VAIL, Colorado - At the debut of the Winter Mountain Games last year in Vail, no one was quite sure what to expect at the first-of-its-kind event.
Attendees came to see something new, and they got what they were looking for.
The marquee event - a combination telemark big air/freeride bike best trick competition that took place on an enormous, 60-foot ski jump at Golden Peak - attracted a spectator crowd of more than 1,000.
"It was a highlight of the winter for me," said Sam Pilgrim, a Mountain Games regular who took third in the bike part of that competition with a one-foot backflip. "I loved everything about it. The village has a really cool atmosphere, everything is super nice and clean and very laid back."
Pilgrim said from a pro athlete's standpoint, even he had never seen a competition like the Winter Mountain Games, where freeride bikers were taking turns with telemark skiers going off a jump designed for big air snowboarders and alpine skiers. Pilgrim said on the other side of that coin - from a fan's perspective - it must have been an amazing contest to witness and with $15,000 up for grabs, athletes were going for broke in the jam-format event.
"You usually don't get to see crashes like those," he said of the spectacular, explosion-style landings some bikers were experiencing, where the bike bucks the rider off and goes careening end over end down the landing. "Coming down on the snow is the most fun part, because you get to do a bit of skiing on your bike."
On the telemark side, the tricks were of the same caliber you see performed by top athletes in a standard alpine setup. But with the heel free to leave the binding, everything becomes a little scarier. Some of the wobbly landings were sketchy, but the crashes couldn't compare to their biking counterparts, who were taking turns on the jump alongside the skiers. There was even simultaneous bike-tele tricks happening alongside on another.
The winning trick tele trick was a double front flip by Vail Valley local Christopher Ewart.
"It was the first time I had ever tried the trick off a park jump," he said.
Look for Ewart to be back this year along with a list of other great telemark skiers including Kjell Ellefson, Anthony Gill, Ty Dayberry, Jeremy Clark, John Olav, Dylar Garnar and 14-year old Bennett Drummond.
Think it looks easy?
And while Ewart and company received their spots at this year's games via invite, new for 2013 is the opportunity for you to participate right along side of them. Twenty spots are open for the public through a registration process detailed at mountaingames.com. The 20 members of the public will compete in an qualifying round with five advancing to the finals to compete against the 10 pros for a total of 15 competitors in the finals. You'll get one shot - with your trick judged on style and difficulty. The prize purse is $5,000 with $2,500 going to the winner, $1,500 to second place and $1,000 for third.
And as far as free heels and wheels go, the amateur action is not just limited to the telemark big air. The public can also qualify in a similar fashion for the best bike trick contest, where the prize purse is double that of the telemark.
The bouldering of ice climbing
The public will also get a crack at that mixed climbing wall which has been in assembly for the last few weeks out at Golden Peak.
Mixed climbing - ice climbing's answer to the man-made bouldering walls of the rock climbing world - will return to the Winter Mountain Games once again attracting top athletes in the sport like John Wharton, a three-time winner of the Ouray Ice Festival Mixed Climbing Competition.
In 2004 Wharton completed a first ascent of the Azeem Ridge in Pakistan, where he went 48 hours without water at an elevation of 20,000 feet.
"It opened my mind to how far things could be pushed," he said.
Mixed climbing pushes the sport to new boundaries as well, as the climbers use their ice axes, only not in ice. The man-made structure uses foam disks which the climbers ax into, racing in a head-to-head format for first to the top.
As competitors continue to ax into the foam, it becomes more difficult to get a firm hold in, much like real ice. Unlike real ice, though, the tools don't come out of the foam so easy once they're in.
Last year, large snowflakes fell on the competitors as they raced to the top, adding a real-weather element to the competition.
This year, you can give the wall a try in a competition format or public demo format.
Scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, the public will get a chance to compete for bragging rights on the wall. The fastest time to the top will win and competitors will have 20 minutes to attempt the route as many times as possible.
Following the public competition will be a chance for everyone to try, regardless of skill level.
"Never been ice or mixed climbing? No worries, we've got you covered," the Vail Valley Foundation writes in their promotional material. "We'll supply the ice axes, helmet and climbing equipment. You supply the wits."
The Eddie Bauer Mixed Climbing Wall open public demo is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday.
Plenty of two-wheeled action
If you're the type who thinks winter should not put the brakes on your biking, the Winter Mountain Games are for you.
There's a bike slalom, which has BMX and MTB riders going side to side clearing gates on the Golden Peak slalom course. And yes, that would be the same one that Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety train on.
Last year's winner, Kyle Ebbet, said his win came more from preparation than execution.
"Your tires make all the difference out there," he said.
While competitors in the best bike trick comp ride regular tires (you don't want too much grip on that insane landing), the bike slalom racers had large, spiked metal studs in theirs.
Runner-up Aaron Chase said he spent hours preparing his, calling them "death tires."
"The bigger the spikes, the better," he said.
Meanwhile, as Chase and Ebbet were slaloming down Golden Peak on their bikes, local cross country mountain bikers were riding what may be the largest tires you've ever seen on a bike in the on-snow crit, happening on a circular course which traveled around the bike slalom.
"If you're a rider who misses your bike in the winter, there wasn't a better place to be," pro downhill mountain biker and spectator Chris Mari said of the scene at Golden Peak. "Action everywhere."
Winter endurance athletes belong at the Winter Mountain Games. There's a variety of snowshoe, Nordic and mountaineering events, some where your dog is welcome to join in the heavy breathing. The endurance events culminate with the games' Ultimate Mountain Challenge, which combines the ski mountaineering (skin, ski and bootpack a tough alpine course while looking for checkpoints) and Vail Uphill (2,200-foot climb from bottom of Lionshead to top of Eagle's Nest, choose your own traction device), and nordic 10k events.
Participants join either the men, women or coed team divisions -- winners from each take home $1,200.
And as always there will be something for the artistic set, as well. Music enthusiasts will love the Winter Mountain Games this year - reggae rockers John Brown's Body will headline on Saturday night, with hip-hoppers the Flobots playing Friday, and electronica darlings Ana Sia and Kraddy kicking things off on Thursday. All shows are free. And the annual photography competition is a showcase for the local talent, along with a showcase of what the games have to offer. Last year's winning photo, an incredible shot of a biker going inverted over a ball of flames in the best bike trick contest, shows the talent at the Winter Mountain Games is not solely contained to the athletes.
"It's one of my favorite photography contests, because there's world class action happening everywhere you look," said Daniel Milchev, who snapped the winning pic.