Athletes and organizers had to have a lot of meetings last season. But the two organizing groups of the tour never formally spoke about the 2015 schedule and fate of the sport. PHOTO: Dom Daher

Athletes and organizers had to have a lot of meetings last season. But the two organizing groups of the tour never formally spoke about the 2015 schedule and fate of the sport. PHOTO: Dom Daher

Throughout the challenging 2014 Freeride World Tour season, which saw the venues of three consecutive stops avalanche, forcing venue relocation or cancellation, athletes and organizers grumbled incessantly. It, sadly, devolved into a European vs. North American antagonism. The Euros grew frustrated with the absence of quality back-up venues in the case of Snowbird and Revelstoke, poor live webcast production quality, and athletes griped about uninspiring terrain unfit for FWT comps. Meanwhile, Americans defended their decisions and 15-plus years of putting on ski contests atop mountains with inhospitable locations while keeping in mind their IFSA ideals and roots. Still, though, few could have predicted what transpired last week.

In a press release with a subject line that read “Exciting Novelties for FWT 2015,” the Freeride World Tour announced the 2015 competition schedule. Therein, three items were notably absent—specifically:

1.A sixth stop, as the 2015 tour dropped one event, going from six to five while adding Andorra to the list and removing Courmayeur.
2.A Lower 48 U.S. and Canadian stop. Instead, an unnamed location in Alaska with a 10-day-plus weather window.
3.At that Alaska event, only men will be allowed to compete, therefore giving women only three stops to compete before the field is narrowed for the finals in Verbier.

Drafted and sent by the European-run Freeride World Tour Management, the release caught most by surprise, none more so than Mountain Sports International (MSI), the North American FWT production company.

“It’s a surprise to all of us,” said MSI marketing and communications director Jessica Kunzer. “We got the release when everyone else did.”

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It seemed like a hostile siege of the prominent big mountain tour, with so many questions outstanding as to how FWT Management SA, who owns the brand Freeride World Tour that started in 2008 and exclusive marketing rights, could legally make these decisions without consulting their North American counterpart that has produced big mountain contests since 1998.

“We entered a phase of FWT development three years ago by collaborating with MSI towards a full merge of both companies,” said FWT General Manager and Founder Nicolas Hale-Woods, who said they did indeed inform MSI of the new schedule, via e-mail from Australia. “This collaboration has not been successful to our eyes on many points, both on the operation and the communication sides, which lead us to the conclusion of organizing FWT without MSI.” The two companies entered a joint venture agreement two years ago without a signed contract.

Given the new event lineup, perhaps the FWT should be renamed the FET for Freeride Euro Tour? With only one North American stop in Alaska—the FWT is prospecting three locations—the rich history of big mountain competitive skiing in North America has been completely hijacked. And although Hale-Woods confirmed that they’re hedging the growth and success of the tour on high-quality webcast production rather than on-the-ground spectators (similar to surfing’s Teahupoo ASP World Championship Tour contest), it robs North American FWT fans, potentially sabotages a growing market of youngsters, and, most notably, affects the current crop of North American athletes.

Despite widespread support of Revelstoke's Mac Daddy venue, it's off the table for the 2015 FWT calendar. PHOTO: FWT

Despite widespread support of Revelstoke’s Mac Daddy venue, it’s off the table for the 2015 FWT calendar. PHOTO: FWT

“Am I reading this right? Alaska is the only American stop? With no slots for women?” wrote 2013 FWT overall champ Drew Tabke in an e-mail. Tabke, who is on the eight-member Pro Freeriders Board and has taken on the unflattering role of a pseudo-spokesperson for the actual going-ons of the tour, has been quite terse with his own frustrations this winter. His European counterpart, Sweden’s Reine Barkered, who won the 2012 overall tour and 2014 Xtreme Verbier, seemed to favor the news. “I just saw AK was in there and I’m really stoked,” said Barkered. “But it’s a bummer women won’t be able to compete in Alaska and that Revelstoke is off the tour since it was such a steep venue with great vertical.” As for the women, Squaw Valley’s Jackie Paaso, who finished fourth overall on the 2014 FWT, chimed in all the way from South Africa. “I didn’t anticipate this,” she said. “I know they have been talking about adding an Alaska event and there are cost concerns associated with that, but people would be more accepting of the new schedule if women were included. Not all FWT venues are ideal, but it’s important to keep the fan base happy for the health of the sport. It’s disappointing, for sure.”

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Alas, the announcement acted as a culmination of contention. But after the 2013 merger of the North American-based Freeskiing World Tour and European-based Freeride World Tour, it seemed big mountain competitive skiing was unified and on a positive trajectory. They crowned a true world champ with a legitimate prize purse, investments were made to improve webcast production quality, and a feeder system—the Freeride World Qualifier (FWQ)—was set in place to grow the sport while also giving the FWT elite status. With the release of the 2015 schedule, it seems the FWT has taken a significant step backward.

“Obviously, tension is possible when working from different continents with different methodologies in volatile mountains,” said MSI Project Manager Bryan Barlow, the man responsible for the North America stops. “But we’re totally blindsided by this news made by FWT SA. After all the collaboration and compromise between USA and Europe FWT to build one system and then to wake up one day to this is disappointing, to say the least. At one time, there seemed to be a focus on building and unifying the sport of freeride, and not just about building a brand to sell. This leaves a huge void and unknown for the North and South America market and athletes, which was so key in the evolution of what freeride is today.”

Barkered expressed support for one less event, noting that it would give him and others “more time for other projects” outside the FWT calendar. That played to Hale-Woods assertion that the 2015 schedule decisions are about “quality over quantity.”

Moments like this at Snowbird, where American Lars Chickering-Ayers claimed the top spot of the 2014 FWT fourth stop, are in jeopardy on mainland North America soil. PHOTO: FWT

Moments like this at Snowbird, where American Lars Chickering-Ayers claimed the top spot of the 2014 FWT fourth stop, are in jeopardy on mainland North America soil. PHOTO: FWT

“Freeride World Tour’s goal is to organize the best events on the best mountains,” continued Hale-Woods. “In the eyes of many riders, Alaska proposes the best mountains in the USA. But Alaska will be a tough one on the logistical side since we’ll be in ‘remote location mode,’ meaning we will need a lot of flexibility to move the group of riders and live webcast team around. This is why, for year one, we decided to go there with men only and limit the number of riders to 60 percent of the field. Furthermore, with the current financial parameters, it is not possible to organize an additional event for women only in North America. This is not the ideal set-up, but it is reality for 2015.”

Although FWT still owns the rights to the FWQ and FJT (Freeride Junior Tour), it remains to be seen what will happen to the exciting skiing niche that, despite the 2014 weather challenges, seemed to be catching on, with increasing webcast and TV views. Notwithstanding, putting the cross-Atlantic conflict on the table and coming to an amenable collaboration seems doubtful, as of now, undoubtedly weakening the sport and leaving the future of North American big mountain competitive skiing with a giant question mark.

Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face 2015 Event Calendar

1. SWATCH FREERIDE WORLD TOUR CHAMONIX-MONT-BLANC BY THE NORTH FACE

Date: Jan. 24, 2015; Location: Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, FRA

Disciplines: Men’s and Women’s Ski and Snowboard

2. SWATCH FREERIDE WORLD TOUR FIEBERBRUNN KITZBÜHELER ALPEN BY THE NORTH FACE

Date: Jan. 31, 2015; Location: Fieberbrunn Kitzbüheler Alpen, AUT

Disciplines: Men’s and Women’s Ski and Snowboard

3. SWATCH FREERIDE WORLD TOUR VALLNORD ARCALIS / ANDORRA BY THE NORTH FACE

Date: Feb 14, 2015; Location: Vallnord Arcalis, AND

Disciplines: Men’s and Women’s Ski and Snowboard


4. SWATCH FREERIDE WORLD TOUR ALASKA BY THE NORTH FACE

Date: March 14, 2015; Location: TBD

Disciplines: Men’s Ski and Snowboard

5. SWATCH XTREME VERBIER BY THE NORTH FACE

Date: March 28, 2015; Location: Verbier, SUI

Disciplines: Men’s and Women’s Ski and Snowboard