The Freeride World Tour will return to Haines for a third year in 2017. The extreme ski and snowboard competition features elite athletes taking on the slopes outside of town. The tour brings dozens of athletes, organizers, and media to town for several days in the spring. Haines is only North American stop on the worldwide tour.
“It is really exciting,” says Haines Tourism Director Leslie Ross
“What we have to our benefit is that Haines is world-renowned as one of the top place these skiers and snowboarders want to come. It’s definitely driven by the athletes themselves. They want to compete here.”
Because the borough doesn’t dole out the same financial support provided by other stops on the tour, Ross says there’s always a chance they won’t come back. It’s not cheap for the whole crew to get here, stay in hotels and take helicopters to the mountaintops for practice and competition.
Ross says the organization spent around $70,000 on helicopter flights alone at the most recent competition, and $100,000 the year before. And while most stops on the tour can afford to foot the Freeride bill, Haines is not in that position, but the community comes through in other ways.
“Well, the borough and the tourism department … I have a chunk of funding for events and this is one of them that it’s used for,” Ross says. “The community kicks in a lot of in-kind (donations), so in-kind is really high and then I think locally, we had donations in the realm of around $7,500 last year.”
Freeride organizers are still looking for more state-wide and regional sponsors to fund their Alaska venture.
The revenue from bed and sales tax, and the money spent at local restaurants is a big boon for Haines in a less busy time of year. And, Ross says, the global spotlight cast on the community during the competition is invaluable.
“For us, I just think it’s great,” she says. “As someone who markets a town in Alaska, Alaska is the destination. So, to be a destination within a destination is pretty hard. So to be a destination for skiing puts us on the map as a town, not just Alaska.”
In 2017, Ross is hoping to include more activities during the week around the actual event, including film showings and school visits by the athletes. She says during a meeting with organizers in the coming days, more details will be ironed out.
But the wild and free side of backcountry sports is not without its risks. So far this year, two Freeride athletes have died in the backcountry.
Swedish skier Matilda Rapaport died this week as a result of injuries after getting caught in an avalanche while filming in Chile. Rapaport finished second in her category at the Haines competition in March. 2016 snowboard champion Estelle Balet died in April in an avalanche in Switzerland.
Tom Winter is the Americas manager of the Freeride World Tour. He says the death of Rapaport was a shock, but she died as a result of doing what she loved.
“Life is very fragile, and when in a natural environment without boundaries and without safety nets, life is richer but there are risks that come along with that,” Winter says.
Winter says Freeride is looking forward to coming back to the world-class runs that Haines offers, partly because the community is one of the friendliest on the tour. That, coupled with the spectacular conditions makes the extra investment worth it, he says.
“We feel, and I think I speak for all the athletes and everyone else involved in the tour, we feed so blessed when we visit Haines,” he says. “The warmth of the community and the beauty of the location, it’s such a special spot. The hospitality is unparalleled and it’s a true blessing to come and visit you guys in Alaska and I’m looking forward to it again this year.”
With some technical glitches this spring, Winter says organizers will definitely have a Plan B next year. The satellite link failed on the day of competition, so there was no live feed of the action, something that many in Haines, and around the world, look forward to. Winter says they might also be looking at a venue change, though weather and other challenges will dictate that.
Winter says, especially in Alaska, staying flexible is a key to success.