After three events on European soil, the Freeride World Tour jumps across the pond this week to Haines, Alaska, for the penultimate competition in this year's big mountain series. The stop is the only one in North America this year, and with points becoming few and far between, the event in America's Last Frontier could be the difference in the 2015 FWT title race.
"[Haines] is by far the rowdiest terrain we've dealt with this year," says American Hazel Birnbaum, a FWT rookie who currently sits in third in the women's ski field. "I think it's a great way to showcase to the world what North America has to offer."
This year marks the debut of the FWT in Haines, and the first time a major big mountain competition has come to Alaska in 15 years. Traditionally the land of big spines and exposed descents, Haines is a heliski mecca that offers a whole new set of challenges for competitors.
"It's always a freerider’s dream to come to Alaska," says 2014 FWT champion Loïc Collomb-Patton of France. "I haven't seen much of the terrain but it seems like the slough is a little bigger and stronger here, so may have to approach our runs a bit differently."
Weather is another variable that could play a major factor this week. Conditions change rapidly in the Chilkat Range, and good weather windows in March can be hard to come by. The tour has already moved one event due to conditions, but has allotted an unusually long 10-day weather window for the Alaska stop, with a tentative start date for men's and women's skiing and men's and women's snowboarding scheduled for Tuesday, March 17. The Tour has also designated a 1,500-foot spine zone dubbed “The Venue” for this year’s competition.
The men's ski side is a logjam going into the second to last event of the year. American and rookie George Rodney leads the standings through three events, but hot on his heels is fellow American and 2013 FWT champion Drew Tabke, and eight other skiers within 1000 points of the golden bib. New Zealand's Sam Smoothy is also in the mix after his ridiculous winning run in Andorra, as he along with Argentinean Juan Bergada are hoping to become the first FWT champion from the Southern Hemisphere.
For the ladies, Birnbaum, a Tahoe skier with Alaska roots, is the top American heading into Haines after winning the last stop in Andorra (third overall). She is joined by fellow Americans Jackie Paaso and Francesca Pavillard-Cain in the final eight. Leading the field is Austrian Eva Walkner, who has a podium in all three events this year, including the win at the Chamonix-Mont Blanc stop. With a top four finish in Haines, Walkner would ski away with the overall title early.
If weather and conditions align Tuesday, men’s skiing is slated to drop first, followed by men’s snowboarding, women’s skiing, and women’s snowboarding. Tune in to the live webcast for all the action as North America looks to defend it’s home turf in one of the most iconic big mountain locales on Earth. Game on.