The biggest event in freeride skiing descended upon Golden, British Columbia, recently and aspiring athletes seized the opportunity for a “shreducation.” By Clare Menzel.
“I’ve got hot chocolate! Who wants hot chocolate?”
A rosy-cheeked skier, age 11, plopped down onto the snow and passed a massive thermos around to his friends. February 5 was a frigid bluebird morning, and this small posse of young skiers huddled together on Redemption Ridge at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden. They also shared candy, as well as binoculars, which they used to peer across Feuz Bowl to the south aspect of Ozone peak, where some of the world’s strongest freeride skiers and snowboarders were laying tracks down a face guarded by fat cornices, furrowed with chutes ending in mandatory airs, and punctuated by unseen rocks ready to grab a rider’s edge.
It was competition day at Kicking Horse, the second stop on the 2019 Freeride World Tour (FWT). In this extreme big mountain circuit, riders are allowed just one run down each venue, earning points for style, fluidity, technical proficiency, solid airs, creativity, and strategic line choice. This season kicked off mid-January in the Japanese Alps, where skier Tom Peiffer took third (the only Canadian to podium). After the Golden stop, athletes are Europe-bound for competitions in Andorra, Austria, and, lastly, Switzerland, where World Champion titles will be awarded.
The spellbound youngsters watching these pros drop in on Ozone were envisioning themselves doing the same thing, someday. They’re all part of the Golden Alpine Rippers (GNAR), a small local team for athletes, aged 8 to 16, who compete in big mountain freeride competitions. FWT organizers refer to the “pyramid” structure of competitions in the freeride universe: Numerous and widespread regional comps form the base, developing skills in a huge pool of young riders at the grassroots level. In North America, the ISFA-sanctioned Freeride Junior Tour series boasts a full schedule of events, including one just last weekend at Kicking Horse February 7-10. (Click here for the results.)
The starry-eyed GNAR groms had been skiing and soaking up stoke at their home hill in the days leading up to the FWT comp. They’d been granted a few days off from school, after rushing ahead in their studies to earn the privilege. “Who goes to school when it’s Freeride World Tour?” one 11-year-old GNAR athlete said. “Shreducation is more important.”
One morning, GNAR athletes sat in on a judging clinic, where French head judge Laurent “Lolo” Besse explained exactly what goes into a winning score. He played clip after clip of runs from 2018’s FWT stop in Golden, challenging the kids to assess each score. The two teenaged GNAR coaches were present too, deepening their understanding of what works and what doesn’t at the highest level of competition.
Craig Murray’s Winning Run at the FWT19 event at Kicking Horse in Golden, BC.
A mock comp was slated for that afternoon—part of GNAR’s regular programming, it was intended to be a straightforward practice run on the same zone the junior event would be held. But the informal contest blew up into a down-day mentorship activity for the pros, thanks to collaboration between FWT organizers and Toby Barrett, who supervises Kicking Horse’s ski school, including GNAR.
Nearly a dozen FWT athletes showed up to the mock comp, offering pre- and post-run analysis on line choices and execution. One young gun said that just a few words from a pro completely changed the way he planned to approach his competition line. The tour’s media team also tagged along, and the young skiers learned what it felt like to be filmed in the nervous moments before dropping in. Some FWT athletes were so captivated by GNAR energy that they later free-skied with the kids.
Marion Haerty’s Winning Run at the FWT19 event at Kicking Horse in Golden, BC.
“[Having the FWT stop here] makes [GNAR skiers] work hard,” said Amy Metcalf, a former Kicking Horse Patroller and the mother of both a GNAR alum/coach and a current athlete. “That comes from talking to the athletes: You’ve got to work hard, and ski a lot, to get to this point. That’s what everybody’s done. It’s inspiring for them.”
Youth freeride training programs abound in the Canadian Rockies, like in nearby Banff, home to the well-established Rocky Mountain Freeriders. But none of the athletes from that program spectated the FWT stop in-person. Golden’s groms, meanwhile, had front-row seats.
Jacqueline Pollard‘s Winning Run at the FWT19 event at Kicking Horse in Golden, BC.
“Hit it, hit it, hit it!” they chanted as one snowboarder approached, but then skirted around, a major cliff feature. When Peiffer crashed mid-run, they howled, “Go, Tom! Get up, Tom!” The live announcer couldn’t help but comment on their hysterics as Pemberton’s Logan Pehota stomped back-to-back 360s. Last year, Pehota won this event; his recent performance landed him back on the podium in third place. “I’m basically just here for Logan’s run,” one kid said. Another agreed: “He’s my hero. I want to have his style, his love of skiing, his passion. You can see it in his skiing.”
As Pehota crossed the finish line, the grom squad clicked into their skis and bombed down Feuz Bowl to meet him at the corral, pausing only momentarily to watch the next athlete, Italian Markus Eder, who is currently ranked as the tour’s top male skier. (“Are you Markus Eder? That’s awesome,” is how one of the GNAR skiers had introduced themselves the day before at Kicking Horse’s Double Black coffee shop.)
Victor De Le Rue’s Winning Run at the FWT19 event at Kicking Horse in Golden, BC.
Down below Ozone, at the finish corral, FWT staffers noticed the GNAR skiers chattering on the sidelines. They waved the kids over and enlisted their help. As the final scores were announced, GNAR skiers dutifully, and proudly, presented each podiumed athlete with a bottle of champagne, a hockey stick, and a can of maple syrup.
“It’s the best feeling when the pros come to your home mountain,” one GNAR skier, age 13, said. “I’m never going to forget that. It’ll probably change my life.”