Sunday, April 12, 2008.
Young riders from France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Finland and Slovakia score podium finishes in unique freeride/freestyle contest.
First it snowed. Then it got cloudy. Then it snowed some more. By the first day of The North Face® Ski Challenge in this high Tarentaise resort, the top young skiers from around the continent were showcasing their freeriding skills in winter-deep snow. Alas, the lack of visibility made it impossible for the panel of internationally renowned judges to properly perform their work on the first contest of the weekend.
“The most important thing for us,” said event manager Romain Raisson on Saturday afternooon,” is that the event is run in safe – and fair – conditions. Today we had planned to run the freeride event on the Portette Rouge face. But with the low cloud conditions and heavy snowfall, we decided to postpone the event until the weather improves.”
His words were echoed by perennial freeride champion, Aurélien Ducroz. “This event is all about learning mountain skills too. And knowing when to cancel an event – or even when to decide to abort a descent – well, that’s a huge part of a big-mountain freerider’s toolbox.”
The longtime The North Face® Team rider backed up his words with an avalanche transceiver exercise on the mountain while the young athletes awaited their fate near the start zone of the freeride run. “I’m really glad to see how Aurélien took the initiative to get these skiers involved in knowing more about mountain skills,” says veteran Chamonix coach Greg Liscot, as a handful of riders tramped through the snow searching for a buried pack (with transceiver enclosed). “The more these kids know how to behave safely in the mountains,” Liscot added, “the more fun they’re going to have.”
Later that evening, guests of The North Face® Ski Challenge were treated to a feast of paella and roast chicken – and a slate of events ranging from a discussion on rider/sponsor relations to mountain safety tips – and even a bowling session at the local lanes. Meanwhile, organizers nervously checked the weather to see what the next day might hold in store.
“We have no choice,” said the founder of the event, JP Baralo. “No matter how difficult it’s going to be, we’re committed to running both events on Sunday. I think our on-hill crew can handle the logistic. And with the cooperation we’ve gotten to date from Val Thorens, I’m quite confident we can pull this off.” He smiled, with just a hint of the fatigue and stress he was feeling at the moment. “Now, all we need is the sky to clear…”
He need not have worried. “I peeked out the window first thing Sunday morning,” said Dynastar Team Manager, Yo Boutin, who was scouting the event for new talent. “And I couldn’t believe it. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Blue from horizon to horizon. I knew right away that we’d get a great show today.”
And he wasn’t exaggerating.
But it wasn’t a slam-dunk – at least not yet. With two profoundly different events to run in the same day –and with 150 descents to judge! -- JP Baralo’s team had a huge challenge ahead of them. Nothing could go wrong. Athletes and coaches would have to cooperate. Judges would need to be quick and precise with their assessment. The weather would need to remain stable. And everyone on the event management team would have to raise their game to assure that the freestyle contest was concluded before the pisteurs closed the hill at 5:00.
It was a case of holding an event “against all odds”. And in such a high-mountain environment as Val Thorens, few gamblers would have risked taking that bet. Yet at the stroke of 10:00, the first skier dropped down the face of Portette Rouge in knee-deep powder under alpine-blue skies to inaugurate the Freeride segment of the day. And everyone assembled around the finish area could feel that this thing was going to work after all…
“This is what this event is supposed to be all about,” said a beaming Patrik Frisk, VP/General Manager – The North Face® EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). “It’s no secret that our company is committed to promoting mountain sports at all levels. But we feel this event is particularly important. For it addresses the future of our business in a number of profound ways. If we are all to survive and thrive into the 21st century, we must assure that the youth of today become mountain enthusiasts for life!”
He smiled, as he looked around at all the healthy young faces around him. “An event like The North Face® Ski Challenge is a truly revolutionary way of addressing these issues. For by combining two such apparently disparate events as freeride and freestyle, we are introducing a new way for kids to view skiing. And only good things could come from such a change in perception.”
Because of the time constraints, the Freeride segment of The North Face® Ski Challenge was not as long or as demanding as some of the judges might have preferred. But given the conditions that presented themselves on Sunday– and the will of the athletes to raise the performance bar and show spectators how committed they were to contest – the overall results were more than satisfying.
On standout in this first phase of the contest, was a 17-year old girl from Chamonix who charged the steepest part of the face with confidence and determination that earned her admiration and cheers from the crowd – and a slate of marks from the judges that would have placed her rather well in the men’s category. “It was really a fun run,” said the always-smiling Jessica Muniesa, who took the lead among the women. “I’d discussed the line in detail with my coach. And I felt pretty confident that I could handle the terrain well. It couldn’t have gone much better…”
On the men’s side, the freeride event illustrated well the disparity between ‘pure’ freestylers and ‘pure’ freeriders – even at this age! For while the highly touted Finnish park gymnasts really found the going tough on the steep powder pitch on which they found themselves that morning, others like the French, the Austrians and the Swiss put on a great show of modern freeskiing.
When all the powder had settled, Sweden’s Tom-Oliver Hedvall held top spot among the Kings group (under 18’s). Jordan Bricheux of France led the way in the teen category while among the kids’ group, it was another Swede, Lukas Högland, who was judged top freerider.
But all that could soon change.
The hard work done in the terrain park during the week by the Val Thorens and The North Face® Ski Challenge crews, presented a competition site that has few equals in Europe. And with the sun shining bright and the skies remaining clear, athletes were keen to show the judges what they could do.
Within an hour of the completion of the freeride segment of the day, riders were already lining up in the start gate for their first (and final) freestyle run of the contest.
“These kids can jump,” marvelled Dynastar Team standout, Antoine Diet, who was acting as a judge’s consultant. “They are really putting it all on the line for us today.” And while the strong afternoon sun softened up the approaches a little and caused some riders to lose speed a critical moments, others managed to do just fine.
Among the women competitors, it was wild card entry, Suzanna Stromkova of Slovakia who put her gymnasts’ skills to the fore to take a commanding lead in the freestyle. Though her points in the park roughly corresponded to the points of French skier Jessica Muniesa on the powder face, Stromkova’s overall strength easily overwhelmed Muniesa’s limited park skills. Third place overall went to Malou Peterson of Sweden…
In the kids’ (12-13) category, it was a young telemarker from Sweden by the name of Erik Nordin who wowed the crowd in the park with clean jumps and big airs to claim top marks in the park. Combined with a competent freeride run, it was good enough to give him the title. “I was pretty happy with the way I skied today,” said the promising young freeheeler. “But I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would win here. This is crazy cool!”
The competition got really tight among the teens (14-15). And it was their performances in the park that allowed the top skiers to dominate the overall. France’s Max Fornier didn’t win the freestyle segment, but he was close. That mark, totalled with a very decent Freeride mark allowed him to sneak by second place finisher Robin Sabitoni of France. In third was the day’s top freestyle performer, Morten Grape of Sweden who recorded a less than stellar freeride run. “I wish I could have done better in the freeride segment,” he said. “But overall, I’m really happy to have participated in the event. I can’t wait for next year…”
With a two-year sponsorship agreement with The North Face® and Dynastar & Lange at play for the skiers in the Kings Category (16-18), things got hot and heavy in the terrain park. Top performer in the final program was Finn Roppe Leppänen. But his very modest effort on the mountain face pushed him back to third overall. A much more balanced program was presented by Tom-Oliver Hedvall, who took his lead into the terrain park, jumped solidly (if not spectacularly) to give him a slight lead over Julien Héricher, another Chamonix skier who used the same tactics to reach the second step of the podium.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me,” said the slightly dazed Hedvall, after hearing the final result. “This is like the most magical dream come true. Everyone in our world imagines one day getting a pro contract with companies like The North Face® and Dynastar & Lange. But we all know that this only happens to the best of us. And only if you work very hard. I’m very excited to see what this is going to bring me over the next few years…”
As the sun began to set behind the Cime Caron and all the participants gathered together for one last “team” photo, it was amply evident from the smiling faces and sun-kissed cheeks that The North Face® Ski Challenge in Val Thorens had achieved all of its objectives – and raised the bar for next year.
“I’m still a little bit in shock,” said a very happy JP Baralo. “I always knew we had a good team here this week. But they really raised their game today. I’m quite confident in saying that no other organization has ever accomplished this kind of a combined event in one day – and especially not with kids. I think, more than anything that today positions The North Face Ski Challenge as one of the most progressive kids’ events on the planet. I can’t wait until next year.”
by Michel Beaudry