Last February, a pack of mostly twenty-something spectators stood at the base of Spellbound Bowl at Crested Butte, Colorado, pulsing energy. It was the final round of the 20th annual Subaru U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships, and a fresh 14 inches padded the normally rocky cirque, upping the ante for the impending show. Spectators and judges watched as athletes dropped in one by one, zinging off 30-foot cliffs and hopping like cats down rock shelves. There were back flips aplenty. Utah teenager John Collinson threw a 720. A local landscaper nailed a 50-foot front flip. The margin for error was so minuscule that any bobble dashed all hope of winning.
Which, truth be told, is about par for a big-mountain competition now. What was once merely a stepping stone to the more illustrious ski-film industry “has become its own beast,” says Jess McMillan, the 2007 Freeskiing World Tour champion. Contest slots fill immediately, wait lists swell to 100 names, and many believe the talent level has never been this deep, even if competition success no longer guarantees the renown it once did.
But the sport is once again operating under a microscope due to the recent deaths of three competitors: Neal Valiton in 2007, John Nicoletta in 2008, and Ryan Hawks last winter. Hawks, 25, back-flipped onto a hard landing during a competition at Kirkwood, California, one week after Crested Butte’s, and died the next day. His loss devastated the tight-knit, primarily U.S.-based Freeskiing World Tour community.
All three deaths occurred at events with visual inspection only, raising questions about whether athletes should actually ski the venue prior to competing. While physical inspection could provide a more intimate—and therefore, some might argue, safer—view of the terrain, it carries the risk of compacting landing zones and making them more dangerous. It’s a hot topic among organizers and athletes. “I typically argue for visual inspection,” says Drew Tabke, winner of the contest at which Valiton died and member of the International Freeskiers Association advisory board. “ I think it’s the purest, most elite way to compete.”