Thursday, March 21. Travel Day:
“Never leave good surf,” a wise man once told me. As Justin and I loaded the 84′ AMC Wagon at 6 AM to leave our beloved Little Cottonwood Canyon, the snow had just started to come down hard. We hadn’t seen snow fall in a week or more. Never leave good surf. We had our plans though. Arrangements made, expectations and excitement high. We’re off to Colorado. Really?! We’re leaving Alta and the Bird during a storm to go to…..Colorado? Too late now. We’ve an eight our drive according to map quest which with stops and the pace at which this Eagle flies will probably turn into eleven. Better get moving.
A gas top-off, coffee top-off and a Talking Heads album later we’d made it to Daniel’s summit. We’d been through sunny Heber Valley and were back in snow again. Over the mountains and through through the hills we go. A beautiful day for a drive. Besides snow in the mountain passes, it was smooth sailing and sunshine. Our only complaints were getting pulled over in Dersham, Utah for 46 in a 40 zone and that there are “no dinosaur fossils” in the dinosaur national monument. True. You’re better off cruising the strip in the town of Dinosaur and reading the street signs out loud. Main street is in fact called Brontosaurus.
Friday, March 22. Inspection day:
Winter Park, Colorado. “Mary Jane Chutes.” Inspection day. Confusing signs there at WinterPark. Passed the venue twice with the help of signs and off-handed directions. Upon arriving, we are greeted with a very steep, spiny, pillowy trail.
I love it. Never been here before. One chance to gather as much possible information as we can. Justin goes skiers’ left on a tip from the head judge. I opted for right and an exposed, visible-to-the-judges, and more fall-line route. The run is getting pretty skied out even with it being closed to the public. Temperatures are reaching mid-to-high 30’s and the snow is baking. We roll the dice with our inspection routes hoping we would find features that fit our liking and would score well. You hope what you’ve chosen will score well, be fully rideable to your ability, and showcase your particular skill-set. After making our way down the venue, we congregate in the spectator area to stare as a group up at what we’d just skied. “Is that the run I want to do? Are there others more appealing? Can the judges see me? Is the snow better somewhere else? If I grease this line as I plan, will it be enough to get me into day 2/finals?” These are all questions asked by every competitor as they stare back up at the venue and potential line choice. No more inspection runs. Take your pictures, stare, talk amongst yourselves. That’s all you can do. Study your pics tonight and try to decide. Now go explore the mountain and have some fun.
Saturday, March 23rd. Competition day 1:
Day one of competition. Calm the nerves. Get up early because you’re scheduled to be on the chairlift at 8 AM. Don’t miss it or you’ll miss your one chance this morning to check the conditions and cement your run into your head. And it’s a good thing we made it. If steeps are hell to some, then hell has frozen over. Since Friday’s mid-30’s temps, it has dropped to 15 degrees and an inch or two of snow has fallen. We’re greeted with re-frozen slush. Some of the worst conditions I’ve ridden.
If I had any choice, I would not be on this steep, exposed face. That’s what we paid for though. Justin and I agree on a plan of nothing to lose, except our health. “Just make it down alive and on your feet, and we’ll head back to Snowbird and powder, ” we told each other. We did just that and were in the top ten at the end of the day. Conservative seems to get me through the prelims. Stay on your feet, ride fast, don’t crash, make it to day 2, repeat. With the conditions so poor, the riding was lackluster. No airs, no spins, just making it down the venue. Nobody feels great after that. We felt great when we saw the first day results though. With the exception of our man Tim Ackerman (14th), all AST Team members made it through to day two. Tim decided to try to cut down a tree with his body and the tree wasn’t having that. On a side note, (and it is worth noting), Dave “Sudsy” Watson drove out from Snowmass Colorado, didn’t inspect the morning of day one, and shredded his way to a day one first place score. Way to go Dave. That is skill and experience at work.
Sunday, March 24th. Competition day 2:
Excitement and confidence are high. We’re back early to inspect for day 2/finals. The organizers decided on “visual inspection” only which means you can look at the venue for as long as you like but to preserve the snow, competitors are not allowed to actually ride the slope before their run. Given that “better not” chute would be open for us to ride (a permanently closed area), the visual-inspection-only meant that technically everyone was on the same page as far as knowing this run (as no one is every legally allowed on in this area.)
We could look from the top, we could look from the bottom, but that was it. One interesting part of “better not” was that there was a tree-“choke” in the top third of the run (a place where the trees funnel down to a very tight chute.) From the top one could see down to the choke but nothing further. From the bottom, one could see the lower two thirds of the run but not the first third. This truly was a “visual only” inspection. Standing at the top of a very steep chute with only the tree choke and who-knows-what beyond made me hope my vision and memory were accurate for whatever was on the other side of those trees. From the bottom I spotted what I thought to be a high scoring line. I would come through the aforementioned tree choke but where others were coming down skier’s right drainage and getting stuck in a tight, bony chute, I would traverse above and onto a thin, steep spine. From the bottom it looked steep and exposed, but rideable. Perfect right? Find the nastiest line you think you can ride, then go do it. I talked with friends and couldn’t believe no one spotted the same line. Was I crazy? Is that not rideable? Why doesn’t anyone else see that? Looks perfect to me. Steep, exposed, gnarly, scary. This could be a winner. “Get out on that spine, make turns, ride the pillows down, send an air, call it a day,” went my mantra. Gathering at the top, I met fellow AST riders Matt Carter and Justin Latimer. The hype machine was in full-effect and the hoots and hollers were loud. I almost lost my voice when Justin dropped in. Matt dropped two places later. I could hear the crowd cheering as they came into the bottom so knew they both had good runs. Now it’s my turn: calm the nerves, do what you do, and make the team proud. Put in some tunes, give a high-five to Morris who drops after me, and SHRED! A few turns on a central spine separating two chutes leading down to the tree choke and I actually thought, “wish I wasn’t having to rush through this, the snow is awesome.” Here comes the tree choke: hope it looks the same as I expect it to! I traversed high and l, as planned, and found a clear route to where I intended to go. (From the bottom I had worried that I would encounter an obstacle such as a rock or tree stump impeding my intended route to the “spine.”) I’ve made it through the tree choke and the rest of the run opens up below me.
WOW! It is steep! And, the spine is thinner than I expected. Too late now. There’s certainly no turning back, figuratively nor literally. “Make turns, keep moving,” I tell myself. I weaseled out onto the spine and tried to focus on where I needed to go, not where I did not want to go. If I can make some turns and get off this spine in one piece, the rest of the run will be no problem. A quick heel-slide, a jump-turn right, and one more left and I’ve made it down to the end of the spine. I drop left onto a pillow and breathe a quick internal sigh of relief knowing the tough part was behind me. Now to try to make the rest of this steep run I’ve never ridden before look good. Pillow, pillow, pillow, quick drop through the trees, and it’s runout time to the bottom. It happened faster than I expected. I’M ALIVE! Now the great relief of coming into the finish gates in one piece, having ridden a solid line, and doing what was intended. High fives all around and wait for the results. With the tension and anxiety of competition behind me I can now relax. I’ve done all I can do, now it is up to the judges.
We did well this time. It was a great trip to WinterPark, Colorado for the Weekend Warriors Series. We’ll be back next year. A special thanks to WinterPark Ski Patrol for all their hard work and keeping us safe. Also, thanks for getting Better Not chute opened for us. It was worth getting to ride some “forbidden fruit.”
- Freeride competing: Round up the gnarliest riders you know (who can get work off and afford to travel), pack into a car and go somewhere you’ve never been or ridden. Once there ride whatever the steepest, nastiest run they have on hand, in often the worst possible conditions. Make sure to spend a bunch of money getting there but don’t stop once you arrive. There’s hotels to pay for, expensive resort food, lift tickets, not to mention the entry fee to potentially ride one run (if you crash on day one, you’re done). Now repeat.
- It’s a huge gamble. You’ve got to take off work, spend time, money, and energy to travel and compete. For what? Even if you make it onto the podium, you’ll be lucky to make your expenses back. Sponsors? Not many. No money in it. Not visible enough. It’s barely worth it when you succeed, incredibly disappointing when you don’t. So why do it? Because it’s fun. Everyone here is like-minded and knows exactly why you do it and have given up so much. Trust, respect, camaraderie. The good outweighs the bad. Do it again.