With a season blighted by poor conditions and a series of accidents to competitors this month’s Skieur Magazine has an inquiry by Canadian ski journalist Michel Beaudry asking where the Freeride World Tour goes from here.
Last season two of the four events in the Tour were affected by poor conditions. After problems with a change of sponsor the Les Arcs stage had then to be cancelled due to lack of snow to be replaced by Kirkwood. The event was scheduled for late January but a mini-heatwave saw rain to 3000 meters on the Aiguille Rouge.
The scene at Whistler was no less dramatic. This, the first event of the season, was affected by rain, wind and hail. Conditions that some believed should have lead to its cancellation. Helicopters buzzed through the mountain air at Ruby Bowl as Thomas Diet, Daisuke Sasake and Seb Colomb-Gros were evacuated after wiping out on their runs. Despite the appalling conditions Manu Gaidet, Ian Macintosh and Aurélien Ducroz managed superb runs without incident. An official for Whistler/Blackcomb told Beaudry, who also judges at these competitions, that “the image for the resort was not at all one that we wanted to promote.” Beaudry reminds organizers that the events “are held in high mountain conditions, and that stages on the ski world cup are often cancelled due to poor weather, lack of snow, visibility, ice etc.”
After the accidents at Whistler their were further crashes. Moss Patterson and Jamie Burge at Snowbird followed by James Heim and Elijah Lee at Kirkwood suffered injuries that ended their season and may affect their careers at the highest level of the sport. Beaudry believes that “a small group of competitors were unable to properly judge their runs because of these conditions”. Although he notes that Diet, Sasake, Patterson and Burge are all skiers who have impressive résumé’s in freeride events.
Neither Gaidet, the overall winner for the second year running, nor Macintosh who finished just behind the Courchevel ski instructor, wiped out once during the whole season. Macintosh, who used to have a reputation as one of the mad-men of skiing, says he stayed within his limits, seeing this as the only way to achieve an overall top ten placing. Gaidet comments that “skiing like a loony does nothing for me, it is a good thing to be proud of skiing a difficult line. But to try something completely impossible just to impress your mates, that is crazy.” Jamie Pierre take note!
Beaudry also believes that judges bear some responsibility by giving mixed message. At the start of each even they warn against stupidity but are seen to increasing only award points for runs which link a series of impossible tricks accomplished at high speed. One of the veterans, placed in the top ten last season, said he would not compete again, “it is not worth risking your neck for a few dollars.” Big Mountain Skiing is much more professional nowadays; as one competitor put it: “it is no longer acceptable to fume a large spliff before a run”. The freeriders take risks that are hard for mortals to even understand. At Kirkwood, the Canadian Mike Stevenson made a back flip above a huge rock face of 30 meters just a few seconds out of the gate. Beaudry also questions whether equipment plays a role: large and rigid skis that allow any conditions to be skied at speed coupled with body amour and helmets that give a rider a feeling of immortality against the mountain.
Given the individualism of big mountain skiers and the attitude of the industry Beaudry doesn’t see things changing soon. However Laurent Belluard, the editor of Skieur thinks Beaudry is being too negative. “We are in the age of calculated risk but this doesn’t stop accidents because we are also in an age of big mountain skiing at a very high level.”
After a bad year for the discipline it is an interesting debate that gives pause for reflection. It also reminds us why Skieur is one of the best European ski magazines.
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