The fourth time was a charm for the Freeride World Tour in Haines. The big mountain ski and snowboard competition made three attempts to hold the event, but cancelled each one because of weather.
The ten-day permit the Haines Borough granted the event ended on Sunday, but the borough manager gave permission to extend the window two more days. On Monday, the conditions were right for about 30 athletes to take on the Haines mountains.
“Welcome to the Freeride World Tour,” Commentator Ed Leigh said before the competition. “It’s a five-stop journey around the world, that challenges the best skiers and snowboarders to descend some of the most technical and intimidating mountains on the planet.”
This was the Freeride’s first ever stop in Alaska and it hasn’t been smooth sailing. After failed attempt after failed attempt, the organizers decided to try one more time on Monday. And sunny, clear skies welcomed the skiers onto a steep mountain face called “The Venue.”
“We have sat out 12 days waiting for these conditions,” Leigh said. “And the snow up here is just phenomenal.”
The competition began around 9:30 a.m. with men’s snowboarders. American Sammy Luebke started out the face-off strong. Judges gave him a score of 90 points out of 100, which put him in first place in his category.
As athletes from around the world took on the mountain, Haines locals watched the competition through an online livestream at various locations around town. About 20 people sat around a big screen at the public library.
“I’m the person going ‘Ohh! Oh my gosh that’s scary!'” said librarian Debbie Gravel.
The library’s IT guy and local skier Erik Stevens was watching too.
“It’s just been amazing to watch people open up this face,” he said. “The big errors are nailbiting, they’re exicitng to watch.”
Over at the Haines School, about 25 students crowded around a screen in that library. 9th grader Seth Waldo says he got out of math class to watch.
“We’ve been asking all of our teachers about it. They’ve said no,” Waldo said. “We finally got one teacher to buckle under peer pressure.”
Two more Americans topped the rankings in the men’s skiing and women’s snowboarding categories. 21-year-old rookie George Rodney gained a score of 87.75. Shannan Yates earned 79.5 points.
As Stevens watched the competition, he said the more athletes who carve tracks in the snow, the more difficult it gets.
“The face just gets more and more tracked up with every run,” he said. “It’s gonna be harder for them ’cause there’s less powder and bumps from the other tracks. That really messes you up when you’re going fast.”
That turned out to be true for the women skiiers, who went last.
“Boom! Oh no! She got caught up on the landing and she’s still tumbling,” commentators Leigh and Martin Winkler reacted as Alaskan Hazel Birnbaum fell.
Birnbaum was one of three female skiers to wipe out and lose her skis, meaning she wasn’t able to finish her run. But there were a couple women skiiers who made great impressions.
Austrian Eva Walkner was one of them. She scored 76.75 points.
“That was a worthy run of a champion,” Leigh said.
Walkner’s lead is big enough that she can already be named Freeride champion in her category, even though the final Freeride competition in Verbier, Switzerland is yet to come.
The Freeride in Haines ended on a low note when skier Jaclyn Paaso took a harsh tumble and had a doctor rushed to her side before she skied down to the finish line. There were a lot of impressive runs, but there were also some frightening falls. It doesn’t look like anyone was seriously injured.
As the event wrapped up, commentator Ed Leigh said the competition was worth the patience and hard work that went into making it happen in Haines. Winkler agreed.
“This is one for the history books,” Winkler said. “The first time Alaska, Haines, Freeride World Tour. Unbelievable efforts have been taken to make this happen.”