Griffin Post is a veteran big mountain competitor.
Ten years ago, entering a competitive big mountain contest fell somewhere between beer-league racing and Nastar: As long as you could ski, wore a helmet, and had access to the Internet when the registration window opened, you were in. All that stood between you and competing with some of the best big mountain riders in the world was a qualification run.
Today, though, it takes an entire season to earn that same chance.
With more competitors and a unified global tour, marked by last year's merger between the European-based Freeride World Tour and the North America-based Freeskiing World Tour, the big mountain competition scene has evolved to require an elaborate qualification system for aspiring athletes. Now, almost 50 Freeride World Qualifiers worldwide provide a feeder system into the upper echelons of the tour. Ranked between one and four stars based on organization, communication, format, site, security, and hospitality, these events provide a means for riders to earn points toward a global ranking—a number that determines who will qualify for next year's big show and who can enter the coveted 3-star and 4-star events.
Under the new system, not all first place podiums are equal. Athletes have to prove themselves on the more accessible 1- and 2-star events before they can qualify for higher-level events and some real points. A skier landing first place for men at a 4-star event earns 1800 points, while first place at a 1-star event is worth 320—the same amount of points that 23rd place earns at a 4-star event.
The process can be daunting. It takes strong performances at several competitions just to qualify for the contests that earn legitimate points. This translates to a lot of time and money, and it's easy for athletes to be deterred before they even enter a start gate. But the system works and it provides proving grounds, exposure to sponsors, and preparation for more difficult venues. So to beat the system, you must have a plan before going in to maximize a crack at the big show.
As free-spirited and casual as the roots of big mountain competitions may be, today it's a legitimate sport with top-level athletes dedicating their lives to contests. Just as no park or pipe skier would hope to have a couple good contests and get into the X Games, skiers can't expect to just dip their toes in and qualify for the FWT. I'm not saying dump your significant other and quit your job, but let them know your plans. If you really believe contests are for you, invest in them. Commit to traveling and put money aside for the events—anywhere from $200 to $500 depending on location and your quality-of-life requirements.
All other things equal, the one thing that determines whether you get into an event is registering. That means you, Legitimate Skier, could get edged out by Joey Double-Ejection simply because you waited a few weeks to register. Sign up for everything you could reasonably go to when registration opens on November 26 for Region 2 and December 2 for Region 1. If you're lucky enough to get into a 3-star or 4-star event with no status on the Global Ranking, it will be worth it.
Fittingly, contests attract some of the friendliest, hard-charging, hard-partying, and fun people in the ski world, and they're likely trying to do the same thing you are. Even if you enter your first contest as a loan wolf, you'll soon find friends and someone to split the gas bill with. Not only is camaraderie part of the sport, cramming eight people into a standard hotel room makes a night's rest practically free.
Work the Wild Card
Each event organizer is given five wildcards to distribute as they see fit. Simply e-mailing the event organizer and explaining how rad you are won't work. So try and find someone who can vouch for you. This could be anybody from a freeride coach to a current competitor, as long as it's someone with some credibility.
If all else fails, just show up. This doesn't mean roll into registration the afternoon before the contest looking for a hand out. Be at registration the morning it opens and be the first one there. Act like you've done your homework and show that you're familiar with registration and the global-ranking system, but you came early anyway. Every contest has its no-shows, and commitment does not go unnoticed with organizers.
Above all, don't look at the qualifying tour as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. While much of the glamor is bestowed to the world tour, the qualifying tour has comparable levels of venues, competitions, and brotherhood. Even if your name is never destined to end up on the start list at the Freeride World Tour Finals in Verbier, the experience you gain as a skier and a person out of any level of competition is well worth the investment.