Off The Hill: When should a pro snowboarder embrace the golden slumber?
Breckenridge is a big mountain. The high alpine is nothing to sleep on. With rocks, drops and steeps, it has an almost endless array of options to get your adrenaline up. But the mountain can be sometimes misrepresented as too flat, too freestyle, with not enough extreme terrain for the likes of some.
I am here to say that if you were sleeping on the steep terrain at Breck, then you have been missing out. I assure you, there is enough adrenaline-spiking terrain here to fill your day, pal. The high-alpine terrain at Breckenridge and surrounding mountains is world class and has created a cast of world-class riders and skiers, gurus and gifted young ones, alike.
Little kids on the big mountain
In the last two weeks, Breckenridge has held two different big mountain contests for youth age 18 years old and younger: the Royal Flush Breck All Mountain Challenge and the GoPro Big Mountain Challenge at Peak 6. The kids here just rip — plain and simple. I watched Merrick Neerhof, a grom I’ve known since her first turns at 2 years old, slay Contest Bowl for the Royal Flush contest. She’s now 8 years old.
The terrain there is a giant training ground and, more importantly, a giant playground. Living amongst these mountains instills a love, respect and understanding that makes one able to really ride well. Countless years, days and hours on the hill are what is required to rip apart a serious face while the chips are down, and everyone is watching. It was amazing watching the youth tear down Contest Bowl with such fearlessness. To see footage from both events, check out the On The Hill edit from Contest Bowl and the Summit Daily photo gallery from the Peak 6 contest, both found online.
Big kids on the big mountain
I talked with Jake LaRue, a longtime Breck local and Colorado native who recently returned from competing on the Freestyle World Tour big-mountain circuit. Jake is also a good friend and one-time sun shade: I got a second-place finish at an ancient and unimportant contest and, thankfully, he shielded me from the sun’s harmful UV rays from his top spot on the podium.
I asked Jake why Summit County produces such good all-mountain riders when the local ski areas, especially Breckenridge, are known by many as park or freestyle mountains.
“I think it is mainly because we all grew up riding park and just sending rollers, working on tricks 1,000 times until we liked it, and that skill really transfers well to the mountains,” he told me. “With the addition of Peak 6 terrain, it literally gives a big-mountain park to play in.”
He came back from the road to win the coveted money bucket for the switch race at the Howelson Hill Slash and Burn 2016, a banked-slalom contest held in Steamboat Springs this past weekend. The winner was Summit’s own renaissance man, Jake Black. It just goes to prove that the jump-centric, freestyle fairground that is Summit County has turned out some serious riders/skiers in all realms.
Everyone on the big mountain
The quest for these untouched lines, big drops and adrenaline spikes has led many to go higher, further and farther when seeking big-mountain bliss. This popularity sway in the snowboard world has led to a market and increased sales for splitboards, all-terrain setups and backcountry gear. This has also led many to explore the backountry without proper training or knowledge.
This should go without saying: The mountains, though beautiful, can be very dangerous to your little, fragile self. The natural cycles of snow (including avalanches), when coupled with human-triggered avalanche risk, means that going through on-mountain access gates is a delicate and daunting dalliance. The only way to combat this is through: A.) abstinence, or B.) knowledge and implementation of preventative measures.
Luckily, we have highly-qualified people willing and ready to provide anyone with world-class insights and experience-based algorithims for safety in the backcountry. Just understand that there are no formulas or algorithims or guarantees to keep you entirely safe anywhere on the mountain, backcountry or in-bounds.
To stay safe in the backcountry, you need to go in with knowledge and preparedness, plus a party that is ready to move into action in emergency situations. That’s not just a backpack and a shovel. Going into the backcountry means taking responsibility for your life and for those you are with.
Longtime local Leanne Wren, who continuously hikes peaks I don’t know the names of, has created a women’s-specific program for teaching safety in the backcountry. The intro safety course, described in detail on Wren’s blog, Thumbs Up Birds, is a collaboration between the local snowboard shop the Underground, Burton Colorado and Backcountry Babes. It was born out of what Wren felt was necessity: knowledge.
“Backcountry is all-too-accessible to people who aren’t educated about the dangers or equipment needed,” she told me. “I sell splitboards in the shop, so I also wanted to sell the knowledge of backcountry as well.”
In its first year, there was a strong turnout of disciples. I use this word on purpose because the backcountry is, yes, a holy realm. It is an arena for enlightenment gained through devotion to self and to craft, to the mountains and the mantra and to caution itself — all of which makes us aware of our mortal frames.
To be clear: This realm is for those with the knowledge and skill to feel comfortable with decision-making in the mountains, in any and all situations, including emergencies. And it is on the individual to do so.
In my snowboard dream, I end my “career” (or lack thereof) by riding off into the golden sunset that is the backcountry like many of my snowboard heroes, to lick my freestylin’ wounds, to talk about the glory days and to drink mate — or whatever it is retired wildmen drink. As one snowboard exec once told me: “It’s how to age gracefully in snowboarding.” Between the peace, quiet and powder, I would live out there … if only I could get the paper delivered.
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