Snowbird Mountain Resort, March 11-14 2009
Back for its twelfth installment, the Subaru U.S. Freeskiing Nationals returned to Snowbird, Utah this month. This time of year always brings out the cream of the skiing crop as competitors from around the globe arrive to showcase their skills. It also brings out the local hoard of partying spectators that gather at the finish lines to cheer on their favorite athletes, and of course, kick back refreshing PBR tall boys. As the crowds grew, and the beer flowed like wine, the competitors were taking their final inspection laps on the venues. Each time trying to find that perfect cliff drop or pillow line that would win the hearts of judges, fans, and, hopefully, sponsors. This weekend also represented the second stop on the Freeskiing World Tour. Starting on March 13, pre-qualified athletes from across the globe arrived to match talents with those athletes that qualified on March 11 and 12. To ensure a smooth and successful operation, the masters at Mountain Sports International (MSI) deployed their crafty team of ninjas to set up each day’s venue. With things in place, the Wasatch shredders looked to defend their titles as champions and show the world that Utah is known for more than just its watered-down beer.
Over the years, conditions for the competition have been variable at best. Last year’s event happened to fall just after a major storm and in the middle of an epic winter. This year, while not quite so epic, still managed to attract a few feet of fresh snow a day or two before the comp. With cliff bands still looming large, and most of the new snow chewed up by the previous day’s powder frenzy, the athletes were stoked and ready to huck themselves into oblivion.
As the sun peered over Gorilla Pass onto the crowd of frigid spectators below, the smooth reggae beats from MSI’s truck-sized speakers spread mellow vibes across the hills. The list of athletes was exhaustingly long and the judges were ready to seal the fate of many a rider. Each competitor’s run was evaluated on line choice, control, fluidity, technique and aggressiveness.
The cornucopia of carnage began on March 11 with the ladies’ qualifiers. Local ripper Vanessa Aadland led things off with a smooth line through the upper reaches of West Baldy. As she exited the final chute at mach 80, her foot caught a subtle traverse and she was pitched wildly into the air. The ensuing rag-doll was one of the most heinous crashes I have ever witnessed. Luckily, she had Snowbird’s finest to patch her up and whisk her down the mountain in a nifty red sled. Even after seeing a worthy competitor falter, the rest of the field preceded to throw caution to the wind and lay down some of the sickest lines. Snowbird’s own shop guru, Oakley White-Allen, came charging out of the gates and set the bar for the remaining riders with a massive straight air near the bottom. Montana native turned Wasatch shredder, Wiley Miller, also had a sleek and aggressive line that culminated in a crowd-pleasing 360 mute grab. Representing our South American pals, Chopo Diaz of Chile executed a flawless high-speed run that got him to the semi-finals on Friday.
The second day of qualifiers brought clear skies and hard conditions. The course was more than haggard after the previous day’s melee and a few double ejections were certain. However, once the sun made it over the ridge, the snow softened up a bit and it turned into a beautiful spring afternoon. After a solid day of inspiring performances, the final cuts were made and it was time to hit the Tram Club for all the free Coronas your liver could handle.
During day three, the first day of the World Tour, riders were pitted against the steep chutes and massive cliffs of Silver Fox: a venue as unforgiving on the eyes as it was on the competitors. The crowd was already a hundred people deep as the women made their way down the slopes. SnowCat driver and pre-qualified athlete, Alaina Huestis, made her Snowbird family proud as she launched her compact frame off every hit in sight. Utilizing the valuable terrain nuggets sprinkled across the venue boosted her line score and secured her a spot in the top ten for the final day. After the women finished their domination of the mountainside, the men let loose on the course to release some pent up adrenaline. At the end of the day, the field was again cut down and those left standing prepared themselves for the final battle.
Mt. Baldy stands as a silent juggernaut on the eastern-most boundary of Snowbird, and instills fear and respect in the minds of skiers trying to conquer its slopes. The terrain is rife with cliff bands, spinney chutes, gnarly trees and capable of producing avalanches that have been know to take lives. Fortunately, the skies were clear and the snow was stable. By ten o’clock, the crowd had reached riotous proportions and the spectators were eager to see the tour’s finest athletes lay it all on the line. The addition of a cable-cam for this event also captured the stunning highlights for the audiences at home. Jackson Hole’s Crystal Wright came out with guns blazing and took the top spot on the women’s podium. With the viewers now fully immersed in a bratwurst/Pabst-induced coma, it was time for the men to tear it up. Frenchman Julian Lopez proved he came to play with consecutive back-flips in the final and super final. Not to be outdone, MSI ninja Dex Mills pushed send on the most ridiculous high-speed double cliff in the Amphitheatre; winning the Backcountry.com Sickbird belt buckle, an award more sought after than the Grand Prize itself! Now that the torch has been passed, Wright and Lopez will ride to defend their honor at the tour’s next stop in Kirkwood, California.