A soulful big-mountain vibe in Alaska 

Three Whistler skiers in top seven at World Free Skiing Championships

At mile 45 on Thompson Pass, Alaska, 20 of the worlds finest freeskiers sit silently. Through binoculars their eyes are eagerly fixed on 7,000-foot Mount Billy Mitchell.

Billy looms high above base camp. Camp is composed of a carnival tent fully equipped with a camp cook, who feeds competitors and media daily. The crew eats together, creating a camp-like atmosphere. The vibe is righteous among this family of freeskiers.

The engines fire and the rotor blades of the helicopter hum. Groups of four are shuttled to the peak during day one’s north-facing venue, known as Loneliness. Nigel Mckissock, head judge Michel Beaudry and I have just inspected the venue. The snow is variable.

But difficult conditions didn’t stop Guerlin Chicherit of Tinges France and Meagan Carney of the U.S.A. They both skied with incredible power and style taking run 1 of last week’s World Free Skiing Championships. Hard charging local talent Robin Courcelles left our eyes boggled as we witnessed a man up the ante of commitment, etching an incredible line deep into our minds. Straight lining the 1,200-foot peak, he stomped a 40-foot air as he blazed out the bottom.

The sun cast shadows illuminating lines left by competitors on Day 2’s venue, Billy Mitchell. The 4,000-foot run was a true test of endurance and route finding skills as we watched Whistler local Leif Zapf-Gilje style the run of the day, bumping him into first place after three runs. Todd Windle from New Zealand railed his run with fluid flow, forcing his way into second place. However the talk of the town was hard charging Mike Stevenson who found his way into serious exposure. Defying the laws of what is possible on skis he looked deep within himself, maintaining his composure in massive exposure. With survival instincts in full effect, Mike down-climbed shear rock before airing onto a thin patch of snow. He straight lined out the bottom skiing to safety.

In the women’s competition Meagan Carney needed only two days to claim the title, putting to rest Lynn Kennen and Katie Writer. Carney carved her lines from top to bottom with pure precision.

The long awaited Day 3 venue, a 3,000-foot east-facing peak split with two huge couloirs, lay shrouded in the clouds. Everyone waited patiently for a sign of clearing, but after two hours of coaxing Mother Nature’s time was up and we were denied the jewel.

The options were to downsize to a smaller venue or ski a powder run to the valley and call it a contest. Zapf-Gilje, Windle and Chicherit were sitting in the top three positions. To ski a powder run to the valley would mean that Leif-Zapf-Gilje of Whistler B.C would be crowned World Champion.

With low light and an already successful three-run contest it would be valid to pull the plug. But among this high-spirited group of athletes a decision was made to ski a fourth run.

Kiwi Windle dropped back to third. Leif skied solid but took a conservative approach in the low light, landing him a second place finish. France’s Guerlin Chicherit laid it on the line. Attacking the mountain the flawless Frenchman put on a show combining technical skiing with power. Chicherit stomped a 30-foot cliff out the bottom to take the title. Scores for the top three finishers were separated by less than 1 point, making it the closest competition in memory.

Sun Valley’s Brett Deuter made it to the finals finishing fourth. Whistler charger Mike Stevenson was fifth, local Alaskan Jake Young sixth and Robin Courcelles of Whistler seventh.

I find myself standing in a glacier bowl, surrounded by epic peaks, reflecting on the fact that a helicopter-accessed big mountain skiing competition was successfully held in Coastal Alaska. This is one of the most logistically complicated tasks imaginable. A four-run contest was held in three days with no injuries and no controversies. I can hear head judge Michel Beaudry finishing an interview, his words clear and concise.

"Although the athletes battled on the hill for honour of being crowned World Champion, there was a real convivial atmosphere among the skiers. I have rarely experienced such a positive post-race environment," said Beaudry. "Very close, very intimate and lots of fun. A manifestation of true big mountain culture in fact to me this is what makes an event successful. Not the money, not the hype, just a soulful big-mountain vibe that everybody shares equally."

The camera points to second place finisher Zapf-Gilje. He explains, "We’re all pros here and we understand that the mountains are much bigger than we are. We’re just grateful to be playing this game together."

The cameras are packed away. From a distance I listen to the competitors converse. There is no talk of win or lose, only excitement regarding the 1,500-foot ski out back to base camp. There seems to be an amazing sense of camaraderie amongst the group.

This feeling is confirmed as I happily watch these athletes drop over the ridge, descending the vast mountain together.

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