Weeks ago, it seemed impossible. The venue for the third Freeride World Tour competition of 2014, the Wildseeloder at Fieberbrunn Kitzbüheler Alpen, was still mainly grass and rocks. The location of the comp venue played victim to an abnormal winter across Europe that saw the Southern Alps drowning in record snowfall, while the northern half, including Fieberbrunn, eked by with a handful of paltry storms. And then, as if the local organizers had a direct line to the weather gods, a massive storm system came through the area just a week before the event, leaving up to three feet of fresh powder, bringing the Wildseeloder venue into contestable condition.
The competitors and organizers of the 2014 Freeride World Tour arrived in Fieberbrunn on Wednesday, January 29, just a day after the storm cleared out, and riding conditions were excellent. But as competitors inspected the Wildseeloder venue on Thursday, grumbles of discontent could be heard from some riders. The central portion of the face that normally holds some of the winning lines of the event was so rocky it would have to be closed, leaving fewer, smaller options to the edge of the face. Some who didn't want to ride either said that the face was too dangerous, or that it didn't hold enough line options to host a legitimate FWT event. On the other side were the riders and organizers who wanted to go on as planned. They argued that with extended closures and additional start points along the ridge, the venue was in fact safe and contestable.
On top of all that, the pressure to produce the event on schedule was massive. Fieberbrunn is the year's largest production outside of the world finals in Verbier. If the competition can be held on a sunny Saturday, thousands of spectators are at the amphitheater on the mountain to watch the competition, plus a Red Bull airshow, a massive event village and party at the resort base, dozens and dozens of media in attendance from across Europe, a significant Junior Freeride Tour event running simultaneously on a neighboring venue, and a live broadcast reaching upwards of 100,000 people.
A meeting between the head guide, organizers, and the members of the Pro Freeriders Board was called to discuss the conflicting viewpoints during the Thursday. No decision was made, as further snow safety and course inspection was scheduled for Friday before the event was scheduled on Saturday. One snowfield on a particular ridgeline was of extra concern to some of the riders, as a similar slope in the area had avalanched to the ground sometime on Thursday. If this area of the Wildseeloder was to slide, it would render the most important section of the men's venue unskiable, eliminating so many lines that the face would become uncontestable.
That night the riders' meeting was full of drama. As FWT Europe Manager Nicolas Hale-Woods stood in front of the assembled riders, outlining the options for additional start points and closed areas, one rider stood up, referenced a rule in the FWT handbook, and demanded that Hale-Woods point out the "seven distinct lines on the face that a 5-star event's venue requires." Some in the room countered that there were at least 20 distinct lines. Other riders stood up to say that they supported the organizers and that they trusted and appreciated their decision making to create an event with the athletes interests in mind. Some local Austrian riders stood up to say they had ridden powder all day, believed that the venue would be in good condition, and suggested continuing as planned. Ultimately with some riders going so far as to demand a yes/no vote on whether or not to continue, Hale-Woods firmly made it clear that while athlete opinion will always be taken into account, final safety calls and venue selection are in the hands of the organization, not in a democratic process, and the meeting came to a close.
Friday dawned warm and windy. The dreaded foehn had arrived in earnest, the hot wind from the south that can destroy the snowpack of northerly areas like Fieberbrunn. It was apparent from the first sight of the venue Friday morning that the face had already lost at least six inches to a foot of snow, leaving much additional rock exposed. As guides, on rope, placed ski cuts on the upper suspect snowfields, everyone held their breath. And then, crack! As feared, with the guide scampering off the edge, the big panel of snow discussed the day before cut loose, and the two- to five-foot deep, 100-foot-wide slab slid off at ground level. It accelerated down the couloir, spread out in a fan as it crossed the first bench, and then crested the last roll and exploded down the final gully. The crowd was alive with the sounds of riders and organizers cheering or swearing depending on their view of the situation. In a short time, the official call came down the line. The event was called off--the FWT was officially on hold. For some, a year of hard work to bring one of the best freeride events in the world to their home was dashed away in a river of churning snow and the daunting task of immediately organizing a backup plan. For others, the avalanche meant another few days to hang out in Austria waiting for a perhaps better venue, with perhaps better snow.
Saturday was sunny but depressing. The would-be comp day was instead just a party on the hill with no show. Hundreds of fans milled about, seeking out autographs of the riders still in attendance, and local organizers watched glumly as their year of hard work faded away. The foehn had continued to blow all through the night, and the snow was in an even poorer state. However, the eight forerunners who descended the face on Saturday as part of an exhibition for the public still reported that though the snow was inconsistent, it was skiable and possibly contestable.
That very day, Hale-Woods, a guide, and two riders went in search of the backup venue. Some areas just two hours from Fieberbrunn had received up to two meters of snow in the last days, and were literally in a state of emergency, with weather services reporting a five out of five avalanche danger. But further west, near the Arlberg region, the storm had been less extreme, leaving fresh snow but not the extreme windy warmth or catastrophic storm that the Tyrol had just experienced. A venue was found at Kappl, a small resort few riders had ever heard of. The message came back to Fieberbrunn on Saturday afternoon: check out from hotel Sunday morning, three-hour drive to Kappl, venue inspection at Kappl Sunday afternoon, competition Monday. The 70 athletes of the Freeride World Tour, the production team, the sponsors, the organizers, and the remaining media packed their bags and hit the road.
The winter of 2014 has already dealt a difficult hand to the Freeride World Tour. Revelstoke was to be the first event of the year in December, but was postponed to backup dates in March. Tough conditions saw a false start and the use of a six-day weather window in Courmayeur. The Chamonix event was a success, but thin snow there did make line selection tough for some riders. Whatever happens in Austria, the next stop is Kirkwood, also experiencing a dire snow conditions, the third year in a row.
The sport seems to be arriving at an impasse. To continue the building on the tour's broad public reach and significant sponsor support, the events need to happen on a tight schedule in more controllable locations. To meet the demands of all riders, the organization needs to be streamlined, with fewer athletes, less media, and the ability to change locations on extremely short notice. It appears that concessions on both sides will need to be made for the Freeride World Tour to find continuing success. And even if all the parties can find a reasonable balance to the diaspora of interests, Mother Nature always plays her hand last.