Team Summit’s Grifen Moler at the Freeride Junior World Championships in tiny Andorra
February 16, 2016
About 10 days ago, a group of two local athletes and their ski club coaches boarded a plane from the U.S. to Europe. Their final destination: Andorra, a small (and relatively hard-to-reach) region of craggy peaks and chutes and basins nestled in the thick of the Pyrenees range. Their goal on the ground: the Freeride Junior World Championships, considered the Olympics of big-mountain riding. It's the premier venue for young skiers who crave powder, cliff drops and unpredictability — imagine your best day on the mountain in competition form — and only the best of the best from 20 nations made the cut.
But Mother Nature had other plans.
"It's been nearly two weeks without snow, and it's really warm," Team Summit coach Ryan Van Nuys wrote me on Jan. 26, just two days before skiers were scheduled to make first runs at Andorra's high-alpine terrain. "The first day we were here was good snow but then it rained. We are now dealing with a rain crust on top of manky powder on north facing slopes."
So it goes with competitive big-mountain skiing. There are no downhill courses manicured to perfection, no halfpipes cut with beastly machines, no snowmaking guns to fill in the gaps — just man and the mountain.
And so, when Van Nuys and his group finally arrived in Andorra after an eight-hour plane ride and a three-hour drive, they simply had to make peace with the conditions. It's just part of big-mountain skiing.
"East, south and west are warming up and providing some OK turns on corn," Van Nuys continued. "Comp venue is now going to be south facing, but the coverage is thin at best."
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Grifen Moller and Kevin Nichols are hardly disappointed. This January marks the first trip to Andorra and the Junior Worlds for the two, who are lifelong friends and attended Battle Mountain High School as seniors.
They're technically competitors — Moller is with Team Summit and head coach Van Nuys, Nichols is with Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy and head coach Nick Whitemore — but Junior Worlds is different than a stateside competition. Again, like the Olympics, this is all about the country: In Andorra, they're representing the U.S. with just five other athletes, including top-ranked Xander Guldman of Sugar Bowl, California. Moller sits right behind him in the freeride standings and both enter competition nearly blind, with no experience skiing on the Pyrenees terrain or against their heavily European competition.
"Most of the Alps have very strong representation as well, but I couldn't tell you names yet. This is the only time each year we compete with them," Van Nuys said. "France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria (and) New Zealand all have very strong athletes competing in the freeride scene."
Best friends, best competitors
Moller and Nichols started skiing together as boys, but a monstrous area like Andorra will force them to ski like veterans with decades of experience in the alpine. They already had to ski confidently to earn a coveted spot in the Junior Worlds, so far away from home. So different, yet the same.
"The terrain in the Pyrenees of Andorra is bit bigger, bit steeper and for sure has more cliffs than most resorts in Summit," Van Nuys said of the Junior Worlds course. "It looks a bit more like the Gore Range than, say, the Tenmile Range."
As Moller and Nichols try to balance school and full-time skiing — not to mention traveling halfway across the world for competitions — they have seen its ups and downs.
Moller left BMHS his junior year to attend Eagle County's World Academy program. There, he completed 1.5 years of classwork by nearly doubling his workload (and still skiing every day), so he could accumulate enough credits to graduate in December 2015. It's what he needed for training and the trip to Junior Worlds.
Nichols is still a full-time student at BMHS, juggling AP classes with his competition schedule. He credits his teachers, guidance counselor and principal with their support and willingness to work with him to be able to compete.
The two share more than a love for skiing. Both come from families with three boys — Nichols the youngest, Moller the eldest — and both still live in Edwards. The two have topped freeride podiums over the past five years, competing in International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association events all over North America. Van Nuys believes this first European experience will be invaluable for the two.
"The benefits of this trip go far beyond skiing," Van Nuys said. "Grifen is actively learning how dedication to something can present one's self with huge opportunity. He will also learn a lot about himself, performance under pressure (and) overcoming adversity. This is all above and beyond the typical things learned when traveling abroad: culture, language history."
Long, hard road
Getting to Andorra is not easy. The U.S. was allotted only seven Junior Worlds spots for more than 325 athletes competing across the nation. Points are accumulated from the previous season's national and regional competitions. Like this winter in Andorra, the snow in Colorado didn't cooperate last season, which led to several cancellations.
Nichols experienced this when his last Nationals competition was cancelled, and yet, he still finished sixth overall. Moller finished third overall at the IFSA Championships in Grand Targhee last season and knew he had a spot at Junior Worlds, but Nichols wasn't so sure. He received the invite in early December after the Freeride World Tour officials finalized the start list.
What does a trip to small-yet-intimidating Andorra mean for two soon-to-be high school graduates who should be focusing on college? Naturally, the next step: the professional Freeride World Tour.
"Well, there is talk of Grifen and I buying a school bus, transforming it into the ultimate powder chaser and heading to Europe for a year," Nichols said. "But in all seriousness, next year, I will be deferring a year to my college of choice, working several jobs and putting nearly all of my focus and energy into an attempt to qualify for the Freeride World Tour."
Coaches Van Nuys and Whitemore have faith that their top athletes will continue to move up the ranks, maybe even earning a spot on the FWT. But first, there's the matter of manky snow in Andorra.
"Comp did not go down today," Van Nuys wrote me on Thursday, about the time he would've had results from Moller's run. "We hiked all the way up to the venue, athletes got heli bumps up to the top, all set to go, but it never warmed up enough to soften the snow, so the event got postponed until Friday."
So it goes with big-mountain skiing.
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