Starting 9 a.m. Tuesday, some of the best big mountain skiers and snowboarders in the world will compete in Haines in the fourth stop of the Freeride World Tour. (Editor’s Note: The competition was postponed due to weather. It took place Monday, March 23.)
After taking on slopes in France, Andorra and Austria, the tour is holding its first ever Alaska stop. 36 athletes will face off to qualify for the final event in Verbier, Switzerland.
Renei Barkered is a Freeride champion from Sweden. He’s skied in seven Freeride World Tours, gliding down slopes all over the world. But he’s never been to Haines.
“Of course I learn about Haines watching ski movies, it’s been a renowned big mountain ski mecca for a long time,” Barkered said. “So I think it’s every skier’s dream to come here at least once and ride these incredible mountains.”
Ski mecca — that’s what the Freeride athletes and organizers keep calling Haines.
“Because Alaska is one of best places in the world for this kind of ski,” said French ski guide and former competitor Stephane Dan. “This is one place where [it’s] every rider’s dream to come.”
Dan one of the dozen or so people dedicated to safety on the tour. He says the remoteness of Haines adds to what makes it a ski mecca.
“It’s very remote place,” Dan said. “We can feel it this morning, with the [Alaska Marine Highway] ferry, the boat. We can feel that this is not the end of the world, but it’s very, very far away from everything.”
Remote also mean expensive. That’s why the Freeride hasn’t come to Alaska before. General Manager Nicholas Hale-Woods says it’s been a dream for years.
“Because Alaska is not only the last frontier, it’s freeskiing and freeriding’s heaven,” he said.
Hale-Woods says in the past, there hasn’t been enough money to bring the huge competition to Alaska.
“And this year we could assemble the budget to finally do it,” he said. “And we chose Haines.”
Haines borough officials say it’s costing Freeride almost a million dollars to hold an event here. Hale-Woods says video and broadcast production is the biggest expense. Freeride sets up a production tent on the mountain and live-streams video coverage.
Hale-Woods says that’s done by a staff of 30 people. That means there are almost as many video production crew members as there are athletes competing.
So how does the competition actually work? Barkered explains:
“Whoever skiis down the mountain in the nicest possible and coolest way wins,” he said. “This is all based on an overall impression. Basically meaning the one with the most “wow factor” wins. They’re looking for something that looks like a ski movie. So you want to go fast, you want to jump big cliffs, if you can do a trick in the middle there. And all of this accumulates points to create a score.”
Barkered is ranked third in the men’s ski bracket right now. He and a lot of the other competitors are from European countries. But there are also some American athletes.
“It’s really exciting to be in my home state,” said Hazel Birnbaum, a skier from Moose Pass, Alaska, who now lives in California. She’s currently ranked third among the female skiers. Birnbaum says Haines is the only stop on this tour where the ski runs are solely accessible by helicopter. Instead of competing near a ski resort, they’ll be competing in the backcountry.
“With a helicopter we can access terrain that normally we could never access,” she said. “It opens up a whole world of possibility. The possibility of skiing on a face that not anybody else gets to ski on — that’s really cool.”
In Haines, like all the Freeride stops, safety is a big concern.
“We have to make sure the [mountain] face we chose is not in the big avalanche danger zone,” Stephane Dan said. “But we are not 100 percent sure, never because it is big mountain everywhere.”
Local heliski company co-owner Scott Sundberg was caught in an avalanche while scouting ski conditions last week for this competition. He wasn’t seriously injured. Another non-fatal avalanche happened at the Freeride’s stop in Austria. The French skier who triggered it didn’t qualify for the next phase of the competition.
The weekend most of the Freeride athletes and organizers arrived in Haines, there was a welcoming reception at the local museum, a bonfire and restaurant specials for the visitors. Hale-Woods says everyone knew how great the skiing is in Haines. But they didn’t know that they’d get such a warm welcome from the town.
“We’ve been really surprised by [the] welcoming of the Haines community,” he said.
Hale-Woods says he’s not sure whether Freeride will come back to Haines in the future. It depends on budget and how smoothly the competition goes. But he says the welcome the town has given the visitors won’t hurt.