By Scott Reekie
Mute grab. Rodeo 900 Indy Grab. Misty-Flip 720. 900 Lu Kang. This is the language of the Freeskier.
Hot dog skiing of the 1970s has begun a new life as Freeskiing. Often referred to as New School, Freeride, Park Skiing or Slopestyle, Freeskiing boasts of innovative young skiers who quest for something more extreme and radical than the norm.
This new movement is characterized by the energy that, until recently, was found only in sports like snowboarding, inline skating, skateboarding and BMX bike riding.
Skiing, which has been in decline since the birth of snowboarding, is suddenly cool again. You will find Freeskiers in the terrain parks that almost every ski resort in North America has created over the last 2 years. The terrain includes booters, rails, tabletops, quarterpipes, halfpipes, and of course, big air jumps.
The concept is very simple; achieve maximum airtime and execute as many tricks as possible. The atmosphere is adrenalin inducing and the style very acrobatic, including spins of 360 degrees to 1080 degrees, off-axis front and back flips, taking off and landing switch (backwards), helicopters, grabs and extensions that are showcased in an astonishing show of skill.
The moves are by their very nature the true meaning of freestyle and tricks are as individual as the skier. The focus on freeskiing began in the early ’90s when names like Wendy Fisher, Kristen Ulmer, Seth Morrison, and Trevor Peterson were the face of skiing, skiing unimaginable lines down steep chutes with inclines at as much as 50 degrees.
This new form of ‘extreme skiing’, as it was labelled, was the beginning of the move back to freeskiing and once again doing big air jumps.
This skiing exists today as ‘Big Mountain’ competitions, an integral part of Freeskiing. North American ski resorts had long banned most jumping as it was considered out of control skiing, (there are always too many lawyers lurking), but the rules began to loosen as formerly out-of-bounds terrain was opened for skiing and glade or tree skiing became more popular.
In the mid-90’s, off in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, 3 young Quebecois, having reached the provincial freestyle team, were often looking for new challenges after a day spent mogul training. The tricks that Vinnie Dorion, J.F. Cusson, and J.P. Auclair created have revolutionized skiing in ways that the ski industry could not have imagined; this was truly a grass roots change.
They were innovators as they scoffed at the boundaries policies using the halfpipes that were dedicated to snowboarders at that time.
As they improved, these freeskiers began to get a lot of attention. After hanging out with two other Canadians they met in British Columbia, Shane Szocs and Mike Douglas, the New Canadian Air Force was born, together with the phrase ‘New School of Skiing.’
Freeskiing was broadcast into homes all over the world with Jonny Moseley’s gold medal winning mogul performance at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics that included a mute grab.
Many of the up and coming Canadian freeskiers also hail from Quebec. The so named 3 Phils, Philippe Larose, Philippe Belanger and Philippe Dion all come from Lac Beauport and were impressive last year in competition.
Philippe Belanger had an excellent year in 2001, placing 2nd in the Red Bull Huckfest Big Air and 3rd in the U.S. Open Big Air at Vail, Colorado. Don’t count out the original New Canadian Air Force though; Vinnie Dorian won the 2001 World Skiing Invitational Orage Big Air at Whistler, B.C. in April and the 2001 Freeze U.S. Open Slopestyle at Vail Colorado.
Another up and comer to watch is 17-year-old David Crichton who won the 2001 World Skiing Invitational Slopestyle at Whistler’s Telus World Ski & Snowboard Festival.
Not to be outdone, however, Canada’s West is also producing some excellent skiers. The 2001 World Tour Big Mountain Freeskiing champions, Aleisha Cline and Hugo Harrison, are both from British Columbia.
Freeskiing slopestyle and big air competitions have traditionally been a guys domain, but there are up and coming female skiers. Sarah Burke, from Midland, Ontario placed first in the 2000 Whistler Open Women’s Big Air competition, and placed 18th in the 2001 World Skiing Invitational Slopestyle at Whistler while competing as the only woman against the men.
Change has come hard and fast.
Mike Douglas, one of the fathers of Freeskiing (the New School), and his friend Steve Fearing helped the team from Salomon design the first twin tip ski called the Salomon Teneighty that was released in the fall of 1999.
All the major ski manufacturers now have various twin tip configurations in their ski line-up. The Head Mad Trix System ski features a twin tip construction that allows for the binding to be reversed for a big mountain setting and a big air setting. Salomon has developed the Pocket Rocket, a combination of big mountain ski and trick ski. Atomic debuts the Freezone Rodeo for the park and big air and the Freezone Loop designed for the halfpipe.
Ski clothing has also evolved to have a more freeride look and a greater emphasis on practicality including waterproof, breathable and crash resistant fabrics (learning all those tricks comes with a little pain). Innovative companies like Orage from Quebec have devoted their entire line to freeride clothing and sponsored the Orage Big Air at Whistler, B.C. last April. The mainstream companies such as Descente, Helly Hansen, and Spyder also offer freeride lines of clothing in a move away from the high fashion and racing look.
Ski helmet sales have increased dramatically in the past year, as concussions tend to knock you out of the competition.
As free and innocent as its beginnings were, nothing with this much hype stays undiscovered for long. Corporate sponsorship has found its way into the core of Freeskiing.
Large corporations sponsor the Gravity Games and The X-Games, and these competitions have proven to be very popular with spectators, so now, all of the top skiers have ski sponsors and clothing sponsors. Competitions are offering larger prize purses to attract the best skiers; even skiers need to make a living! There will be at least 20 competitions at the major ski resorts in 2001-2002. Where there are people and media hype, there are products to be sold and the “lifestyle” is important.
The International Freeskiers Association (IFSA) is the governing body that sanctions all the events. This is somewhat of a paradox, the very rules, regulations and limitations that skiers were trying to escape are now enforced, through regulated, judged competitions such as Big Mountain (who can ski the steepest, gnarliest line with the biggest air and live to tell about it), Big Air (the bigger the better!), Slopestyle, Skiercross (imagine 5 ski racers through a marked course in a terrain park), and Quarterpipe.
The excitement of the guts and the glory fascinate the spectators: who will be next to be dragged off in the toboggan?
Will Freeskiing go the way of the hot doggers of the 1970s? It could if lawyers got in the way, however, Freeskiing has a liberating effect on ski culture, it is evident in the equipment we buy, the clothes we wear and the way we view skiing.
Skiing has undergone a revolution in the past several years and will continue to evolve. Anyone who has cut first tracks in boot top powder on a sunny, -10 degrees Celsius day be it at a 100 metre hill or a 1000 metre mountain will understand the freedom of skiing.
Once all the hype of Freeskiing is gone, the basic premise of why we ski will remain, and we can thank the Freeskiing movement for revitalizing skiing and reminding us of the fun and freedom we enjoy on the slopes.