From Gold Rush to Cold Rush: Big-mountain ski competitions shed past, mine future

Comments by Henrik Lampert/

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AS SEEN IN THE DECEMBER 2011 ISSUE OF FREESKIER

WORDS BY IAN FOHRMAN
PHOTOS FROM THE RED BULL CONTENT POOL

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The blades spun inches from the firm bed surface in front of the chopper and the whole ship swayed and yawed as the pilot eased into the steep slope, needling the tips of the skids into the snow. Less than 15 feet below us a rock face fell away several hundred feet to a debris pile from a controlled avalanche the day before. The guide got out first. He lowered himself out the door and dangled from the skid for a moment before his boots made contact with the snow. I handed down gear and did my best not to dwell on the exposure as I lowered myself, trying hard not to shake the still hovering machine. We huddled over the gear and gave the thumbs up. The pilot pulled the skids from the ground and made a 180-degree spiraling turn over the cliff.

Quiet set in instantly, and we dug ourselves a comfortable shelf with a solid angle of the action on the opposing face. Then we ordered BBQ.

While one helicopter shuttled 16 of the world’s best skiers to the top of the most prominent buttress in the area, an enormous mass of rock latticed with thin snow lines, jutting between the Grande Couloir and the 3 Pequeño chutes, another helicopter shuttled 15 plus camera and support crew to scattered perches throughout the craggy venue. A filmer who had seen our sketchy toe-in saw potential in the camera angle and followed our move. He exited the hovering helicopter, blades grazing the snow, with a heavy camera bag also full of the hot BBQ ribs and corn on the cob we’d ordered.

Cold Rush and Line Catcher are two ski events produced with the intention of fostering the most progressive backcountry competition skiing on the planet. With funding and organization from Red Bull, they both meld big mountain skiing with freestyle in a way that closely aligns with what skiers are doing in the backcountry, whether with their friends or in front of a camera lens. In capturing the essence of how skiing is being pushed to new levels, they have become the benchmark for what a backcountry event can and will be, and they are among the most coveted competition spots in skiing.

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Dave Treadway shot by Erik Seo in Silverton, CO

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Though Cold Rush has become a hedonistic orgy of heli time, big lines, heavy hitting pros and perfect jumps, the event hasn’t abandoned its Kootenay mountain roots. In 2007, the inaugural event was staged at Red Mountain Resort in British Columbia. When high-elevation rain followed by a deep freeze left a big-mountain slopestyle event out of the question, the event was changed to a Chinese downhill and the prize money awarded as a bar tab to be shared among all the participants. The $3,000 went a long way toward pilsner and rye whiskey in Rossland, BC.

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“It was the biggest party Rossland has seen, before or since,” recounts Scott Jewett, event founder and Red Bull Canada National Event Manager, with a twinge of pride showing through his distinctly BC mountain accent.

Cold Rush germinated in Jewett’s mind as he brainstormed a new ski event for Red Bull, since the company hadn’t had a major foray into skiing since Snowthrill in Valdez, AK in 2002. His original vision was a slopestyle course built in an open-pit mine, something that would encapsulate the evolution from mining industry to recreation industry that defined the people and the mountains of that part of British Columbia. Like many winter recreation destinations in North America that are now known for face shots and cliff drops, the area of British Columbia surrounding the Powder Highway was originally settled by gold miners drawn by the ore-rich geology. After the mining boom became a bust, ghost towns were resurrected by a new kind of pioneer. Chairlifts were constructed, tenures obtained, lodges built and a new industry rose on those depleted tailings.

Jewett followed the area’s roots and found himself at the foot of Red Mountain on a tour of the Le Roi mine, the impetus for the 1890 gold rush to Rossland, BC. He decided he had the perfect location to meld skiing’s history with its future: from gold rush to Cold Rush.

Each winter a large integral segment of the ski industry disappears to exotic destinations, not emerging until the following fall, their efforts unrecognized until movies, magazines and awards are released. Jewett saw a way to bring these talented skiers from diverse crews together to push each other in a competition format that the world could see (nearly) live. The goal would be twofold: progress the sport of skiing and create captivating media of the world’s best skiers. Cold Rush would be a contest for skiers that don’t compete.

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Tim Durtschi shot by Chip Kalback in Silverton, CO

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“This comp was nothing like I’d ever done before,” says Leo Ahrens, a first time competitor in Cold Rush in Silverton, CO this year. “The closest thing I can relate it to is busting Wildcat laps at Alta with a huge crew of really good skiers. All of us are trying to throw down a little harder than the last person to go. If one person stomps a nasty trick then it just gets everyone else pumped to try something a little harder than before. There’s no pressure. No crowds. No judges to impress. Just your friends.”

SEE ACTION FROM THE 2011 RED BULL COLD RUSH

Ahrens doesn’t yet have the recognition of a Sage or Pettit, but he has the well-rounded ski skills an event like Cold Rush demands. With its four-day format—a big-mountain day, a backcountry slopestyle day, a cliff day, and a swing day for weather—the event pulls skiers from all ends of the ski spectrum. It pushes almost everyone slightly out of their comfort zone while providing the opportunity to reveal their abilities to the world. No one better exhibits Cold Rush’s capacity to bring a lesser-known skier out of a backcountry shell than Dave Treadway.

“Treadway is as soulful as it gets,” says Jewett. “He skis for himself. He’s always been in the shadow of his brother in the media, but he charges hard, and he’s been a major presence every single year.”

618_paddygraham_elinasirparanta_varsfrance_0.jpgTreadway started out as a standby athlete in 2007 and has more than proved his worth staying in the top five each year of Cold Rush’s history, including a victory in 2008 and a second place in 2010.

“I really see Cold Rush as what ski competitions should be,” he says. “It rewards versatility and, most importantly, it’s representative of the sport because the courses are exactly what we’d be skiing anyway.”

Left: Paddy Graham shot by Elina Sirparanta in Vars, FRA.

“Everyone wants to be out skiing pow,” adds Sean Pettit, winner of Cold Rush for two years running and a first and second place finisher at Line Catcher in France. “Ask any park skier and they’ll tell us they’re a little bit jelalous that we get to ski powder all the time. But it’s what we do and Cold Rush represents that.”

In 2009, the first year Cold Rush moved to Retallack Lodge, Red Bull launched a similar event in France. Following Cold Rush’s example, Julien Regnier and Francois-Joseph Bougaud developed the Red Bull Line Catcher. For years Regnier had been pushing to develop a big-mountain slopestyle event, and with Cold Rush as a proven formula for success, he was able to bring the vision to fruition.

Bougaud explains: “The idea was there for many years because it was just part of freeskiing’s natural evolution. We built off of what our Canadian counterparts had already done in North America. It has been a cool collaborative process.”

The Line Catcher concept falls somewhere between a traditional big-mountain competition and Cold Rush’s soul session format. Athletes perform four judged runs on the Eyssina face at Vars, La Forêt Blanche ski resort. The first major departure from a traditional competition is the way the course is prepared on that face. Regnier and a small team sculpt the natural terrain into a series of shaped take offs and booters integrated as organically as possible into the face. The result is a hybrid course designed as a canvas for creativity. In addition to this evolution in terrain, the selection of athletes further differentiates Line Catcher from traditional events.

Both Line Catcher and Cold Rush strive to have balance and breadth in their rosters. As they have grown into benchmark events for which skiers worldwide clamor for invites, it’s become easier to attract big-name athletes and pull them from their hectic, weather-dependent film schedules. However, with opportunity comes responsibility and the increased interest in the events makes choosing 20 skiers to compete in North America and 15 in France a daunting task.

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Josh Bibby and co. on the bus shot by Erik Seo.

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A select group of athletes and industry insiders compile and pour over huge lists to make final selections that include athletes who feel more at home in the terrain park and those who spend more time in big mountains. It’s important not to stray too far from the middle in either direction as athletes have to perform on complicated, sometimes exposed faces, as well as spin and flip off of massive shaped features.

“We’re very conscious of trying to choose a mix of big name athletes and give lesser known guys a stage to develop their careers,” explains Jewett. “We also try to make sure we have a mix of nationalities and sponsors. We don’t just want a bunch of North American Red Bull athletes on the list.”

“The best part about these events is getting to hang with all the people you don’t get to see most of the year,” says Pettit. “All winter we’re with a pretty small group of guys that we film with, but at Cold Rush and Line Catcher, we all get to hang out together. It’s a huge bonus to hang out and ski with friends from all over.”

618_seanpettit_vegardbreie_varsfrance_0.jpgIn addition to pushing the actual skiing in the events, Red Bull strives to change how action sports are shared with the masses by using new technologies, both in filming and media distribution. While bringing the high-speed Phantom camera, the helicopter-mounted Cineflex and a huge crew of cinematographers into the backcountry is an enormous undertaking, it makes for a polished showcase of how skiers see skiing.

Left: Sean Pettit shot by Vegard Breie in Vars, FRA.

The investment in production value coupled with an expanded program for media dissemination, from dedicated event websites to mainstream television coverage, brings this vision to the masses. People who would never see an MSP, PBP, Level 1 or TGR movie are exposed to Sage, Pettit, Tudor, and Treadway as never before. It would be a hard case to argue that the event’s first goal, progressing skiing, isn’t being accomplished watching Tudor ski a top-to-bottom line and spin a smooth 720 off a 70-foot cliff into powder in slow motion on NBC.

“It’s hard to describe what we do to people who aren’t involved in skiing,” says Pettit. “What we’re doing is so new that people aren’t even aware it’s going on. These events are right at the front of it and evolving with it.”

This year on the final day of Cold Rush, cliffs day, Pettit was the catalyst for what the athletes described as a day of completely losing their minds. For his first hit, Pettit came in hot to the venue's largest feature, a 70-foot diving board, and floated a slow 360.

"I did everything I could not to hit that cliff," he says. "I searched the venue for other options. But when it came down to it, I knew I'd be kicking myself later if I didn't step up."

The madness that followed will go down in history, burned into slow motion, heli-shot ones and zeros, shared for free online, and soon to be on a major television network for the non-skiing world to witness.
After each day at Cold Rush, the athletes gather in a rustic bar sharing drinks and watching a compilation of footage from the day’s session in proper après style. “You go in to watch footage every night with a pretty good idea of who did what,” says Pettit. “You’re always watching for those parts to come up to confirm what you thought, but mostly it’s just fun hanging out with everyone, cheering and heckling. During normal filming you don’t usually get to check out your footage till the next summer so it’s definitely a treat to get to watch footy every night.”

“That’s easy,” says Treadway when asked why he’s been back for every year since the birth of the event. “They spoil us! We get to fly around in helis all day and ski rad untouched stuff the whole time. Obviously that’s going to keep me coming back.”

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The Red Bull Cold Rush returns to Silverton, CO March 12-15, 2012

The Red Bull Linecatcher returns to Vars, France January 11-18, 2012

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