2017 GoPro Big Mountain Challenge is back in Breck March 18-19 | SummitDaily.com

2017 GoPro Big Mountain Challenge is back in Breck March 18-19

It didn't take long for Mckenzie Hart to fall in love with big-mountain skiing. All she had to do was fall out of love with alpine racing.

At 17 years old, the Team Summit freeskier is in her second full season of big-mountain competition — a rapidly growing sport made for skiers and riders who like to huck off cliffs and go fast, fast, fast on 40-degree slopes — but she's already making waves. She took first in Telluride this January, second in Winter Park this February, and most recently, third at the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association Junior National Championships at Crested Butte on March 12.

Not bad for a gate crasher turned big-mountain destroyer.

"I was pretty scared of big-mountain terrain until I was 12 or 13," Hart said. "I didn't want to ski anything besides a race course until then. When I got on harder terrain, I just realized how much fun it was, and then all I wanted to do was go freeski instead of train for racing."

This Saturday and Sunday, Hart has her sights set on a win (or at least a podium) at her home mountain for the fourth annual GoPro Big Mountain Challenge at Breckenridge Ski Resort, an IFSA regional event that, like the sport itself, has grown and grown since it was launched in 2013. The event drew 68 competitors that first year and blossomed to nearly 170 last year, with skiers and snowboarders coming from across the region for competition in the 12-14 age division and 15-18 age division. Organizers expect the same number this season, including 10 skiers with Team Breckenridge, plus competitors from ski clubs across Colorado and the region.

"The atmosphere at these is always so happy," said Hart, who plans to ski for the University of Colorado-Boulder big-mountain team after graduating from Summit High School this May. "It's just a thrill to scare yourself and do stuff you didn't know you could do before."

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Breck's nastiest terrain

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and for the fourth year running the Big Mountain Challenge returns to the Six Senses, a dastardly cliff band on the ridge between Peak 6 and Peak 7. It's long been some of the nastiest terrain in Summit County, but it wasn't until the Peak 6 expansion in 2013 that skiers and riders could easily reach the chutes, cliffs and high-angle slopes by chairlift. Access made all the difference, and now skiers like Hart say it's some of their favorite terrain on the IFSA circuit.

"It's really fun," said Hart, who first competed in the Big Mountain Challenge last season and has spent the past week previewing the course in person. "The venue is one of the best for a regional in Colorado, and last season we had like 40 inches of snow that week. It was awesome. The sun came out, the energy was high — it was fun."

But oh, what a difference 365 days makes. Last season, the event was postponed by a day due to a weeklong storm that dumped nearly 3 feet of snow on Breckenridge. It made for soft landings and deep, deep turns, but Hart says she'll be just fine this season on the two-week-old snow at the venue. It will be much faster — something of a perk for a former alpine racer — and the landings are just as soft, even if they are a little torn up.

"It's a lot harder than before and choppier, but it's not bad," Hart said after her training run on Thursday. "The landings are good and hard — you're not punching through."

No-fall zone

Like all competitors, Hart will be judged on a slew of criteria, ranging from edge control and style to overall impression. Falls are a big no-no, even if they come after 360s off 45-foot cliffs, and Hart is confident she can make the most of the steeps on Six Senses. It's the mountain's most challenging terrain, she says, and she already has a few lines in mind for the 15-18 division finals on Sunday, when she'll be going up against 20 or 30 other females — a far cry from the five or six she competed against just two years ago.

"For a few years when I was racing I thought that big-mountain (skiing) just looked like so much fun," Hart said. "After my first big-mountain comp, I knew I was never going to be racing again."

2017 GoPro Big Mountain Challenge

What: The fourth edition of a youth big-mountain contest, held on the Six Senses at Peak 6 as part of the International Freeski and Snowboard Association regional circuit

When: Saturday and Sunday, March 18-19 starting at 10 a.m.

Where: Peak 6 at Breckenridge Ski Resort

Cost: Free for spectators

Registration for the event is closed. Spectators are welcome to watch from the judging venue at the base of the Six Senses, found just south of the Peak 6 summit. Competition begins at 10 a.m. daily and ends around 3 p.m., weather permitting. For more info about the event and IFSA series, see Freeskiers.org.