Big Mountain Snowboarding

Big Mountain Snowboarding

It's Back — Big mountain snowboarding is thriving in a period of unprecedented support. But will the next generation of pro acrobats venture into the backcountry and away from the park?

As I squint through the hammering snow to analyse the terrain, the mountain looks as if it is slowly inhaling and puffing up its lungs. I’m at Snowbird, Utah, in late January, 2010, the site for the first North Face Masters big-mountain stop of the season, and lake-effect snow is funneling buckets of dry powder onto the venue, covering rocks, filling in dry patches, and creating new landing zones everywhere.

After a dry start to the season, the twisted irony is that the snow might now be excessive. Competition organisers are wrestling with how to let about a hundred riders cut loose over eighty-inches of fresh snow and not have the whole thing slide. I’m just trying to reconcile my decision to enter this comp, having voluntarily thrown myself to the monster that is big-mountain competitive snowboarding.

To put it bluntly, big-mountain comps are not exactly a walk in the park. Eschewing the man-made obstacles and freshly groomed pistes of freestyle events, big-mountain freeride contests are held at the apex of some of the world’s most extreme terrain; think cliffs, crevasses and bone-breaking rocks. Riders typically have a day or two to study the venue and memorise the ideal line, knowing they’ll be scored on line choice, fluidity, air and control (though exact criteria varies from comp to comp). Then, whether they’re tackling powder, ice or anything in between, they go fast, look for places to jump off things, and put themselves in compromising situations.

Big-mountain events may look wild and free, but they’re far from disorganised. Having grown into a well-oiled machine, big-mountain snowboarding seems to be revelling in a period of unprecedented exposure. The North Face Masters tour, the only multi-stop tour in North America, is entering its fourth year, offers a $60,000 prize purse with equal cash rewards across the genders for podium finishers and had registration waiting-lists – as well as a handful of high-profile pros like Travis Rice and Lucas Debari – at every stop in 2010. The Freeride World Tour (FWT) – a mostly European circuit with closed venues, select riders and higher cash incentives – has added two stops to 2011 and introduced a juniors tour for snowboarders seventeen and under. In addition, sponsors and organisers stepped in to resurrect the World Heli Challenge in New Zealand and Alaska’s King of the Hill event, after multi-year hiatuses.

Ralph Backstrom, runner-up on the 2010 North Face Masters tour, sees the current upsurge of events as an opportune time for freeriders: “I think the jib and park scene is a bit played out,” he says, “it seems to have reached a solid plateau. What a good time to revive big-mountain! […] The scene is young, the venues are improving… it’s definitely ramping up!”

But the long-term success of big-mountain comps is far from secure. Freestyle events – and riders who solely spend their time circling the park or hitting the pipe – have historically garnered more support (and more money) from the industry as a whole. And it’s this side of snowboarding that the masses get to see. With the Dew Tour, X Games and Olympic fever dominating television, and big-mountain lines making only rare appearances in videos and magazines, you don’t see too many kids donning avalanche transceivers and hiking outback. As Xavier De Le Rue, Snowboarder Magazine’s ‘Big-Mountain Rider of the Year’ says, “All these years of focusing on the freestyle part of snowboarding didn’t give the young generation a chance to get into the culture of making good turns, which is the key to big-mountain riding.”

It’s not surprising that most kids dream of becoming the next Shaun White, as opposed to the next De Le Rue. An impressionable kid can watch slow-motion replays of his favourite ripper throwing switch-corked 1260s on primetime TV whereas, in the US, big-mountain coverage is relegated to grainy webcasts. And accessibility is a big issue too: only a small percentage of mountains have the kind of terrain that can develop high-level backcountry skills. Nevertheless, anyone who has ridden Squaw or Whistler – or any mountain with both a good park and good terrain – will know that even a bluebird powder day can’t persuade some kids from venturing out of the park. The explosion of freestyle snowboarding has a definite stranglehold on much of the next generation of riders, no matter their location.

And if the kids are getting high in the park, the industry is definitely feeding their addiction. Many companies are rooted in freestyle and their influence has grown as the scene has exploded. Forum is one such company. “As a brand that’s focused around youth-based marketing, our audience hasn’t matured enough yet to appreciate [big-mountain riding],” says Kevin Keller, Forum team manager. “I think it’s something that comes with age. Kids just want to see guys jib crazy shit and get upside down a few times… I don’t think that marketing freeriding is a less profitable venture, but I do believe it is a less-profitable one for us.”

Jeremy Jones, the unofficial spokesperson for the big-mountain world and founder of freeride board company Jones Snowboards, remembers the surge of freestyle riding and its impact on his scene: “In the early days, snowboarding was less segmented – there were no parks and everyone rode the whole mountain. Freeriding was a big part of the sport, but it died down a bit with all the excitement of parks. Once Alaska was discovered, [big-mountain riding] received a ton of attention because there was so much progression going on. Eventually this got stale and in the late nineties and early 2000s I could count the [number] of pro shredders in Alaska on one hand.”

The frustration is palatable amongst riders who are dedicated to riding big lines and find it hard to secure support. “Freeriders don’t stand a chance in the industry. We are the lost child of snowboarding,” says Ryland Bell, a Jones team rider and big-mountain competitor. “People get stoked, companies throw a bit of money towards the top guys, then people forget about AK [Alaska] and powder and all of a sudden no one has even heard of [big-mountain pioneers] Tex [Davenport] or [Mike] Ranquet or [Matt] Goodwill or [Noah] Salasnek.”

Bell and Jones touch on the cyclical nature that has defined and even plagued the success of the big-mountain scene. Tom Burt, big-mountain pioneer and current head judge for the North Face Masters tour, has seen the attention come and go firsthand: “[The] first go around for big-mountain riding came about with the late eighties, when we were trying to find the limits of what we could ride, as far as mountains [go]. This moved into the early nineties and then the focus went into the jib thing. Then in the mid-nineties the second comeback for mountain riding [came] with Johan [Olofsson], Craig [Kelly], myself etc. Then comes the X Games and the Olympics in the late nineties and early 2000 along with the newer jib scene, and the third return is now, with mountain-riding back in the light again.”

Big-mountain comps are riding the same roller coaster. The US Extremes in Crested Butte, which started in 1995, was a flagship big-mountain event. “In my little world, watching the Extremes was the coolest thing and led me in that direction,” says Clif Dimon, who went on to win three overall titles at the Extremes and the overall North Face Masters title in 2008. But after 2004 the Extremes’ title sponsor, Subaru, pulled out and the tour was no more. Other events have suffered similar fates, with the King of the Hill and World Heli Challenge ceasing activity in 1999 and 2001 respectively. According to event director Mark Sullivan, King of the Hill became too expensive to operate when it was a heli-exclusive event. At the onset of the comp in 1993, it cost about $40 for the competitors to take one heli run. By 1999, it had more than doubled to $90. For the next event, they plan on using a combination of snowmobiles and helis. The World Heli Challenge lost international sponsorships in the wake of 9/11 and it was not financially possible to continue the event.

But if it felt like freeriding had fallen into a crevasse, then freestyle was the new kid soaring through the air. Midway through the 2000s, the rise of Shaun White’s unimaginable mainstream fame cemented what the general public thought of when they heard the word snowboarding. Technical trickery, urban rails and aeronautical big airs – all within the confines of the halfpipe and slopestyle course – became the flavour of the day. Coupled with the demise of most big-mountain events, competitive freeriding was all but forgotten.

Back at Snowbird however, in the year 2010, the scene is thriving, alive, screaming in my face and freaking me out.

The comp that was supposed to be a two-day ordeal has become a one-day, one-run event on account of relentless snowfall. Waiting at the top of the venue and not wanting to miss my turn, I check the start sheet roughly fifty-seven times in twenty minutes, folding the paper into a small square before putting it in my pocket only to pull it back out every few minutes. The steep curvature of the terrain makes viewing other riders impossible and I can’t hear the announcer, leaving an eerie calm to the air with little to do.

I hear “Three, two, one – rider on course” from the start-gate monitor and drop in. Heavy metal rattles through my head. After a knee-testing cliff-to-flat in the upper section and some fun airs through the trees, the lower zone approaches as does the proximity and energy of the crowd. I’m set on a twenty-footish cliff that a week ago would have landed me on bare rocks. While chopping jump-turns through a six-foot wide chute, I eye the cliff and take a moment’s pause, aim it and send it. I land on my feet and ride away. The stress flows out of me as I skid to a halt at the finish and the sun almost peeks out of the ominous clouds.

It’s an amazing feeling. And despite (or perhaps in spite of) industry trends, the community that’s mushroomed out of this positive energy has never abandoned big-mountain lines. “There are so many people that love freeriding and are coming out of the woodwork for these comps,” says Forrest Burki, winner of the 2010 North Face comp at Crystal Mountain, Washington. “We tend to be of the solo soul-shredder breed and these contests give us a chance to congregate.”

For many people, the return of so many world-class events is a distinctly positive thing. “I’m just stoked to see snowboarding back on the mountain where it should be,” says Shannan Yates, whose five-win 2010 season included all three North Face Masters Women’s events as well as the FWT Verbier stop.

But it’s not just about revisiting the past. A revolution is underway, spearheaded by a new breed of rider that’s neither freestyler nor freerider – but rather an evolutionary species that transcends both scenes. Riders like Nicolas Müller and Travis Rice have spent years honing acrobatic tricks on perfectly geometrical man-made obstacles, but now they’re applying those skills to higgledy-piggledy natural terrain. Is it freestyle? Is it freeriding? Or is it simply everything snowboarding ought to be (i.e. beyond definition)?

In 2008, Quiksilver held the first Natural Selection all-mountain freestyle invitational. Freestyle tricks were encouraged and successfully incorporated into big-mountain lines – thanks to the elite level of riders and some minor alterations to the natural terrain. The results were spectacular. “The time has come to show the type of riding that we really love to do and put it in a contest format,” said Travis Rice, the event’s creator, in a promotional video.

The rodeo 7s and cab 5s seen at events like Natural Selection and in Absinthe Film’s Alaska segments have built on the progressive strides taken in the nineties by the likes of Johan Olofsson, Craig Kelly and Terje Haakonsen. This melding could continue to be the bridge that will open younger rider’s eyes to the full-spectrum of snowboarding. Rob Kingwill, a podium finisher in both halfpipe and big-mountain comps, has high hopes: “I strive to bring freestyle to my runs, as that is the way I would ride the mountain on any given day. I would hope it would inspire the park kids to get out and ride the rest of the mountain.”

Some even see the big-mountain arena as the only logical place to progress the sport. Even Shaun White himself wondered aloud, in an interview a few years back, about the logic of pushing a sport where you can hit an eighty-foot kicker and either get a shot that ends up in a magazine or fall and break your leg. “There is nowhere for the sport to go but the backcountry,” says Nick Perata, the man behind King of the Hill. “There are no limits in big-mountain. You can top out in the park or keep pushing to a crevasse jump in AK [Alaska].”

With the FWT adding the juniors component to the tour, a promising young snowboarder is now, for the first time, able to consider his or her competitive options before instantly latching on to the park scene. With wider competitive possibilities, unprecedented freestyle progression in the backcountry and in comps, and dozens of freeride events across the US, Europe and New Zealand, are we seeing, as Tom Burt suggests, a third-wave big-mountain revival?

Attracting commercial interest to this less-marketable part of snowboarding may be the hinge on which the success of big-mountain events now hangs, and it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds. However, the people who wake up early to hike, or do whatever it takes to ride big lines, are the engine that propels this scene – not the decisions made in corporate boardrooms. Jeremy Jones believes the will of the freerider will always win out: “Freeriding will always come and go in the media and that is fine, but hype will never affect the core rider.”

Back at the awards ceremony at Snowbird, the crowd congregates to hear the results. Mark Carter crushed it and walked away with the first-place sword trophy. The sun fades and the air is biting cold. After days of waiting for the event to run, it’s over. Yet the crowd is amped. Everybody is still in their boots, drinking beers, talking about their long drives home and (what else?) getting fresh tracks tomorrow morning. I retreat in exhaustion. But as I walk away, the intensity of what’s just happened grows in perspective. The collective energy of the men and women who are devoted to riding mountains pulses through the night, and continues with no end in sight.