked off on Friday under bluebird skies and ripping wind. Upon early morning course inspection, the riders were surprised by boilerplate, scoured and all around unfriendly conditions on the upper half of Snowbird’s Silver Fox venue. A lost edge here would result in a slide for life that would surely end up in the flats 1000 feet below. Fortunately, this comp brings out the sports finest, and everyone brought their A-game. Compared to last year’s white-out conditions and hazardous avalanche forecast, I guess you could say the competitors were happy to see where they were going, even though getting there proved to be the biggest challenge. With a field of over 100, the riders had their work cut out for themselves as they rode the Tram to Hidden Peak to have a crack at making history. Over the past few years, The North Face Masters has been gaining steam, and this year’s event brought out the largest showing of athletes and spectators of any year previous. From the far reaches of Colorado, Montana, Washington, and even our drunken neighbors to the North (Canada that is), the excitement was tangible and everybody was ready to shred.
In order to pick the most talented riders, the judges ruled on the following criteria:
A panel of four, which included one head judge, would rate each competitor on the five categories and then give a score out of 100. Now since safety is a big concern, the riders who just went out and hucked it huge didn’t receive praise for their antics. The judges were more impressed by the rider’s ability to develop a clean and original line that highlighted their style of riding.
The men started things off and the pack of 76 tore up the venue. Snowbird employees, Tim Valcourt and Jesse Maddox, produced some impressive performances as they showcased their talents and moved onto the next round. A rather large contingent of Crested Butte riders also made an appearance and the local crowd cheered as they rallied through the crud. The conditions probably made them feel right at home. “You are gonna have to lay it down to win here,” remarked the judges. Heeding the call, last year’s overall champion, Aaron Robinson, ripped down the course at a blistering pace and charged through the lower section to qualify for the final day’s events.
Next it was the ladies turn to prove their worth and the conditions had become a little friendlier. Determined to make the judges pay attention, local favorite, Shannon Yates, threw out an energetic line that aroused the crowd. First time competitor Lena Nance tried her hand at putting one together and finished with a respectable run. “The conditions were definitely tricky and I kind of slid out up top. But it was still a great time,” said Lena. Not bad for someone riding with an injured tailbone. As the day came to a close, the cuts were made and the fortunate few prepared themselves for the finals. However, due to an encroaching storm, the competition was postponed until Sunday. All day Saturday the winds howled and the snow flew. Thanks to the silky smooth Snowbird Ski Patrol, Mt. Baldy was closed to let the venue fill in and rest up for the coming onslaught of riders.
Sunday bloomed bright, the skies had completely cleared and the wind had nearly vanished. All that lay before the remaining riders was 1700 vertical feet of untouched gloriousness. Unfortunately, there was still a hefty ice layer underneath the newly buffed snow, but the course was definitely more manageable. This time, the ladies got first dibs and the lucky 13 began their assault. Local sud-slinger Laura Dewey started her run off well, but lost her composure on a hit near the bottom. No worries, fellow shredder, Laura Hadar, cleaned up the pieces and ripped a nice line all the way to the bottom.
For the men, only 36 competitors remained and they proceeded to get it done. Midway through the event, Young Gun recipient Josh Warnick traversed out far looker’s left and dropped one of the scariest cliffs at the bottom of the amphitheater. The crowd went absolutely ape-shit as he stuck the landing and rode away clean. As the spectators teemed with excitement, the men continued to utilize the venue’s ample natural features and scored big points as they laid down some free-style flava of every terrain-nugget in sight.
By two o’clock, all the competitors had completed the final, and it was now time for the judges to decide who would be worthy to head back up for the super-final. During the intermission, the party raged on and the cowbells echoed throughout the hills. There was no shortage of interesting costumes and a young man by the name of Schwinn came by with offerings of box wine suspended from a ski-pole, a custom known as “aerial spacebagging.” All drinks aside, the judges named the top 12 men and top six women.
The women began their final quest for the podium and put together quite the show for the hoards below. By the time the last girl crossed the finish it was no doubt that Maria Debari had what it took to grab the gold. The real shocker came when local heroes, Laura Hadar and Kaitlin Elliot, tied for second place. Fortunately both of their petite frames fit atop the same podium.
With the women wrapped up, the remaining men continued to duke it out on Baldy. Ralph Backstrom upped the ante as he careened through the course to finish with the fastest line of the day. However, his speed was only good enough for second. As the sun began to fade from the venue, former champ Aaron Robinson cruised down for his victory lap. Ryland Bell rounded out the top three for the men’s.
Back on the tram deck, the crowd reconvened to watch the competitors accept their awards. As is tradition, the winners were awarded sleek ninja Katana swords, a fitting trophy after vanquishing the competition. While the winners celebrated, the music blasted and Sierra Nevada filled the skies. Prizes in-hand, Robinson and DeBari will make the trip to Crystal Mountain in Washington to protect their titles at the tour’s next stop. For more competition and athlete info, check out www.thenorthfacemasters.com.