Aspen freeskiers making their mark
Vail, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado ” Take miles of high cliff bands, then add buckets of fluffy powder snow. Start local kids skiing at an early age and something special happens.
You get a hotbed of cliff-hucking talent.
And so it is that a group of young Aspenites are making their mark in the freeskiing world.
It began at an event in Telluride at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, when some 12 Aspen skiers wowed the judges, earned a few podiums and earned the nickname “The Aspen Ripper Factory” from announcers impressed by Ute City’s glut of talent.
“All the Aspen kids threw down really hard and the announcers started calling all of us that,” said local skier Mark Welgos, 23, who won this year’s Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Freeskiing Open and placed third at the Colorado Freeride Championship in Snowmass.
Since then, Aspen’s “factory” has morphed into a roving band of skiers, the kind that pile into cars and share condos to keep expenses low, all for the chance to dive off cliffs at freeskiing competitions across the West.
Welgos joins the likes of Will and Kate Cardamone as well as Emily Teague, John Nicoletta, Jason Brown, Jacqui Edgerly, Kate Olson, Chris Tatsuno, Adam Moszynski and Brian Anzini for life on the road, chasing glory in a fast-growing sport. Search their names on the Web and find blogs, contest results, YouTube videos and photos of cliff jumps and other ski-mountaineering excursions.
“I think a lot of us really have been manufactured in Aspen,” joked Kate Cardamone, who won first place at the recent Freeride Championship in Snowmass.
It’s hard to catch up with this traveling troupe, and Cardamone called from the RV she was sharing with her brother Will, 23, and other local skiers in Alaska for the World Championships.
Many Aspen skiers are sponsored by Black Diamond, a common trait that’s created a kind of informal team, Cardamone said, though there’s no coach in sight.
“We pretty much caravan from event to event,” Welgos said. Some skiers, such as Nick DeVore, an Aspen local and accomplished telemark skier, have many of their expenses covered by sponsors.
“It’s good to get in the car with Nick,” Welgos joked.
Skiing together so much, Aspen skiers have their own style, Cardamone said, and the “ripper factory” moniker has brought the group even closer.
“We didn’t come up with it,” Cardamone admitted, “but we kind of like it.”
After the Telluride contest, members of the group posted strong results at freeskiing competitions at Squaw Valley, Calif., Jackson Hole, Snowmass, Crested Butte and Snowbird in Utah. Nicoletta and Moszynski finished second and fifth in Telluride, respectively. Olson and Edgerly finished fourth and fifth in Crested Butte. Edgerly took fifth in Squaw, and Welgos fourth among the men. Then, in Jackson on March 13-16, Welgos nabbed first among the men and Teague first among the women.
Freeriding judges look at the difficulty of a skier’s line and the skier’s technique, control, fluidity and aggressiveness. Many of the Aspen skiers have earned coveted nominations for “sickbird” awards, prizes that may not land a skier on the podium but honor the skier for going big or doing something extreme.
Are free skiers born or made?
So, what is the formula that has churned out so many top-notch freeskiers in Aspen?
Racing with the Aspen Ski and Snowboard Club developed a similar mindset, Kate Cardamone said. It was also the many powder days and backcountry adventures that led her and others into the realm of freeskiing.
“I think it’s the sense of adventure and just kind of a deeper connection to our place and the outdoors,” she added. “A bunch of us had similar childhoods and spent a lot of time outdoors. We all grew up just skiing together.”
And, as freeskiing grows in popularity, there are more and more young skiers coming out of local terrain parks and backcountry skiing to join the sport, Cardamone said.
“The school system here just makes skiing so accessible for everyone,” said Jacqui Edgerly, 19, also a former AVSC skier. “We just ski for the fun of it … A lot of the terrain here is just steep and open, and we rip from top to bottom.”
Most of the Aspen freeskiers are in their late teens or early 20s, but some, like Jason Brown, 32, joined the sport later. Brown, who felt right at home coming from the icy hills of Michigan to the soft powder of Aspen in 2001, said local skiers’ successes at competitions have a lot to do with the vast amount of backcountry terrain around Aspen, and a simple love of skiing.
“It’s more about going out and having fun and watching people rip,” Brown said.
“I’ve been hitting cliffs since I started skiing,” Welgos added. “And competitions make skiers push it quite a bit. … You can do it fairly safely if you know what to look for and have a lot of experience.”
But where do kids get the guts to hurl themselves off cliffs?
Tom Cardamone, the father of two of the circuit’s top skiers, offered some insights.
“There was a period a little over two years ago when I took my wise eldest child [Kate] aside and asked her if she couldn’t influence her brother to take a more cautious approach to enjoying skiing,” Cardamone said. “The result was that she started competing with him and started winning or coming in the top three.”
Watching his daughter launch huge cliffs makes him uneasy, Tom Cardamone admitted.
While his daughter Kate won first place at the Snowmass competition, she did so only after making a headfirst landing on one drop when a pillow at the top of the cliff collapsed.
“All of the sudden, I was upside down,” she said. “Luckily, I have instinctual tuck-and-roll.”
Her father was relieved when she landed in soft, deep powder.
“I was right there, thinking ‘Oh my God, I hope she learns something from this,'” Tom Cardamone said.
Kate acknowledged that her parents get nervous, but added that “all parents are.”
As Aspenites, skiing was always a part of family life, but Tom Cardamone is surprised by the competitive track his kids have taken. He is pleased, however, that his kids appreciate the wilderness aspect of life in the mountains.
“These guys seem to really love the exhilaration of what they still think is being in control,” Cardamone said.
“Your knees and other body parts will wear out if this keeps up,” he added, “so taking it to other pursuits might be wise eventually.”
Tom Cardamone has heard the “Aspen Ripper Factory” moniker, but said he isn’t sure if it’s a real club or “just kind of a fun heading placed on any Aspen person who has decided they want to fling themselves off a cliff.”
Whatever happens, it looks like Aspen’s free skiers are destined to make their mark.
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