Words and Photos: Tom Winter
Under perfect Chilean blue skies, the big mountain installment of the Swatch Skiers Cup kicked off on Saturday at a remote basin in the Yorba Loco valley above Farellones. The bowl, accessed via a five-minute helicopter ride, held ample snow: creamy powder intermixed with warming crud on the venue.
If you were to design a playground for a world-class skiing competition, you'd probably end up with something that looked exactly like Valle Nevado and the surrounding peaks of the Andes. Since it's faster, easier and cheaper (and infinitely more realistic) to just fly there rather than design a mountain range from scratch, that's what the Swatch folks have done.
The event format is as unique as the venue. Two teams of eight athletes face off in head-to-head heats. Team Americas, led by USA's legend-in-the-making Cody Townsend, features Canada's Riley Leboe, American Chris Benchetler and Chile's best-known talent, Chopo Diaz. The talent-packed squad will face off against Team Europe, led by Sweden's Sverre Liliequist and including returning veterans such as Sweden's Jacob Wester, as well as talented newcomers Mathieu Imbert (France) and Tom Leitner (Germany).
"The concept is great," said Australia Ben Murphy, who joins USA's Mark Abma and France's Julian Regnier as the three judges for the event. "It's so different from other competitions. It brings team camaraderie to the sport, and it makes it really simple. You either win your heat or you don't. It comes down to the team captains. They pick the athletes."
With a variety of line choices, the stage was set for a showdown, and the athletes didn't disappoint. Team Americas captain Cody Townsend was the first to run, a decision that turned out to be critical when the day was done. Townsend's line featured a huge air of an upper rock outcropping. Despite his aggressiveness, he lost out in the head-to-head battle with New Zealand athlete Sam Smoothy, who was skiing for Team Europe.
Smoothy proved that his current form wasn't a fluke with a smoking run in the second heat, too.
Still, the Europeans weren't able to pull away from Team Americas in the first round of the competition, despite solid runs by Italy's Marcus Eder and Sverre Liliequist, who took points from Dane Tudor and Chopo Diaz, respectively.
With Team Americas hanging on through points from KC Dean and Oakley White-Allen and a few miscues from Team Europe, Townsend sat at the bottom and watched.
"It wasn't originally part of my strategy," said Townsend. "I wanted to set an example for the team by going first."
But, according to Townsend, once he was at the bottom, he was able to analyze the lines the competition and the judging and scoring, allowing him to come up with a strategy for the second heat.
When the final scores were added up, both teams ended up tied at eight points, making the upcoming backcountry slopestyle event the defining moment for the Swatch Skiers Cup.
Right now, it's anyone's guess on which team will win, but we did learn some things.
First, that despite his current anonymity, Italy's Marcus Eder is the real deal. Eder's creative, fluid skiing combined park tricks with big-mountain savvy, and there's no doubt that you will be hearing more about this young Italian.
Secondly, don't underestimate the importance of strategy in this head-to-head, team format. Townsend used his athletes to perfection in the second heat to end the day tied with Team Europe, and the American will probably have some more tricks up his sleeve as the event heads into the backcountry slopestyle segment of the Swatch Skier's Cup on Friday.
Stay tuned for more updates from the Swatch Skiers Cup.