Tignes, France It was supposed to be a showcase event for the bold new wave of young French extreme skiers. A world class contest to cement Frances claim to global dominance in the big mountain arena. But they never saw the boys from Whistler coming.
Competing against the most talented group of free skiers ever assembled (including 60 athletes from 10 different countries), the hard-charging Whistler contingent did the unimaginable at the IFSA Big Mountain World Championships in Tignes, France last week. Not only did tour rookie (and Whistler newcomer) Ryan Oakden win the overall title (and $10,000US), but GLC-sponsored skier Pierre Yves Leblanc was close behind in third, followed by 2000 World Tour Champ (and Whistler Freeride Team member) Hugo Harrison in fifth. Together, this talent-studded free-skiing trio accounted for more points than the whole French Team combined!
And that just wasnt supposed to happen. Especially since the site for the first extreme skiing championships to be held outside of Alaska was chosen because it was home to the current darling of Frances big mountain sporting community, Guerlain Chicherit. Movie-star handsome and devilishly daring, Chicherit has the kind of following in France usually reserved for rock stars. This was his event to win. Posters of his skiing antics were everywhere. His sponsors logos were plastered throughout the resort.
And for many, it was a bit much. "It looked like a set-up," opined veteran American competitor Chris Davenport. "It seemed like we were all bit players in the Guerlain Chicherit Ski Show."
But no matter who writes the script, the outcome of a big mountain competition can never be assured.
For when the snow had settled, it was 21-year old Ryan Oakden who had stolen the show (and the title). And he did it with class, offering a jaw-dropping display of 21st century big-mountain freeriding like few had seen before. Bold beyond belief, and super-light on his feet, he has the same lanky style and easy-going confidence as a young Rob Boyd. And like Boyd in his prime, he makes it all look easy whether throwing back-flips off 10 metre cliffs, or dropping into a no-mistakes-allowed couloir at mach speed. "I certainly didnt come to Tignes with huge expectations," admits the former Fernie resident. "Hey three months ago I was still having to ski qualification runs just to get into the main event at the Whistler Canadian Free Skiing Championships."
While his accomplishment in Tignes should not be underestimated, Oakden is only the latest hero in Whistlers big-mountain freeriding story. "You know," he says, "when youve got guys like (1999 World Tour çhamp) Jeff Holden and (his successor in 2000) Hugo Harrison to go skiing with, you get to improve mighty fast."
But thats just the tip of the free skiing iceberg at Whistler. Adds Hugo Harrison: "Whistler is maybe the best place to practice big mountain free skiing in the world. We have snow, cliffs, trees, couloirs we have it all in fact. I mean, when you get to practice your jumps on cliffs like Air Jordan, theres not much around the world thats going to intimidate you."
This week Harrison and Oakden travel north to Alaska where theyll join two other Whistlerites, Leif Zapf-Gilje and Jennifer Ashton for one of the most prestigious events of the season: the Red Bull Snowthrill of Alaska.
"Its a pretty cool concept, "says Oakden. "You get the best 12 men and four women in the world, put them all in a helicopter and you find the biggest, baddest mountain faces in the Chugach Range to compete on. I cant wait!"
As has become the norm in recent years, Whistler has more representatives at this event than France or the US or Sweden or Norway or Japan or New Zealand .