Inside the youth and collegiate big-mountain skiing scene
February 19, 2016
Right about now, a small group of skiers from the University of Colorado-Boulder is hiking under the (hopefully) crystal-clear skies on the ridge between Peak 6 and Peak 7, scouting fresh lines for a mock competition. They drove from Boulder to Breckenridge early this morning, putting up with the same traffic, exhaust and frustration as everyone else for a morning of training on the nasty, expert-only terrain in The Six Senses bowl.
It's home to the new GoPro Big Mountain Challenge, which became Breck's first (and only) Freeride Junior Tour event when it debuted last March. It's also prime training terrain for the university's big mountain club program, now nearly as big as the park program and only in its second season.
"These kids are just so gung-ho and so passionate," big mountain head coach Mike Suleiman said of the 40-or-so athletes on his team. "I consider myself a good skier and trying to keep up with these kids can be tough sometimes. They just love to lap the Pali chair."
That's exactly where sophomore Tashi Hackett was headed earlier this week on a blustery Thursday afternoon. The 20-year-old Telluride native grew up competing in organized big-mountain events across the state, and Arapahoe Basin's Pallavicini lift is now his favorite place for midweek skiing, aka training.
"It's just a smaller mountain, with fewer people," Hackett said. "It feels like you can play around more."
Training can look an awful lot like playtime for big-mountain skiers and snowboarders. Unlike modern halfpipe and slopestyle, Hackett and Suleiman believe big-mountain riding is more accessible for the general public. And, because it's more accessible, it's more appealing for skiers who want a taste of competition without race gates or 100-foot kickers.
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"It's a little bit easier to get into big mountain," Suleiman said. "It's a little less intimidating than hitting big park jumps. It's still intimidating, but you get a mix of people. You have park skiers, racers, recreational skiers — everyone — and it's easier to progress into this. In park skiing, if you want to get into it at this age you most likely get hurt pretty quickly."
The idea that big-mountain riding is more accessible and rewarding than something like slopestyle — part true, part misconception — has led to an explosion in popularity over the past seven or eight years. When Hackett started competing big mountain with the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club in the late 2000s, he'd be one of 10 or 11 skiers at the venue. Now, the competitions draw 60 to 70 athletes, he says, but the entire thing still feels like a jam session, with everyone whooping and hollering for competitors who slay the cliffs and chutes and drops. It feels like a day in the terrain park, only…different.
"It was just always a lot of fun," Hackett remembers from his earliest competitions. "Kids were going huge and getting crazy. The level of skiing has always been so high with big mountain — just way fun to watch."
When, then, did a style of riding become an organized sport? It's tough to say, but just a decade ago only a select few pros (and only a few more sponsored amateurs) competed in only a handful of events with the Freeride World Tour, plus invite-only oddities like the Mount Baker Legendary Banked Slalom.
Team Summit's head big-mountain coach, Ryan Van Nuys, skied on the Tour circuit from 2000 to 2007. He's a former mogul skier who fell in love with the vibe at big-mountain events, but when it was time to retire and take up coaching full time he didn't think there was enough interest for a club team.
But his hopes were high. At Van Nuys' final Tour event in Taos, New Mexico, a small group of junior skiers blew him away with impressive lines and aggressive skiing, including the daughter of a Team Summit coach.
"It was an epiphany," Van Nuys remembered. "I thought, 'We need to have a junior big-mountain team.' It took a year or two to get that going — I was content teaching moguls for however long — but I saw the opportunity."
In 2010, fellow Team Summit coach Jason Anthony launched the club's big-mountain program, Van Nuys joined the next season, and today, the club has 45 athletes training for big mountain. They range in age from 11 to 19 years old, including 17-year-old Grifen Moller, who was one of 360-plus athletes at the Freeride Tour Championships in tiny Andorra this January.
"At the root this is still a free sport," Van Nuys said. "There's more structure and admin than before — you have thousands of kids competing — but the spirit is still the same. Kids cheer each other on and that makes it a pretty cool sport to watch."
Taming the backcountry
Rules and regulations are a necessary evil when a style becomes a sport, and like halfpipe or slopestyle, big-mountain riding is no different. At competitions, skiers are given a venue — say, a gnarly face like The Six Senses at Breck — and simply told to ski from top to bottom. The line is up to the skier, with judges looking at four categories: control, technique, style and energy, and fluidity. Those four feed into the "line score," comparable to the overall impression score in park events.
Or, as Van Nuys puts it, "How rowdy did you get going down the mountain?"
"The judges want to see you having fun," he says. "If you ski a line and everyone at the venue says, 'Man, I want that line,' you'll do well. I think that aspect keeps it a little fresher than other types of skiing."
In general, just about every big-mountain competition follows the Tour format, including Junior Tour stops like the GoPro challenge at Breck and collegiate events like the most recent stop for the CU team, a competition in Grand Targhee, Wyoming early this February.
The Grand Targhee comp was good to Suleiman's team. One of his skiers, Max Kaupus, came away with a win after putting down "one of the cleanest runs I have ever seen," Van Nuys said. And that's usually the magic key at big-mountain competitions: If your line is clean — the sort of thing Jeremy Jones would endorse — the judges will reward it. But that's not always the case and it's part of the fun.
"There's a wide range of styles in these big mountain competitions," Suleiman said. "It's hard to judge exactly how the judges will judge you, if that makes sense. It can be so variable. I've been shocked at how much they weighted control in this last competition."
Van Nuys agrees. He says the Junior Freeride circuit can be a bit more competitive than the catchall collegiate circuit — Hackett feels the same — but every team brings a slightly different brand of skiing to the slope. It's the opposite of modern halfpipe riding, where machine-like doubles and triples are thrown in perfectly manicured 22-foot monsters.
"I think this sport connects more with the general public," Van Nuys said. "Everyone wants to drop a cliff at some point. Not everyone has the ability to do that, but we can all wish, right?"
The cost of chutes
Like all types of skiing, the competitive big-mountain scene comes with a price. Van Nuys says he rarely traveled to international competitions — those were only for the few sponsored pros with enough financial backing to flit across the globe. But as the sport grew, more and more mountains were open to competitions. This season, the Team Summit program travels to 11 events spread between Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. The CU program only travels to four events as a team — the club pays for entry fees — but a few athletes like Hackett, Kaupus and Vermont native Siena Teare will travel to regional events in hopes of collecting Tour points. Like rules, travel and competitions fees are a necessary evil.
And it's all been worth it.
"The fact that CU has a team was definitely one of the reasons I wanted to come here," Teare said. "I knew I wanted to compete in college and being on the team here seemed like the perfect platform to do so. Being on the team has by far been the most positive experience I've had in college, and I've met so many amazing friends and been able to ski in some pretty cool places."
Coaches are hoping more athletes follow in Teare's footsteps. In a few years, Suleiman would like to see universities add varsity big-mountain teams to complement their alpine teams, and the small group of skiers now hiking at Breck is leading the charge. They don't just have fun — they have fun with family.
"Everyone here is just really fun, really good people," Hackett said of the team. "Even if I hadn't joined I probably would have fallen into this social circle. It's great that you have so many different kids from so many different backgrounds doing these competitions. That leads to more structure and more organization, so you don't have time to just d*** around, but I like it. It's good for the sport."
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