At Team Breckenridge, big-mountain skiing and snowboarding is the next big thing
January 13, 2017
Breck’s cliff progression
Steep powder is one thing. Chutes are another. But how does a big-mountain skier go from staying grounded to hucking off 35-foot cliffs? One word: progression.
“You don’t want to be pushing someone off something they’re just not ready for,” said Clay Bryant, head big mountain coach for Team Breckenridge. “You want to encourage, but you don’t want to be dangerous.”
Bryant breaks down the cliff progression at Breckenridge. Buckle up — you’re in for a wild ride.
Step 1 | Contest Bowl, Peak 8
One of the first (and best) practice venues for aspiring big-mountain riders is Contest Bowl, the southern face of the wide-open bowl directly above Colorado SuperChair. It’s filled with bushes and small trees that get buried with windblown snow — and become near-perfect training jumps. They range in size from barely there to 15 feet, Bryant said, and all end in relatively short run-outs on slopes ranging from 25 to 35 degrees.
Step 2 | Horseshoe Bowl, Peak 9
Accessed from the T-Bar lift, Horseshoe Bowl is Contest Bowl’s bigger, badder brother. It’s home to larger rock drops (15-10 feet) and other features, including several drops surrounded by trees, rocks and nasty rollers. Once you’re comfortable simply being in the air, Bryant suggests heading to the far east side of the bowl for practice with run-outs and landings on tight, gladed slopes.
Step 3| The Six Senses, Peak 6
When Breckenridge expanded to Peak 6 in December 2013, it gave skiers direct lift access to some of the gnarliest terrain on the Tenmile Range. The Six Senses — a series of hike-to cliffs and chutes south of Kensho SuperChair between Peak 6 and Peak 7 — is Breck’s Holy Grail for aspiring big-mountain riders, Bryant said. Slopes there range from 25 to nearly 45 degrees, with dozens of line options, ranging from large to XXL. Like most terrain at Breck, the runs are short and sweet, but it’s an exhilarating ride from the top of a wind-blown ridge to the lower basin. The venue is home to the annual GoPro Big Mountain Challenge, a March event that drew 170 youth freeskiers from across the country last season and returns this season in late March.
When Clay Bryant told Nic Obleski to steer clear of a mogul beneath the deceptively small drop in Horseshoe Bowl, I'm pretty sure the 17-year-old skier from Denver heard him. I'm just not sure if he considered it before dropping.
"Just watch out for the mogul on the landing," Bryant told Obleski, his protégé and a four-year member of the Team Breckenridge freeski program. Dubbed Hawks Freeride after director and former pro Chris Hawks, the program covers the gamut of freeriding — superpipe, slopestyle and big mountain — and boasts roughly 60 athletes this season. They range in age from 7 years old to 18 and older, but most share one thing in common: a fanatical love of freeskiing and snowboarding.
These days, the Team Breck freeride program is split almost evenly between big-mountain riders and slope or pipe riders — a far cry from the early glory days of slope and pipe in the mid-2000s.
"I'm not 100 percent sure what it is, but I think a lot of it is the freedom," Hawks said of the recent boost in big-mountain riders. "Our athletes get to test their skills on tough venues and it shows that they're good, all-around skiers. Not everyone likes terrain park jumps, and this gives theme a chance to show their unique qualities somewhere else."
On a chairlift ride earlier in the day — Bryant, Hawks and Obleski sessioned Contest Bowl off of 6-Chair before heading to T-Bar and Horseshoe Bowl — I asked Obleski the same question: Why big-mountain skiing?
"This is more fun," he said, and then paused for a long, long time, as if to say that's all I needed to know. "I love how fun the competitions are. I get to see cool resorts, and when you have that good competition — when you have that good result on a new line — it's the best feeling in the world."
Love at first ski
Over the past four seasons, Obleski has made the trip from Denver to Breckenridge almost every weekend to train with Hawks and Team Breck. He got his first taste of big-mountain skiing as a 12-year-old, when he was taking advanced ski school classes and competed in the resort-sponsored freeride competition in Contest Bowl. He took fourth place and was hooked immediately.
"I'll go home after skiing and watch every Freeride World Tour run from the past year, even the ones with falls," said Obleski, who plays lacrosse for Denver South High School when he's not on skis. "Some of the best pros in the world will have enormous falls, and those are almost more important to watch than the clean runs."
Ever since that first contest, Obleski has been going bigger and faster and harder every season, moving from the small, windblown trees and bushes in Contest Bowl to the legitimate double black diamond terrain on Peak 6. Bryant has been his coach since then, and the two spend most weekends simply riding around Breck, tracking from one spot to the other in search of drops, cliffs, rocks, bushes — anything that looks fun, no man-made features required.
"When you're coaching slopestyle, it's more about the maneuvers. When you're coaching big mountain, it's more about being comfortable on your skis — being that all-around skier," said Bryant, an Ohio native who started skiing with Team Breck in 2001 and moved over to coaching about 10 years back. "I've dealt with a lot of slopestyle in the past and this is just more pure skiing."
Birth of competition
Around the same time Obleski fell head over heels for big mountain, the sport started growing at an unprecedented rate. It began with the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association, an organization co-founded by local legend Shane McConky to oversee big-mountain events and contests across the globe. In true McConky fashion, the program had very little structure — and that was the point. Today, youth events through the association and pro-level Freeride World Tour events are judged on overall impression like slope and pipe, but the venues are wildly variable, and the format is more of an all-day jam than a one-and-done format. That makes it tricky for spectators, but more laid-back and relaxed for competitors, Bryant and Hawks said.
"It's about attacking the mountain — picking those lines and features that are more exciting," Hawks said between runs. "Now that it's a judged sport it's becoming so popular, but it's tough to see it going to the Olympics. Even though there's hardly anyone who does halfpipe anymore, that sport still gets the top billing because it's easy for spectators and the TV crews."
In late January, Obleski and a handful of fellow Team Breck skiers head to Crested Butte for the first contest of the season hosted by the association. All told, Obleski plans to compete in five regional events and two national events, including the GoPro Big Mountain Challenge on Peak 6 in March. He's currently working on style, like spinning 360s off anything and everything, along with more opaque skills, like skiing aggressively.
"It's just a matter of getting out and skiing hard every day that I can," Obleski said. "That's what Clay and I have been doing."
The Horseshoe drop
Remember that mogul Bryant was talking about? Obleski did — and chose to air straight over it. Just seconds after Bryant told him the landing was clear, the soon-to-be high school graduate straight-lined into the takeoff and launched some 45 or 50 feet downhill, far past the jump and into the soft, windblown powder beneath.
"It's been cool to see him go from a kid to a big kid," Bryan said with a grin. "Like, that was a big-boy drop."
And maybe that's why big-mountain riding is winning more and more converts every day. It's "skiing in its purest form," Bryant said, and although there are dozens of Olympic hopefuls training just down the hill in the terrain park, Obleski would rather test his mettle against the worst — or best — Mother Nature can throw at him.
"I enjoy it because you're not skiing the same jumps and rails all day," Bryant said.
"That can get repetitive… There is no one saying, 'You have to ski this one, man-made course.' You're allowed to do what you want."
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