Welcome to the first part of our five-part series looking at some of the world’s best ski and snowboard tours. Our goal in this series is to take a look beyond traditional alpine racing and bring to you some of the most inspired competitive freeride skiing and riding happening today.
What is Freeride Skiing(or Riding)?
Freeride skiing invites to mind just that: a free style of skiing where you express yourself ‘outside the gates’ in whatever style you deem fit. Freeride skiing is not new but has definitely grown into its own over the last several decades alongside the development of the Freeride World Tour (FWT) among others. Freeriding finds its roots in extreme skiing and over the years has now added freestyle tricks and jumps you might otherwise only see in a terrain park. It’s also the motivation behind this week’s look at The Freeride World Tour (FWT).
Modern freeride skiing dates back to the 1930s and 1940s when legendary men like Emile Allais would make death-defying descents off unimaginable summits around Chamonix, France. It really wasn’t until the 1960s, however, when the technology behind the gear caught up and made ‘L’impossible’ now possible. Iconic figures like Sylvain Saudan, Bruno Gouvy, and Jean-Marc Boivin now skied first tracks on these extreme faces.
An American Start
Extreme skiing in the U.S. was also taking shape at the time behind the likes of Bill Briggs and Steve McKinney. They broke the trail for many of the other extreme skiers who followed. In the 1970s, extreme skiing seemed like a serious departure from the traditional career trajectories of most professional skiers. Most pros would look to become a high-profile ski racer or alternatively, try to eke out a modest living on the pro mogul tour. These extreme competitions were a novel way to pursue a ski career, especially for those skiers who covered artistic freeriding expressions on the world’s toughest slopes.
The Blizzard Of No Return
In rushed the 1980s when new skiers by the names of Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt skied with a passion and intensity few had seen before. They quickly gained world recognition for their incredible feats and trademark tracks that shouted, “if you fall, you die.”
In 1988 following the release of Greg Stump’s ski classic Blizzard of AAHHH’s [VIDEO movie teaser], the extreme skiing world captured fire once again, celebrating the world’s best superstars who filmed extreme skiing in the world’s most spectacular locations. Now behind a passionate, growing community, it was only a matter of time before someone asked the all-important question… who’s the best? Soon thereafter the call was answered when a novel idea came forward, a first-of-its-kind big mountain freeride competition.
Inaugural World Extreme Championships
Dubbed, the 1st World Extreme Ski Championships, the event was held in Valdez, Alaska, in 1991. The contest’s entry list read as a who’s who in the skiing world at the time and included inaugural winners Doug Coombs and Kim Reichhelm.
The following year in 1992 the first big mountain freeride competition in the lower 48 was held in Crested Butte, Colorado. The inaugural U.S. Extreme Ski Championships again attracted many of the sport’s best athletes. Skiers like Brant Moles, Dave Swanwick, Dean Conway, Dean Cummings, Kristen Ulmer, Kim Reichhelm, and Wendy Fisher all came to compete on “the Butte’s” extreme faces and its highly competitive atmosphere. Reflecting on the importance of the event, Chris Davenport shared in another interview, “No question it was one of the most influential events in the history of skiing. It changed everything.”
Once Verbier, Always Verbier
The FWT we know today began as a single extreme snowboarding competition known as the Xtreme Verbier in Verbier, Switzerland. Started by Swiss-Brit entrepreneur Nicolas Hale-Wood, the event quickly attracted the world’s best talent with its extreme terrain and high profile. By 2004, the event’s popularity allowed it to expand from a single event to a five-stop tour. By 2008, the contest expanded yet again, this time inviting ten of the world’s best freeride skiers. In 2013, the FWT make its final evolution merging with two other tours (the Freeskiing World Tour and The North Face Masters of Snowboarding) to a single, unified world championship series we know today.
Commenting on FWT’s success, FWT founder Hale-Woods explains,
“The development since 1996 has gone beyond our expectations. It’s a great event. But more importantly, the success of the Junior and Qualifier series, with over 130 events and 4,000 licensed riders worldwide is what gives a true dimension to the sport.” – FWT website
Interestingly, at the same time, while Hale-Woods was working on Verbier, Shane McConkey was exploring his own incredible vision in the States. Leveraging his own popularity and standing on unparalleled talent, McConkey founded the International Freeskier Association (IFSA) with a vision to give athletes a voice in the development and governance of the sport. Today the IFSA also includes snowboarding athletes and focuses on both junior and adult big mountain freeriding competitions ensuring their interests, safety, and development of the athletes are protected.
Today’s FWT is owned and managed by FWT Management SA based in Lausanne, Switzerland. They have owned and organized world-class sports events in mountain resorts since their start in Verbier in 1996. To grow the sport with lasting success, owners felt they needed a truly grassroots effort. So several years ago they implemented their vision with a plan titled: The Freeride Pyramid.
The Four Components of The Freeride Pyramid
- The Freeride World Tour (FWT)
The FWT is the worldwide circuit of freeride snowboarding and skiing. The best riders in the world compete on the most legendary and challenging alpine faces at the most renowned ski resorts across the world.
- The Freeride World Qualifier (FWQ)
The world qualification circuit is designed to develop the talent and skills of up-and-coming athletes. Riders accumulate points via 60 events held around the world (including forty in Europe). The scoring system is based on the star ranking of the qualifying events (1-4 stars) and the event region: region 1 (Europe, Asia, and Oceania) and region 2 (USA, Canada, Chile, and Argentina)
- The Freeride Junior Tour (FJT) and Freeride Junior World Championships (FJWC)
This circuit is dedicated to young athletes up to 18 years of age to develop the talents of tomorrow and encourage youth participation in the sport. Emphasis is also placed on injury prevention, safety, and understanding of the mountain environment.
- The FWT Club
The FWT cooperates with ski schools to provide expertise and share the sport of freeriding with riders of all ages. Structured by the FWT organization, these schools offer programs lasting from one day to a week.
2022 Tour Stop Profiles
For the last nine years, the FWT has had five separate tour stops each season. Let’s take a look at the five stops in 2022: Ordino Arcalis in Andorra, Baqueira Beret in Spain, Kicking Horse in Canada, Fieberbrunn in Austria, and Verbier in Switzerland.
This stop is a favorite on tour known for its legendary cliffs. “Located in the spectacular Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees, Bacqueira Beret boasts a world-class resort, vast alpine terrain, and copious snowfall, making it an ideal destination for the Freeride World Tour.” – FWT website
- Annual Snowfall (inches): 205
- Summit Elevation (ft.): 8,678
- Vertical Gain (ft.): 1,263
Due to its unique location in the Pyrenees, you can find a wide choice of different restaurants in town offering the best of Spanish, French, Catalan, Basque and Aranes food (Aranes is the local cuisine from this corner of the Pyrenees.) Baqueira is also been known to have a lively and active nightlife, resembling the crowds from nearby Barcelona and Madrid.
The FWT website characterizes it as, “…a perennial Pyrenean freeride mecca” and a place where “…The playful terrain always delivers explosive action, showcasing a mix of freestyle and pure freeride.”
- Annual Snowfall (inches): (unknown; most in Andorra according to Powder Hounds)
- Summit Elevation (ft.): 8,612
- Vertical Gain (ft.): 2,329
The resort faces north and usually holds the best and longest snowpack each winter.
Deep in the Dogtooth Mountain Range of British Columbia lies a resort that is not for the faint of heart. It’s also the reason it’s coveted by extreme skiers and riders around the world. Advertising more than 45% of its terrain as advanced or expert Kicking Horse is described by Ski-Resorts-Stats as, “…some of the most progressive in-bounds skiing in North America.” Just take a ride up the gondola for yourself as you see black and double black diamond bowls lined to the edges of your eyes’ gaze. Welcome to uber extreme skiing at its finest.
- Annual Snowfall (inches): 288
- Summit Elevation (ft.): 8,218
- Vertical Gain (ft.): 4,314
Kicking Horse claims to have 85+ different inbounds chutes to choose from.
Fieberbrunn is a mountain town in the Kitzbühel Alps of Tyrol, Austria. It’s very well known for its international skiing and snowboarding events. According to the FWT,
“Fieberbrunn has been a mainstay destination for the Freeride World Tour nearly since the tour’s inception, playing host to an event every year since 2010. Fieberbrunn’s legendary venue, the Wildseeloder, is one of the most entertaining in the world, with a mix of steep, exposed alpine terrain, plus jumps and drops perfectly suited to freestyle.”
- Annual Snowfall (inches): 216
- Summit Elevation (ft.): 6,952
- Vertical Gain (ft.): 3,625
Fieberbrunn is an old Austrian mining town dating back to before Roman times. The mineral spring’s water (Brunnen) purportedly cured the fever or ‘Fieber’ of one of Tyrol’s former rulers and hence the name’s origin.
The mighty Bec des Rosses draws few rivals and is described by FWT as, “… a true maze of cliffs and couloirs, making it one of the most exciting and inspiring freeride venues in the world.”
Snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones called it in another interview, “The biggest, burliest face in the world that you’ll ever have a freeride comp on.”
Even superstar Cody Townsend confessed this about it in another interview,
“The biggest challenge with the Bec is that the top is so unbelievably steep that you’re dragging your arms and then there’s the no landmarks, no trees as guides. It’s all just rock on a big open face, so to find your way down that and find your way with speed and fluidity is an incredible mental challenge. It takes so much experience to be able to figure out how to get down safely.”
Bec des Rosses Stats
- Annual Snowfall (inches): 270
- Summit Elevation (ft.): 10,587
- Vertical Gain (ft.): 1,836
Verbier is world-renowned for its uber-steeps. Most routes down the Bec des Rosses are 45 to 55 degrees slope, and in some places, it reaches a dizzying 60 degrees.
Competition Details & Qualifying Process
An updated 2022 season format included the addition of FWQ finalists competing in a best 2 of 3 formats with the top 18 competitors advancing to the FWT finals. Explaining the rationale behind the changes, IFSA President Scott Mahoney comments,
“By developing this high-level finals series, we create a new opportunity for global visibility and media exposure for our top FWQ riders. The smaller final event enables us to place riders of higher-caliber venues not typically available to large fields. This higher-level series delivers on our vision to develop a wider array of events for our athlete community while providing the highest level of competition appropriate to a rider’s skills and abilities.” – FWT website.
Safety is the number one priority on tour. In the early days, competitions would sometimes get out of control as riders would try to outshine each other with increasingly ridiculous (and dangerous) stunts. Speaking about the early freeride culture in another interview, Whitewater Freeride Teach Coach Dano Slater described, “People thought we were a bunch of crazy a——, and they were not far off. It was quite common to see 100-footers go down in contests in tracked-out snow.”
In 2000, that culture changed dramatically under the leadership of former IFSA World Champion Jeff Holden. Holden himself is known for hucking a world record 150-ft. cliff, helping shift the judging away from dangerous stunts and towards staying in control. Safety and control were the mantra and continue to this day.
After the face is deemed safe, the next step for the athletes is to examine the course. Athletes are at a disadvantage here because they are not permitted to ride the course within 30 days prior to competition (a major change from FWQ events where riders can inspect the slope ahead of time.) Athletes use satellite maps and binoculars to help them visualize the slope characteristics and plan their runs. Interestingly, during this visual inspection process, there is what’s called a ‘forerunner’ who skis down the slope ahead of the event. Usually, this single forerunner is a guide, a non-competing athlete, or even the head judge who tries to give the competitors some visual clues about the snow quality as they ski down. It’s a critical part of every competitor’s preparation.
Judges evaluate the riders with just their eyes. They do not use replays or other angles. Judges want to see aggressive yet clean and controlled riding more so than any high risk-taking attempt. Athletes are judged on each run and the highest score wins. Points are awarded based on event finishes and the total accumulated points for the season determines the overall winners. Each event is scored on the following five criteria.
- Technique: Judges look for better carving techniques and prefer more turns to just a single edge across the face.
- Control: Judges look for riders to stay in complete control without doing a backslap or even dropping a hand, regardless of the trick or difficulty involved.
- Line: Judges look at how creative and difficult the line is that the rider takes.
- Fluidity: This is related to the speed the rider takes, but also includes line and style.
- Air & Style: The epitome of freeride skiing where creativity is given maximum value. Tricks are the ante here. The more the better.
2023 FWT Lineup Coming Soon
The 2023 tour schedule has yet to be announced and we will update you when it does. If you haven’t seen them already, here are a few of the highlights from last season’s action:
- [VIDEO] – 2022 Xtreme Verbier Snowboard Highlights
- [VIDEO] – 2022 Xtreme Verbier Ski Highlights
- [VIDEO] – 2022 Top 10 Cliffs
- [VIDEO] – 2022 Top 10 Tricks
Request For SnowBrains’ Readers
We hope you enjoyed reading and will follow us along in this new series. Our next article looks at the history and making of The Natural Selection Tour.
One last note. We would like to ask for your help in completing this series. If you have any great ideas about ski or snowboard tours you would like us to consider covering, please share your comments below. Our readers have some of the best resources we can think to provide and we appreciate all of your help. Thank you again.