The Swatch Freeride World Tour presented by the North Face rolled into Kirkwood this week for stop number four of the six-stop global tour. Things got underway Tuesday when competitors got a chance to inspect the famed Cirque venue, a favorite among competitors, judges and spectators alike. When asked about the venue and current conditions, head judge Hugo Harrison said “I think Kirkwood is probably the best venue so far this year. All the other venues that we have are more scenic-good light, perfect snow-but this venue offers more features so I think we’ll see more variation in lines from one skier to another.” The particular zone that the competitors would be skiing this year was moved from lookers right to the lookers left side of the Cirque to account for a challenging snowpack but Harrison was confident that the snowpack wouldn’t prevent the skiers from putting on a good show. “Lots of the airs on that venue actually have pretty good landings so I’m sure for a lot of those skiers, it won’t stop them,” he said.
After opening ceremonies on the plaza there was an athlete meeting Tuesday night in the Red Cliffs lodge where a few ground rules were laid down and officials answered athletes’ questions before handing the stage over to Peter Hawks, father of late freeskier Ryan Hawks, who passed away here two years ago. This was Peter’s first trip out to the the mountain that took his son’s life and he offered up some inspiring thoughts to the athletes the night before they took to the hill for battle, asking them to remember why they’re out there, encouraging them to leave their egos in the lodge and to “ski for joy, love, passion and respect.”
Competitors hiked up to the Cirque early Wednesday morning, arriving at the Swatch Watch starting gate just before 9 am. The sun was beaming down, without even the slightest hint of wind, and chivalry was in the air with the ladies kicking things off this time around. Among the ladies at the top of the course were Jess McMillan and overall winner of the 2012 Subaru World Freeskiing Tour, Crystal Wright. “I’m excited,” said Wright. “A little nervous but it wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t.” When asked what she thought about the venue she said she liked how many features and choices there were. “It’s not a ‘one-hit-wonder’ and you’re done,” she said.
As the girls chatted, adjusted GoPros and bindgings, McMillan took a few moments to herself, off to the side. “The nerves are kickin’,” she said. Haven’t skied hardpack in a while so I’ll have to channel my inner ski racer.” She certainly did that as she mach-ed down the course. Unfortunately, speed was hard to corral on the firm snow and she got a little hung up mid-way through her run. All nine women in the contest ripped, but when all was said and done it was Jackie Paaso’s smooth run that earned the top spot on the podium. Passo had some bad luck at recent stops with crashes in both Revelstoke and Chamonix but reigned it in here for a smooth run that got her the top spot. Pia Nic Gunderson managed to garner the silver with a technically proficient run and Ashley Maxfield rounded out the podium with some nice air time.
After a quick break it was on to the men’s final. A slight delay in logistics was a good thing as some of the competitors were running a little late getting to the top of the venue, but everything seemed to fall right into place when it came time to start. There were 31 men on the starting list, with Stefan Hausl of Austria kicking things off. Colter Hinchliffe of Aspen, CO skied next and was the first competitor to take a direct fall line approach out of the starting gate. His smooth skiing, combined a ncie 360 and off-axis backflip/flatspin 3, earned him the first-place snow throne in the finish corral but there were 29 competitors that still had the chance to oust him.
It would end up being number 10, Lars Chickering-Ayers, who would eventually take over the throne. With his good friend Ryan Hawks on his mind, the east-coaster laid down a technical and aggressive line while his mother and Peter Hawks looked on, holding their breath. The route he took had not been skied by anyone else at that point and impressed the judges enough to give him the top spot. He didn’t get too comfortable though, as there were still many skiers that could de-throne him, including the current tour leader Drew Tabke and local Josh Daiek who won here in 2011 and 2012. Both skied creative lines but in the end nobody could overtake Chickering-Ayers. Coming in second was Farnce’s Julien Lopez who skied fluidly, throwing a nice backflip on the lower half of the course and it was Charlie Lyons of New Zealand right behind him. Both men skied hard and logged solid air time to earn their spots on the podium.
Most of the competitors were able to make it through the day unscathed but there was one scary moment when Willie Schneider went down hard. He was tended to by Kirkwood patrol after suffering a broken tailbone but we’ve been told he is recovering well. After this stop Tabke still retains the points lead and gold bib but has Jérémie Heitz and Julien Lopez nipping at his heels. Despite not making the podium here at Kirkwood, he said he felt good about his run and will continue to ski in the style that has got him on the podium multiple times already this year. “I won’t change anything. I’ll try to ski for a podium every time and hopefully the points will work themselves out.” The next stop on the tour is Fieberbrunn Pillerseetal, Austria where skiers will arrive one week from today. Stay tuned for coverage.