When Freeride World Tour organizers announced the decision to move the fourth stop of the six-stop global tour from Kirkwood to Snowbird due to conditions, many longtime big mountain competition fans and skiers nodded in approval. For 14 years, on the now defunct Subaru Freeskiing World Tour, the Snowbird stop held the title of the North American Freeskiing Championships and was revered by competitors for the terrain—Silver Fox off the Cirque and the north-facing Mount Baldy—and spectator scene. Despite the unfortunate snowpack situation in the Sierras and Kirkwood and reasons for originally omitting Snowbird from the six stops of the unified FWT that debuted last year, it's good for the sport to see the traditional venue back in play.
"It sucks the snow at Kirkwood didn't arrive cause it's such a good time, but Snowbird is special," says reigning FWT champion and Utah native Drew Tabke, who currently sits in 17th place in the men's standings and won the 2011 North American Freeskiing Championships at Snowbird. "It's probably the most core group of spectators in North America and Baldy is such a fun venue."
The men's and women's contest is scheduled to begin on Saturday, but with heavy snow in the forecast for this weekend, it's looking doubtful the comp will run until early next week. As is the case for all stops, a five-day weather window will be in effect.
Regarding the venue, it sounds like Mount Baldy is going to be the call, as it should be if conditions allow with its featured and staged terrain and amphitheater-like corral area for spectators. Unlike the other five stops on the tour, Baldy offers unique aspects that some skiers will prefer over others.
"It’s [Baldy] totally different than the other five," says Tabke. "On the other venues, there are so many no-fall zones because the terrain has so much exposure. But at Snowbird, there's less objective risk, which is cool because you’re not worried about falling off the mountain. So instead of steep, techy skiing, it's big air and GS turns and really spread out."
What this means for skiers is that creative line choice sets them up for airs off of one of the four cliffbands and will have them finding transitions before opening it up into big turns before the next feature. So the styles of skiers like Tabke or Snowbird's Oakley White-Allen set up for this terrain much more than the hard-charging style of Swede Reine Barkered. Tabke also noted that unlike the on-course inspection that the defunct Freeskiing World Tour allowed, which gave skiers the chance to step out takeoffs for airs, the Freeride World Tour visual-only inspection adds another challenging element to keep in mind.
On Monday, the FWT announced that they gave the wildcard nod to former Utah resident Sage Cattabriga-Alosa. While in Jackson shooting for next year's TGR flick, Cattabriga-Alosa smiled big at the thought of returning to Snowbird to compete. "One of my favorite runs [Baldy] in the world has been closed to skiers and now I get to ski in full powder conditions…it's going to be awesome. Why wouldn't I accept the offer and compete?"
Although the film star competes in the more freestyle friendly Swatch Skier's Cup series, he hasn't competed in a world tour since 2011. But you have to think with his intimate knowledge of the terrain and knack for finding cool airs and sending them with style that Cattabriga-Alosa is a real threat to podium. Just watching the former Little Cottonwood Canyon native ski Baldy in prime conditions is reason enough to head up and check out the comp.
Of course, Snowbird local Oakley White-Allen is a likely favorite despite having a rough go on tour this year. The Chickering-Ayers brothers—Lars and Silas—have to be considered contenders as well with their Snowbird experience and simply being back home on North American soil the last month or so.
What will be interesting is to see how the non-American contingent adjusts to the "staged" venue with its relative benches instead of one giant fall line venue. Will someone like Italian Markus Eder, who is remarkably returning to the tour after finishing in 15th place in Men's Ski Slopestyle at the Sochi Olympics, step up and feel comfortable with the creative terrain? New Zealand's Sam Smoothy, who currently sits in second place in the overall standings coming off his win January 31 at the last stop in Austria certainly could find his groove on Baldy with his versatile skills. And, of course, tour leader Frenchman Loic Collomb-Patton could again find himself atop the podium.
As for the ladies after two stops (women don't compete at the Courmayeur stop), the race for number one is tight between the top six. The leader, Sweden's Matilda Rapaport, has yet to win, finishing second in Chamonix and fourth in Austria. Last year's inaugural FWT champion, Nadine Wallner, won on her home soil last month at the second stop in Austria. She's tied for third with Tahoe's Jackie Paaso, who sent it big in Chamonix and won the first stop. Meanwhile, Jackson Hole's Hadley Hammer sits in fifth and looks to improve on her fourth and sixth place finishes.
Since the Americans have been home the last month, I look for them to settle in and send it on the Baldy venue, which sets up well for Paaso and her penchant for going big.