Some things have a way of coming full circle. Two years after the Freeride World Tour unified the big mountain competitions into one global system with a professional tour and a tiered qualifier system, North America has, once again, two separate big mountain competition circuits. (Feel free to sigh here for a second, folks, before reading on.)
After the Freeride World Tour announced their split with MSI in April, the landscape for big mountain comps in the United States and Canada this winter came into focus after an announcement last week that the Freeride World Tour partnered with the International Freeskier and Snowboarder's Association. As the FWT's partner for Region 2—encompassing North and South America—the IFSA can now grant its athletes points that will help them qualify for the Freeride World Tour. That means that athletes—adults and juniors combined—will now have more than two dozen opportunities to earn qualifying points for the FWT on North American soil.
"The IFSA will act as the ranking, sanctioning, judging organization for everything that is Region 2," says IFSA President Scott Mahoney.
And then there's the MSI-run Subaru Freeride Series, formerly the qualifying tour for the FWT, but now operating on its own accord as an independent group of big mountain competitions with no affiliation to the Freeride World Tour, and for athletes, no FWT qualification points.
"MSI will be celebrating its 18th year of creating freeride events in the United States and Canada," says Jessica Kunzer, spokesperson for MSI, the production company behind the Subaru Freeride Series. "We are open to future partnerships or alliances with other organizations, but right now, we don't have any arrangements with any other freeride groups at this point in time."
Now, for the first time since 2011, when the Freeride World Tour unified big mountain competitions and the IFSA was subsequently pushed out, the IFSA is coordinating adult competitions. IFSA, the 18-year nonprofit founded by Shane McConkey, spent the last three years conducting a grassroots, volunteer-powered push to supply an exploding demand for junior big mountain competitions nationwide. This season, with the FWT partnership in hand, they are hosting a new collegiate league, with two-star stops scheduled to fit in the student calendar, at Grand Targhee, Crested Butte, and Snowbird. And just last week, the IFSA announced that it is joining forces with the Ski The East Freeride Tour, expanding their reach from coast to coast, adding another nine adult and junior events to its schedule. Ski The East brings with it two-star events at Mad River Glen, Magic Mountain, Sugarbush, Sugarloaf, and Jay Peak. The IFSA is also coordinating a two-star comp for East Coasters at Smugglers' Notch on March 8.
"Our deal is to be consistent with our mission statement and that is to provide competitive opportunities that are run and judged and executed in a similar way and to provide as many of those opportunities for the athletes whatever their age is," says Mahoney.
The updates come after a tumultuous summer of politics in the big mountain competition scene. The 2014 Freeride World Tour saw avalanches at three consecutive stops, prompting the events to relocate or cancel. Those challenging conditions combined with frustrations in production quality and griping athletes prompted the Freeride World Tour to publically break up with its Region 2 partner, MSI, in April.
Politics aside, for athletes, this season will see more opportunities to compete and a clear pathway to climb the ladder and accumulate points from the dozens of junior comps across North America all the way up to the Freeride World Tour.
"We're an athlete advocacy group," says Mahoney about the IFSA. "Like we did with the kids, we want to give the adults the most chances to compete that we can."
Still, when it comes to qualifying for the Freeride World Tour, athletes have many more opportunities to earn points in Europe than they do in North America. Region 1, encompassing Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, has 34 qualifying events, where as there are only 15 two- or four-star events for adults in Region 2, and no three-star events. The IFSA is also giving its 11 national junior comps a two-star rating.
"We're trying to focus on that two-star level," Mahoney says. "There's been a little bit of a shortage on what you do after you leave the juniors and before you get to the four-star level."
The three four-star events for 2015 in North America will be held at Taos on February 27, Crystal on March 10, and Kicking Horse on March 27. The IFSA is unique in that it delegates event production—terrain management, infrastructure, safety protocol—to the resorts or a third party production company, while it brings the athletes and handles things like registration and judging. The IFSA is also completely a volunteer organization.
"IFSA together with event organizers have done a fantastic job in North America with over 50 junior events running," says Nicolas Hale-Woods, general manager of the FWT, in a press release. "Partnering with IFSA means a lot to the Freeride World Tour, as this is the base and future of our sport."