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Ride On Jake: HBO’s ‘Dear Rider’ captures snowboarding’s rise and Burton’s vision

Snowboarding finally and definitively went mainstream 20 years ago. The 2002 Olympic halfpipe comps in Salt Lake City drew as many as 33 million viewers in the second Olympiad with snowboarding included. The X Games arrived in Aspen. Shaun White would emerge as the sport’s crossover child star the following year.

For the brand and the man synonymous with the sport, it was a crossing the Rubicon moment – Jake Burton’s namesake company now looked a lot more like Nike or Microsoft than the quixotic one-man barn-based board operation he incorporated in Vermont 25 years earlier.

“We were the ‘Big B,’” Burton says in the new HBO Sports documentary “Dear Rider,” which premiered on HBO in November and is now streaming on HBO Max.

Burton’s wife, Donna Carpenter, describes that period of acquiring smaller companies and expanding into other sports and broader apparel as “growth at all cost” stretch for Burton.

“Then you say, ‘Uh-oh, what’s happening to the culture here,” she says in the film.

The film implies that the company right-sized after that and settled into its place in the the establishment as the sport’s rarely challenged standard bearer.

That inflection point in 2002 is among the most interesting and revelatory parts of the doc, which doubles as a very personal portrait of Burton the man, who died of cancer in 2019, and a history of the sport he popularized.

The film, directed by Fernando Villena, who makes thrilling and artful use of archival footage, climaxes there in the early 2000s after tracing Jake Burton’s quixotic vision to bring surfing to the snow and the wild counterculture rise of snowboarding in the 1990s.

The documentary “Dear Rider” is streaming now on HBO Max. (Courtesy Warner Media)

The film’s moving third act focuses completely on Burton’s personal life, as if the corporate history ended when the company hit the big-ime and Burton himself convinced Shaun White to sign a sponsorship deal. The film turns its lens instead on Burton’s inspiring final years, when he survived testicular cancer and Miller Fisher Syndrome, embraced life with a few final 100-day seasons and trips to Burning Man and X Games concerts, before another round of cancer killed him. “Dear Rider” begins and ends with moving footage of the tributes to Burton at the 2020 Burton U.S. Open in Vail.

Burton himself didn’t see all this coming when he converted a barn into a woodshop and made boards wearing a respirator with a hose connected to the outside.

“I saw a sport,” Burton says early in the film, “but I didn’t see Shaun White making the cover of Rolling Stone twice or snowboarding being in the Olympics.”

Nobody invented snowboarding. Jake Burton would be the first to tell people that, though he is the most credited with creating it. As “Dear Rider” makes clear, Burton may not have come up with snowboarding – in fact he started making boards based off the “Snurfer” toy he loved as a kid – but the sport would not be where it is today without him. As one interviewee puts it, he did for snowboarding what Bill Gates did for the computer.

The outsider spirit that defined snowboarding for its first decades should also be credited to Burton, who the film shows was a non-conformist from childhood to the day he quit his pencil-pushing Manhattan suit-and-tie gig to go make boards.

Skiing in Vermont as a kid and admiring surfers in his native Long Island, Burton dreamt of combining the two. The Snurfer, a board with a rope handle attached, allowed riders to surf on snow (or at least those who were good enough to, which Burton was as old 8 mm home movie footage shows).

“The moment I started doing it I thought, ‘This is the sport.” he recalls.

Stratton, in Vermont, became the first mountain to allow boarders (a lesson was required to ride on-mountain in the early days). But boarders earned their reputation for being younger and drunker than anybody else on the ski hills, ruder and rowdier, “Dear Rider” makes clear. Burton brought on Paul Alden in the ‘80s as his first resort liaison, going around the country from mountain to mountain convincing resorts to let riders ride.

Jake Burton, the creator of Burton Snowboards, center, and his wife Donna Carpenter, right, applaud Gov. Peter Shumlin after he signed a bill in Stowe, Vt., making skiing and snowboarding the official sports of Vermont, in March 2012. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

From trade shows to ski lifts, Burton and his growing snowboard partisans thumbed their nose at the buttoned-up and elitist aspects of skiing and brought youth to the slopes – downhill racing on boards took hold in the northeast while halfpipe and freestyle took off on the West Coast. Burton embraced it all.

“Dear Rider” shows early comps when riders rode wood boards that didn’t turn, wearing tennis shoes while barreling at 60 mph down the mountains. It captures the years when boarders had to ride mountains after hours and hitch rides with snowcat drivers and it shows why the culture evolved as it did, with all of it coming to a head in the ‘90s with punk rock and extreme sports taking hold with an emerging generation and with snowboards as a talisman of youth culture.

The film takes its title from the salutation Burton used to open his letters in the annual Burton catalog, which was the bible of boarding for years before Transworld and other pubs came along. In those letters, read dramatically by actor Woody Harrelson in “Dear Rider,” Burton evangelizes for his beloved sport sport, defends it and celebrates it with often-lyrical evocations of the its pleasures. Here Burton keeps it simple, reminding riders of the slice of snowy heaven that awaits if with a hike up a hill with “you, your friends and plenty of virgin powder.”

Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber earns her first invite to X Games for halfpipe skiing

Basalt's Hanna Faulhaber trains ahead of the women's freeski halfpipe qualifier of the Land Rover U.S. Grand Prix and World Cup on Friday, March 19, 2021, at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Hanna Faulhaber’s dream season just got a little bit dreamier. The Basalt High School senior has received her first official invite to compete at X Games Aspen in January, a major step for the rising halfpipe skiing star.

The 17-year-old made the announcement Tuesday evening on Instagram, complete with pictures of herself as a young, brightly-clothed child hanging around the Buttermilk Ski Area halfpipe prior to a past X Games competition.

“As u may be able to tell X Games has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl in my purple onesie,” Faulhaber wrote on Instagram. “It is a big reason why I compete in the halfpipe. Thanks @xgames for making my dream come true.”

The invitation is hardly a surprise considering Faulhaber’s recent success. On Friday, she finished third at Copper Mountain’s Dew Tour for her first major podium, and a week earlier had finished fifth at the Copper Grand Prix. Both of those events were official U.S. Olympic team qualifiers, and the Dew Tour podium all but assures Faulhaber a bid to the 2022 Winter Olympics with only a single halfpipe qualifier remaining.

X Games is not a World Cup nor an Olympic qualifier and often includes a much more select field of athletes. With a month to go until the event’s return to Buttermilk, Faulhaber has been added to a list that currently includes seven others for the women’s halfpipe skiing contest, scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, the first night of X Games.

The list also includes rising Chinese/American sensation Eileen Gu, Estonian superstar Kelly Sildaru and reigning Olympic champion Cassie Sharpe of Canada. Great Britain’s Zoe Atkin, Canada’s Rachael Karker, China’s Fenghui Li and California’s Brita Sigourney round out the current lineup.

The U.S. Olympic ski and snowboard teams will likely be announced sometime around or before X Games, with the Winter Games set to start Feb. 4 in Beijing. Based off the three qualifiers so far, Faulhaber and Sigourney look set to make the trek to China. After that, the roster remains relatively fluid with only the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix from Jan. 6-9 remaining to qualify.

Faulhaber’s recent run of strong performances goes back to last spring when she was a surprising fourth at the world championships, also held at Buttermilk back in March. A week later at the Aspen Grand Prix and first U.S. Olympic team qualifier, she had to withdraw after a hard crash during training, but has made up for it with her performances at Copper Mountain the past two weeks.

Faulhaber, who grew up skiing with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, is poised to add her name to a list of recent local athletes to have competed in both X Games and the Olympics. Alex Ferreira, the reigning Olympic silver medalist in men’s halfpipe skiing and a two-time X Games Aspen champion, tops that list. Fresh off back-to-back wins at both the Copper Grand Prix and Dew Tour, Ferreira is among the gold-medal frontrunners for X Games and the upcoming Olympics.

The Roaring Fork Valley’s Torin Yater-Wallace, who has since retired from competitive halfpipe skiing, is an X Games icon who competed in both the 2014 and 2018 Olympics. Aspen’s Cassidy Jarrell, who remains in the thick of the Olympic team chase although will need a magical run or two at Mammoth to get to China, made his X Games Aspen debut as a halfpipe skier in 2020.

Hanna Faulhaber poses for a portrait at the base of the Aspen Snowmass Freeskiing Open course on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, at Buttermilk Ski Area.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Halfpipe skiing has only been an Olympic sport since the 2014 Games — halfpipe snowboarding made its debut way back in 1998 — with Nevada’s David Wise having won both Olympic gold medals for the men. Tahoe’s Maddie Bowman won Olympic gold for the women in 2014, followed by Sharpe’s win in 2018. Bowman has since retired from the sport.

Next up for the halfpipe skiers is a World Cup event in Calgary held around the New Year. Faulhaber said she plans to compete; the Canadian contests are not official U.S. Olympic team qualifiers. After that, athletes will travel to Mammoth and then X Games, before the lucky few will make their way to China for the Olympics.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Only vaccinated fans, athletes are to be allowed at next month’s X Games Aspen

Skiers on Buttermilk Ski Area stop on the other side of the boundary fence to watch the slopestyle finals during the 2021 X Games at Buttermilk on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Live fans will be back at next month’s Winter X Games in Aspen, though concerts and motor sports will remain on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was the word Tuesday from an ESPN representative who briefed Pitkin County commissioners on the Jan. 21-23 event that has been held at Buttermilk Ski Area for the past 20 years. Fans were not allowed at last year’s event because of COVID-19 transmission concerns.

“I’m really glad you’re having some crowd this year,” Commissioner Steve Child said. “There’s nothing more exciting than to be up on the halfpipe somewhere and have, just a few feet away from you, people doing these amazing things. It’s a whole different element than watching it on television.”

To accommodate fans in the COVID era, the 2022 Winter X Games event area will have a hard fence line separating it from the larger Buttermilk Ski Area for the first time ever. Only vaccinated spectators will be allowed inside the event area, and a vaccination card and government identification will be necessary to receive an entrance wristband, said Vanessa Anthes, associate director for ESPN’s global X Games events.

Staff, athletes and vendors also must be vaccinated to participate in X Games next month. While testing will not be part of the games like it was last year because of the vaccination requirement, anyone suspected of having COVID-19 will go through protocols that include testing, quarantine and contact tracing, Anthes said.

Feedback from Winter X Games last year — when spectators were not allowed because of the pandemic — indicated that athletes and Aspen locals missed the crowd energy and being able to see local favorites perform, Anthes said.

Event capacity will be based on whatever the final fenced-in area turns out to be and capacity maximums determined by fire code. ESPN is not worried about accommodating crowds who show up, though there will not be a reservation system for event tickets, said Anthes and Danny Chi, ESPN senior director of communications.

“It’s great to have spectators back,” Chi said.

No parking will be available on site at Buttermilk, with Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses running shuttle service to the venue.

Child cheered the lack of motor sports events at this season’s games, an element also missing last year when just skiing and snowboard competitions were held.

“To me, the noise is annoying when you go in person,” he said.

Commissioner Francie Jacober, however, took issue with Child’s brush-off.

“I know lots of people who are wild about the snowmobile events,” she said. “So I don’t necessarily agree with you on that.”

Climate change was on the mind of two commissioners, who suggested ESPN do more to offset the X Games’ carbon footprint.

Commissioner Greg Poschman asked if the network could offset the carbon footprint for people who drive or fly in to attend the event, while board Chair Kelly McNicholas Kury wondered if ESPN might be able to make X Games a carbon-neutral event.

“Make X Games the first carbon-neutral big games sporting event for other sporting events to look up to,” McNicholas Kury said. “It would support our community goals.”

Anthes said the network would be happy to participate in future planning for X Games.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo praised ESPN as a reliable and responsive partner during the past two decades of Winter X Games.

“This is our 21st year together,” he said. “It’s always been raising the bar every year. I think they are probably the gold standard for events that we should hold other events to. I trust them implicitly.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Fans to return to X Games Aspen 2022 with proof of COVID-19 vaccination

Media and athlete support stand in an otherwise empty spectator corral during the women’s ski big air final at the base of the course during the 2021 X Games Aspen at Buttermilk on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Fans will return to X Games Aspen in 2022, it was announced Tuesday by ESPN. After last year’s event was held for the first time without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic, they’ll be allowed to return for January’s contests, although attendees will be required to wear a mask indoors when not eating or drinking, and will be required to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination for admittance.

“X Games Aspen 2022 will welcome spectators back to competition viewing and X Fest areas with proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, and masks must be worn in all indoor X Games event areas except when eating or drinking,” the news release said. “Fans 11 years old and under may attend without vaccination if accompanied by a vaccinated adult and must wear a form-fitting facemask at all times except when eating and drinking.”

The news release did make clear that Buttermilk Ski Area, which is set to host X Games for the 21st straight year, will be open to regular skiing and snowboarding during X Games under Aspen Skiing Co. guidelines and proof of vaccination won’t be required to access the mountain. Vaccines are only required for those wanting access to the competition viewing areas and X Fest areas.

X Games is scheduled for Jan. 21 through 23 and once again looks like it will be a slimmed down version without any of the motorsports, although the Special Olympics Unified competition will return. The announced competitions include superpipe, slopestyle, big air and knuckle huck for both skiing and snowboarding.

The 14 disciplines between men and women will include 13.5 hours of live coverage on ESPN and ABC, with additional coverage found through ESPN’s social media platforms.

ESPN has already announced an extensive list of invited athletes, including Aspen’s own Alex Ferreira, who won gold in halfpipe skiing in both 2019 and 2020. Plenty of other familiar superstars were listed as having been invited, including snowboard icon Shaun White, who hasn’t competed at X Games since 2017. He had intended to compete in 2021, but withdrew from the competition after hurting his knee during training.

Jamie Anderson holds her seventh gold medal in slopestyle after winning the 2021 women’s slopestyle final at X Games Aspen at Buttermilk on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Jamie Anderson, Henrik Harlaut, Scotty James, Gus Kenworthy, Chloe Kim and Mark McMorris are all among the A-list names on the invitee list so far. McMorris, the Canadian snowboarding superstar, was the biggest name to miss X Games 2021 after he tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the contests.

X Games Aspen will likely be the final competition for the athletes ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, scheduled for Feb. 4 through 20 in Beijing. Unlike many of this year’s skiing and snowboarding competitions leading up to X Games, including Dew Tour at Copper Mountain in December, X Games is not an Olympic qualifier for U.S. athletes.

Skico hopes for colorful setting when X Games, Gay Ski Week in town

Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan addresses the group gathered for the Afternoon Blend hosted by Skico and Aspen Chamber Resort Association at Bumps at Buttermilk Ski Resort in Aspen on Monday, October 4, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Drag queens commentating about high-flying stunts over a rainbow-colored superpipe is a scenario Aspen Skiing Co. is envisioning for January when the Winter X Games and Gay Ski Week overlap.

With Gay Ski Week scheduled Jan. 16-22 and the Winter X Games Jan. 21-23, two of Aspen’s premier winter events will share the spotlight for two days and nights. The last overlap came in 2004.

Gay Ski Week is celebrating its 45th year in Aspen this winter; the Winter X Games has been held in Aspen since 2002.

“We thought, ‘What if we really brought two unexpected things together?’” Erin Sprague, Skico’s chief brand officer, said Monday during Skico and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s annual Afternoon Blend previewing the winter ahead.

Skico has partnered with both events over the years, providing the Buttermilk venue to ESPN, which produces the X Games, and playing host to Gay Ski Week’s Friday drag-skiing race on the Little Nell run at Aspen Mountain, for example.

Sprague showed the audience a mock version of a rainbow superpipe, the same place from where the likes of Aspen’s own Gretchen Bleiler, Alex Ferreira and Torin Yater-Wallace have dazzled spectators with medal-winning X Games performances over the years.

“This is one of our ideas,” she said. “I’m sure ESPN is going to be thrilled about this idea. But we really want to bring these two unexpected things together.”

Sprague also discussed the plan to have drag queens provide some commentary about the X Games as a fun departure from the heavy dose of extreme-sports jargon — think “alley-oop,” “vertical axis,” “corkscrew” — broadcasters regularly employ.

“We’re going to bring in a drag queen, and we’re going to have a drag queen narrate X Games, what’s happening, a live special,” she said. “We’re working closely with Gay Ski Week on this, and we’re really excited about it.”

Skico has a recent history of taking environmental, social and political positions. And a “warming future,” said Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan at the Afternoon Blend, is one reason the company is proposing the 153-acre expansion of Aspen Mountain into the Pandora’s terrain. The matter is scheduled to go to Pitkin County commissioners for final approval Oct. 13.

“To have a whole new pod of skiing that’s above 10,000 feet and north-facing, it’s necessary in today’s ski business,” he said. “And I think it’s critical to us, not only maintaining the competitive edge that Aspen Mountain and our four mountains have, but to really ensure this remains a vibrant ski town, a ski-centered town. And that’s really our agenda here, our only agenda here.”

Rebranding effort underway

Also underway at Skico, which will be celebrating the company’s 75th anniversary this season, is a rebranding effort that included the quiet launch of its redesigned website this week and the August debut of its ski-wear business inspired by employee uniforms with the new company logo. The company’s app will be updated in November, Sprague said.

Some 1,000 employees recently attended Skico’s inaugural brand camp emphasizing “this is who we are and what we believe,” Sprague said.

Skico also is repainting the exteriors of the buckets on the Aspen Mountain gondola, and also replacing their plexiglass windows. Buckets on the Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass Ski Area are getting touch-ups showing the new logo, as well, according to Sprague.

The intent of the rebrand is to bring more cohesion and uniformity among the Skico properties.

“Doing a rebrand across a resort is a mighty task,” Sprague said. “Some of our assets have been updated, some are in process, so you can expect a little bit of a transition period.”

Season passes this year — in keeping with Skico’s tradition of exhibiting artwork on them — will highlight the bear-inspired work of Italian artist Paola Pivi.

Recognizing local workers

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association also announced Monday that it is dedicating this month of October to frontline and guest service workers working under pandemic conditions.

“Their job continues to be tough, and I just really want to recognize that,” said ACRA President and CEO Debbie Braun.

The chamber this week handed out gift cards to employees at Clark’s Market, and they’ll continue to recognize workers at other businesses this month.

“Throughout the month ACRA is surprising local frontline staff with gifts, offering public recognition throughout town, and hosting a grand prize giveaway,” said an ACRA announcement.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

X Games Aspen: Predicting the 2021 winners of all 14 ski, snowboard events

X Games is back, but it’s far from familiar.

The 2021 iteration — the 20th straight year ESPN’s winter spectacle has been held at Buttermilk Ski Area — will be nothing but the bare bones because of the coronavirus pandemic. There will be no spectators, no motorsports and no concerts during the condensed three-day event that starts Friday and runs through Sunday.

However, the heart of the skiing and snowboarding competitions are back, with most of the sports’ biggest stars expected to compete this weekend in a truly made-for-TV showcase of talent.

As I did last year, I’ll break down the 14 major events and give my predictions, presented chronologically, on who I think will win.

I went 5 for 12 in 2020, so believe what you will. Like batters in baseball, if I’m hitting anywhere near 50% I’m doing pretty darn good.

WOMEN’S SNOWBOARD SLOPESTYLE

Friday, noon

Projected winner: Jamie Anderson

Jamie Anderson is competing, so I’m picking Jamie Anderson to win. Again. Because that’s all she does. The 30-year-old Tahoe superstar is among the sport’s all-time greats and owns 17 total X Games medals, including six golds. Her X Games Aspen slopestyle wins came in 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2018 and 2020. And she’s obviously still got it, having won the Laax Open this past week, the only major competition of the season so far. New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott (second in Laax) won the 2019 contest at X Games despite having entered only as an alternate after Anderson pulled out due to a crash during the big air competition. She’s also high on my podium list, along with the great Anna Gasser.

WOMEN’S SKI BIG AIR

Friday, 2 p.m.

Projected winner: Giulia Tanno

Switzerland’s Mathilde Gremaud arguably is the best in the discipline, having medaled in every X Games big air comp she’s been in with gold medals in 2017 (Norway) and 2019 (Aspen). But I’m banking on her fellow countrywoman Giulia Tanno to snag gold in 2021. Tanno has twice won X Games silver (both in Norway) but did miss last year’s event by withdrawing after suffering a concussion in practice. Defending big air champion Tess Ledeux isn’t competing this year, so there will be a new champ. Gremaud was second and Sarah Hoefflin — yet another Swiss skier who won big air gold in 2018 — was third in 2020, so a Swiss podium sweep isn’t out of the question. Do watch out for teen phenom Kelly Sildaru, however.

SNOWBOARD KNUCKLE HUCK

Friday, 6 p.m.

Projected winner: Rene Rinnekangas

Back for a third year, the quirky and fun competition has quickly become a fan favorite and likely is going to stick around. Fridtjof “Fridge” Tischendorf won the inaugural event in 2019 and is back, although 2020 winner Zeb Powell is not. Picking a 2021 winner isn’t easy, although it’s also difficult to go against Marcus Kleveland, who is largely credited with being the inspiration behind knuckle huck’s addition to X Games. That said, for no good reason at all, I’m picking Finland’s Rene Rinnekangas. The 21-year-old won Aspen slopestyle silver in 2019 and the knuckle huck winner tends to be a surprise, so Rinnekangas fits that mold. Watch out for the lone American in Dusty Henricksen, a 17-year-old X Games rookie who is rising the ranks quickly.

WOMEN’S SKI SUPERPIPE

Friday, 7 p.m.

Projected winner: Cassie Sharpe

Reigning champ Kelly Sildaru is back and I honestly think she’s become the best women’s halfpipe skier on the planet, or is at least knocking on that door. But I wonder how fresh her legs will be after also competing in big air earlier in the day. Only 18, the Estonian already has nine X Games medals — including five gold — and has competed in all three of the main ski events in the past few years. All I’m saying is don’t count her out. But my guess is Canada’s Cassie Sharpe returns to the top for now. She’s twice won X Games gold (2016 in Oslo, 2019 in Aspen) with bronzes in 2018 and 2020. Oh, and Sharpe also is the reigning Olympic gold medalist.

MEN’S SKI SUPERPIPE

Friday, 8:30 p.m.

Projected winner: Alex Ferreira

No, I’m not picking against the hometown hero. Too many people know where I live. But, to be honest, winning a third straight X Games Aspen gold medal will be a tall task for the 2018 Olympic silver medalist who, like most of his comrades, hasn’t had a chance to compete yet this season. But, to be honest, Ferreira is the best in the world when he’s on top of his game, and competing at X Games in his hometown halfpipe usually brings out his best. So a three-peat is certainly possible. His competition are all familiar foes, including two-time Olympic gold medalist David Wise of Nevada and two-time world champion Aaron Blunck from over the hill in Crested Butte.

WOMEN’S SKI SLOPESTYLE

Saturday, 11 a.m.

Projected winner: Kelly Sildaru

Three events in less than 24 hours for Sildaru? Kind of a normal X Games for her, honestly. She’s the best female slopestyle skier in the world and quite frankly it’s not close. She’s won X Games gold in slopestyle every year since winning her first in 2016, outside of the 2018 season in which she missed due to injury (that same injury also kept her out of the 2018 Olympics). American Maggie Voisin won in 2018 and also won 2020 slopestyle gold in Norway and is likely to be Sildaru’s main competition. But I’m using the word “competition” loosely, and that’s not a slight toward Voisin, who is great. Sildaru is just next-level amazing.

MEN’S SNOWBOARD SLOPESTYLE

Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

Projected winner: Max Parrot

Yeah, I know, I’m going to regret not picking Mark McMorris. The Canadian legend has won 20 medals at Winter X, winning both No. 19 and 20 at X Games Norway in 2020 to surpass the great Shaun White (more on him later) for most all time. But McMorris only finished seventh in Aspen last year (a stupid reason to pick against him, maybe). Max Parrot, a fellow Canadian who also is among the all-time greats, has 13 X Games medals and won slopestyle gold in Norway last year (this after beating cancer the previous year). Parrot has only won slopestyle gold in Aspen once, way back in 2014, but he’s due for a return to the top. Summit County’s Red Gerard, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, is the American to watch, although he only has one X Games medal to his name, a slopestyle bronze in 2020. Canada’s Darcy Sharpe is the reigning champ.

WOMEN’S SNOWBOARD BIG AIR

Saturday, 1:45 p.m.

Projected winner: Anna Gasser

The 2020 contest was a dominant Japanese podium sweep, with Miyabi Onitsuka winning gold, Kokomo Murase silver and Reira Iwabuchi bronze. All three are back and all should be among the favorites. A key note to make here is that the contest will be held on the final jump of the slopestyle course, and not the traditional big air jump. How that ultimately impacts the contest is anyone’s guess. Jamie Anderson is set to compete, but it’s worth pointing out the shocking fact that she has NEVER (I felt the capitalization was necessary) finished higher than third in an X Games big air contest. Maybe it’s her time, but I’ll go with reigning Olympic champion Anna Gasser, who probably has the most tools to work with as far as tricks. Gasser is a four-time X Games gold medalist (three in big air), but only one of those came in Aspen when she won the 2018 big air contest. Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, who also is competing in this year’s big air contest, won the only World Cup contest of the season so far.

MEN’S SKI BIG AIR

Saturday, 6 p.m.

Projected winner: Andri Ragettli

Do you bet against Henrik Harlaut here? Not if you’re smart. He’s a big air legend with six X Games gold medals to his name (plus a seventh with his 2018 Aspen slopestyle win). His last big air gold came only a year ago here in Aspen. But, if I’m to guess, the big air jump moving to the slopestyle course will make things a bit unpredictable, and a surprise winner will come at some point. I’m not sure Andri Ragettli would be a surprise, but I’ll go with it. The Swiss skier has four X Games medals, including slopestyle gold in Norway last winter. He won big air bronze in Aspen last year and I say he moves up to the podium a couple spots this year. Yes, that’s another Swiss skier on a big air podium, joining his female counterparts.

WOMEN’S SNOWBOARD SUPERPIPE

Saturday, 8 p.m.

Projected winner: Chloe Kim

Chloe Kim is back and along with Kelly Sildaru in ski slopestyle is probably the easiest winner to predict at X Games this year. The Californian sat out the entire 2019-20 season to focus on being a Princeton University student, but is back for the next Olympic push. With all due respect to the other halfpipe greats in women’s snowboarding — Kelly Clark, Gretchen Bleiler, etc. — Kim is the greatest there has ever been. She’s won Aspen gold four times (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019), with a bronze in 2017, a contest won by Elena Hight. Kim also is the reigning Olympic champion. Should we worry about rust with Kim after a long layoff? Well, she easily won the Laax Open this past weekend, her first competition in roughly two years, so I’d say not at all. Last year’s surprise winner, Spain’s Queralt Castellet, is back, as is California’s Maddie Mastro, but it’s Kim’s to lose. Or more likely hers to win big.

MEN’S SKI SLOPESTYLE

Sunday, 11 a.m.

Projected winner: Fabian Boesch

I’m really, really tempted to pick Andri Ragletti again here, but I’ll stick with my Swiss fascination and go with another. Fabian Boesch (yes, he’s also from Switzerland) had most of his early success in big air, winning Aspen gold in 2016 as an X Games rookie. But he’s come on strong in slopestyle in recent years, coming away with a pair of 2020 bronze medals in both Aspen and Norway. He finished a disappointing ninth in the lone World Cup event this season, a contest won by Ragettli, but that was way back in November. Last year’s champion Colby Stevenson is back and can’t be ignored. As an X Games rookie in 2020, the American won both slopestyle and ski knuckle huck. Was that beginner’s luck? Probably not, but a repeat seems unlikely.

MEN’S SNOWBOARD SUPERPIPE

Sunday, 6:30 p.m.

Projected winner: Scotty James

Let’s be frank: the entire talk of X Games Aspen 2021 will be about the return of Shaun White. Yes, it’s expected he’s going to compete at X Games for the first time since 2017, and for the first time in any halfpipe since winning his third Olympic gold medal in 2018. Do you really need his resume? An absurd 23 X Games medals when including skateboarding, 15 of those being golden in nature. He’s the greatest halfpipe snowboarder ever and there is nothing to debate. But he’s also 34 and hasn’t made an X Games podium since winning in 2013. What should we expect when (and if) he drops in this weekend? I’ve no idea, but I’d guess he’s not here going for second place. In his way will be Australian Scotty James, who has reigned terror over the sport since the last Olympics and has won the past two contests in Aspen. I’m calling the three-peat. His main competition, however, isn’t White, but Japan’s Yuto Totsuka, who just edged James in the Laax World Cup last weekend (White did not compete). Of note, two-time reigning Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano of Japan again is absent (he won X Games gold in 2018) despite having originally been on the list of invited athletes.

MEN’S SNOWBOARD BIG AIR

Sunday, 7:45 p.m.

Projected winner: Chris Corning

I might be diving off the deep end on this one. But, my original choice to win (Mark McMorris) is now out of the competition after testing positive for COVID-19. His replacement? Yes, former Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club athlete Chris Corning. Originally just an alternate this year, Corning has been thrust into the starting lineup and has a lot to prove. He’s an absolute superstar in big air competition, but just hasn’t found any sort of luck here in Aspen since his 2018 X Games debut. He does have one X Games medal, a big air bronze in Norway 2018, but only finished ninth in Aspen 2020 (and 18th in slopestyle). His American counterpart, Dusty Henricksen, is an X Games rookie this year and might be trying to steal his thunder. So, with a chip on his shoulder, Corning breaks through. Or, more probably, Max Parrot wins a ninth X Games gold medal (or 10th if you count his predicted win in slopestyle). But I’m rolling with Corning.

SKI KNUCKLE HUCK

Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

Projected winner: Quinn Wolferman

This will be ski knuckle huck’s second year at X Games. As previously mentioned, Colby Stevenson won the inaugural event in 2020. Local skiing icon Torin Yater-Wallace literally hopped of a plane from Japan and into the comp to finish sixth, although he’s not part of the planned X Games festivities this year. This is an absurdly impossible event to predict, so I’ll go with Quinn Wolferman to give the U.S. back-to-back ski knuckle huck crowns. The Montanan is hardly a household name, which makes him perfect for winning knuckle huck. He finished third in the event last year (Henrik Harlaut was second) but doesn’t have any other truly notable career results. He is plenty familiar with Aspen, however, having competed in the Aspen Freeskiing Open at Buttermilk a handful of times.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

With no fans on-site, X Games Aspen creates a virtual X Fest

IF YOU GO …

What: Virtual X Fest

Where: XGames.com/XFest

When: Through Sunday, Jan. 31

How much: Free

When X Games event producers at ESPN decided to move forward with the 2021 event at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen without fans on-site, they didn’t want to completely abandon the X Fest that normally runs concurrently at the mountain’s base area.

Amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, they decided to take it virtual.

“We had an opportunity to do something different and it really took a leap of faith,” Matt Gizzi, senior director of sports brand solutions at ESPN parent company Disney, said this week.

And so, at midnight on Thursday on the eve of this most unusual X Games, the doors opened on the virtual X Fest.

It’s an immersive, interactive environment aimed at giving a taste of the on-site experience that isn’t available this year. Its developers believe it will be the primary way some experience X Games this year, and may also be a second-screen experience complementing the main ESPN broadcast.

“We were looking for some sort of creative solution to not just give up as live events are going away for the fans,” said Gizzi. “Over the past year, we started to see the trends and we wanted to find a way that could fit for us and our events. We landed on trying to come up with a virtual way for a fan to experience the X Fest.”

For the past 20 years of X Games in Aspen, X Fest has transformed the base of Buttermilk into a snowbound carnival of capitalism and shenanigans. This is where increasingly elaborate tents have popped up from sponsors and vendors, giving away swag and experiences to the hordes of X Games fans. It’s here where you might’ve done a powdersurfing board demo, watched a ski movie in Studio X, where young fans lined up athlete autographs. It’s here you chugged the free energy drinks and munched complementary snacks, where college kids covertly over-consumed their contraband. There have always been giveaways and competitions here – everything from obstacle courses to dance-offs, from the U.S. Navy’s pull-up contest to Great Clips’ free haircuts and styling in years past.

The on-snow action might be the main draw at X Games, and the concerts may have increasingly been what lured visitors in recent years, but no matter the reason you’re there, X Fest is integral to the in-person X Games experience.

The virtual version aims to approximate that.

Free to play, it runs straight from a browser – no app or download required – and allows you to roam freely about the virtual fest. When you enter, you customize your avatar – choosing whether to be a skier to snowboarder, picking the color scheme of your outfit, whether it fits snugly or Henrik Harlaut-style baggy or somewhere in between, whether you wear a helmet or beanie, and so on.

The environment is a sort of fantasy version of the base of Buttermilk and the terrain of X Fest at the X Games venue. Developers used photos and video from X Fest’s past to build this world.

You’ll see familiar features like the firepit at the entrance to the Inn at Aspen, you’ll spot see the Panda Peak and Summit Express lifts in the distance, the Big Air jump and the Superpipe (of course) looming above, with a lineup of booths not unlike the ones that normally fill the base area during Buttermilk’s biggest weekend.

There’s a big screen here where you can watch live streams of the competitions as well as playlist of X Games highlights and content – during a reporter’s tour before the site went live, it featured skier Alex Ferreira narrating one of his gold medal Superpipe runs.

Like the in-person X Fest, there is some product-pushing from sponsors, some sweepstakes and some more experience-based stops along the way.

As your avatar skis around X Fest, others pass along ideas of where to go and what to do. Over in the Jeep section, you can go inside the company’s new hybrid vehicle. At the Wendy’s booth, there’s a retro arcade game set-up, where you can compete in the Knuckle Huck comp, sending yourself off the knuckle at the bottom of Buttermilk and attempting to land a trick (a leaderboard will keep track of high scores throughout X Games weekend).

Inside Monster’s igloo-based “chill media zone,” you’ll find curated snowsports clips. At a National Geographic photo booth, you can explore a recent greatest hits collection of images. On the Geico music stage, where The Chainsmokers and Kygo and Lil Wayne have reigned in person, you’ll find music trunks and roadies to help you explore some new music from X-friendly artists and labels (during the tour, it featured tracks from No Trace and White Rose Moxie).

As is the goal with all things at the eternally youthful X Games, the producers simply wanted to make it cool.

“We wanted to make it feel like it was an actual part of X Games, not just an add-on because, ‘Oh, you had to do it for sponsors,’” said Gizzi.

It was built for ESPN by a team of developers and artists at the Wisconsin-based experiential marketing agency GMR, who began work on the virtual X Fest about two months ago when ESPN decided to move forward with its no-fan, bubble-style X Games for 2021.

Through your avatar, you can also find X Games merchandise areas and a spot to take a photo of yourself and tag it with X Games-related stickers, ready-made for sharing on social media – a way to replace the obligatory Superpipe selfie. GMR creative director Cam Schultheis called the photo opp “an artifact of the COVID year for people to share.”

There’s also a bulletin board where you can click and find info on the latest X Games news (as well as posters from the past two decades of X). And there are also many Easter eggs and hidden features. You might find a yeti in the woods, for instance, or a tie-in to the “Rocket League” video game.

X Games producers believe the virtual experience will draw interest and engagement from fans throughout the weekend as people lern about it through social media and the live broadcast. But they’re not counting on attendance anywhere near the 100,000-plus that regularly come through X Fest in-person over X Games weekend.

“If we have even 10% of what our attendance was interacting with this, I think that’s a win,” Gizzi said. “I don’t think anyone has cracked the code on replacing live events for fans and engagement.”

atravers@aspetimes.com

Skico, ESPN working on what X Games Aspen 2021 could look like this winter

Aspen Skiing Co. is moving ahead on tentative plans to host X Games in 2021 at Buttermilk Ski Area and is requesting $115,000 for transportation services from local governments in the event that patrons will be allowed in person.

In a memo last month to the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, which comprises the city of Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village, Skico Senior Vice President John Rigney asked for the funding, just as the company did in 2020.

“We are currently 20-plus weeks out from the scheduled start of X Games, and much could change between now and then, especially with respect to spectator access and corresponding transportation needs?” he wrote in the memo. “Because of the uncertainty regarding spectator volume this year, the money can come in the form of a reimbursement instead of an upfront commitment. This reimbursement may be drastically reduced in scope in this particular year if spectator access ends up being restricted.”

The EOTC is scheduled to meet Oct. 29 when it will consider Skico’s request. Aspen City Council and the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners spent time during their work sessions on Tuesday preparing for next week’s EOTC meeting.

ESPN spokesman Danny Chi wrote in an email Tuesday that he was limited in commenting, adding that he hopes for more information will become public later this year.

“We continue to work with Aspen Skiing Company and local officials as we evaluate X Games Aspen 2021,” he wrote via email.

Skico officials were unavailable for comment as staffers throughout the company have the week off.

Rigney in his memo explained that Skico, along with the county, the local board of health and ESPN, the presenter of the X Games, are looking into several scaled-back options that “provide a safe event that generates the same broad-based promotion of our resort while remaining flexible and fluid in our new reality. … This very well could mean limiting spectator access and modifying the on-site programming this year.”

In February 2020, which was the 19th year of Skico hosting the Winter X Games, there were an estimated 111,500 attendees over the multi-day event.

This year’s X Games also garnered 16 hours of live TV, reaching tens of millions of people in original programming, and more than 500 million homes across 197 countries had access to televised and packaged for rebroadcast content, according to Rigney.

On social media platforms, there were over 18 million views across Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, which is an 18% increase over 2019, his memo states.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the made-for-television event will likely draw even bigger numbers next year.

Skico is under contract with ESPN to host X Games annually through 2024.

csackariason@aspentimes.com

Basalt’s Maytham, with help from Ferreira, chasing own X Games skiing dream

Before Alex Ferreira threw down a 1440 in the superpipe to win his second straight X Games Aspen gold medal last month, he spent hours training on the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s trampoline. And Chace Maytham had a front-row seat to the whole thing.

“I watched him do that run for five months straight before X Games, just preparing,” Maytham said Wednesday. “I saw how focused and dedicated he was to learning that trick and putting together one of the best pipe runs ever done. It really rubbed off on me how hard you have to work to learn those huge tricks.”

Maytham is trying to follow in Ferreira’s footsteps. A 2019 graduate of Basalt High School where he starred as a football player, the 18-year-old Maytham decided to put his full attention toward halfpipe skiing this year in order to chase down his lifelong dream of competing at X Games.

He’s trained most of his life with AVSC, but never had the time to fully commit to skiing until after he graduated from Basalt.

“Being a multi-sport athlete, it’s always been tough for him to really give skiing the focus that he wants to,” said Greg Ruppel, AVSC’s head park and pipe coach. “That worked out really nice for him this fall getting to hang around Alex and do a lot of trampolining, some workouts with him, and just kind of pick up Alex’s mindset and his approach to competition, because I think that’s probably one of the most valuable things Alex has to really teach a newer athlete like Chace.”

Ferreira, the 25-year-old Aspen native and former AVSC athlete who won Olympic silver in 2018, lives near Aspen Highlands and often trains down the street at the AVSC clubhouse. It was there he befriended Maytham and decided to take him under his wing, which was a big boost for the former Longhorn. The two spent hours training alongside each other in the fall and both happen to be taking classes at Colorado Mountain College.

“He’s been fantastic. He always asks me how a contest went or I’d send him a video of my run and he’d critique it in a different way a coach can do, because it’s coming from another athlete,” Maytham said of Ferreira. “I’m young and I still have a lot to go, but I still feel like I have a lot to catch up on and that’s why I wanted to take this year and really dedicate myself.”

Maytham will compete Saturday in the Aspen Snowmass Freeskiing Open, a Nor-Am Cup event that could pave the way for future starts in World Cups, if not even bigger events such as X Games. The contest is held on the X Games venue at Buttermilk Ski Area.

This will be Maytham’s fourth time competing in the freeski open, his best finish coming last year when he was 12th in the halfpipe. He has a handful of other Nor-Am Cup starts, including earlier this winter at Copper Mountain, but is still chasing that breakthrough performance.

He said having so much more time to train this winter has made this year’s freeski open at Buttermilk feel more promising in regards to making finals or even getting on the podium.

“I’ve never been on the podium here and this year I feel I actually have a good shot,” Maytham said. “Now that I have so much more time to ski and train and really dedicate myself, it’s become my life. I wouldn’t say I was so committed when I was younger, but realizing now this is it, I kind of left all my friends, in a way.”

Maytham isn’t quite doing 14s like Ferreira, but did say he’s close to adding a double-cork 1260 to his arsenal, a trick he plans to have competition-ready by the end of the season. Between Saturday’s freeski open in Aspen and another Nor-Am competition in Canada next week, this is an important time frame for Maytham to keep his skiing dreams alive for next season.

If it all falls into place, Maytham has hopes of getting his first World Cup start next fall in New Zealand. Of course, like any local skier, the ultimate dream would be making it to X Games, a feat Maytham sees as possible over the coming years. He’s come so far in only a few months this season that he’s optimistic that trend will continue into the winters ahead.

“Right when I graduated I knew I wanted to pursue skiing and pursue it more professionally than what I’d done,” Maytham said. “Before I can even remember, my dream was I wanted to be in X Games. I had the opportunity to go to a university and do that, but I was really, ‘This is my shot, my one shot.’ I would rather put my full effort into skiing, because growing up I never really had a full ski schedule.”

The men’s ski superpipe qualifier for the Aspen Snowmass Freeskiing Open is scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, with finals slated to follow directly after.

Spectating is free.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

X Faces: A look at the athletes who made up X Games Aspen 2020

Staff photographer Kelsey Brunner was behind the scenes all weekend to document the X Games Aspen 2020 edition.

Along the way, The Aspen Times photographer caught the faces of those who made up one of the bigger athlete lists. From skiers to boarders, Brunner focused in on their intense looks and signs of relief when they got to the bottom.

From teens to veteran riders, we take a look at the “Faces of X Games.”