Loic Collomb-Patton preps for his run down Chamonix’s Mont Blanc in 2016. The run earned him the top podium spot on last year’s Swatch Freeride World Tour. PHOTO: J. Bernard
The world's top freeride skiers will be dropping into the alpine needles of Mont Blanc massif at the end of the month to kick off the burly Freeride World Tour, the annual competition that historically offers skiers a platform to cut their chops in hopes of increasing their skill levels, garnering sponsors, or securing film segments.
Extreme ski competitions were born in Valdez, Alaska, in 1991 when a cast of characters, including Doug Coombs and Kim Reichhelm, came out to test their steep skiing skills. The Freeskiing World Tour, now the Freeride World Tour, was established about 10 years later with screen legends Shane McConkey, Ingrid Backstrom, and Griffin Post ripping down venues around the world.
Now, it attracts some of the best skiers in the industry, including two-time winner Drew Tabke and European alpinist and long-time competitor Sam Anthamatten, who spend their winters finding creative ways down five different mountains in venues across the Americas and Europe. This year the tour also expanded to make its debut in Asia with the inclusion of a qualifying event in Japan.
While the big mountain competitions haven't changed much since the ’90s—other than less money going toward the FWT—the landscape of the ski industry has evolved, and some would question if competition skiing still has a seat at the table. For a long time, the tour was the best place for skiers to make themselves visible to potential sponsors. Now, there are a myriad of ways for would-be pro skiers to "make it" on a variety of platforms.
Ski media is now largely consumed on our phones, allowing newcomers and pros the chance to upload their self-made edits and content that will reach thousands of consumers directly, instead of waiting for the call from a major production company. Which begs the question, does the Freeride World Tour still matter?
At the rate ski bums and juniors continue to sign up and sell out the qualifying tour and newly formed junior tour season after season, it would appear so. Freeride competitions have a low barrier to entry. They are not as expensive as race programs for juniors and cheap enough for most local ski bums.
If you have internet access, you can sign up. Plus, local ski clubs are adding big mountain programs to their historically race- and park-based programs, and participation is growing. The Jackson Hole Ski Club has seen its freeride program grow from six participants in 2008 to 60-plus last season.
"It's this grassroots relevance, that can also be projected to a global scale, that makes this sport so durable over time.” —Drew Tabke
Tabke, who has competed on the tour for 13 years, says he's seen a growing success with junior freeride programs and qualifier-level freeride events at ski centers globally and attributes that to the accessibility and inclusiveness on a local level.
"[Freeride skiing] has a huge appeal to families and regular skiers, the people who are the bread and butter of sustaining a healthy ski industry," he says. "It's this grassroots relevance, that can also be projected to a global scale, that makes this sport so durable over time."
Competitions also educate newcomers to the sport. Athletes learn how to look at a mountain and find their line, how to assess risk and reward, travel the world (usually on a very small budget), and, most importantly, test their skills as a skier. To an outsider, the competitions may seem a bit loose, but the athletes are well trained and calculated. Rookies learn very quickly to approach the sport and the mountains (and let's be honest—the after-parties) with a high level of respect.
For tour winners, being the "best in the world," while subjective, is a consumable statistic for the athletes to deliver to their supporting sponsors. The winning line of a tour, while subject to speculation (judges are humans, after all), stands out from other means of judging a performance—like video views, likes, followers, or even contract dollars.
On the tour, there is no editing, no filters, no single turns. It's a display of the world's best skiers putting everything out there, usually in heinous conditions. Just watch Sam Smoothy's winning line in Valnord to validate the level of skiing that occurs.
But the real reason why big mountain competitions are still relevant—and why they should always stick around—is for the camaraderie found at every level of freeride competitions, from small-scale local events to the world stage of the FWT. These passionate skiers are willing to pay their own way to compete, where they push their own limits—and their peers, and connect with skiers from Russia to Vermont.
The FWT unifies skiers across countries and ages. It's brimming with soul, from the start gate to the finish corral because it's made up of a group of people who love skiing enough to endure sleeping in cars, missing rent, and having to explain to their parents what they are doing with all their time and money. It's that love that will sustain its place in the skiing industry.
Hadley Hammer is a former FWT competitor, who has traded competitions for TGR films, but still remains one of the biggest fans of the tour (other than Drew Tabke's dad).