Marquee Photo: Aurélien Ducroz powers through the Bec de Rosses to land a first place finish at the Xtreme Verbier. Ducroz was one of the first skiers to compete on this face in 2004. PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard/Freeride World Tour
WORDS: Drew Petersen
Last Saturday, thousands of spectators gathered atop the Col de Gentianes in Verbier, Switzerland, to watch the last stop of the 2015 Freeride World Tour on the north face of the Bec des Rosses, an iconic face riddled with rocks and steep shots that for 20 years has hosted the Xtreme Verbier big-mountain skiing and snowboarding competition.
Topping out at an elevation of 3,222 meters (10,571 feet), the Bec des Rosses rises into the sky. Constructed like a near-perfect pyramid, with equal parts rock and snow showing, the Bec has a sinister, commanding presence over the valley. Its most impressive attribute is the steepness of its 50 plus degree, near-perfectly sustained slope, which only begins to let up at the very base. "When you're on top it feels like you could literally throw a snowball to the bottom, which is something like 700 meters below you," says FWT standout Sam Smoothy. For 20 years, skiers and snowboarders have risen to the occasion at the Xtreme, because this venue demands an unmatched level of respect, discipline, and focus.
Just over two decades ago, in 1994, a snowboarding film crew sat atop the same location as spectators this weekend and pointed their long lenses across the valley at the Bec to shoot a segment in a Swiss film. The public took notice. "Spontaneously a hundred people just stopped and watched because it was something new at that time," says Nicolas Hale-Woods, co-founder of the Xtreme Verbier. Realizing the public appeal of big-mountain riding on the Bec and taking inspiration from the King of the Hill snowboarding competition in Alaska, Hale-Woods saw potential. "We thought that it would be a good idea to bring the best snowboarders in the world to Verbier to showcase what freeriding was, which back then was even more niché than today." On March 23, 1996, they did just that by launching the first ever edition of the Xtreme Verbier. Under blue skies, with fresh snow on the Bec, the competition was a success and the tradition was immediately established for years to come.
In the beginning, the Xtreme Verbier only invited snowboarders because skiers were much slower at the time, according to Hale-Woods. When skiers first arrived in 2004 they were hungry to prove the naysayers wrong and make their mark on the famous peak in the Swiss Alps. Ian McIntosh was the first skier out of the gate and exhibited the speed, Super-G-esque turns, and charging style that have since made him a household name in the ski world. Saying that McIntosh and the other skiers turned heads that day would be an understatement.
In 2008, with the birth of the Freeride World Tour, the Xtreme went from being a stand-alone event to the final competition in a winter-long series. The conditions necessary to compete on the Bec require all winter to materialize, and as a result the competition fits perfectly as the final stop of the tour. When asked what is so special about the Xtreme, Reine Barkered simply states, "It's the hardest competition on the scariest mountain." After all, the final competition of the year should see the best skiing from the best athletes.
Since the Xtreme's inception, the level of riding has been extraordinary, year in and year out. "So many legendary lines have gone down that looking at the face and the crazy shit that’s gone down sort of tells a history of the 20 years," says 2013 FWT champion Drew Tabke. The "Reine Cliff" tells the story of the Swede's dominant runs down the looker's left side of the face into the Dogleg Couloir. At the bottom, looker's left of the venue, an 80-foot rock buttress, often called the "Seb Michaud” cliff, was the location of one of Michaud's legendary backflips. In the middle of the face, the "Hollywood" cliff stands out as a high consequence air that helped boost names like Aurélien Ducroz and Kaj Zackrisson into skiing stardom.
Standing at the top of the summit and looking down at the face below strikes the nerves of many competitors. "There's been some throwing up, and digging toilets. They'll just huddle up in their little holes, not talking to anyone. It's a very quiet start," says Barkered, who claims he is not one of the competitors that can't hold his lunch.
This year the start was unfortunately, but justly, moved away from the summit due to poor snow conditions and low coverage. The new start, positioned on the looker's right shoulder of the Bec, did not provoke the nerves of competitors as hard as the true summit. It is slightly disappointing that the 20th anniversary of the competition was unable to run from the summit, but on a bright note, the new start offered the opportunity for athletes to be more creative with their line choice thanks to the rarely skied terrain.
The women started things off. The challenging venue was a formidable opponent on the day, making five of the eight women fall, including Eva Walkner. Fortunately for Walkner, she had already clinched the FWT championship with her consistently exceptional performances throughout the rest of the year. The day, however, belonged to American Hazel Birnbaum who absolutely dominated the field. She skied a fast, smooth line that was capped off with a large double drop as the exclamation point.
As for the men, the competition's storyline was a meeting of the past, present, and future. Aurélien Ducroz, the only skier in the field to have competed at the inaugural ski event in 2004, is now retired from the FWT and received a wild card especially for this year's event. As the first skier out of the gate, Ducroz smoothly launched a large air above exposure, diced his way through the lower half, and aired out the bottom with the finesse that only such an experienced veteran on the Bec could show. Upon stomping his last air Ducroz pumped his fist exuberantly, just as he had done in his winning runs on the Bec in 2009 and 2011. His score of 88.5 would hold throughout the day. When Barkered dropped, it was clear the two had inspected together, and he skied a nearly identical run to Ducroz. Ducroz, now with three wins at the Xtreme, and Barkered with two wins of his own, are the two most dominant skiers on the venue. It seemed only fitting that they ended up next to each other on the top two tiers of the podium. When asked about the significance of finishing side-by-side with Ducroz, Barkered said, "Over the years we came to respect each other's riding on that mountain and battle it out there, first as competitors but later as good friends. He is the best skier I have seen on the Bec, so sharing the podium with him is awesome."
George Rodney, who seemingly now represents the younger crop of freeriders, occupied the third step of the podium. The American newcomer, who had set the wallpaper on his computer to an image of the Bec last summer, certainly looked prepared in his performance. Skiing a similar line to Ducroz and Barkered, but a little slower and more technical up top, Rodney skied his way to this year's FWT championship. Coming onto the Tour, Rodney had the goal in the back of his mind to win the overall title but realistically thought it was a goal he would accomplish a couple years down the line. Back-to-back wins at the last two stops, and the Verbier podium, however, crowned him champion at the ripe age of 21, making him only a hair older than the Xtreme.
As both Rodney and the Xtreme grow into the next stage of maturity, the future looks bright for the sport. The Bec des Rosses will undoubtedly continue to provide a fearsome challenge for even the world's greatest skiers and snowboarders. The Xtreme will go on next year, and hopefully for 20 more years to come, each year bringing with it the possibility of new names and new lines being written into the history books.