Julien Lopez at Kirkwood. PHOTO K.BLUM

Words: Jeremy Benson

Competitive big mountain skiing takes the main stage in Kirkwood, California, this week ad the 4th stop of the Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face comes through. "We're always excited to host this event," says Kirkwood's Kevin "Coop" Cooper, "The FWT represents who we are, big mountain terrain, and big snow."

Kirkwood's competition venue is a permanently closed area known as the Cirque. The steep and technically challenging face is littered with cliffs, trees, and features that cater to all styles of big mountain riding. "The Cirque has been a big part of the history of freeskiing in North America," says current overall Men's Tour leader, Drew Tabke, "It opened my eyes up to what a bigger, gnarlier venue is like." The long time home of the North American Freeskiing Championships, the Cirque was also the site of the first combined Freeskiing/Freeride World Tour Event in 2011 that led to the current Freeride World Tour format.

The season's competition is heating up as the tour leaders have a chance to assert their dominance and others fight to move up the ranks and earn themselves a spot in the grand finale in Verbier. "This marks the 2nd half of the season, so a lot of people will definitely step it up," says Reine Barkered, currently ranked 3rd overall, "I think the skiing will be creative with a lot of freestyle elements, I'm looking forward to it."

Kirkwood local Josh Daiek stood atop the podium in both 2012 and 2011 at this event. Daiek returns for his 2nd event of the 2013 FWT season with the potential to three-peat at his home mountain. A handful of other competitors live nearby, including Squaw Valley's Kevin O'Meara, Sean Collin, Jackie Passo, and Alpine Meadow's Wille "Rocket" Schneider. "It's nice to ski near home and not feel jet-lagged going into the competition," says O'Meara, "It also drives me to perform when I know I have friends in the crowd."

Jackson Hole's Crystal Wright also returns to Kirkwood this year to defend last year's victory. "I have competed on the Cirque for the past 6 years, last year was the first time I actually put a run together and won," says Wright, "It's an awesome venue because it has a lot of options and is very open, which helps showcase good skiing."

January and February have been relatively dry snow months in the Tahoe area. Fortunately, for competitors and event organizers alike, a fresh layer of snow blanketed the region just last week. "We had a big start to the season here, laying down the base needed to hold this event," says Kirkwood's Cooper, "9-11 inches in the past week, along with cold temps, should deliver a great venue for these world class athletes."

The first possible day of competition is scheduled for Wednesday, February 27th, and if the current forecast is correct it appears likely that the contest will run in the early part of the weather window. With fresh snow and clear skies forecasted, the stage is set for another exciting day of FWT competition. Check back to Powder.com for continuing coverage of the 4th stop of the Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face at Kirkwood, CA.