Women sweep the ski podium
For 23 years, Crested Butte Mountain Resort has hosted one of the top big mountain freeskiing events in the U.S. What started out as the Subaru North American Extremes has morphed over the years and is now the IFSA Four-Star Freeride World Qualifier (FWQ), serving as a conduit to the international Freeride World Tour.
And in those 23 years, conditions have never been as desperate as they were on the Headwall on Friday, March 20 for the FWQ four-star finals. Granted, there was that one year skiers had to negotiate sugary snow through Paradise Cliffs, but never were competitors subjected to thin conditions with a near boilerplate surface as they were Friday.
Nevertheless, the event crew and Crested Butte Professional Ski Patrol worked to make the Headwall playable and athletes were treated to sunny skies and the support of the local professional freeskiing peanut gallery with blender drinks, a bull horn and, of course, fireworks.
The local women made the most of defending their hometown hill. Mary Boddington finished in second place overall among snowboard women but it was ROMP skier Ashley Bembenek, Kele Thorsen and Sierra “Sisi” Sawyer who truly carried the local colors, sweeping the women’s’ ski podium.
Bembenek opened the season taking first place at a Subaru Freeride Series event in Snowbird. She missed the podium in her next two events but was determined to step it up in her backyard.
“I was pretty happy with the way I’ve been skiing but defending the home slopes was something I was looking forward to,” says Bembenek.
She missed her intended line on the qualifier day in Hawks Nest but made up for it with a nice air out of the Slipper near the finish line.
“I had hoped to hit a transfer but missed it,” says Bembenek. “Third was better than I expected so I was happy.”
Bembenek’s plan for her final run was determined almost entirely by snow conditions on the Headwall. After an inspection run, Bembenek decided skiers right was too slick and Rabbit Ears was too thin, so she opted for Angle Gully.
“The snow in there was the best and I knew it was the best line,” explains Bembenek. “It’s just a personal challenge for me because it’s not a terribly hard line but it’s a hard line to ski fluidly. To keep it moving top to bottom is tricky.”
In the end, Bembenek crushed Angle Gully top to bottom and exited out to hit one last air along the Powder 8 rib to post the top score of the day and take the title.
“That was probably the best I’ve ever skied Angle Gully—it went great,” says Bembenek.
On the men’s side of things, former Crested Butte resident Caleb Mullen returned to his old stomping grounds to lay down one of the best runs of the day in the finals. Mullen dropped into Angle Gully without hesitation, stomped his exit air only to take a hard right to boost another air and then finish with a truck driver off a final kicker at the bottom of the venue. Mullen’s score was good enough to move him from 18th place all the way into second place overall.
Local assistant golf pro Flyin’ Ryan Hoynacki joined Mullen on the podium, moving from 13th place up to third place when all was said and done.
Hoynacki started things off jumping into the two-star FWQ event on Wednesday. While he didn’t need to compete, he thought it would help out, given the first day of the four-star qualifier was on Hawks Nest as well.
“I always do well there and I wanted to get a good feel for the venue and check out the cliff on the Slipper,” says Hoynacki.
He finished with a third-place finish on Wednesday and then rebooted for another run on Hawks Nest on Thursday, finishing that day in 13th and making the cut for the finals.
Hoynacki admits the conditions on the Headwall were a cause for concern as he was planning out his finals run.
“I was strategizing a lot because the conditions were so awful,” says Hoynacki. “Conditions were so firm that I figured people weren’t going to do anything too crazy, so I chose that cliff in Angle Gully because I ski it a lot and I knew I could do it well and hit it hard.”
Hoynacki capped his three-day “tournament” with a tremendous effort in the final round as he pulled out his driver, teed it high and let it fly, sending the biggest air of all competitors out of Angle Gully and stuck it to a smooth, high-speed finish, bringing the hometown crowd to its feet.
“It was sweet coming down to the finish and everyone was cheering and throwing beers,” says Hoynacki.
Western State Colorado University Mountain Sports Team athlete Max Durtschi had the highest score of the day in the finals when he also entered into Angle Gully only to air out of it in time to reel around and float a huge three off of the mini-fridge rock.
Bembenek finished the Subaru Freeride Series with the overall title and is sitting in first place in the FWQ standings for Region 2. Unfortunately, event officials will not allow Bembenek late entry into the final four-star qualifier event at Kicking Horse Ski Resort in Canada this week, leaving her overall standing in flux.
The Freeride World Tour takes the top two women from Region 2 so if her previous results hold, she will spend next season competing overseas.
“That would be ideal,” says Bembenek.