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Saudan Couloir Extreme returns after two-year hiatus

The iconic Blackcomb Mountain ski race, which got its start in the 1980s, returned to Whistler for the first time since 2019 on April 16
Sudan Couloir - Fitzpatrick_Christie_Winter20221-00340
A racer makes their way down the mountain during the Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme on Saturday, April 16.

On Saturday, April 16, for the first time in two years, the Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme returned to Blackcomb Mountain.

The race first got its start in 1987 and ran through the ’90s before being discontinued in 2001. After a 17-year hiatus, the race was ultimately brought back in 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic threw a wrench into the plans once again with another two-year hiatus.

“It is super exciting to see this event return. The sense of excitement was really palpable, with people packed along the ridgeline and lots of hoots and hollering. Maybe not as much carnage as we might have come to expect in other years, but still super exciting,” said Whistler Blackcomb events manager Steve Crowley.

“This event really generates a level of buzz unlike almost anything else. It’s such a great way to wrap up our winter season. It really brings everyone together to celebrate the winter, test yourself … and give people the opportunities to come together and race your friends and have that sense of community.”

Billed as 2,500 feet of thigh-burning hell with a tagline of, “In the mouth of the couloir no one can hear you scream,” the race, which starts with a mogul-filled, 45-degree slope, truly is one of the most unique—and challenging—ski races in the world.

And this year’s event lived up to that billing.

“To me, it’s more of an adventure than a race. It’s a real challenge. There’s absolutely nothing normal about the couloir part for sure, but even the whole way down. It’s just gnarly. It’s got bumps, it’s got ruts, even when you’re going in the top heat it’s still crazy and gnarly. It’s never easy,” said competitor Wendy Brookbank.

“Everybody has an adventure on the way down. Nobody has a clean run. Nobody comes through the finish gate and goes, ‘oh my god, I just skied that so well.’ Everybody’s hanging on for dear life, so it’s an adventure for anybody.”

Racing in her sixth Saudan Couloir Extreme on April 16, Brookbank finished third in the Women’s Ski 50+ category and fifth overall for the women (she previously competed four times in the ’90s, and a fifth when the race was brought back in 2018).

Finishing at the top of the overall categories were Heather Munroe in the Ski Women category with a time of 3:08, and Sam Mulligan in the Ski Men category with his time of 2:46.6. On the snowboard side of things, the women’s top finisher was Sandy Ward with a time of 4:25.5, while Jonathan Penfield took the title for the men with a time of 3:30.1.

However, despite all the great performances from the overall winners, it was Alex Cairns who stole the show—even if he didn’t want to—as the first-ever sit skier to compete in the event.

“We’ve all done the run a million times. But I don’t think a sit skier has ever done that race before and I don’t think there’s a reason for that. There are so many sit skiers that could do that, no problem. And if we can do it, and do it more often, it’ll take some of the shock factor out for people,” said Cairns.

“The sport is at a problem stage where people have no idea what sit skiers can do. And that’s kind of why you do these things every once in a while. I don’t like the spotlight … but it is kind of a necessity for developing sport and creating opportunities in it.”

Now that Cairns has gotten his first Saudan Couloir Extreme experience under his belt, he plans to make it a yearly occurrence, but hopes to see some more sit skiers take part as well in the coming years.

For Brookbank, who initially planned for this to be her last kick at the can for this race, the event proved to be so much fun that she’s already planning on competing in at least one more race next year—though she does hope to see a minor change to the format that would bring back the event’s pro category.

“In the past, like back in the ’90s when I did it … you had to be in the pro category. And it was all about the money. If you won, you won money. So this year had a bit of a different feel to it. Because there was no money and there was no pro category,” she said.

“I think a few people were turned off just because they’re like, ‘Why would I do that gnarly race without being able to win money?’ So that added a bit of a different flair to it. It changed the field. It was way more of an amateur event this time … it was more of a ‘try it if you dare’ kind of experience as opposed to a super hardcore, ‘go for the money’ one.

“So it was more casual and fun but I definitely want to see the pro category come back again.”

While racers will have to wait until next year’s event to find out if the pro category will return, the one change from this year’s race that skiers can expect again next year is the new course layout that took racers up the “skiers’ right side of the moraine, so the middle section of the course became essentially like a big, banked slalom,” said Crowley.

“So they were skiing up on the walls and it was something that was different and it was pretty well received, so I think we’ll probably be doing that again in the future.”

Find full results for all 130 competitors on the Whistler Blackcomb Events Facebook page.