By Greg Fitzsimmons
LOS ANDES, Chile — Huge blue skies and soft snow at Ski Arpa on Friday’s inspection day of The North Face Chilean Freeskiing Championships were no anomaly, at least for the two days of the second stop of the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour. Big mountain skiers from all over the world were blessed with three days of spring break weather here, Friday to Sunday.
Climbing out of the town of Los Andes on a rutted unpaved road, athletes and media weaves towards Arpa, passing remote homes, cacti, and wild llamas roaming in the Andean foothills en route to Ski Arpa. The "gringo cavalry"—as the FWT caravan came to be known—was a spectacle for locals: fat, rockered skis piled in the beds of trucks and skiers clad in bright colors hanging out of the windows or standing in the backs of pickups to soak in the surroundings as the 4×4 caravan made its way up to Ski Arpa's parking lot.
After two days of competition on the Cornices aspect at Arpa—Sunday’s Day 2 venue was shelved after a morning inspection revealed sharp rocks beneath a thin base—the men's and women's champion were crowned: Lars Chickering-Ayers from Mad River Glen, Vt., and Chile's Sole Diaz from La Parva walked away with the titles. Young gun Leo Ahrens from Alta/Snowbird spun his way to the coveted Sickbird Belt Buckle. Results HERE »
Check out these notes and quotes from the ground at Ski Arpa:
• Tony Sponar, the Austrian-born owner of Ski Arpa, sat on a lawn chair next to his staff's cobblestone refuge high in the Andes on Sunday afternoon, overlooking a dirt parking lot that was crammed with the best big mountain skiers in the world, Chilean media, and spectators. "This is the most visitors ever to Ski Arpa, we have never had more than 35 people here in a day. People said I was crazy for building the parking lot this big, but now look," Sponar said.
• "Stairway to Heaven," the planned Day 2 venue, ended up being littered with even more rocks than the Cornices venue. With all the talk about sharks and reefs here, one competitor ran with the metaphor after tip-toeing through Stairway to Heaven: "Honestly, skiing in there would be like airing into Shark Week."
• The decision was made to keep Cornices as the venue after the judges, Jim Jack, Brant Moles and Ben Wheeler, spoke with event director Bryan Barlow, the Arpa staff and athletes. And, with the high-scoring lines being shutdown due to deteriorating conditions, the FWT staff opted to decide the winners from the athletes' highest score over both days. Coined "Lars' Divingboard" for its hair-ball takeoff, Chickering-Ayers’ line from Day 1—requiring a 60-plus boost over jagged rock—was stomped in a pad of snow surrounded by more rock. While it stood up as the competition's highest highest scoring line, it was deemed unsafe on Sunday because of thinning snow. This forced athletes to get creative with line choices if they were "keen to give’r" and jump up in the standings (which ended up happening).
• At the awards ceremony in Sponar's parking lot/heli pad, FWT announcer Max Kuszaj let everyone in on the inside scoop straight from the judges' scorecards. One wrote a simple comment in their scorecard for Chickering-Ayers' run: "F-you, Lars!" (The line scored 40.8.)
• How deep did Chickering-Ayers take the air off of his diving board? "Over the rocks, that's all I care about," he said.
• Sole Diaz, the lone Chilean female competitor, won her home game with a line that she skied essentially blind. Diaz decided to change her line choice in the gate, before dropping in. Even from a long distance away it was clear that Diaz was skiing with a smile as she arched fast, confident turns and nuked from top to bottom on the first day of competition. (Diaz was awarded a score of 36.17.)
• Leo Ahrens, only 18 years old and freshly off a victory at La Parva's Eye of the Condor contest, lofted a 540 off of a cornice in Day 2. Stomping his switch landing at puckering speeds, Ahrens brought his skis around and proceeded to spin two more 360s in the rock-littered terrain, thus leaving no doubt that the Sickbird buckle was bestowed onto the right person.
• "I was debating about what to throw during my second run," said Ahrens. "I put some Bob Marley on right before dropping in to stay loose and I was like, 'I might as well just send it' right before hitting it. I am so glad I did, too. I'm super stoked right now!"
• Even after the Sickbird hardware had been dished out to Leo Ahrens, people are still talking about one big "what if?!" Broc Sheue of Sun Valley unloaded the weekend's most stylish trick, a beautiful cork 720, off of the top of the venue and put the off-axis double rotation to the bolts. Sheue also threw a big backflip off of the money booter at the bottom. In between, however, Sheue clipped a random hidden rock that made him step out of his binding. The crowd went from going nuts over his 720 to cursing the rock and wondering, "what if…"
• Keep an eye out for Sheue—he's promised to be in Revelstoke for the Candian Freeskiing Championships and I'm banking on a rebate there.
• Les Arcs' Adrien Coirier, Valle Nevado's Chopo Diaz, and Tignes' Guerlain Chicherit, in order, combined to create an international mix trailing Vermonter Chickering-Ayers after Day 1. However, Lake Tahoe's Josh Diaek and Kevin O'Meara barnstormed the worldly crew off of the podium with some serious skiing on Day 2. Diaek and O'Meara earned the second and third podium spots, respectively, behind Chickering-Ayers.
• Tommy Ellingson's double backflip, which he slightly bobbled in the tranny, is the first dub trick to be thrown in an FWT event. (Claim!)
• "We're together as a big family in one of the most beautiful places I've ever been," said head judge Jim Jack as the snowcat dropped off competitors atop Ski Arpa. Aconcagua, the tallest peak of the Americas, towers to almost 23,000 feet and looms in the distance when you're standing on top of Arpa's terrain. The bluebird sky backdrop and huge Andean peak created a breathtaking panoramic for athletes before bootpacking to the start line of the competition.
• Chilean barbecue is good! The North Face Chile treated everyone at Arpa— athletes, media, staff, Arpa's guides, and spectators—to a traditional BBQ before the awards ceremony.
• Red Bull Powder Disorder (FWT Stop No. 1) Champion and Sickbird Belt Buckle Winner at Las Leñas, Guerlain Chicherit moonlights as a French Rally Cup driver when he's not winning big-mountain world championships or running the show for CoreUPT. His driving skills were on display Saturday as a car stuffed with Frenchman burned up to the base of Arpa and nuked back to Los Andes on the rutted single-lane road. One Frenchie observed: "He can definitely drive. But it is more like pillaging than driving."
• The next stop of the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour will take place in Revelstoke… in January. Chickering-Ayers and Leah Evans are the reigning champs from the Canadian Freeskiing Championships.