S’mass event ‘scary as hell’ | AspenTimes.com

S’mass event ‘scary as hell’

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It can create panic, trembling fits and sickness.

It can dissuade you from fulfilling your dreams.

But it’s that power that makes overcoming fear so gratifying.

With a series of big cliffs, rocky, narrow terrain and hordes of spectators watching from below, close to 100 skiers and snowboarders overcame their fears Saturday in the second installment of the 2004 Powerade Colorado Freeride Series at Snowmass.

As if the cliff-strewn terrain in Snowmass’ Hanging Valley Headwall wasn’t scary enough, snow showers and fog combined to create low visibility and flat light Saturday. But that didn’t discourage some of the competitors from going big.

“It’s scary as hell,” Billy Poole of Snowmass said following the event. “When you get up there you just want to quit and take your bib off.”

But Poole didn’t quit.

Instead, he hucked a massive 50-foot cliff with speed and style, thereby landing himself in 10th place out of a field of 60 skiers (many felt his run should have garnered a higher finish).

Saturday’s event was the second of three installments in the Snowmass Freeride Series. The first event occurred Feb. 14 in the Burn Cliffs area, with the finale slated for March 12-13.

The 98 competitors were divided among four divisions: men’s ski, women’s ski, men’s snowboard and women’s snowboard.

The men’s ski division ” the largest field and first of the day to attack the Headwall ” also attracted the biggest crowd. Chief of race Tom Winter said close to 200 spectators were on hand to witness the ski division, which featured daring descents down tight chutes, big airs and even bigger crashes.

“I usually lose a couple years off my life expectancy watching these guys here,” said John Brennan, snow safety director for the Snowmass Ski Patrol, who along with Winter has been largely responsible for the growth and development of the event at Snowmass.

“The competitions have been really exciting,” Brennan said. “It helps promote steep skiing at Snowmass. It’s good to get the word out that Snowmass has a lot of steep terrain.”

Seven years ago, Winter created a similar freeriding event at Berthoud Pass Ski Area. When the resort shut down a few years ago, he knew Snowmass would be a perfect venue.

“Ironically, before I got involved with Berthoud I had considered Snowmass,” he said. “This mountain has some excellent terrain, and the support we’ve gotten from everyone at Snowmass has been exceptional, they’ve really embraced [the competition].

“It’s been a very popular regional event ” we’re selling out every competition.”

While most of the competitors are from Colorado, the event attracts big-mountain skiers and snowboarders from all over the West, including Utah, California and Washington.

The majority of the entrants are competing at an amateur level, but Winter said the event also acts as a springboard to larger national competitions.

“We’ve had a lot of athletes that have gone on to do [the nationals in] Crested Butte,” he said.

What makes freeriding so extraordinary in the world of ski and snowboard competitions is the risk/reward factor. When skiers fall in freeride competitions, there are no nets to stop them, and unlike in a halfpipe or terrain park, the course is not man-made and the landings are unpredictable. Cliff bands, rock outcroppings or trees may be the first features these skiers meet after taking a tumble or hucking a cliff.

Even the run-out area below the Headwall’s cliffs is unpredictable, with inconsistent patches of powder, crud, icy bumps and barely submerged rocks.

The risk is high, and the reward is low, at least financially speaking. The top men’s skier of the day takes home $400, and $1,000 goes to the champion of the series. The women’s skiers and snowboard divisions have smaller prizes, because there are fewer competitors. But money is not why these athletes compete.

“The adrenaline,” said Tim O’Connell of Old Snowmass, who placed ninth in the ski division Saturday after sticking the double cliff section on the Headwall and carving a series of powerful GS turns to the finish. “I like skiing fast and furious.”

Karolina Ekman of Sweden, who finished fifth in the women’s ski division Saturday after winning the first event earlier this month, said she competes because of what others have told her.

“People tell me I’m good,” she laughed. “But it’s probably because I’m an adrenaline junky, too.”

But, as Poole said, even the adrenaline junkies get scared, and one of the toughest aspects of the competition is the mental preparation.

“I relax the night before, I don’t drink at all, I just focus,” O’Connell, who’s competed in three national events at Crested Butte, said. “The next morning is stressful ” driving to the [competition] I’m nervous as hell.

“But once I start to visualize what I’m going to do, it’s OK.”

Poole, who trains all summer lifting weights and skis nearly every day in the winter, said the night before the competition is key.

“If I’m going to throw something big, that’s when I decide, before I go to sleep,” he said. Deciding on his route the night before, Poole said, allows him to focus on his run for an extended period of time.

“I know every inch of my line, and I run it through my head over and over,” he added.

Ekman is the same way.

“I just try to go through my run in my head,” she said. “I stay calm and relaxed, and try to have fun.

“I let my body do the work ” your body knows what it’s going to do.”

But your body doesn’t always cooperate, and massive, head-over-heel crashes are common.

Incredibly though, in the competition’s three years of existence, nobody has been seriously injured, though there have been plenty of black eyes, split lips, twisted knees and mild concussions.

That safety record is a combination of sheer luck and the hard work of Brennan and the Snowmass Ski Patrol. Over the summer, Brennan performs maintenance work on the steep terrain, which includes removing fallen or snapped trees that he said could easily “harpoon some folks.”

On Friday, after several inches of new snow fell at Snowmass, Brennan went to work with explosives, and not on the snowpack. The new snow was just enough to hide, but not fully cover, several rock bands that were lurking just below the surface like land mines.

“If someone threw a hip check on one of their landings, it wasn’t going to be pretty,” he said.

So Brennan blew the rocks up, thereby eliminating that hazard.

But the other hazards that exist, such as a neck-breaking fall off a cliff, have pushed some competitors into early retirement.

After seven years of freeride competition, O’Connell, 28, said this will probably be his last. His wife, he said, is worried about his health.

“She sees me huck 50-foot cliffs and she’s got to be worried,” he said.

Whether its his physical or mental health she’s concerned about, O’Connell didn’t say.

Top five finishers

Men’s Ski

1. Vince Lahey Aspen

2. Frank Shine Aspen

3. Jesse Hall Gunnison

4. Kiffor Berg Aspen

5. Ted Davenport Dillon

Women’s Ski

1. Jamie Britt Aspen

2. Vicky Bogner Carbondale

3. Jennifer Losch Breckenridge

4. Lisen Gustafson Carbondale

5. Karolina Ekman Boulder (Sweden)

Men’s Snowboard

1. Christopher Albers Minturn

2. Brandon Waxman Hometown unknown

3. Matt Maloley Michigan

4. Danny Hartigan Crested Butte

5. Rama Davis Winter Park

Women’s Snowboard

1. Sarah Rennick Alta

2. Morgan Newberg Carbondale

3. Jessica Frankman Crested Butte

4. Jill Stoffels Fraser

5. Shawna Henderson Fraser