Wednesday, March 29, 2017
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Athletes put on show at Freeride World Tour qualifier

Will Dujardin stomps way to third place

by Than Acuff

Big air, smooth skiing and even a naked guy slashing his way down Dead End Chutes, the Freeride World Qualifier event at Crested Butte Mountain Resort last weekend had it all. In the end, a couple of locals stepped onto the podium as skier Will Dujardin finished third among the men and skier Emma Patterson reached third among the women. Meanwhile the WSCU Mountain Sports Team was in full effect with Tucker Vollbrecht leading the team with a fifth place finish.

The freeride event is the longest running competition in the nation dating back to the Budweiser Extreme Skiing competition in 1992 where the ski of choice was long and narrow and jump turns were the style.

Those days are long gone as athletes are shredding through highly exposed terrain at Mach speeds flashing venues. Still, no one that I’ve seen yet in the fat ski era has gone as big as Todd Swim did years ago in Dead End, though Vollbrecht came awfully close on the finals day this year.

Ben Blackwood has been a part of the freeride scene since 2005 either as a competitor or coach and was a judge again this year. He believes the athletes this year kept the spirit of the sport alive and the venues provided a great backdrop.

“The competitors are getting after it like they always have, but it was good to see them charging on venues we haven’t seen in a while,” says Blackwood.

Close to 150 athletes, snowboarders and skiers, signed up for the three-day freeride event looking to earn points toward a spot on the coveted Freeride World Tour. The weekend kicked off with a two-star qualifier day on Headwall, then moved to a four star qualifier on Sock-It-To-Me Saturday. By the time the snow settled from those two days, the field was cut down to 45 skiers and snowboarders for the finals on a venue starting on Moosehead and finishing in the Dead End Chutes/Body Bag area.

Neither Moosehead nor Competition Cliffs have been used in competition in over a decade, and it’s fun to see some different terrain,” says Blackwood.

The weather was in and out Sunday causing some course holds but thanks to the diligent work of event organizers and the judges, athletes were able to get their runs in under fairly stellar snow conditions.

“The ridiculous conditions we’ve had this year helped a lot,” says Blackwood.

The judges emphasized consistent, controlled skiing and riding from the athletes but were definitely looking for them to charge the hill and, for the most part, they followed suit. Again and again men and women slashed down Moosehead with several athletes opting for sizeable air time and carrying speed into the final pitch reeling it in for the top section of Dead End before opting for either straight lines or additional air time.

Local skier Ashley Bembenek was sitting in first place heading into the finals and had the winning run going after flashing Moosehead. Never one to back down, Bembenek opted to dive into the highly technical line between Body Bag and Dead End, aka Dead Bag. Unfortunately, after nailing the top part and sticking her exit air, she hit some thick snow and got tossed, ending her shot at the title. That allowed Laura Gaylord to move from second to first place, and Ashley Babcock had the top run of the day to move from ninth to second place and Patterson remained in third place to round out the podium among the women skiers.

The women snowboarders were up next and had similarly strong efforts with a couple riders sealing the win on their finals run. Erika Vikander moved from second place to the top on her run for the win, Michelle Locke rode into second place with the highest scoring run in her field for the day and Morgan Shippen made her move from the bubble to the podium to take third place.

Blake Hamm stole the show among the men snowboarders. Hamm entered the finals in 10th place but rocketed his way to the win with a straight-line exit in Moosehead and then sticking a 25-foot air off of Hamburger Rock at the bottom of the venue posting the highest score among his peers by far. The top riders heading in had some hiccups on their runs and that opened the door for Kai White to finish the day in second place and Roman Kristl to move from seventh to third place.

“There really was a lot of solid riding this weekend,” says Blackwood. “I feel like the top of the snowboard field was more aggressive than I have seen in a few years.”

The show came to a climactic close with the men skiers. The bottom of the field always goes first in the finals and they set the tone with fast, fluid skiing but the crowd was lit up by Andrew Rumpf’s run, which eventually stood out as the top scoring run of the day. Vollbrecht’s air pressed the bar even higher and when Dujardin skied the crowd erupted as his run catapulted him from sixth place to third.

Former Crested Butte resident Caleb Mullen has always been one to ski the more technical lines available in past competitions and he did the same this year to secure second place finishing his run by straight lining across the tops of rocks and through trees to the finish.

“Caleb Mullen was one of only two athletes to get into the Dead Bag area, which is arguably the most technical zone of any of the venues used this weekend,” says Blackwood. “And he slayed it.”

Trace Cooke would seal the win after coming into the finals in second place. He was by far the most consistent skier over the two days with the second highest scoring runs both days.

In the end, only a fine line separated those that stood on the podium and those did not across the board.

“With the level of competition we saw this weekend, it often comes down to very slight differences in their runs. Sometimes it’s the difficulty of the line that makes the difference, and other times it’s just a small bobble in the run or a brief hesitation that keeps you from the podium,” says Blackwood.

As for the naked skier…

“The naked guy had a pretty solid line score, but he lost some points in fluidity and control due to that fall after hucking off the cheeseburger at the bottom of Dead End,” says Blackwood. “He might’ve made those points up in the style and energy category, though. And he showed some nice technique with his pole whacking up there on top of that bush.”

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