There’s a saying that, “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.” Perhaps bordering on cliché, it actually seems to be a fair assessment of the current state of affairs when it comes to big-mountain ski and snowboarding competitions.
These events, also called “freeriding” competitions, harken back to the early days of freestyle skiing — the mogul, big air and ballet disciplines of the 1970s — when the after-the-event parties were half the reason to compete and the larger community of athletes, fans and event organizers were known for not taking things too seriously.
While the party and community-oriented atmosphere remains a big part of why Boulder athletes travel to freeriding events in places like Crested Butte and Taos, there’s also a very serious side to these competitions. And yet they’ve managed to retain a unique level of accessibility for athletes and fans, something that the original freestyle movement lost after it was mainstreamed by the Olympics and other high-profile events.
The freeride ecosystem has rapidly expanded and evolved over the past five years, with the ultimate goal a spot on the Swatch Freeride World Tour (FWT). This five-event showcase features only the top athletes riding intense mountain faces at venues such as Chamonix, France; Haines, Alaska; and Verbier, Switzerland.
“It’s very difficult to qualify for the Swatch Freeride World Tour,” says Federica Castelli, FWT’s communications manager. “Only the top two or three skiers or snowboarders from the Americas region and the same number from the European region get invited each season.”
Last year one of these qualifying athletes was Crested Butte, Colorado, local Mark Mikos.
Mikos earned his invitation on the 2017 FWT by finishing as one of the top three male skiers in the Americas region, joined by fellow Americans Ryan Faye and Griffon Dunne. He secured his spot based on points earned via competing in Freeride World Tour Qualifying (FWQ) competitions. These events are ranked from 1 to 4 stars (stylized with *) in order of difficulty and points are awarded for top finishes.
FWQ events also include junior events for athletes up to the age of 18. This pyramid structure allows for athlete development, advancement and opportunity, and means there is a clear way to progress through the junior ranks all the way up to the big show that is the FWT.
“For athletes who are serious,” Castelli says, “the organization, with junior events and freeride coaching and clubs at the entry level all the way up through the different levels of qualifying, create a pathway to the FWT and the opportunity to compete at the professional level.”
And with the prize purse at nearly $80,000 for each FWT stop, it’s heady stuff compared to the early days of freeriding events when the winner might walk away with a pair of new skis or a snowboard for their troubles. Even FWQ competitions have more at stake these days.
“We have a prize purse of $15,000,” says Taos Ski Valley Events Manager Kaela Gillum of the Taos Freeride event, the longest-running FWQ competition in the Americas and a one-time FWT event for women in 2011. “The level of competition and the ability of the athletes improves each year and with athletes from around the globe competing in our 4-star FWQ event, it’s serious business for the competitors who are trying to qualify for the FWT.”
It is serious business, and Colorado skier Mikos rode his second place finish in Taos to the top of the overall Americas FWQ standings for the men skiers last year, earning him a coveted spot on the FWT this season.
But what about the rest of the field? The athletes who like to test themselves against their peers but who also know deep down inside that a FWT berth is most likely out of their reach or not something they’re going to focus on? That’s where the fun and the parties come in. As former FWT athlete Hadley Hammer told Powder Magazine, “The real reason why big mountain [freeride] competitions are still relevant — and why they should always stick around — is for the camaraderie found at every level of freeride competitions, from small-scale local events to the world stage of the FWT.”
And that’s the real draw for the local athletes who are heading down to Taos at the end of February to compete in Taos Freeride March 1-4 at New Mexico’s biggest — and steepest — ski area.
Taos Freeride consists of two events, an entry-level 2-star competition, where athletes can start to earn the points they will need to qualify for both higher level events like the 4-star Taos Freeride event as well as the FWT.
But, according to Gillum, most of those who go to Taos do so for fun. “We try to host an athlete-centric event,” she says. “The goal is to give everyone who comes to Taos Freeride a red carpet experience, to make them feel like even if they aren’t on the FWT, that the level of hospitality and organization and attention to the athletes is at the FWT level so that everyone feels like a champion. The spotlight is on them.”
“It feels like family,” says Boulder-based athlete and University of Colorado Boulder student Isaac Siegel. “Everyone has each other’s back and people look out for each other.”
Siegel, who competes in the Men’s Ski division, heads out to Taos sitting in 33rd overall in the Americas region based on his FWQ points.
“It is one of my favorites,” he adds of Taos Freeride. “I think there is more of a buzz surrounding it than the other events. A lot friends will be there.”
The vibe is the same for fellow Boulder athlete Jordan Garrett, an Idaho skier who, like Siegel, ended up at CU Boulder and started competing in FWQ events.
“It’s a very laid back and supportive community,” Garrett says. “At the top of the venue everyone is excited and nervous and cheering each other on.”
For Garrett, who heads to Taos after finishing 14th in a 2-star FWQ competition in Crested Butte earlier this season, events like this are also, “really fun from the social aspect and the opportunity to travel.”
“I really like going to all these awesome mountains,” she says. “But the most fun is the rush when I drop into my line, the adrenaline.”
Garrett concedes she may never be a world champion on the FWT, but also admits her experiences at the FWQ level have led her to consider taking a year off when she wraps up her degree at CU to compete on the FWQ circuit and, perhaps, make the FWT. And, given her 14th place finish in Crested Butte this year has put her in 66th overall in the Americas after only one event, it’s quite possible Garrett could make it to the FWT level sooner rather than later.
Still, for most local skiers and snowboarders heading to compete at Taos Freeride at the end of the month, the focus is on fun.
“There are a lot of reasons why I do this,” says another athlete out of Boulder, Austin Kinzer. “The drive to get better, to go to other ski areas, but the major one is that it is the most fun you can have. It’s really just a great atmosphere.”
“Give it a shot. Good things will happen.”