Golden BC – Epicentre of Canadian Freeride

“3…2…1…Drop in!”

“The Canadian and rising star is on course now. Coming into his first feature…Wow! Big 360! Yes and he’s carving up the fresh snow heading towards the next section. Oh and he makes it through that double double drop, now coming into the last feature, no one has lined this one up…..and he stomps it! That has to be one of the biggest airs of the day! And the judges agree, with a score of 98/100 that has to be one of the highest scores in FWT history! With only a few athletes left he must know he has the win!”

Along with top level athletes from all over the world, I arrived in Golden for the one and only Freeride World Tour (FWT) stop in North America. I showed up a few days early to gather some info about the town and the history of freeride in Golden. Later, at the resort I met up with old friends from our past days of competing. We were treated with classic BC storm skiing. Low clouds and blowing snow forced us to ski by brail at the top, but the impressive chutes with rock walls on either side gave us reference and definition. We lapped the chutes over and over, each time we felt that healthy burn as we bent down to pick up our skis, eager to go up the gondola once again.

Thursday night the athletes gathered at the Whitetooth Brewery in an invisible fog of hops and yeast. The place was full of people with different accents, many of them sporting coveted Red Bull hats. I walked under lights that illuminated reflections off the giant metal cylinders and observed the faces in the room. Everyone was a heavy hitter. Each athlete able to win their category. The level of skill gave me goose bumps, I couldn’t wait to watch them ski.

Up until 2013 there were two World Tours. The Freeskiing World Tour, with events in North and South America and the Freeride World Tour, based in Europe. Each tour claimed World Champions until the tours merged, creating the most prestigious Freeride Tour on the planet.

The North American stops used to be at Revelstoke and Kirkwood, but after having to postpone each event twice due to low snowpack the FWT decided to stay in Europe. Now Golden has put Canada back on the map by hosting two world class Freeride events.

In 1986 The Whitetooth Ski Area opened and was owned and operated by the town of Golden. In the late 90’s, worried about the future of the resort, the town sold it to an investment company after voting 97% in favour of the sale. In December of 2000 the expanded resort opened under the new name Kicking Horse Mountain Resort (KHMR) and is known for its long vertical, chutes, cliffs and great slack country.

In 2007 KHMR hosted their first, one of a kind Freeride event known as Wrangle The Chute, with only 15 invited athletes. Over the years the event grew, and continued to separate itself by having a man made jump at the bottom and a human powered mechanical bull at the finish line, hence the name. After the takeover by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies the jump disappeared, and eventually so did the bull. Still, Wrangle The Chute is going strong and is now part of the Freeride Wold Qualifier (FWQ) tour in North America.

This year the first stop of the FWT season was to be held in Hakuba, Japan, but due to intense amounts of snow (classic Japan) and bad visibility the event was called off, with hopes that another resort on the tour would re-stage the event. Golden was the perfect place to do just that.

The competition was supposed to be held on the Saturday but was put on hold due to weather. Competitors, fans and fellow North American freeride athletes skied fresh snow every day until the weather finally broke on Monday. Hundreds of excited fans flooded the resort and along with the colourful locals, gathered on the ridges of KHMR for not only one but two freeride shows of a lifetime.

The venue for the first competition was just out of bounds on a permanently closed face known as Ozone. There was a buzz of excitement among the locals. Sitting in the gondola I listened to them state their hope that Ozone would become part of the resort after the competition. Today only a few people have poached the face.

Ozone was a complex venue, with a lot of technical features. Being a freeskier myself I had a hard time figuring out what line I would have chosen. Sharky, thin, and tricky were some of the words the competitors used to describe the face. With no on-course inspection the athletes didn’t know what to expect until they dropped in.

There was a lot of hype surrounding the Canadian athletes. Logan Pehota (Pemberton, Ski Men), Audrey Hebert (Banff, Snowboard Women), Kylie Sivell (Rossland, Ski Women) and Trace Cooke (Nelson, Ski Men) felt the pressure of competing on home soil, which added to the immense pressure of competing on the world stage.

Starting with snowboard men, Davey Baird (USA) crushed the venue with a series of airs with no hesitation, landing him the top spot. Snowboard legend Gigi Ruff (AUT) locked in a sweet 360 and had a fluid run coming in at a close 2nd place. For snowboard women, Manuela Mandl (AUT) placed 1st with a large air at the top then successfully stomped a few airs at the bottom. She took the win by a large margin. The Canadian Audrey Hebert dropped in during a time of bad visibility and ended up catching a rock at the top. After a quick tumble she was back on her feet but she knew her chance to podium was over. She was still fun to watch as she carved and slashed the fresh snow to the bottom and ended up placing 6th. “There was a lot of powder and a lot of sharks and I definitely found both. Looking for redemption tomorrow.”

Eva Walkner (AUT) pioneered a new line, skiing fast and fluid claiming the top spot for female ski while Canadian Kylie Sivell crushed her run. She almost lost control but held on through the bottom which was enough to land her 3rd place.

Finally, the ski men category. Massive airs, big tumbles, technical double drops and huge 360’s happened on the regular. The young Trace Cooke (CAD), pictured above, had an awesome run lined up but took too much speed into his bottom air and unfortunately exploded in the outrun. The crowd went wild as he got up and skied to the finish line. He was still in good spirits later and commented “I’m excited to finally see the Freeride World Tour come to Canada, see all the friends sending it on the Canadian stomping ground.”

Logan Pehota dropped in near the end of the pack. Most of the lines had been thought of and skied but he came in with confidence. He threw a big 360 off the top cornice, lined up a technical double drop then hit one of the biggest cliffs on the venue, one that no one else hit. His line claimed him one of the highest scores in FWT history. “So I just won the first stop of the FWT! On my home terrain! I couldn’t ask for anything better, honestly it’s just like a dream!”

Standing on the ridge looking down at the finish line I sensed the energy of the athletes, the finish corral was like an orb, glowing and growing. The spectators buzzed, like after watching a ski movie and I wondered if there were any injuries that afternoon, following a show like that.

The next day KHMR re-staged the Hakuba event. The athletes wore their bibs from Japan and they even brought the Hakuba start gate to the top of Truth Or Dare. This face is inbounds but littered with cliffs and features, like a lot of Golden’s inbound terrain. More flips, spins and big airs happened on this venue, the snow looked good and the athletes put on another great show.

Snowboard Men dropped in first, and Jonathan Penfield (USA) took the top spot with a smooth run and stylish grabs. For Ski Men Ivan Malakhov (RUS) started off with a huge air at the top then finished with clean skiing to the bottom. His stoke showed in the finish when he received his score, taking a long awaited win. “ It’s my first win on the FWT! I changed my line last minute and I’m so stoked it worked out well!”

The Italian skier Arianna Tricomi earned first place with a combination of clean airs and solid technique. Representing Japan for the restaged Hakuba event, Wakana Hama took home the win for Snowboard Women with a technical line choice.

Today, Golden is the epicentre of Canadian freeride. It is one of the places to grow as a big mountain skier. It is the perfect training ground; the long laps will strengthen your legs and the inbounds terrain is littered with cliffs. Also, the town itself is quiet, which allows for more skiing than anything else.

I once said, if I lived in Golden I would get myself into a whole lot of trouble, but that is what us freeskiers want, a sense of danger and the ability to live to tell the tale. I am grateful for my experiences there, and will always look forward to going back to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.

By Caleb Brown

Photos courtesy of: FWT & Tourism Golden