When we think of professional athletic competitions we almost never consider what it takes to pull them off. Mostly, we just cheer the athletes through triumphs and disasters, pick out our heroes, then look forward to the next one. But after seeing what unfolded at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort last month during the only North American stop of the Freeride World Tour, I now understand that when it comes to big-mountain freeride contests, the team organizing those events are champions too. And as skilled as the athletes.
For 14 years, the Freeride World Tour has become a fixture in competitive skiing and snowboarding. CEO Nicolas Hale-Woods and his team have navigated economic ups and downs, pandemics, and the ever-shifting world of snowsports to create a contest format that pits riders against some of the world’s most iconic mountain faces without any gates or man-made features. It’s arguably the purest form of competition – contestants do whatever they want from top to bottom to get a score. Yet there’s one main player that nobody controls: Mother Nature and her increasingly chaotic unpredictability.
The climate is changing. We know that. Weather is becoming more fierce and unreliable. Trying to guess what will happen next week or even tomorrow means throwing prediction models out the window. This new reality is perhaps the most true in the mountain environment. So, along with the general shiftiness of weather itself, this creates a tricky game, requiring foresight, weather forecasting, and navigating other pitfalls like safety to plan the best day for a contest months in advance. In short, it’s a total crap shoot.
At Kicking Horse, it all started when the forecast for the contest window showed a severe melt-freeze event with temperatures rising well above freezing during the day, and dropping to sub-zero (celsius) overnight. On a south-facing slope (which was the “Ozone” venue’s aspect) that’s a recipe for a sun-crusted disaster. This is a common occurrence in the spring but for mid-February in Canada? Not so much. So in an effort to to have the contest run on the best possible conditions, the FWT organizers decided the best move was to hold the event on Friday, February 11, a day earlier than planned. This meant athletes changing flights and rushing to arrive a day early. With people coming from all over the globe, it was much easier said than done – everyone arrived on time.
Then on Thursday, after scrambling to set up early, an unprecedented wind event rolled through and completely blasted the entire Ozone venue where the contest was set to run. The biggest insult to this injury was that Kicking Horse management had kept the venue off-limits for six weeks to preserve the snow, much to the locals’ jealous dismay. Then literally the day before the contest the snow got pulverized. It was as if Mother Nature had a sadistic penchant. “I’ve never seen the wind blow that consistently, for that amount of time,” Mike Rubenstein, the area manager for Kicking Horse told me. “On Thursday we did all the avalanche control checks and determined it could go ahead. But the conditions changed overnight and it didn’t meet the minimum safety standard.”
So Friday morning during an athlete’s meeting, set to survey Ozone and the damage, everyone murmured the same thoughts: it looks bad. The wind had done its worst. Not only that but the live webcast tent, which had been flown out from Switzerland, had blown away. Debris was scattered around the venue. The idea of cancelling the event was on the table.
Safety-wise this would be understood, but that meant that those below the cut line to continue on to the final two events in Europe wouldn’t have a crucial opportunity to improve their rankings to qualify. But it would be worse to hold a contest and have someone get severely injured. “The snow was so tricky that it was possible for someone to blow their knee, just by riding,” said tour commissioner Lolo Besse, a gifted skier and snow safety expert in his own right. “That was the tipping point where we said, it’s not going to be possible.”
After a few back-and-forth deliberations with athletes, the call was made to put the event on hold (or worse). This would mean some would go home after the scores from the first two events. Skiers and riders above the cut were in an awkward spot too: cancelling would actually put them in a better position. “For that reason,” Lolo said, “we couldn’t consult the athletes and (had to look at it objectively) since it would create a divide between those above or below the cut line.”
Then, 10 minutes later, a new idea surfaced. Derek Foose, the FWT’s main commentator, had been riding a couple bowls over in a zone known as “T1 South.” He said the conditions weren’t half bad and perhaps it could serve as an alternate venue (a qualifier event had been staged there a few weeks prior). And since that face had been skied hard since, it meant that the snow surface was scuffed and shaved by skiers and snowboarders, keeping the snow softer. So in a skillful reshuffle, organizers quickly gathered competitors together and explained before leading a scout of the location as a possibility for a reboot. Within an hour, everyone had gone down the mountain, back up the gondola, and traversed around the ridge to look at the area.
What they saw was a slope that hadn’t totally blown away like Ozone. It wasn’t pow. It was tracked and still firm — but remarkably better than what they had to work with at Ozone. In a decisive move that frankly floored me, the FWT organization quickly came to the decision to move the venue. The direction of this giant group instantly shifted – everything needed to be transferred over to hold the contest the next day.
The infrastructure to hold a contest and live broadcast is vast. Yet with the weather forecast calling for Saturday as the only clear, sunny day, there was a sense of urgency, an all-hands-on-deck moment. Skiers and riders garnering FWT logos, volunteers drummed up from the Golden Community, and Kicking Horse staff quickly grabbed tents, generators, cables… a giant inflatable finish line, everything was packed under arms, or in backpacks and ripped down the mountain and onto the gondola. Finally, by 8:30 that night, well into dark, it was done. The show would go on. The broadcast crew was back at ‘er at 5 a.m. the next morning. The contest was off and running by 10:30 a.m., live broadcast and all.
I was amazed that the FWT squad pulled it off. Yes, the conditions weren’t fluffy pow, but anyone can make fluffy pow look good. It’s almost a blessing whereby we could see some of the athletes truly shine in conditions that were less-than-ideal. The competitors made some serious lemonade out of the rotten lemons Mother Nature tossed at the stage. But for the event to even happen? The entire FWT team showed grit, quick organization, and a whole lotta skill to pull it off. And it worked.
You can see the fruits of the tireless labor described above here.