There's only one thing left between the athletes of the Freeride World Tour and big mountain glory at the circuit's epic finale in Switzerland. Thing is, it’s stomping a huge Alaskan line. After three European comps and a first-round selection that cut the field in half, the cream of this year's crop will line up in Haines tomorrow, pending weather conditions, to lay down their best. But the tour's only North American stop won't make that easy.
"The real challenge for the athletes here is that the venue, called 'The Venue,' is really two venues in one," said Americas tour manager Tom Winter. "You have the upper section, very steep and technical with massive cliff and pillow lines, then a relatively mild middle section and a lower section that at any other mountain would easily be a stand-out competition venue in its own right."
More than ever, skiers need to stay committed and energetic from top to bottom—there'll be a lot of points up for grabs toward the end of their runs if they come into that section focused. An added challenge is the heli-accessed location, which means that skiers will only see their lines up close just before heading to the starting gate.
"Mentally, Alaska is the toughest stop of all for me," said Eva Walkner, who will wear the golden leader’s bib. "We are not used to skiing terrain like this… Everything is so big that it’s hard for me find out the real sizes of the cliffs and features, the distances, how steep or flat the venue is. Alaska is definitely a big challenge."
Head judge Berti Denervaud, who said Haines "is a different type of skiing [than the other venues,]" anticipates athletes like Reine Barkered and Jérémie Heitz, whose strengths are in long and steep skiing, will shine at this venue. He's also hoping that Drew Tabke, a tour veteran who hasn't posted great results yet this season, will bring down the hammer here.
"Drew brings a different kind of mentality to the Swatch Freeride World Tour," agreed Winter. "The man makes it look so easy, he is beautiful to watch, and his approach is unique. He skied an amazing run last year in Haines, so it will be fun to watch what he does this year."
But the newer generation of skiers and rookies keeps stepping up. Case in point: Tour freshman Logan Pehota and Kristofer Turdell are tied for second in the current rankings. Topping the list is Loic Collomb-Patton, who won the overall title in 2014 and, despite a bad back injury last spring that's left him in pain this winter, has still managed to ski smooth and big.
On the ladies’ side, Winter says that in particular, he "can't wait to watch Jackie Paaso redeem herself. She was disappointed with both with her run and the fact that she tweaked a knee. She's having a very strong season and… I think she'll be up to the task."
But, Winter noted, her competition is ready to bring it. "Once the [women] get things dialed, they are killing it," he said. It's a similar story to what's playing out in the men’s field, with rookies including Lauren Cameron and Arianna Tricomi shaking things up.
At this point in the season, both podiums are up for grabs, and it'd be hard to place bets on who will beat the second-round qualifications to qualify for Verbier.
"No one has a guaranteed seat," said Denervaud. "Everyone has to take risks to score good results… after the the cut in Fieberbrunn, the very best are here and it is anyone's game."