Subaru FWT Diaries: Whose Line is it Anyway?

Updated: Notes from the 2011 Freeskiing World Tour Qualifier at Jackson Hole

fwt jackson hole
Photo: Tristan Greszko/MSI

By L.R. Fielding
Last Updated: February 1, 2011

V: Spectating

With risky lines, variable snow conditions, cliff drops, terrain nuggets and booters, the likelihood of landing on something other than your feet is high. So if you don’t make it to Finals or Super Finals, well, it’s time to break out the avi shovel, dig yourself a bench for you and your friends, crack open a beer and cheer on your fellow competitors.

Of course, it’s tempting to just say, “Screw this, I’m skiing”—and especially when visiting a place like Jackson Hole. But every competitor knows deep within that that would be just plain wrong. Everyone’s out there, skiing potentially dangerous lines, and they deserve props for getting after it no matter how they stack up. So, spectating is a very important aspect of the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour, and with warm, bluebird days like the ones we saw in Jackson this past weekend, it was down right heavenly. I baked in the sun, sharing oohs, ahhs, and holy f*$#ks! with friends, while our beers chilled in the snow.

The Tower Three venue for the Finals was the perfect area for skiers to prove they have what it takes. The terrain is extremely steep, tight, and short, dropping into a sizable mogul field.

On the ladies end, Rebecca Selig, of Vail, who captured first place, showed she can stomp with the guys, sending the largest, scariest cliffs, which many of the men avoided. She’s a great example for women: And proof that if women laugh in the face of potential carnage, block out the scary thoughts and push through, then there’s nothing they can’t do. Crystal Wright, a local of Jackson, followed Selig in second, and skied a steep section on looker’s right, getting in several decent drops, and exemplifying female grace and strength on skis. Behind her was Kristi Knaub, of Big Sky, Mont., who also showed off smart, aggressive skiing.

For the men, Jesse Bryan of Snowbird, Utah, took first. In the freeskiing world it’s rare to see exceedingly large skiers, but at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Bryan proved that good skiing is not a result of stature. He popped into the Unskiable Chute in the center of the venue, dropping 25-feet into soft, untouched snow, and then hopping over to another impressive drop and stomping it. His line was creative, technical, and he skied it with the fluidity, and ease the judges love to see. In second place, Caleb Brown, of Fernie., B.C., a younin’ who had crushed on the Junior Tour and is now making a name among the big boys. Corey Felton, also of Jackson, nabbed third. So congratulations to all the athletes.

The after party was held at the Shady Lady at Snow King and was quite the scene. These people party as hard as they ski (surprise?!), and they damn well deserve it. And for once, the guys were commenting on the unusually high ratio of girls. Good for the guys, better for the girls! Everyone had a great time, including me. I’ve been warmly welcomed into the arms of the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour as an athlete—not press—and I couldn’t be happier. Check back in two weeks for Crested Butte, Feb 17-21.

IV: Nut Up
Published: January 29, 2011

If you read magazines like Powder, you may notice a common theme among pros, something like, "I try to scare myself a little every day." To be successful on the FWT, it's all about combining smart, calculated skiing with a healthy dose of anxiety. This is where I went wrong when it came time to ski Casper Bowl for Day 1 of the Subaru FWT Qualifier. I nixed my original technical chute line on looker’s left, deciding it was too risky, and decided to ski line that I knew I would stay on my feet. I headed looker's left, dropping into the main gut of the bowl, making a couple wide turns, and then dropping a small cliff smack in the middle of the gut, and proceeded to make more wide, sweeping turns. I kept it moving, but there was way too much turning until my next drop. I cut left under the Boxcar section in the center of the venue and dropped a little cliff and headed into the bottom, hanging on through the chattery bumps, and into the finish.

I already knew that my line was too soft. Too obvious, to simple, little risk, etc. I stayed on my feet, yes, but gained little respect. And with an award like the Sickbird belt buckle awarded for the biggest, most creative lines, respect is more important than landing. Youngin' Johnny Collinson said he only wants belt buckles this season.

As skiers, we all want that respect. Extreme skiers want that respect in a very bad way, and it's not just respect from judges and peers, it's more about inner respect, throwing down a line that fulfills their innermost desires (or at least getting as close as they can).

While I gained an enormous amount of knowledge from fellow competitors (Mark Filipini, Crystal Wright, Rebecca Selig) and the head judge (Jim Jack), the most valuable thing I'll take away from my first competition was simply dropping-in; taking that proverbial first step. That's what the Tour is about, especially for newbies: Figuring it all out, how to go big and ski hard while complimenting your personal style, and coming home in one piece.

So I didn't move on to Day 2, but I learned a great deal about how to be successful for FWT Crested Butte, Feb., 17-21. Push yourself, look at the mountain in a new light, and ski features and terrain that you might otherwise avoid when dinking around your home mountain. Those days are over. It’s time to make scaring myself a little part of the routine.

II: Meet Jackson
Published: January 27, 2011

After driving most of the night while strategically avoiding several hundred live elk and one dead one, masticated into two pieces ten feet apart—presumably the work of a Mac truck boosting at 80 mph on route 191—I arrived in Jackson, anxious, elated and ready to rip. Jackson is everything I imagined: Steep, accessible, rugged, gnar, and, well, plain fun.

Even the groomed runs are exciting, and they damned well should be; they’re boasting over 350 inches of snow this winter. And the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour and its participants couldn't be happier to be back at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort after a three-year hiatus.

Jackson definitely stacks up as the epitome of big mountain "resort" skiing. Backcountry (out-the-gate) excursions are not just common, but seem encouraged. And I use the term "resort" lightly. Other than a couple of hotels, guest service and ski school buildings and bar featuring local brews, you'd hardly know you were skiing at a "resort.” Coming from Colorado's I-70 corridor, this is refreshing: No weekend warriors, no lines, no beers over $5; of course, the famed Tram is a big tip-off, but it's the perfect common room for stories of glory and shared weather and snow information.

Tram rides are packed with 120 of the most impressive locals you'll ever meet. The ride up is full of chatter about skiing untouched lines, underground ski brands, and the occasional, "Wahooo, we're all going skiing."

So far the "town" of Jackson is a hoot! The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is quite the scene. They have a great selection of beer and liquor, but the best part of this place is the history. It feels like a living document of the Wild West. There are stuffed animals on display, back-lit scenes of cowboys kicking ass, and don't forget the "living history" aspect: Line dancing replete with authentic Western garb. Also, the bartenders have great stories.

Embracing Jackson was the easy part, what's there not to love? Now it's all about making Casper Bowl my bitch. We'll see how that goes.

III: Finding Your Qualifying Line
Published: January 27, 2011

As a three-year FWT spectator, the No. 1 phrase I've heard, especially during the Tour Qualifiers, is: “It's always a fine line." Which line does one choose? The technical lead-in to an agro spiny, cliff drop, or a more straightforward wide-open drop with room to show off high-speed turns? There's much to consider, and with nearly 100 of the world's best skiers rippin' up a venue, lines are commonly skied off. Do you have a backup line or an exit?

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Day 1, the topic of conversation was snow conditions, thanks to unseasonably warm temperatures at the top of the mountain. The girls were rudely awakened with chattery, skied-off hardness in the morning and the guys had to hang on through punchy, sticky crap in the afternoon. Nearly every skier who came maching down out of their drops into the lower aspect of Casper Bowl munched on crunchy bumps or face-planted because their skis stopped in the tacky snow and their bodies kept moving… It seems like playing it safe would be the best opportunity to make it to Day 2.

I skied my first and only inspection run with Ed Dujardin; he’s originally from Crested Butte, but now Grand Targhee. He headed to looker's left in Casper Bowl to take a peek at his line, which was among the gnarliest in the competition. So he told me to follow him, and that he knew of a sweet, little chute that would be high scoring. I skied to the edge of the chute and peered over. It was decently steep and I could see rocks cluttering the narrow run-out. Well this is it, I thought, dropping in: If I can't ski this now, I probably shouldn't ski this in the competition. I made about six hop turns and then had to shimmy around slab rocks, until I aligned myself above a slab the size of a picnic table. I took a couple seconds to myself before picking up my knees, clearing the table, and straight-lining it down the chute. Barely hanging on, I made a huge right-footed turn up the hill. I stopped, looking around, surprised that I had stayed on my feet. That's my line, I thought. Well, maybe. Then several dudes proceeded to ski the chute after me, one taking it too hot. He rag-dolled down the venue.

I wasn't confident, but I was still considering the chute. I figured I had a 60 percent chance of staying on my feet. Not very good odds. (See the aforementioned "fine line.”) I wanted to inspect the chute again, but the venue closed for the day before I had time for another hike. (Note to self: Don't show up late for inspection day). I chatted with other competitors, Head Judge Jim Jack, and Mountain Sports International videographers, about the line. Ultimately, I decided I wasn't confident enough to ski the chute and stay on my feet. Plus, I heard that the slabs were even more exposed. (Note to newbies: Talk with judges, ski patrol and competition director Brian Barlow; they are happy to guide you to a safe, successful line).

I opted for a soft line that I could visually inspect. I figured it'd be better to ski something I knew I could ski confidently.

I: One of the Crowd
Published: January 26, 2011

I know what you're thinking—why am I reading about L.R. Fielding's experiences competing on the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour? Why not someone impressive like Julien Lopez? Where's the X Games coverage? Right, I am not special. I am a good skier, but there's a solid chance I may not even qualify for the second day. There's also a chance that even the best will not make it to the next day, and instead some new skier emerges from obscurity and into the limelight. We've seen it happen. Lexi DuPont's first competition was the 2009 Telluride World Tour Qualifiers, and she came in third. She was fresh from the racing scene, wearing tight n' bright orange n' pink pants, and absolutely stoked. She's since moved on from those fabulous pants (and into Warren Miller segments), and now rocks her sponsor First Ascent's outerwear. And that's the beauty of the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour: No invitation is required. (Disclaimer: That's not an invitation, per say). Still, everyday's a toss up, and that's the beauty of skiing in general: The opportunity is yours.

Eve of Departure
It's 1 a.m., the night before my eight-hour trek to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for the first U.S. stop of the 2011 Subaru FWT. Sleep is not coming easily. This will be my first time skiing the legendary Jackson. This is also my first time competing in a big mountain event. I am nervous. If you know anything about the history of big mountain freeskiing, you'll know that Jackson is where it all began. The movie Swift. Silent. Deep comes to mind, and I recall images of guys from the Jackson Hole Air Force hopping down what looks like a 55-degree face on 215s. There goes my stomach dropping into my bladder again.

It's been happening more and more, the whole stomach thing. I shouldn't worry, really. I'm in the best shape of my life. I've known for some time now that I would be competing this season, so I've been training since last spring. But this isn't my first attempt, either. I tried competing at the Crested Butte stop last February, but tore my left ACL during my first run (ever) at a very bare and rocky CB. Yeah. The following day I woke up, swollen and dazed, to three feet of snow. Awesome. So, if I get through my first run at Jackson with no mechanicals, I'll already be a step ahead of last year.

I'm starting to curse Mother Nature—why couldn't you make it snow a little more in Telluride, so the World Tour Qualifiers could be held there, like they have been for several years now? After covering it for two years, I am familiar with ol' T-Ride and was even given the chance to ski down the venue before the competitors did last season. Damn you Mother Nature! I feel like a complete pansy for admitting my apprehension to the entire ski community, but I promised the editors a genuine first-person experience, so here it is… But in all honesty, who wouldn't be a little anxious?

I don't even know where the competition will be. I've heard whispers of Casper Bowl or Tower 3. Where's that? I'm imagining the worst…