Clubhouse Chronicles: AVSC’s freeride program and the ‘human experience’ |

Clubhouse Chronicles: AVSC’s freeride program and the ‘human experience’

Johnny Rossman
AVSC big mountain coach

When I explain what I do for work, my explanation is often met with many questions, like what is “big mountain” or freeride skiing?

My background as a freeride skier has been molded by the literature, cinema and competitions of the freeride culture. Over the past decade, the sport has evolved from largely undefined to a major ski discipline with tens of thousands of members globally. Even in my competition era, the criteria to determine a winner seemed vague; “huck and pray” was a common theme.

Currently, the sport is being more finely tuned with emphasis on control and execution of proficient skiing in highly technical areas.

The origin of freeride skiing is somewhat clouded in a mysticism. What is freeride skiing and is it a sport? You’ll most likely receive a wide range of answers. Some describe it as extreme skiing, a discipline which I would say emerged in the 1970s when pioneers like Anselme Baud and Patrick Vallencant skied seemingly impossible descents across the French Alps.

Extreme skiing in the competitive sense emerged at the 1991 World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska. Unfortunately, this annual event fizzled out in 2000.

During the 1990s, extreme snowsports were being reshaped, and for many it resembled a Frankenstein-type creation. People from 198 countries around the world watched modified shovel racing on ESPN’s first X Games. Outside of racing, there were independent events like big air, slopestyle, moguls, skiercross and big mountain. None of which had a true governing body.

Along comes freeride’s founding father, Shane McConkey. In 1996, Shane realized the need for a new organization. He wanted it to be athlete-driven to ensure that athletes had a voice in the development and governance of freeride. Shane founded the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association (IFSA), the governing body that oversees adult and junior freeride events that ski clubs like ours compete in across the globe. Shane established and fostered a culture that promotes inclusion, progress and fun! The ultimate goal for IFSA athletes is to reach the Freeride World Tour.

What is freeride skiing to us on the AVSC big mountain team? According to Colin Hipona, a Basalt High School senior and top-ranked IFSA athlete, “it is the human experience.” AVSC’s big mountain freeride program is comprised of more than 40 athletes from ages 12 to 18. We compete in IFSA events all over North America, but not all of our athletes compete. Our team-level athletes train four to five days a week, honing ski and mountain knowledge while learning new techniques, interacting with others and enjoying nature in one of the most amazing places on Earth.

Our program focuses on developing each individual to his or her personal desire. We provide the option to flourish in competition, as well as instilling essential skills for athletes to function in extreme technical mountain terrain at a proficient level. We work in conjunction with other local organizations to develop well-rounded athletes. Greg Shaffran of Aspen Expeditions facilitates AAIRE avalanche courses with our athletes. World-class gymnastics instructor John Bakken at Aspen Gymnastics teaches our athletes the fine art of the backflip. We are a community of adults and athletes carrying on and progressing a legacy of self-expression.

The AVSC development pipeline is critical to our program’s success. By the time athletes enter our program, these talented youngsters have years of experience in moguls, racing, big mountain, park and pipe. The younger the start the better and their diverse backgrounds create the opportunity for each individual to excel with their distinctive strengths. That is why freeride is so amazing; there is no one specific way to succeed.

The Aspen freeride community has great pride and history. Our program honors those before us and takes ownership for shaping the future. The focus is to structure our athletes into complete products of our mountain environment and community. Skiing is just a part of it. Our coaching staff and athletes form bonds that continue to keep the soul of freeride skiing alive.

Clubhouse Chronicles is a twice-a-month, behind-the-scenes column written by the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club during the winter months. It runs in the Friday Outdoors section.