MOONLIGHT BASIN -- Shana Wetzler’s hands went numb as she watched her boyfriend, Pat Gannon, smoothly and scarily arc his skis at breakneck speed through and over the maze of rocks atop The Headwaters here on Friday.
“Dude, that was sick, man,” said Morgan Haymans as he congratulated a smiling, whooping Gannon at the bottom of the daring run.
Gannon, who works at Moonlight Basin ski area, was one of 62 men and 20 women competing in the Subaru Freeride Series, one of the Freeride World Qualifier events being held across the United States and Canada this spring.
He had started his first run of the two-day event by going airborne off a 30-foot cliff known as Tetris.
“That’s a scary little technical piece right there,” he said afterward. “I did it from the side last year and stuck it. I wanted to see if I could do it from the top.
“That’s the fastest I’ve ever come down The Headwaters,” he added. “That’s the biggest adrenaline rush you get.”
Not a song
Older folks may think that freeride is a 1972 rock song by Edgar Winter, but if traditional ski racing were compared to rock ’n’ roll, then freeriding would be heavy metal – edgier, a little scary at times and always done at full throttle.
The term freeride was first applied to snowboarders who used natural terrain as jump features. It also meant riding off the groomed runs, through the trees, chutes and rocks often in deep powder snow. Now it’s been co-opted into an international competition with some of the athletes transitioning from the more traditional world of ski racing.
“This is a one-of-a-kind sport,” said Jessica Kunzer, one of the organizers of the event for Mountain Sports International. “And this is a monumental year because it’s the first time that there’s been one freeride system for Europe and the U.S. and Canada.”
Gannon, 29, is one of those who have shunned the old to embrace the new. As he popped a cold beer at the finish line, he noted that was another reason he likes freeriding: no one ever handed him a beer when he finished racing gates.
Moonlight Basin proved to be a tough venue. Long, vertical slopes, complicated by large ribbons of jagged rock and sometimes flat light conditions, were a constant challenge for the competitors.
“It’s a little deceiving when you get in there,” said Joe Turner, one of the event judges. “There are a lot of pillared rocks and variations to the terrain. So being able to stick to your line and memorizing transition spots really pays off.”
Starting from the top of the windswept ridge, the skiers would ski down into the chutes looking like little dots from the finish line far below, where judges watched through binoculars. The judges were looking for fluidity, a lack of hesitation in committing to a route downhill – known as a line – as well as speed, control, style and maybe aerial tricks.
Neither taking the biggest jump, nor getting the biggest “props” from the crowd ensured winning, Kunzer noted. It’s also about how well the skier landed the jump. The event is not timed for speed and each competitor picks a route – there are no poles to ski around.
“This is a different venue than any other out there,” Turner said. “It has elongated runs that are really direct. You have to get creative to make good lines. There are multiple lines to choose from on 1,800 feet of vertical chutes, which is pretty rare.”
After Saturday’s second round, Hadley Hammer of Jackson, Wyo., won the women’s event and Patty Baskins of Vail, Colo., took the top spot for men. The series travels to Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado on March 27-31 with the Subaru Freeride Nationals scheduled for April 11-14 at Snowbird Ski Resort. Top finishers may be invited to the world tour.
“As a four-star qualifying event for the Freeride World Tour, Moonlight’s stop on the Subaru Freeride Series is a big deal to local and regional athletes because it provides skiers with a chance to earn their entry onto one of the most prestigious, unified, freeride tours in the world,” said Ersin Ozer, of Moonlight Basin.
What prompts young and veteran skiers to throw themselves off a sheer mountain in front of a raucous crowd?
“I love skiing steep stuff,” said Rachel Croft of Seattle, who is competing for her second season. “Honestly, it’s just a chance to get to ski with some of the best athletes.”
Last year at Moonlight, she ended up losing her skis atop a cliff and being stranded.
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Her friend, 21-year-old Kelly Mackenzie of Alta, Wyo., attended the event with the hope that she could get on the waiting list. She used to ski race but is looking to break into the freeride circuit, as her brother did.
“This is the kind of skiing I love to do,” she said.
Spectators lined the bottom of the large bowl, using their skis as a backrest or even digging out reclining seats in the snow while drinking beer, hooting and shooting photos. The event had a spring-break atmosphere with loud music thumping through the base camp’s speakers and competitor’s descents dissected by amplified announcers using a unique set of descriptions.
“Way to get filthy,” one announcer praised a skier.
“Holy bark, he must be out of his barking mind,” the other chirped. “This is super filthy.”
Sometimes they would play a screeching bird-like sound. At the end of the event, the Sick Bird award was given to Connor Pelton for his run through a “billy goat” section ending with a cork 360 – a flip with a corkscrew twist.
“The younger guys are introducing more tricks,” Kunzer noted.
Turner agreed that the event has changed as the gear has been modified.
“The style and aggressiveness with the new gear has definitely changed,” he said. “The technique has changed with the invention of fatter skis and camber, it’s a new style of riding. And they’re charging, not making as many turns as they used to.”
With all of the exposed rock, the competitors were in constant danger of injury if they fell, and some fell hard. Sam Lee cartwheeled down the mountain like a human rag doll. Amazingly, he got up, put his skis back on and slid into the finish gate with one ski’s front tip bent back unnaturally.
Local skier Chris Shafer fell after jumping off a cliff, his helmeted head smashing into a rock rib as he slid for a couple of hundred feet down the mountain. He, too, eventually skied down to the finish, but ended up taking a ski patrol sleigh ride to the bottom of the mountain for treatment.
“Especially in these firm conditions, any little thing can get you,” Gannon said. “A single tumble and you’re taking a 1,000-foot vertical fall.”
Logan Schaetzel-Hill, a 28-year-old biochemistry graduate from Montana State University, said he grew up watching ski movies and other skiers carve bold lines that encouraged him to compete.
“It’s totally a love-hate relationship,” he said as he peeled off a plastic chest protector following his run. “You ski fast and hard and do some gnarly thing that you don’t know if you’re going to stick it or not.”
The competitors, who included some bold telemark skiers, all had a chance to pre-ski the venue on Thursday to choose their route downhill.
“I plan most of the line and try to visualize where I’m going to turn,” Schaetzel-Hill said of his strategy.
The competition area changed between the first and second days and the field of competitors was narrowed by about 40 percent to 50 men and 11 women.
The men’s competition featured several local skiers who, like Schaetzel-Hill and Gannon, had relocated from other states to ski in Montana.
“We all used to be separate,” Gannon said. “Now we’re all united because of this event.”
Gannon’s girlfriend, who called him Mr. Moonlight since his photo is on the cover of the ski area’s maps, was filled with praise for her favorite competitor, despite her numb hands and elevated pulse.
“He’s a dedicated skier,” she said. “He loves skiing and does it from his heart.”