Aspen Times Staff Writer
For many, this season’s change in format of Aspen Highlands’ decades-old Friday freestyle competition may have been the last straw.
Highlands, long known as the black sheep of the Aspen area’s four ski mountains, has undergone some pretty big changes in recent years – the kind of changes that have transformed it into an investment opportunity and have Highlands’ purists howling.
But then maybe they weren’t watching as Wyatt Carder pulled off a flat-spin 360 in last week’s event. The move, something between a back flip and a barrel roll, is likely the reason he won the top cash prize in the final competition of the season.
“That did it – definitely,” Carder, 18, said in an interview after he went up against top competitor Dusty Spence. “Dusty was doing 360s and I was doing helis, and he was beating me.”
That an 18-year-old is talking about the big- and medium-air moves pulled off in competition isn’t new. That he wasn’t talking about his line through the moguls, however, is new; there aren’t very many of them this season. And that is a very big change.
The bumps and jumps format that’s been the norm every winter Friday for the past 30 years was scrapped this year. In its place is a short mogul run, a steep section of GS gates, a double roll and two jumps. To reflect the new format, the competition, formerly known as Freestyle Fridays, has been renamed Freeride Fridays.
Now in its 30th year, Freeride Fridays is the oldest professional freestyle skiing competition in the United States. It started as a bump and ballet show on Scarlett’s Run, above the Merry-Go-Round restaurant, in the 1972-73 season, according to Tom Egan, the event’s blow-by-blow announcer for the past five years.
At the time, Highlands was owned by Whip Jones, not the Aspen Skiing Co. The opening of terrain in Steeplechase was still a few years away, but Highlands already had an edge. Lift tickets were a little cheaper, the crowds a little more down-home and the attitude a little more brazen.
Back then, freestyle skiing was known as hot-dogging. Competitors would fly down the tight mogul field, showing off their agility with ballet moves and aerial twists, and finishing with a big jump.
Sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s, a new generation of competitors scrapped the ballet element, replacing it with speed and power through the moguls and over the jumps. It was a format that carried through to the beginning of this century.
The recent change in format is only one of many changes that Aspen Highlands enthusiasts have witnessed – or “suffered,” some might say – in recent years.
The base area has been filled with the same kind of luxury homes and time-share units that are common at other resorts. Development has even been allowed to encroach on the venerable Thunder Bowl, one of the great wide-open cruisers in all of skiing.
Those creaky old two-person chairs have either been removed altogether or replaced with high-speed quads that have neither the charm nor the views of their predecessors. And beginning next season, the Merry-Go-Round restaurant will be operated by Skico.
“You’re damned if you change, damned if you don’t,” Egan said.
“Younger skiers were complaining about the bumps,” said Jessie Berg, who works in special events for Skico. And that, in a big way, was the motivation behind the change.
The course is still run by two racers at a time, but it now begins with only a short stretch of moguls, near the top of Scarlett’s. After navigating the bumps – or plowing through them, as the case may be – racers hit a midsized jump that gives them enough air to pull off some pretty spectacular moves.
Then, suddenly, they land on a smooth, steep slope with gates. After just a couple of turns, the two courses merge, and a racer has to shoulder his way into the lead, à la skiercross, before coming to a pair of rollers.
At the bottom of the run, racers hit a massive jump, just above the fan-filled deck outside the Merry-Go-Round.
All the way down, Egan, a disc jockey on KSNO radio, calls the shots. A panel of five judges along the course score a winner, who then advances to the next round. In between races, Egan gives away T-shirts, caps and other prizes to the crowd.
“On a warm sunny day, we’ll get between 300 and 400 spectators,” he said.
Egan and Berg admit the new format caused some of the old-time competitors to drop out. Early in the season, only about a half-dozen skiers were entering the weekly competition, which awards the winner $750. But then participation increased, with skiers even traveling from the Front Range to compete.
Egan said the format – which looks more Gen Y than baby boomer – has drawn in a new generation of competitors.
“It’s different. No question,” he said. “The aerials have by far been the best this year – better than some of the medal winners at the Olympics last year.”
On March 28, the final Freeride Friday of the season, 11 racers showed up, and at least 200 people watched the action.
Carder took first place for the day and second place for the season (behind Dusty Spence). With more than $2,200 in winnings, he reckons Freestyle Fridays has been his primary source of income.
Skico’s Berg said she and others involved with the race will take a look at how the new format worked before deciding what to do next year. She said she’s gotten plenty of feedback from locals about the change, both positive and negative.
One guy who definitely hopes the change is permanent is bartender Aidan “Tubby” Wynn.
“At first they were hurting for competitors, so I came out to help fill the field out,” said Wynn, who supplements his winnings with a full-time gig behind the bar at Bentley’s.
“I did it in the past with all the moguls,” said Wynn, 25, who ended Friday in a four-way tie for last place after crashing and burning bad on the big air. “I like it a lot better now.”
Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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