Skiing or snowboarding down a mountain slope that can be as much as 60 degrees steep is inherently dangerous. Freeskiing is, therefore, about as extreme as you can go in the sport and injuries are to be expected, although every effort is made to avoid them.
Big mountain freeriding contests have claimed the lives of three people in recent years. In 2007 the Swiss skier, Neal Valiton, died in an event in Tignes and the US rider, John Nicoletta, died in competition in Alaska in 2008. Earlier this year Ryan Hawkes died in hospital after sustaining injuries. “Yesterday, Kirkwood Mountain Resort received the tragic news that Ryan Hawks, a competitor in the North American Freeskiing Championships, succumbed to the injuries sustained in a crash during the event this past weekend,” says the brief statement.
However, freeskiing and its competitions are not the madcap, crazy, hell-bent-on-death scene that you might imagine. The event venues are closely monitored all season. All routes are checked for avalanche potential right from the beginning of the winter and in the weeks leading up to competition local mountains guides check on the slope constantly and closely. They ski it and assess it on a daily basis observing winds, temperature changes and snowfall. If there is any risk then the event is called off or postponed as was the Junior event on March 23rd to the disappointment of many. Frequently, and if necessary, the slopes are bombed well in advance of a competition.
Contrary to popular belief the riders are not judged on the most dangerous way down. In fact they can be marked down severely if it is considered that the line they took was too dangerous or considered beyond their ability.
The rule book is catagorical on this subject. “If a rider makes a mistake in a place where he is putting his life at risk because of extreme exposure, he must be strongly penalised. Riders have to understand that they are not supposed to take unnecessary risks in fatally exposed places.”
Safety is stressed at every opportunity; after all it is in no-one’s interest for accidents to happen and of course any adverse publicity could lead to sponsors withdrawing their support. In the event of a serious fall a rider must raise an arm immediately if he is alright, but if he feels he is injured then he must lie still and he will be reached by monitors within moments.
No-one skis the slope without studying it closely for days in advance. Although they are not allowed to ski down it before the competition, they use every other possible method for studying it from good old-fashioned binoculars to high tech virtual comparisons on computer. Each skier’s route is carefully planned – nobody attacks one of these dangerous slopes without a forward plan of his or her descent. But accidents do happen – witness this video taken recently in Verbier on the Bec des Rosses where Maria Kuzma from New Zealand got caught in an avalanche – she was not the first person to ski over that area, she just happened to be unlucky – however she was relatively unscathed after the incident…
A second potentially calamitous fall happened to Swiss skier, Ludo Lovey, who took a line down the centre of the face and fell on a very exposed slope. He fell over a hundred metres tumbling over rocks. He, too, was relatively unscathed – some bruises and a dislocated shoulder. Luck of the devil!
The freeride ski championships are over for this year. The last event, held on Bec des Rosses in Verbier, saw Frenchman Aurélien Ducroz regain the overall FWT title after his spectacular run which took an interesting route down and which included a double cliff drop to the awe and admiration of the watching crowds.
The women’s event was just as exciting being a battle to the finish between 2 sisters. Janette and Christine Hargin are 30-something sisters from Sweden. They both skied the Bec des Rosses with style and confidence taking first and second place. Janette also went on to be the women’s skiing Freeride World Champion for 2011.