Jackie Paaso on her way to a win in Kirkwood. PHOTO: FWT

Words: Jeremy Benson

It was a beautiful sunny day at Kirkwood, CA, for the 4th stop of the Swatch Freeride World Tour by the North Face. A truly impressive display of freeskiing took place on the permanently closed competition venue, The Cirque.

The week prior to the event brought nine to eleven inches of new snow at Kirkwood. The much-needed snow blanketed the competition venue with a soft cushion of mid-winter snow. Since the snow fell, winds have ravaged the upper quarter of the venue leaving a mixed bag of scoured and wind affected surfaces. The lower three quarters of the Cirque remained in relatively pristine condition and should be "plenty rip-able", according to head judge Hugo Harrisson.

Conditions on the venue were definitely a hot topic among competitors. "The top half is pretty much all ice, below that is variable wind-packed powder with some sun exposed crusty areas and some icy areas," said Sean Collin. "You're gonna have to be on your game the whole time." Head judge Hugo Harrisson agreed, "This is the first stop where we've had difficult snow conditions, I think it will show who the better skiers are." New Zealand's Charlie Lyons brought one of the most positive attitudes of the day saying, "It's like a good day in New Zealand, I don't think it'll change the way too many people ski, we just might see a few more crashes."

The women took to the venue first today and promptly made the challenging conditions look like a walk in the park. There were a few crashes caused by punchy variable snow, including the overall tour leader Christine Hargin. Eastcoaster Ashley Maxfield grew up skiing tough snow, she took 3rd place with a solid air near the top of the venue followed by a very fast run to the bottom. "It's kind of a bittersweet to be on the podium, I lost my best friend [Ryan Hawks] here 2 years ago," said a teary-eyed Maxfield, "Having his dad here at the finish was awesome, this one was definitely for Ryan." Norway's Pia Nic Gunderson took 2nd place for the ladies with an aggressive fluid line. Top honors for the day went to Squaw Valley's Jackie Paaso. Solid skiing through technical terrain with a couple of medium sized airs secured her position on top of the podium. "I decided to take it down a notch and ski smart," said Paaso, "It feels good, not only to not crash but to be in the top spot is nice."

Then the men took to the venue hitting big airs, throwing tricks, and skiing fast. Numerous competitors succumbed to the variable snow conditions, including Tahoe-based Willie "Rocket" Schneider who was taken off the venue by ski patrol with a potential hip injury. Many skiers opted for a "conservative" approach to today's contest. "I thought it was gonna be super gnarly, so I made the call," said 10th place finisher Oakley White-Allen, "I'm going to ski clean, and I'll see how that does." Tour leader Drew Tabke put down an impressive run, but a scrubbed landing on a 360 bumped him into 13th place. "I think the level of skiing is insane for the challenging conditions we have," said Tabke.

Strong skiing with technical and creative line selection was rewarded heavily by the judges today. Charlie Lyons skied fast and aggressively, stomping a large air in the middle of the venue, earning himself 3rd place on the day. "I went out there with the mentality to ski faster and go bigger than I have before," said Lyons, "I haven't had a top three this year, so I'm happy." France's Julien Lopez skied his way into 2nd place. After attacking the upper part of the venue stomping airs and skiing fast, Lopez finished his run to the skier's right with a technical and creative double in an area that no other competitors touched. The run of the day belonged to Lars Chickering-Ayers who skied the most technical and aggressive line in the Cirque with no hesitation earning him his first victory of the season. "It feels really good, I've got a lot of memories here and not all of them good," said Chickering-Ayers, "It was nice to come back and have some fun."

Today's competition led to some major changes in the overall standings on the tour. Drew Tabke held on to his 1st place ranking, but he is now trailed very closely by Swiss skier Jeremie Heitz and Frenchman Julien Lopez. For the women, the top three are separated by only 50 points. Austrian Nadine Wallner sits in 1st, followed very closely by Norway's Pia Nic Gunderson and Sweden's Christine Hargin.

The next stop of the FWT is in Fieberbrunn, Austria. That event will be the final opportunity for skiers to qualify for the tour's finale on the infamous Bec De Rosses in Verbier, Switzerland.