Editor's Note: Drew Tabke is the reigning Freeride World Tour champion and is a member of the eight-person Pro Freeriders Board that advises FWT officials on direction and decisions.
The winter of 2014 has been throwing out wildcard weather events to countless places around the world, and few sports feel the effects of such extreme climate like the Swatch Freeride World Tour presented by The North Face. The tour ranges across the world's mountains, looking for radical high mountain terrain and deep snow on which to hold events. Due to 2014's meteorological madness, the tour has been met with difficulties at all four stops so far this season.
Revelstoke was to be held in late December but was pushed to March. The backup venue used in Courmayeur, Italy, was small by FWT standards due to thin snow and high avalanche danger on the bigger terrain, and mixed weather caused a false start and weeklong delay in the event. Chamonix ran as scheduled, but the snowpack was thin and particularly wind-affected. Fieberbrunn, Austria, saw a thin snowpack almost saved by a last-minute storm, but the foehn winds arrived, decimating the minimal coverage and contributing to a ground-level avalanche that took out half of the venue, forcing the third stop to move to nearby Kappl. Due to the California drought, the event in Kirkwood was relocated at the last minute to Snowbird. With all the pieces in place for a powder-choked comp day this past Sunday on Snowbird's North Baldy venue, ski patrol control work the morning of the event triggered an eight-foot-deep slab avalanche on faceted snow left from September that ran 1,000 feet to the flats. According to Snowbird snow safety professionals, it was a historic slide, one of the biggest avalanches in that location in 20-plus years.
The North Baldy venue was wiped out, but with nearly a week of the weather window remaining, organizers had ample time to scope for a backup venue. After two days of debate and searching, organizers decided: The fourth stop of the Freeride World Tour would be held on Silver Fox, the classic inbounds run under the top tower of Snowbird's tram.
The decision caused a polemic amongst riders and organizers. Some argued that Silver Fox was not fit for a Freeride World Tour event, as it had been skied by the public in the week leading up to the event, it wasn't large enough or steep enough, and it didn't hold enough options for the 62 riders. This point of view, chiefly held by European riders and organizers, pointed to the massive faces and peaks surrounding Snowbird such as Germicide, South Superior, and the distant faces in Maybird and Hogum Fork, asking, "Why not there?!"
On the other hand, I argued for Silver Fox. Silver Fox has proven itself as a suitable proving ground for the world's best freeskiers during 15-plus years of competitive history. For a generation, it served as Day One for the North American Freeskiing Championships before that event's finals on North Baldy. In a sport of uncertainly, it is nearly guaranteed that a competition on Silver Fox will provide a fair ranking, a safe venue, and a spectacular level of riding to show the fans of the sport.
South Superior made no sense to me, as temperatures on competition day (Wednesday) are forecasted to be above 40 degrees Fahrenheit at the base of that face, which has a predominantly southeast aspect. It will fall apart early in the day on Wednesday. And even on the perfect, cold, sunny, stable day, a field of 62 riders is far too large to send down a complicated, dangerous face with nearly 3,000 feet of relief.
I voted "no" on Germicide because I don't believe it is in contestable condition. The Wasatch's snowpack is currently well below average. For years we watched Germicide as a possible venue for the Freeskiing Championships, and only on the fattest, most stable years did it look like a good option. This year, while there are a few possible lines, I predict that after avalanche control sloughs out the few possible gully exits, little good snow will remain left on the face. Additionally, numerous no-fall zones exist.
Finally, the deep slab avalanche possibility that reared its ugly head on North Baldy cannot be overlooked on any other high-mountain terrain in the area. At any FWT stop where we are entering a serious high-mountain face, the area is monitored and controlled during the entire season leading up to the event by local professionals. Since we came to Snowbird at the last minute, that level of detailed control and monitoring wasn't taking place on Germicide. Even if it had, there would be no way to rule out the deep slab possibility, as Baldy was skied hard all year and it still ripped to the ground. Tempting fate on an exposed face that could clearly harbor near-ground faceted snow, with a recent huge load of high water content snow and a coming temperature spike would be foolhardy.
As far as the deeper peaks and faces beyond Snowbird's Twin Peaks, I can only say it is a study in the difference between a European and an American psychology in regards to land use and access. "Why can't we get in the heli and go there?"
"Because it's a wilderness area."
Silver Fox is the right place for the FWT to be this week. But beyond the pure concerns of safety, snow, and logistics (simply moving the live-broadcast infrastructure just a quarter mile up the hill from Baldy will require countless man hours), it is a question of style. A significant number of people within the FWT want to ride an extreme high mountain face at all six stops, and I see this as a huge mistake. The ASP surfing world tour doesn't run every event at Teahupoo. For every bone-crunching, house-sized Tahitian barrel, just as many waist-high crumbly beachbreaks offer as venues during the season. This is a more realistic representation of the pursuit of waveriding, and in the end the best surfer still wins. The Freeride World Tour needs to follow this paradigm.
For every no-fall-zone-filled Bec des Rosses, there needs to be a venue filled with cornices, windlips, and natural jumps free of rocks in the landings. Silver Fox isn't perfect, but it is real skiing—skiing that regular people can watch, relate to, and even go do themselves just by stepping out of Snowbird's tram. The Freeskiing World Tour and the Freeride World Tour combined two years ago under the name of Freeride, but that doesn't mean we need to abandon the essence of freeskiing. Half the field hails from North America, and a run down Silver Fox is far more representative of the type of riding these athletes do day-to-day than some gnarly, avalanche-prone crapshoot that fulfills only one particular vision of the sport.
I don't see Silver Fox as a disappointing backup venue. I see it as a necessary balance to the menu of faces we ride each year on the Freeride World Tour, and in the future I hope to see more variation in the styles of faces represented throughout the season.
Tune-in to Powder.com tomorrow at 9:45 a.m. MST for the live webcast from Snowbird, Utah, of the fourth stop of the Swatch Freeride World Tour presented by The North Face.