North Face Masters Big Mountain Snowboard Tour

It has been said that lately the competitive side of the snowboard industry has been wearing blinders, focusing mostly on railjams, halfpipe contests, slopestyle events and the occasional big air contest, with little to no focus on big mountain riding. A decent percentage of every magazine, video and website feature professional riders getting nasty on gnarly terrain, but open entry big mountain contests are few and far between when compared to the barrage of railjams and halfpipe contests.

Enter the “North Face Masters” 2008 Big Mountain Snowboard Tour. The Masters is a two-stop tour devoted to bringing focus back to the roots of snowboarding––steep terrain and big mountains. Unlike the snowboard contests that most are familiar with, the only man made features of the contest are the starting gate and a finish line, with nothing but over a thousand vertical feet of steep natural terrain between the two.

Without a doubt, The North Face is an international outdoor/winter sports industry powerhouse, and they enthusiastically threw their weight into the Masters concept. Their commitment was proven by their partnerships with event production company Mountain Sports International (M.S.I.), Primaloft Insulation and Future Snowboarding Magazine as well as their acquisition of world-class big mountain venues, Snowbird, Utah and Aleyska, Alaska. A $45,000 cash purse and live webcast coverage of the events via on-site satellite uplinks, further legitimized the event, as well as a collaboration with Chugach Powder Guides to provide finalists with a helicopter ride to the top of “Big League”, an untracked and extremely gnarly zone at Aleyska Ski Resort that won’t be open to the public until 2010.

The first stop was held Feb. 8-10 on the infamous, and avalanche prone, Mount Baldy at Snowbird Ski Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Event planners wisely scheduled a three-day window for weather contingency, but unlike the Pipeline Masters (a prestigious surf contest, which will wait weeks for perfect conditions) event organizers and the higher-ups at Snowbird did not schedule a waiting period, but also left the mountain open to the public the week before the contest. This error virtually ensured that conditions would be less than prime, but the large field of 90 riders proved that competitors were excited and dead serious about their opportunity to push the sport of competitive big mountain snowboarding. Snowbird locals had home-court advantage with line and terrain knowledge, but the out-of-towners hailing from big mountain meccas like Jackson Hole, Whistler, Alaska, Crested Butte and Lake Tahoe had little trouble keeping up.

High winds and poor visibility put the contest into a holding pattern on Saturday, leaving the female competitors chilling in a North Face tent atop West Baldy while waiting on the elusive sunshine. The sun never did show on Saturday, but free PBR’s, burgers and hotdogs, courtesy of The North Face, kept spectators and competitors from complaining too much. People had a good time building snow benches, shooting off fireworks and sessioning a gap jump over one of the numerous and large foxholes that were dug by people escaping the persistent wind.

Sunday’s weather was perfect; no wind and not a cloud in the sky. The 24 female competitors began their qualifying run at 9:15 a.m. under the morning shade, each battling hard snow and low light for one of 6 seats in the finals. The men’s qualifying round started around 11 a.m., and lasted for hours as 70 men waited patiently for their turn to abuse the classic steeps, cliff bands, chutes and natural jumps on North Baldy. Riders rode the wind packed snow as if it had a foot of powder on it, throwing dope sprays during high-speed turns, charging 40-degree chutes and dropping hefty cliffs. Not every run was successful, and a few riders tomahawked through rocks down to the finish line, but nobody left with any serious injuries. With a free trip to the second stop of the tour in Alaska, a samurai sword first place trophy and thousands of dollars on the line each rider generally went a little larger and a little faster than the one before, all vying for one of the 15 spots in the finals. Highlights included huge airs from Snowbird locals like Toby Englert’s HUGE shifty followed up by a front three right at the bottom, Chris Coulter’s giant backside 540 right in the judge’s faces, a sketchy guy who pretty much side slipped the whole boneyard going mach 10, Martin Gallant’s flowing, high-speed run with one of the days biggest stomps, and again, some of the gnarliest crashes I’ve seen all winter.

The finals were pretty exciting, but the judging was poor and some riders who shouldn’t have made the cut found their way into the finals, while other deserving riders were left to watch from the sidelines. That said, you have to give the judges some credit for accepting such a difficult job, I mean, this isn’t a NASCAR race––the difference between first and second, or 15th and 16th is not a matter of seconds or minutes, but rather a matter of personal opinion based on judging criteria. Crested Butte locals, Clif Dimon and Susan Mol, were both awarded first place, which caused quite the stir among both the crowd and competitors. Susan butt checked and put her hands down on her final run, while second place finisher Laura Dewy had a flawless run that showed skill, confidence and power from top to bottom. While Clif Dimon perhaps deserves some credit for basically side slipping down a sheer rock wall and probably destroying his board in the process, he did it in the qualifiers, which made it much less exciting in the finals when he did the exact same thing, skipping gnarly drops to scramble around on the rocks like some sort of billygoat skier (it was not pretty to watch). French-Canadian Martin Gallant should have easily taken first and was a victim of piss poor judging. Both of Gallant’s runs were different and his balls to the wall approach and confidence on North Baldy was unmatched by any other rider all day. His final run was by far the most exciting part of the day as he constantly attacked the fall line from top to bottom. Halfway down he 5050’d down the first ten or fifteen feet of a 30-foot cliff face, ollieing the latter half and stomped it like nobodies business. He was also the first, and one of only two riders to step to one of the biggest cliffs at the bottom of the run clearing an I.E.D. (rock) that was lurking ten feet from the base of the cliff, and he stomped the crap out of it not once, but twice. Part of the reason he was stomping everything might be because this hilarious dude (check his interviews in the Masters story on was landing in the best snow on course because NOBODY else could imagine, find or handle the lines he chose. Hats off to you Monsieur Gallant, everybody knows you won.

Awards were presented at the base of the Snowbird tram under a setting sun, with Clif Diamon, Ryland Bell and Martin Gallant claiming first, second and third, respectively. Women winners were Susan Mol, Laura Dewey and Breanne Stringfellow. Both first place finishers received four-foot long samurai swords on impressive display stands, a healthy chunk of change and an all expense paid trip to the Aleyska stop of the Masters tour in April. The event went so well that you should expect to see the Masters return to Utah next season, and in all likelihood they’ll add an additional stop to the tour to further diversify the terrain presented to big mountain fans and competitors.