What with the recent Winter Olympics, most people are familiar with the various snow sports that take place on the mountain. However, there is one sport that has been overlooked by the Olympic federation, but is possibly one of the most exhilarating events that can take place at high altitude is Freeride skiing and snowboarding. What is ‘Freeride? It is as old as skiing itself, for there were no pistes when early man started moving around on freshly fallen snow, travelling from A to B, hunting for food or herding reindeer. Freeride is just that; riding the untracked snow with complete freedom to pick any route that one desires, just for the fun of it. As the FWT website writes ‘It’s a vertical free-verse poem on the mountain. It’s the ultimate expression of all that is fun and liberating about sliding on snow in wintertime’.
Freeride has developed over the years with improvements in skis, snowboards, safety equipment and that human characteristic of constantly pushing the boundaries with each generation. The First competitive freeriding contest was held in 1991 in Valdez, Alaska, with the first European contest taking place in Verbier in 1996. From here the events grew and grew, until the Freeride World Tour brought these contests together into one large Global event in 2008.
So how does the competition work? Simple rules, there is a start gate at the very peak of the mountain and a finish gate at the bottom. There is a no piste, no clock to race against and no practice run just the mountain, the rider and their creative imagination. The riders get to visually inspect the mountain from drone camera footage so they can draw the line that they plan to take. The judges look at five subjective criteria and mark the riders out of 100.
Line – What route the rider takes. What is the difficulty? is it dangerous, tricky and unique?
Fluidity – Is there hesitation during the descent? Does the rider keep the flow continuous.
Control – Does the rider keep in control and keep safe on the mountain.
Air & Style – Does the rider jump off any cliffs or natural jumps? Was there a trick and did they land it?
Technique – Did the rider perform the whole descent with good technique and form?
The overall impression of the descent will determine the riders’ final score. However, riders can approach the mountain with their own style. Whether pure speed, steeps, big air or tricks, riders are encouraged to play to their own strengths rather than copy what has gone before. As well at the five criteria, judges also look at the bigger picture of the whole descent as a performance from start to finish. Safety is obviously at the front of mind for all involved in the FWT event. The immense planning and large team of mountain experts whom are involved is quite incredible. The mountains will never be fully tamed or even understood for that matter, so the event organisers do everything in their power from working with mountain guides, studying weather forecasts, skiing doctors, helicopter rescue, all current rescue equipment including the Recco rescue system to name but a few.
The Bespoke Black Book ventured out to Fieberbrunn in Austria to experience the penultimate stage of 2018 Freeride World Tour before it moved to Verbier for the final. The Tour had already hit Hakuba in Japan, Kicking Horse in Canada and Vallnord-Arcalís in Andorra but now this stage was to take place on the towering Wildseeloder mountain in Fieberbrunn. It was an early start for the Ladies Snowboarding, with a wake up call of 5am! All the riders would travel up the mountain by Gondola completing the last journey to the top on foot. The Clouds were in and the setting was overcast with very flat light, so it was not until 10:00am that the ladies could start riding the mountain. Waiting this long can play on one’s mind, so phycology is key. Who ever can keep their mind under the immense pressure of waiting their turn and then perform when it counts is in for a chance of winning.
Different riders use various tricks from music to hot chocolate to keep their cool and then summon up the ride of their life at a drop of a hat. The female snowboarders were pulling off some amazing lines despite the cloudy weather with Marion Haerty of France won the day choosing several super steep terrain drop offs and shoots.
It was not long until it was the turn of the female skiers to freeride on the mountain. The clouds had started to disperse so the visibility improved a lot, which means that riders can react a lot better and push their riding to the limit. On this occasion Lorraine Huber of Austria came in first place with a very strong and well controlled line, a complete change from the previous FWT events.
When it came to the men’s snowboarding, Gigi Rüf of Austria was super surprised to win this leg of the FWT! Whilst he thought that it was not his cleanest run, he did pull off a great line and described the snow as really responsive and very fast too.
The final group of the day were the male skiers producing some great runs from all riders. These guys really pushed the boundaries with big air, large cliff drops and some immense speed. George Rodney of the USA who was placed 3rd pulled out a super creative run which seemed to cover the whole mountain face; he obviously enjoyed it as he crossed the finish line with a huge grin whilst waving arms and whooping, a true character of the FWT. It was also a fond farewell to the 41 year old Austrian Stefan Häusl who was competing for the last time after a nine year career in the FWT. The first place was taken by Mickael Bimboes though as he flew down the mountain with great speed and control, dropping as many cliffs as he could, but the crowd went wild when he jumped across the couloir that most of the riders had dropped into or skied down. When asked what he was thinking, he replied ‘I heard that someone had done it freeriding here around ten years ago so I thought why not try’ and that he had decided over dinner the night before.
The following day was The Freeride Junior Tour and Freeride Junior World Championships. This part of the competition is reserved for the younger athletes up to the age of 18 years. This is a great platform for the younger riders to get experience, learn more about the safety and the mountain environment, In fact some of the adult skiers have already come through from the ranks of the Junior Freeriders. The ages are split into 14-18 and new for 2018 there is a new 10-14 age range which is great to see. There are certain restriction this year though, such as no front and back flips to keep the riders safe as possible; however this did not seem to prevent the riders from producing some amazing runs, many at the same level as the adults. As these younger riders reach 18 years of age, the FWT will be seeing some even more spectacular riding. I was glad to report that were no injuries throughout the event at Fieberbrunn despite all of the hucking off cliffs.
For more information on the Freeride World Tour visit www.freerideworldtour.com