An international big mountain ski and snowboard competition is back in Haines. The Freeride World Tour tests the skills of alpine athletes from around the world, with stops in five countries. The athletes say the slopes in France, Austria and Andorra don’t compare with the mountains in Haines.
Residents in Haines might be surprised to find out, the peaks that make up our daily backdrop have a towering reputation across the globe.
“I don’t know if people from Haines know how famous their village is,” said Austrian skier Eva Walkner. “All over the world, skier and snowboarder, it’s probably the most famous place in the world. And it’s the big goal for each skier to come to Haines once in a lifetime.”
Walkner took first place in the 2015 Freeride World Tour women’s ski category. She is leading her category again this year. She says the experience of skiing in Haines is different than the more crowded, built up, European stops that precede it.
“Here it’s so open, it’s so wide, you just need the [helicopter.] It’s so much bigger. It’s amazing to stand at the top and it’s just mountains. Crazy.”
What is it about the mountains here that make them so special? Swiss snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer says, because the mountains are so close to the water, the snow sticks on very steep faces.
“And the way it builds up to those beautiful, ice creamy spines makes it so playful. Especially maybe for us snowboarders. Just perfect shaped terrain, and exciting and really technical and impressive and a bit scary but so perfect. For us, the one place you find it, you know it’s in Haines. That’s why we’re so excited to come here.”
“The mountains in Alaska are famous, especially the ones around Haines,” said Austrian snowboarder Florian Orley.
Orley might be the athlete who has competed in the Freeride the longest – 16 years.
“Before Haines was on the schedule, everybody talked about qualifying for the finals [in Verbier, Switzerland],” Orley said. “And now everybody’s talking about qualifying for Alaska. Because this is a dream for every freerider in the world, to ride these spectacular mountains where the snowpack is so safe you can ride the steepest faces of the planet.”
The pool of athletes is cut by about half before coming to Haines. Only the 30 or so with the top rankings compete here. Orley says this will be his last time competing in the Freeride. He says he’s looking forward to that moment where he’s standing at the top of the mountain, about to descend.
“The moment you leave the start gate and you do the first turn, you’re so caught up in the moment you don’t even hear the helicopter above your head anymore. You’re so focused on the riding, sticking your jumps, finding your line. It’s like you’re caught in a dream and only when you are at the very bottom you’re waking up again.”
It’s not easy for the Freeride to include Haines in its roster of competition spots. It’s the most expensive destination for the tour because of the remoteness and lack of infrastructure in the mountains. All the athletes and crew need to be flown in, in helicopters.
Snowboarder Marxer says it’s a tough spot, but it needs to be kept in the line-up.
“For a competition tour being called the Freeride World Tour…For freeriding, it needs to stop here in Alaska, especially in Haines, for the terrain. I think it would make no sense to have a whole tour around the world competing in freeriding without stopping by in this amazing place.”
Now, the organizers will wait for the perfect weather and snow conditions for the competition to take place. Last year, they had to hold off until the very last minute before taking on the mountains. But the athletes say the wait is worth it.
For updates on when the competition will take place, go to the Freeride’s Facebook page or website. It will be livestreamed at freerideworldtour.com. The Haines library and restaurants and bars plan to carry the live stream.