Freeride competitors stretch the limits of downhill skiing
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
While some might maintain that the sport of backcountry big mountain skiing or freeriding is a more recent addition to the overall skiing and snowboarding genres, it is also possible to argue that this extreme sport was actually born back in the 1930s and ’40s, shaped in the couloirs and gullies that swooped and plunged down from France’s Mont Blanc.
As legendary French ski champion Emile Allais and his band of mountain adventurers were assaulting the mountains around Chamonix, France, essentially creating some of the first hair-raising backcountry descents, historians also note that the first American big mountain competition, the American Inferno, was held in 1933 on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in Tuckerman Ravine.
Some of Allais and company’s early descents would no doubt boggle the imagination, especially considering the rudimentary nature of the gear they were using back then. But it took until the late 1960s and ’70s, when the term ski extreme was first coined by the French and the equipment had improved substantially, for freeride to really attract global attention.
Much of this was due to the hard charging styles of freeride’s main proponents, visionary mountain men such as Sylvain Saudan, Patrick Vallencant, Bruno Gouvy and Jean-Marc Boivin, who were stretching the limits of downhill skiing in a way that had never been seen before. In those years, freeride truly was extreme. If you fell, then you died.
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Once again, the Americans were not far behind. Montana’s Bill Briggs and California’s Steve McKinney were the first of a new generation of young daredevils that also began testing themselves on the steep slopes of the Rockies, the Wasatch and the Sierra Nevada.
More Hollywood than their French counterparts and equally into the entertainment and competition aspects of the sport, icons such as Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt brought a new aesthetic to the American ski experience in the 1980s. It was their offbeat style, showcased by filmmaker Greg Stump in such seminal films as “Blizzard of Aahhh’s” that set the stage for the launch of the first-ever freeride contests. And what a launch it was.
In 1991, the now near-mythical World Extreme Ski Championships was contested in Valdez, Alaska, on the steep slopes of the Chugach Range. The start list for the contest read like a who’s who of modern freeriding as Doug Coombs won the inaugural men’s title, while Kim Reichhelm was tops for the women.
At the same time, the Europeans, mainly the French and Swedes, were honing their big mountain techniques on the toughest inclines they could find around Mont Blanc and the Savoie Region. The game changed when they realized that the Americans were holding big mountain contests and, in 1999, French teenager Guerlain Chicherit unleashed an incredible run in flat light and adverse Alaskan conditions to capture his first world championship.
Few people realized the enormous impact Chicherit’s Valdez victory would have on the freeriding movement, for the new world champion was anything but an anomaly. Back home in France were dozens of young adventurers just like him, leading many ski historians to surmise that this was the true beginning of the freeride revolution.
Like their skiing brethren, the extreme snowboarders of the early 1990s had their own Alaska event in which to shine. Launched in 1992 as the World Extreme Snowboarding Championships, the event soon morphed into the hugely popular King of the Hill, under the visionary guidance of Nick Peralta.
Here too, the start list for these event events read like a list of snowboarding royalty, including Matt Goodwill, Shaun Palmer, Steve Klassen, Julie Zell, Tina Basich, Anthonin Lieutaghi and Axel Pauporte.
It was just a matter of time before the two disciplines would join forces, but it would take a Swiss-British entrepreneur by the name of Nicolas Hale-Woods to make it happen. Launched in the winter of 1996, Hale-Woods’ Verbier Extreme was originally a snowboard-only contest, but all that changed in 2004 when 10 of the world’s top extreme skiers were invited to participate.
The event, now known as the Freeride World Tour, was never the same again. Still overseen by Hale-Woods, the circuit travels from Russia to America and back to the Alps for the final events.