It takes a blue-sky weather window, decent snow, teamwork and a show-stealing Kodak moment to create a successful Freeride World Tour (FWT) event. Andrew Findlay takes us behind the scenes at last year’s tour stop in Golden.
It all came together last February at Kicking Horse Resort when German skier Max Hitzig, stomped an 80-footer into a boneyard, salt-and-pepper landing near the base of Ozone. The nervy 20-year-old said he had scoped the line three years ago and that it was firmly planted in his mental map of the dream run he envisioned.
“I did a back flip because I thought if you jump straight (then the landing looks really far down). But if you do a back flip, 50 per cent of the time you’re looking at the sky,” Hitzig told Mountain Life.
So goes the simple logic of a young, big-mountain skier at the top of his game. Hitzig’s huck stood out in a competition that saw a fair share of athletes crashing and burning, while others seemed to get lost among the complex rocky spines and convoluted chutes of Ozone, a steep and rarely-opened alpine face on the southwest edge of Kicking Horse’s controlled, inbounds terrain. It was good enough to score a top podium finish for Hitzig and it was also content gold for the tour organizers.
A Complex Snowpack
When dozens of skiers travel across the globe and descend on a resort for a five-day competition window, a lot of finger-crossing happens when organizers are dependent on two factors as fickle as snow and mountain weather. If the stars align, it’s beautiful. If they don’t, it’s a bust.
But there is much more involved than dumb luck. A mountain of behind-the-scenes planning and preparation starts months before the FWT media circus arrives in town. Last winter’s snowpack presented special challenges. In many parts of the Rockies and Purcell Mountains, hair-trigger instability persisted throughout the season thanks to a cold and dry start to the winter. It led to faceting and the formation of a poorly bonded layer deep in the snowpack that haunted backcountry skiers, mountain guides and avalanche professionals like Kyle Hale, safety manager for Kicking Horse, all season long.
It’s the reason Hale and his team were out on the slopes managing the snowpack as soon as there was enough snow on the ground to move around. The resort has more than 100 avalanche paths spread across five alpine bowls. From a public safety perspective, it’s a big, complex terrain full of cliff bands and steep gullies that will keep insurance adjusters awake at night. From a personal and professional perspective, it’s a fascinating puzzle of terrain management and there’s rarely a dull moment.
“No other program in North America has the kind of steep terrain or as much steep terrain that we have here open to the public. And the only reason we’re able to do it is because we highly modify the snowpack,” Hale explains, adding that nearly half of the 45-member snow safety staff (also known as ski patrollers) are certified avalanche professionals. “So, it’s a pretty robust program.”
When Hale talks about snowpack modification he means using every weapon in the arsenal to prepare slopes for the public—explosives, ski cutting, side slipping and even boot packing. Kicking Horse is accustomed to dealing with cold temperatures and a shallow snowpack, the two critical factors that contribute to deep snowpack instability. Still, in his 23 years at the resort, Hale says 2022/23 was one of the worst. As testament to this fact, on February 16, just a day before the FWT event, Hale was part of the recovery team that responded to a tragic, snowboarder-triggered size 3.5 avalanche on an uncontrolled out-of-bounds feature known as Terminator 2.5. It was strong enough to snap old-growth spruce and fir trees like they were toothpicks, cracking 115 metres across the convex slope and running nearly one kilometre down the mountainside. One person was partially buried and survived. Two were fully buried and died.
That weak layer lurking deep in the snowpack, which if triggered could have catastrophic consequences, was the threat. In an end-of-season summary, Avalanche Canada said it was the culprit in most of the season’s deadly accidents that claimed 15 victims. Despite the tragedy in the Kicking Horse backcountry, frantic last-minute preparations for the FWT continued. The media was in town and so were the athletes. Tents and Red Bull banners were being erected at the Ozone finish line. For months, Hale and his crew had routinely bombed, side-slipped, ski-cut and boot-packed this feature, as well as the backup venue T (Terminator)1 South to get them ready. It was like performing reconstructive surgery on the snowpack. In one bombing mission, snow safety staff dropped more than a dozen 12-kilogram charges on Ozone.
It was like performing reconstructive surgery on the snowpack. In one bombing mission, snow safety staff dropped more than a dozen 12-kilogram charges on Ozone.
A stingy snowpack had already forced Kicking Horse and its FWT partner to postpone the event, originally scheduled for January. Just a few days before the event, and despite all this snowpack manipulation, Hale says they were still triggering small size-one avalanches on that stubborn weak layer. Now the venue was ready, or as ready as it was humanly possible to make it. A well-timed storm had delivered a welcome 25 centimetres of Purcell powder to the Kicking Horse alpine a few days earlier.
“That definitely made all the difference. We had been in there lots, and up until a few weeks before the event we were still not super comfortable with it,” Hale says. “We were concerned that the athletes would be punching through the bed surface and into the rocks, especially on some of the bigger landings. But it also worked in our favour, creating all those avalanches, in that the landing zones were pretty filled in.”
As an added stressor, the short-term weather forecast was temperamental, shifting between overcast and low cloud to patches of blue and clearing.
When the morning of February 17 broke bluebird it was go time. Athletes boarded the gondola early for Eagle’s Eye so they could load the Stairway to Heaven chairlift and boot-pack to the top of Ozone in time for the competition. The atmosphere among spectators gathering along the ridge above Feuz Bowl was electric, in anticipation of watching some of the world’s best going big.
The vibe was equally electric as athletes started crossing the finish line. For the first time this season, they were shredding fresh powder—athletes had faced treacherously bony conditions at the two previous events on the tour, in Andorra and Spain.
It’s no accident that the FWT returned to Kicking Horse in 2023 for the sixth time. As the only North American stop on the five-destination tour, the resort is in good company with Verbier (Switzerland), Baqueira-Beret (Spain,) Ordino-Arcalis (Andorra) and Fieberbrunn (Austria).
Nicolas Hale-Woods, the Swiss founder of the Freeride World Tour, says success in this media-heavy event boils down to three key ingredients: terrain, an expert snow safety team and an enthusiastic local community that puts its heart and soul into it.
“The local community makes FWT feel welcome in Golden and we can count on dedicated and passionate volunteers. This makes a big difference.”
To say the stoke was high on competition day at Kicking Horse would be an understatement. Spaniard Abel Moga, who crashed out, calls Ozone “a super cool venue but very sharky.” He was jumping up and down and sporting a massive grin after watching Max Hitzig go big.
There’s no doubt hitting rocks at speed was in the minds of many athletes but so was the quality of the fresh snow.
“The conditions were awesome. It was so much more snow than I expected,” said Justine Dufour-Lapointe, a Canadian mogul skiing Olympian who made her FWT debut in 2023. “We received a little plume of snow last night, so it made it perfect. I knew I had to be careful off the top, like take it easy. But then after that it was all clear for the line that I had in mind and I was confident of the landing.”
Dufour-Lapointe’s tight run netted her a respectable fourth place finish in a field of nine pro women.
After months of preparation, Kyle Hale admits when the athletes started dropping into Ozone it was hard not to hold his breath, praying that nobody tomahawked into a rock field or blew a big air landing. From the top of Feuz Bowl, across from Ozone it was hard to fully appreciate the speed with which Hitzig descended the steep face before sending that huge, FWT record-breaking backflip that sent fellow competitors and spectators watching from the finish line into a frenzy.
“Thankfully there were no train wrecks. It was a great day,” Hale says, with the calm rationality of a veteran avalanche tech who has seen his share.
After competition and awards wrapped up, many competitors were seen shedding their race bibs and grouping up to go exploring the vastness of Kicking Horse’s big mountain playground. After all, fresh pow left un-skied on a blue-sky day in the Purcells is fresh pow wasted. Even the endorphin rush of competition followed by the post-event denouement, wasn’t enough to deter these athletes from indulging in a little frivolity.
Like Kyle Hale, FWT’s Nicolas Hale-Woods was quietly breathing a sigh of relief. He has carefully cultivated the FWT brand since launching the tour in 1996. A lot rides on each event: relationships with sponsors, the endless quest to capture that special social media moment destined to go viral, partnerships with the local community. As a co-financier of the event, Tourism Golden also had skin in the game.
“Golden’s history is rooted in adventure. That’s what brought us here,” said Golden mayor Ron Oszust, speaking at the pre-event welcome banquet at the Golden Civic Centre, where young local rippers had the chance to rub shoulders with their freeskiing heroes and heroines.
This adventure ethos is also a big part of what keeps bringing the FWT back to Kicking Horse.
The Freeride World Tour will be returning to Golden in 2024 with a weather window of February 14-20. Be there in person at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort or watch the event live at www.freerideworldtour.com.
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