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Part 1

Behind the Scenes of the Freeride World Tour

Story by Max Ritter

3-2-1 Dropping! This simple countdown pretty much sums up the experience of any rider on the Freeride World Tour. It’s a process of shutting off the outside world, counting down, taking a deep breath, and putting it all together to arc that perfect line down the massive mountain face below. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s how competition freeride skiing and snowboarding goes.

Viewers like us can sit back, relax, and enjoy the show, watching the freeriders huck massive cliffs and straightline out of couloirs. However, before that countdown can even start, an entire year of work goes into setting up the biggest show in skiing and snowboarding. For the past 10 years, the behind-the-scenes work of the FWT has spanned an international network of athletes, safety, and media personnel. It's no small task making sure it all goes off without a hitch. Take a look inside the world of the FWT to understand what truly goes on to make one of our favorite events happen.

Where’s the Snow?

Figuring out where to hold these events might be the single hardest part of the equation. Every season begins with the question of where to put on the show. The answer lies in a delicate balance of snow conditions, sponsors, and logistics. For the last decade, the FWT has operated its highest-level competitions in nine different countries all over the globe: Switzerland, Austria, France, Italy, Russia, Canada, Andorra, the USA, and Japan. Add countless other nations to the list when taking into account all the qualifying rounds and the Junior Tour.

Stepping into the starting gate perched atop a mountain gets the heart racing. FWT photos.

The international aspect is what makes these events so special. Freeride skiing and snowboarding are not confined to just one part of the world, after all. Sharing the experience of flying down snow is something every athlete truly cherishes, no matter where they are. FWT skier Jackie Paaso shares: “At first, I must admit it was very intimidating for me to travel from one country to another sometimes alone but I'm so happy to have had these opportunities. I've been able to visit places I may have never seen otherwise and to be able to share that with my friends and my husband has been truly special. The people alone make it totally worth it but when you add in skiing at all these amazing locations it's hard to beat our experience. This crew is friends first, competitors second!”

The people alone make it totally worth it but when you add in skiing at all these amazing locations it's hard to beat our experience. This crew is friends first, competitors second!

Organizing logistics for putting together a competition overseas has become something of an art form at the FWT offices. Lolo Besse, FWT commissioner and head judge, helps kickstart the venue selection for the season even before the previous season even finishes. He takes advice from an international organization of professional freeride athletes – the Pro Freeriders Board (PFB) – on locations and venue choices. As a former pro snowboarder and FWT competitor himself, Besse knows firsthand what makes for a worthwhile venue. It’s about finding the fine line between terrain where athletes can push themselves to showcase what is possible, but not so challenging that they severely injure themselves. He wants to make sure that each athlete is capable of riding a certain face and make their line worth watching but not be forced to hold back too much because it’s simply too gnarly. For those riding at the highest level, that threshold of “too gnarly” is up there.

Each venue provides a unique setting to let each athlete's riding do the talking. FWT photos.

For the 2019 season, the venues offer a wide selection of styles, from deep powder tree lines in Hakuba, pillows and cliffs in Kicking Horse, to more traditional freeride skiing on rocky open faces in Vallnord and Fieberbrunn, and finally the granddaddy of it all: the infamous Bec de Rosses in Verbier. Besse knows that these five locations are an accurate representation of the current state of freeriding and give athletes an opportunity to showcase their unique styles, whether that encompasses speed, technicality, freestyle, big air, or any combination of those.

Watching the Greatest Show on the Mountain

Once the venue is chosen, the real logistical hurdle of feeding the media frenzy starts. All those videos, photos, and the livestream for each event need to come from somewhere. Turns out that live streaming an event like the FWT is significantly harder than a more conventional sporting event like a football game. Crews need to take into account factors like mountain weather, the unpredictability of the athletes' lines, and the remoteness of the venues. 

Crews need to take into account factors like mountain weather, the unpredictability of the athletes' lines, and the remoteness of the venues.

Emile Lavoie, producer of FWT’s media coverage, explains the difficulty of covering an event like this live on the internet. “For our European events like Verbier or Fieberbrunn, we’re actually really close to civilization and our mobile networks are super robust,” says Lavoie, adding that playing on home turf (FWT calls Verbier home) is a huge advantage. However, for stops like Hakuba or Kicking Horse, where the venues are truly off the grid, setting up a reliable live stream is much harder.

Last year’s Kicking Horse event involved trucking in a tent filled with broadcast equipment, cameras, and several miles of fiber optic cable, shuttling it to the top of a ridge across from the competition face, and connecting it all in a matter of a few hours. Then, a crew had to watch the equipment day and night to prevent anything from freezing for several days while the competition was on weather hold. Imagine camping at 8,000 feet for four days just to make sure your computers don’t freeze! While that was going on, a helicopter hauled the iconic FWT start and finish gates to their respective locations.

Once the competition is a go, up to 25 FWT photographers, camera operators and assistants are spread throughout the venue to capture the action and feed it all back to a central location. For the Xtreme Verbier, nearly 75 individuals work on the mountain to cover the event for local television and outside media content. During their run, athletes wear POV cameras with live-uplink capabilities to add even further angles to the feed, giving the broadcaster the ability to quickly switch angles for a replay of a particularly gnarly feature. Of course, the second the action is finished, all the footage is handed over to the editors to start creating the recap and highlight reels we all stay glued to for days after the event. Meanwhile the orchestra is packed up and the show hits the road for the next stop.

Before dropping in, the athletes get to check the face with binoculars and assess conditions and safety. FWT photo.

Safety is Number One

Without a doubt, freeride skiing and snowboarding are dangerous activities, and the FWT commits to safety above all during the season. While every athlete competing at such a high level already has their own safety training, the FWT puts on an annual safety conference before the first competition to get everyone up to speed and practice their skills. This includes high-level instruction concerning line choice, rescue, and adapting skiing and riding to certain conditions. This year’s session will be held in Hakuba.

On slope, riders are required to ride with a helmet, back protector, airbag, beacon, shovel, probe, RECCO reflector, and appropriate climbing equipment like a harness and personal anchor if the venue requires. Avalanches, while uncommon, are a very real danger for everyone on the mountain. Before each event, several steps are taken to mitigate danger. Mountain safety officials, including local ski patrol and guides as well as some athletes, inspect the face for potential dangers like wind slabs, weak snowpack, thin cover, or other hazards. Based on their observations and the weather forecast, a decision is made on when to hold competition rounds. Delays for several days due to weather and high avalanche danger are not out of the norm. In 2018, the Hakuba event was entirely canceled and re-staged in Kicking Horse a few weeks later due to heavy snowfall and avalanche danger.

The next step occurs once all the athletes arrive, as they get a chance to visually inspect the face with binoculars and plan potential competition lines. The athletes are not allowed to ride the face before their competition run. During the visual inspection, a forerunner (typically a guide, non-competing athlete, or the head judge) will ride the face to give visual clues on the snow quality in a certain zone. The anticipation builds as the athletes feed off one another’s energy and think about what is and isn’t possible given the conditions. Finally, the athletes are given the green light from officials and the show begins.

What Goes into a Score?

Freeriding can be considered an art form, a sort of expression from the best athletes in the world, demonstrating not just their ability but their own creative take on their sport. Unlike racing or freestyle, it is inherently free, giving riders the option to go anywhere and do anything inside the venue. So, how can something so free be accurately judged?

While, as spectators, we often get the bird's eye view, the judges only see the face from the bottom. FWT photo.

Competitive freeriding has been around since the dawn of skiing itself and has evolved considerably over the years. Back to the PFB. To keep up with the ever-changing sport, FWT event organizers asked their athletes for advice, and the international panel of eight athletes and FWT competitors offer perspectives on everything from venue choice to making decisions regarding rules and format for the Tour itself. Current members include snowboarders Sammy Luebke and Marion Haerty, and skiers Reine Barkered, Drew Tabke, Fabio Studer, Leo Slemett, and Sam Lee, with Jackie Paaso acting as General Secretary.

With the rise of more and more freestyle-oriented big mountain skiing, the judges were presented with a conundrum. Riders who skied death-defying technical lines without big airs would score lower than a rider who rode something easier but included several jumps. To keep with the spirit of freeriding, the PFB suggested changing the rules. Now, a score is averaged from five criteria: Line, Fluidity, Control, Air & Style, and Technique. Riders start a run with 50 points, to which points are then added or subtracted based on their run. For example, a rider can be awarded 10 or more points for an air or a trick but lose points for a backslap or a sloppy turn. A big crash will result in up to a 45-point deduction. Final scores cannot exceed 100 points, so judges are wary of awarding too many points for a trick on a run with multiple airs.

Judges score based entirely on their own eyes, without using camera angles or replays to evaluate a run. By the time the rider finishes their run, judges have roughly 60 seconds to come up with a score. The Head Judge then peers at each judge’s paper and compares their scores to ensure consistency. From here, the five criteria are evaluated relative to the judges’ individual impression, followed by short but detailed notes on each run. These notes are used if disputes arise later about scoring.

An official judge’s handbook breaks down the five criteria further, emphasizing technical difficulty in line choice, tricks, and the rider’s ability to link smooth turns down the face without blowing up. The judging system also highlights safety as the number one priority. Judges want to see clean skiing and riding, not reckless huck-and-pray skiing that can result in injury. Therefore, if judges see any sort of maneuver that the rider obviously has no hope of landing, they will subtract the 45 points for a crash automatically, no matter how impressive it may look.

What to Look Out For This Season

Last year’s FWT season was defined by bold lines put down by a younger crop of riders trying to usurp the power of veteran reigning champions. We saw wins from young skiers like Arianna Tricomi and Logan Pehota, but the value of experience and consistency still shone through with skier Kristofer Turdell finally finishing on top, snowboarder Sammy Luebke taking his third title and two-time champion skier Eva Walkner taking a close second place.

With the Hakuba event kicking off the season, the athletes are stoked on what lies ahead. FWT photo.

With the same venues on the docket for the 2019 season, competitors will have previous experience and intimate knowledge of the faces. That familiarity will likely lead to aggressive skiing and riding and athletes pushing their limits even further than ever before. With wild cards like Tanner Hall and Travis Rice, known for the uniquely stylish approaches to the mountains, we’re sure to see the freestyle game stepped up to new levels.

Freeriding is an ever-evolving sport, with progression as the driving force. This season will be no different. Best of luck to all the competitors, and may the best skiers and snowboarders win!