Jackson Hole's Forrest Jillson and Tahoe's Hazel Birnbaum took home Freeskiing World Tour championship titles last week at the three-day big mountain comp held on the Headwaters at Big Sky, Montana. Andrew Pollard and Erika Klenk earned second, while Sidney Simard and Jacqueline Pollard rounded out the top three.
Simard, the only junior athlete who qualified for finals, also collected the North Face Young Gun award, given to a promising young skier who stands out amid veterans.
Pollard won the Sickbird, joining the ranks of buckle-holders like Drew Tabke, Jackie Paaso, and Johnny Collinson. Not based on any defined set of judging criteria or numbered scoring system, the Sickbird is awarded to the skier who throws down with oomph, passion, and a certain intangible je-ne-sais-quoi—and while nabbing gold is always a feat, the honor of earning a Sickbird has all but eclipsed the podium for some athletes.
After two days of competing to make the cut for finals, 29 skiers advanced to the event’s third round on March 26. Snow fell uninterrupted during the qualifying days, stacking up just under 10 inches of fresh for the finals, which made for smoother conditions at the notoriously sharky venue.
For both Birnbaum and Jillson, standing on top of the podium last weekend held more significance than the usual win.
After a femur-shattering crash in 2007, Jillson underwent multiple surgeries and was told that while he might ski again, he'd no longer be able to lay down aggressive big mountain lines.
"I've had a fire under me to prove his statement wrong and have successfully surpassed the level that I was skiing at before the injury," Jillson said. "Even without having the injury as an obstacle to overcome, this is a major accomplishment and is definitely a major highlight for me… I signed up for Big Sky early on but mostly wanted to get together with the 'family' to conclude the winter season, and didn't really take the most aggressive approach to this comp. I was just really interested in not getting injured and having as much fun as possible at the same time."
Meanwhile, Birnbum, who also competed on the 2016 Freeride World Tour up to the third stop at Fieberbrunn, said that she'd been struggling to find her sweet spot with competitive big mountain skiing this winter.
"This season has been a hard one for me and competitive skiing," she said. "Last year, I ended up with a couple big wins on the Freeride World Tour, and because of that I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. This, compiled with early season injuries, and just lack of excitement meant this season totally backfired. I struggled to really ski for myself and not for other people and to really remember why I do this, because I love skiing. So, this win for me, I am so grateful to have regained a bit of the big picture, to be thankful for the the opportunities skiing has provided me, and have fun."
The Big Sky event was the North American-centric Freeskiing World Tour's sole comp of the season, and the athletes have parted ways until next year. As temps climb, Birnbaum is looking to enjoy some spring touring in the Sierra Nevadas, and after some further ski travels to Oregon and California, Jillson is Alaska-bound for a summer of commercial fishing.