Athletes are showing up to Big Sky, Montana, this week for their last shot at earning enough points to land a spot on next year's Freeride World Tour.
The Subaru Freeride Series is hosting three events this weekend on the Headwaters venue off Lone Peak, located on the north-facing side of Big Sky. In addition to the four-star Freeride World Qualifier on Friday and Saturday, there is also a two-star qualifier and the Junior Freeride Tour Finals. It's the last series of big mountain comps this season.
Going into Big Sky, the field of competition is stacked with a high caliber of talent for both men and women, and with two four-star events cancelled at Taos and Squaw Valley this year due to poor conditions, there have not been as many opportunities to earn qualifying points. So, as Subaru Freeride Series Head Judge Eric Schmitz says, "It's left everything on the line for Big Sky."
"There haven't been a lot of events with Squaw getting canceled, and that has been tough on the athletes. They really have to be consistent," says Schmitz. "This time of year is exciting because the points are starting to shake out."
This year, three men and two women will rise out of the qualifiers to join next year's Freeride World Tour. And at Big Sky, there are a good handful of skiers that will be battling it out for those spots.
Bozeman's Kyle Taylor is the likely favorite to win this weekend. Taylor, 29, won the competition at this stop two years ago, when it was Moonlight Basin. He almost had it last year, too, going into the finals at the top of the pack, but a fall at the end of his run on day two pushed down his points to 13th overall. Taylor, who supplements his skiing by working as a stone mason and golf caddy in the off season, is sitting near the top of the qualifier rankings going into Big Sky, so if he can pull off a solid run this weekend, it's likely we will see him competing in Europe next year. And that's his goal.
"If you're going to do it, you might as well compete with the best skiers in the world, and that's the Freeride World Tour," says Taylor. "There are a lot of people who have a chance to qualify for the world tour... Watch out for Randy Evans."
Randy Evans, 23, and his younger brother, Matt, 18, are two to be reckoned with. Randy came in second at the four-star Crystal Mountain Freeride Challenge in February. Later that month, the Evans brothers were first and third, respectively, going into the finals at Crested Butte, which is where they grew up skiing. But a fall on day two of Crested Butte killed Randy's final score. Taylor ended up winning Crested Butte, followed by CB local Tom Runcie, and 20-year-old George Rodney, who is currently leading the American men for FWT qualifying points. Rodney, only two years off the junior tour, also came in third at Telluride.
"There are six or seven people who have a shot at taking the top three spots," says Andrew Rumph, 35, who is also right up there, gunning for points to get one of those spots on the FWT. "It's really anyone's game right now."
As for the ladies, keep an eye on Kirkwood ski patroller Hazel Birnbaum, who is leading the American women for FWT qualifying points. The 27-year-old took first at the four-star qualifier in Chile last summer, and has done very well in every comp since, even with a nagging knee injury. Birnbaum says Big Sky is a venue that works well for her skiing style. "It's these steep chutes with crazy shale everywhere, but the lines are big and open," says Birnbaum. "It's more of a big mountain venue than compared to some of the other venues that are short."
Schmitz says that with Montana's record-deep season, the Headwaters venue has more snow than it's ever seen on a competition day. "It's big. It's pretty steep. A true big mountain venue," says Schmitz. "They're in the alpine for the most part, above the trees. [The athletes] are there to be taken seriously."
Two years into the unified world tour, with skiers on the qualifying tour last year finishing at the top of the Freeride World Tour this year--Loic Collomb-Patton becoming this year's FWT Champion, and Ian Borgeson taking second at the Xtreme Verbier--chances are that whoever does well at the Big Sky finals on Saturday will also be at the top of Verbier's Bec de Rosses in the Freeride World Tour finals next year.
Tune in to Powder.com to watch the live webcast of the Subaru Freeride Series finals and the Junior Freeride Tour finals. The adult four-star is scheduled for Saturday, and the JFT for Sunday, however, things may change depending on weather.