Ten years ago, Taos, New Mexico, decided to host a party called the New Mexico Extremes. There would be beer, laughter, and some prizes to give out. A decade later, the little skiing competition in New Mexico is all grown up. The first big-mountain skiing event in North America to align with the Verbier-based Freeride World Tour, the venerable competition will turn 10 this March, affirming its status as a 4-star Freeride World Tour Qualifier event and claiming a spot as one of the most important FWQ events worldwide. To celebrate, the New Mexico Extremes is throwing a birthday party February 27 to March 1 this winter.
Tom Winter has been there from the start and he’s got more than few stories about how the New Mexico Extremes came to be:
WORDS: Tom Winter
Men: 1. Craig Garbiel 2. John Witherspoon 3. Brian Anzini
Women: 1. Lynsey Dyer 2. Laura Ogden 3. Andrea Krejci
Taos was first pitched a concept for the event in 2004. I organized the Colorado Freeride Championships at Berthoud Pass in 2000 and 2001, but Berthoud closed, so we moved over to Snowmass. I visited Taos for a writing assignment and it was obvious that they had amazing venues and a ton of potential. I skied around for an afternoon with Chris Stagg, the Mountain Manager, looking at the terrain and somehow he thought that I knew what I was talking about.
The fledgling event was sanctioned by the International Free Skier Association (IFSA), with the legendary Jim Jack acting as head judge the first season. Held in mid-Feburary, the competition’s timing coincided with an unusually wet and intense three-day snowstorm that wreaked havoc with the schedule. The upside was that competitors got an up close and personal taste of just how good Taos’ steep terrain could be during prime conditions. When the comp finally did go off, Aspen’s Kiffor Berg etched his name in the history books with a massive air off of a previously unskied cliff in the Bamboo Nose area of the West Basin venue. The rock is still referred to as Kiffor’s Nose.
Even the Utah contingent was impressed with Taos, as evidenced by this 2005 thread about the event on the TGR forums.
After the first event was such a success, plans were made to host the competition again in February 2006. Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate and the venues failed to come online for the event. With New Mexico experiencing a drought, the decision was made to cancel the competition entirely.
Of course, it would end up snowing heavily after the cancellation, and although the event never did take place, a template of how the competition would run was now in place. First, the competition would always be scheduled in March to give the best possible opportunity for storms to build the snowpack. Second, organizers established the venue locations, designating the West Basin for the early rounds and 12,481-foot high Kachina Peak for the finals. Both venues were conventiently-lift accessed, feeding spectators directly into each basin, allowing for huge crowds to watch the athletes do their thing. With the timing tweaked for later in the season, the stage was set for future success.
Men: 1. Bryce Newcomb 2. Chuck Mumford 3. George Casaletta
Women: 1. Elyse Saugstad 2. Emily Teague 3. Carrie Jo Chernoff
With new snow blessing the event in 2007, the competition returned with a vengeance. Jesse Hall’s huge lawn dart in the Heavy Timber section of the West Basin venue was noted in the history books. But despite the big air heroics of Hall and other athletes, the real competition went down off the mountain, where Jack hosted an impromtu karaoke contest. The name of the winner who took the top honors in that prestigious event is now lost to history, but the relaxed vibe and good times from those early days remains part of the Taos experience for competitors.
Salomon also stepped up as the title sponsor in 2007, a relationship that continues today. “They’ve been great,” says Alejandro Blake, Taos event director. “We couldn’t have built this event into what it has become without their ongoing support. A big thank you to those guys.”
Men: 1. Jake Cohn 2. Cliff Bennett 3 . Scott McBrayer
Women: 1. Alaina Huestis 2. Katie Gillen 3. Colby Adams
In 2008, Taos local Katie Gillen started dominating the female division. Finishing second that year at the Extremes, she’d go on to post podiums and top ten finishes in subsequent years. “The Chocolate Factory,” an establishment located at the base of the ski area, owned and operated by Gillen’s parents, showed its pride for their local girl and become Gillen’s primary sponsor.
The event also added Junior athletes who competed on the same venues as the adults. That year saw big mountain programs start to gain traction at ski clubs, and the New Mexico Extremes wanted to give the kids the same experience as the adult competitors.
Men: 1. Cliff Bennett 2. Abbott Smith 3. Garrett Altmann
Women: 1. Michelle Gmitro 2. McKenna Peterson 3. Lorraine Huber
This year, the Freeride World Tour invited Taos to become one of its four star qualifing events. The opportunity was a turning point for the competition. The invitation brought new judging criteria to the competition and marked a break from the International Freeskiing Association.
“We debated it quite a bit,” says event director Blake. “But the reality was that the FWT had a global presence as opposed to the IFSA and the Freeskiing World Tour, which was primarily North American-based at the time. We wanted to attract a global field to compete in New Mexico and also give North American athletes a chance to compete on the bigger stages in Europe, like Verbier.”
Taos’ new status as a FWQ four-star proved to be a draw for several top Europeans, with Lorraine Huber (Austria) taking the third spot for the girls, followed by Karine Falck-Pedersen (Norway). French athlete Julien Lopez finished in fourth place for the men.
That year, Taos granted snowboarders access to the competition, a significant move because Taos had yet to allow snowboarders on its mountain.
Men: 1. Andre Bertoncin 2. Oliver Holmes 3. North Parker
Women: 1. Traci Lopez 2. Michelle Gmitro 3. Andrea Krejci
In 2010 athletes saw a storm that dumped 40 inches on the mountain prior to the start of the event. Needless to say the venues were in prime condition and the stoke levels were high.
“We have a joke that Ernie is watching over us,” says Blake, referring to his grandfather who founded the ski area. “We’ll have no snow at all and then a week before the event, it will start to snow and things will work out. Or we’ll have a storm coming, and the visibility is expected to be horrible, but we’ll be able to get through the day and then as soon as the last athlete takes their run, the venue will sock in and it’s impossible to see! We always credit Ernie. He likes what we’re doing here.”
Men: 1. Chris Hinkley 2. Rob Dickinson 3. Amon Barker
Women: 1. Katie Gillen 2. Angel Collinson
Momentum for Taos increased in 2011 when the FWT decided to split the women’s events from the men. The stakes raised for the girls as Taos became one of only four top-tier events. For the men, the event remained a 4-star FWQ stop, the only one in North America. These developments and the growing potential for a unification of the European-based Freeride World Tour and the North American Freeskiing World Tour meant that in 2011 Taos saw more top athletes than ever, including Angel Collinson. Collinson would take second place in Taos and go on to finish second overall on the Freeride World Tour.
That was also the year that the decision to host juniors saw more validation. Former junior athlete Brandon Claubaugh of Aspen, Colorado stepped up into the mens division this year and proved his right to be there by taking the fourth spot overall.
Men: 1. Brandon Clabaugh 2. Rob Dickinson 3. Tom Runcie
Women: 1. Ashley Bemenek 2. Katie Gillen 3. Alex Reidman
With the field becoming increasingly crowded and Taos established as a must-attend event for athletes working towards qualifying for the Freeride World Tour, 2012 would be the last year for a junior division. The decision didn’t come without difficulty. But the event was focused on aligning itself with the Freeride World Tour, and despite the talented skiing on the junior level, a younger field of athletes didn’t fit with the event’s mission. Perhaps fittingly, former Taos junior competitor Brandon Clabaugh took the win in 2012, capping the end of an era.
Men: 1. Ian Borgeson 2. Brandon Clagaugh 3. Garrett Altman
Women: 1. Francesca Pavillard-Cain 2. Sasha Dingle 3. Hazel Birngaum-Wilson
This year saw a breakthrough in the overall organization of big-mountain competitions, with the European-based Freeride World Tour and the North American Freeskiing World Tour finally ironing out the complex details needed to become one unified tour. With the merger came a fully integrated qualifying system for athletes and Taos remained a 4-star FWQ event.
“It was a long time in coming,” says Blake. “We’d always felt that being part of a global community of events was very important. It’s great to see that there’s now a comprehensive global structure.”
This year, the New Mexico Extremes are scheduled for February 27 to March 1. I can hardly believe it’s been ten years. All we ever tried to do was create something that would be fun and special for the athletes. I never thought it would get as big as it has. The first 4-star FWQ event in North America, the first event to live-stream the competition, the host of many parties, and the venue for a decade of quality competition, the New Mexico Extremes have been on one hell of a ride.