OUT: Extreme Freeskiing Championship at Crested Butte

HE’S CALLED THE “FLYING FRENCHMAN” and for good reason. Julien Lopez of La Plagne, France, struts his stuff during Saturday’s superfinals of the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championship at Crested Butte. Lopez piled up some extra points for his aerials during this run to finish fifth overall. 

CRESTED BUTTE — As the cowbells, air horns and general tumult dulled to a roar, Brian Morris turned to no one in particular and said in a awestruck voice, “This is not at all the same sport I’m familiar with.”

Morris, from Lake George, N.Y., and about 400 other exuberant, sun-drenched fans of pushing the envelope had just watched Cliff Bennett wrap up his men’s title Saturday in the 2009 Subaru U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championship at Crested Butte with a screaming, and we mean screaming, run down Crested Butte’s Hourglass/Bermuda Triangle.

This 1,000-vertical and vertiginous feet of cliffs, big rocks, snow pillows, tree patches, knife-edged gullies and did we mention cliffs, with some pitches so steep neither snow nor skis want to stick, normally is off-limits to even this area’s talented pool of resident risk-takers.
Thank goodness.

But it wasn’t too much for Bennett, of Snowbird, Utah, nor most of the highly skilled and maybe-a-little-crazy competitors who hucked, ripped and, in some cases, fell, their way down ski lines only a daring visionary might see.

Two days were spent whittling the initial field of 95 and 19 women to the top 33 men and 13 women for Saturday’s finals and superfinals. The first days the field worked its way across some of Crested Butte’s steepest steeps, starting at the Headwall (where 18 years ago the first extreme skiing titles were decided) to Saturday’s final runs on three adjacent ski runs (by name, even if not recognizable by the average skier) with the titles Headwall, Bermuda Triangle and Bed, Bath and Beyond.

The latter is so-named for the many “pillow drops,” which has nothing to do with home furnishings but describes those large pillows of snow on boulders and outcrops just begging for a stomping.

The three runs haven’t been open to the public this year, which means skier pressure was nonexistent and competitors repeatedly found themselves with very mixed conditions, frequently punching through the unconsolidated snow pack. Conditions ranged from soft powder to crusty, loose snow and even bare rock and trees.

“It was pretty punchy out there,” agreed Bennett after his head-turning run.

That’s the beauty of skiing these sheer walls, said Eric Schmidt, the weekend’s head judge and vice-president of the International Free Skiing Association.

“It’s different because it’s so steep and committing,” Schmidt said. “Every move is committing.”

Bennett started the afternoon’s superfinals in 13th position but made his move early in his last run when he turned a double pillow drop into a 30-foot drop, flying into the gut of the Headwall, picking up speed all the way down the steep chute, throwing in three giant slalom turns and then a quick right across the finish line.

He looked amazed to have finished standing up, and several times he put his hands up, as if in disbelief he made it without falling.

He had covered the 1,000 or so vertical feet in 48 seconds, the fastest time of the day and the course record.

“I always enjoyed skiing that pillow line and on the second run I wanted to throw in a little variation,” said Bennett during a post-run interview. “Once I was in the air, I thought I’d better get my stomping feet on and put the landing gear down.”

Extreme skiers wear body armor to protect themselves against falls and collisions with rocks and trees, said Evan Crawford of Crested Butte. He sat out this weekend’s competition after breaking his collarbone in a recent fall while “dropping some air” in the nearby backcountry.

“This year’s snowpack is so different from last winter’s,” Crawford said. “Last year you could drop anything but this year there’s a lot of guys getting hurt.”

As testimony to the skiers’ skills, not a single serious injury was reported during the competition.

The top woman skier Saturday was Michelle Manning, also of Snowbird, who said she dropped “the biggest air” she’s ever tried during her first run Saturday.

“I was going to go bigger (during the superfinals) but decided to play it safe and I’m glad I did,” Manning said.

Judges rated skiers on five categories, 10 points maximum each: line choice, route down the course; control; fluidity; form/technique; and aggression/energy.

In his two final runs, Bennett piled up 108.56 points to win the $5,000 first prize. Crested Butte resident Caleb Mullen was second with 105 points ($3,000) and Griffin Post of Sun Valley took third with 104 points and won $2,000.

Manning totalled 84.38 points to win her title and $3,500 while Phillipa Hunt (Crested Butte) finished second with 83.25 points ($2,000) and Crystal Wright (Jackson Hole, Wyo.) was third, 80.44 points, $1,000.

Crested Butte was the second stop on the Freeskiing World Tour. Next stop is March 5-8 at Snowbird, Utah, with the World Championships set for April 8-12 at Alyeska, Alaska.

As he gathered his pack to leave, Morris shrugged and looked at his skis.

“I’ll never think of skiing the same again,” he said. 


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