If you've watched a high budget freeski movie in the last two decades, chances are you've seen at least one Alaskan big mountain segment along the way. Terrain, snow, and remoteness form a Holy Trinity along the Last Frontier that it impossible for film crews and extreme skiers to pass up, a virtually unexplored vastness full of iconic first descents just waiting to be discovered.
But while the Union's 49th State has blown up in the film world, its competition scene has all but dried up. Blame it on a series of injuries, unpredictable weather, or general logistics and price, but over the past decade, Alaska has been noticeably devoid of brand name competitions despite its big mountain pedigree. This year the Freeride World Tour is looking to change that, holding Alaska's first major international competition in nearly 15 years, and the first ever in Haines.
“I think that everyone can agree that Haines has a legendary history,” says Tom Winter, the FWT’s Americas manager. “Its terrain is world class, its location is special, the town has phenomenal hospitality and sense of community, and when you combine these attributes it’s really a no-brainer.”
Doug Coombs, Dean Cummings, Wendy Fisher, and a select handful of North American skiers put Alaska on the map throughout the '90s, immortalizing places like Haines, Valdez, and Cordova while pushing heliskiing and freeskiing into realms no one at the time imagined possible.
During that time they also established some of the first organized competitions for extreme skiing—a term they helped coin—starting up the World Extreme Skiing Challenge in Valdez, Alaska. The competition ran from 1991 through 2000 and made way for several other revolutionary ski competition series, including the FWT and X Games.
After the WESC shut down, Red Bull had a short-lived photo shoot and big mountain competition known as the Red Bull Alaska Snowthrill from 2000 through 2002, but that lost steam before it could ever become an institution in the state. There have been a handful of other big mountain freeskiing competitions that have tested the waters in Alaska, but none that have lasted beyond a few seasons.
The FWT is looking to change that, bringing with it not only a reputation as an established competition series, but a piggybank capable of handling the logistical strain many big mountain comps have buckled under. According to a report on Alaska Public Radio, the Tour has dropped an estimated $1 million to bring big mountain competition to the state. In addition to everyone to Haines, the entire operation hinges on helicopter drops for nearly 100 athletes and crew to and from the venue—an expense and experience unique to the Alaska stop.
"Realistically, it's expensive for the organizers and the athletes," says Garrett Altmann, a New Mexico-based competitor that spent four years living and skiing in Alaska and began his big mountain career at the 2008 Freeskiing World Championships in Girdwood, Alaska. "But I think it's important for North American skiing to be represented on the FWT, and there's a sense of pride for our riders to host an event here on American soil."
And it's not just any American soil, but some of the most storied, steep, and challenging soil on the planet. It's a welcome wild card on a Tour that has found its comfort zone in the mountains of Europe and features only one stop in North America in 2015. Whether or not the event itself will be considered a success remains to be seen, but when competitors finally drop in this week, they will be writing a new chapter in FWT, freeskiing, and Alaskan history—and maybe a chapter with a bit of staying power.