Birds of Play

Image: Jay Dash
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Birds of Play

On a select few frosty mornings each season at Snowbird, the Tram jammed full of jittery freeriders trundles upward amid the pre-dawn murk. The Tram crests Hidden Peak as the sun strikes the loftiest pinnacles of the Wasatch Mountains. Nervous chatter pervades the car until the moment when members of Snowbird’s ski patrol provide explicit directions to the anxious competitors. Athletes bustle to the competition face for the necessary venue inspection before the contest can begin. Long before the lifts spin, these athletes experience a piece of The Bird that few are lucky to witness.

What is freeride?

Competitive big mountain, or freeride, offers an elemental format stripped of timers, instant replay or rutted race tracks. One-by-one, skiers and snowboarders navigate technical, ungroomed terrain between two boundary lines, a start gate and a finish corral. It’s up to the athlete to find their way down, swiftly executing the line of their choice with control and fluidity. A panel of judges reviews the action from a vantage point below, doling out points for the difficulty of the rider’s line choice and their overall technique. 

Athlete waiting at the top to start their freeride run at Snowbird

Thanks to an abundance of harrowing north-facing terrain, Snowbird has long been a fixture on the freeride scene. Competition faces in the past have included Silver Fox, Rasta Chutes and Baldy. Notorious features like the Flying Squirrel, Broom Closet and Blonde Rocks beckon fearless freeriders to their precipitous edges. The prestige of competing at Snowbird stretches back decades and registration for events can sell out in two minutes. 

It all began in the glory days of the Freeskiing World Tour, founded in 1998. Snowbird attracted countless luminaries to its slopes on the tour which also included annual stops at Moonlight Basin, Kirkwood and Crested Butte, among others. Pros we venerate today earned their wings and honed their skills through a competition circuit that regularly showcased Snowbird’s formidable terrain.  

Groms landed at The Bird in 2007 with Snowbird’s first ever junior freeride events thanks to the work of big mountain coach, Rob Greener, who spearheaded Snowbird’s junior freeride team in 2004. Thanks to the sport’s rapid growth, Snowbird hosted the first ever North American Junior Freeride Championship in April 2014. Witnessing the progression of these young athletes aged 7 to 18 is a humbling experience for locals and veteran competitors alike. A number of today’s freeride coaches formerly graced Snowbird’s freeskiing competition rosters. Now they keep busy ushering the next generation of freeriders to greatness.

IFSA athletes waiting their turn at Snowbird

Snowbird local John Collinson is the only junior athlete to have ever earned the coveted Sick Bird belt buckle during Snowbird’s first junior competition on Tower 3 in 2007. Later that year, with the Sick Bird buckle in tow, he also became the youngest person to summit Mount Everest. As a rookie, his sister Angel Collinson won the overall Freeskiing tour title in 2010 and earned a second championship title in 2012 on her home turf at Snowbird. Drew Tabke, Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, Kaylin Richardson and Griffin Post all proved their prowess competing at Snowbird’s freeskiing events over the years.

Meanwhile on the snowboarding scene, The North Face Masters Series relied on Snowbird’s extreme terrain to run their up-and-coming shredders through the big mountain gamut. Names like Travis Rice, Snowbird local Shannan Yates, Ralph Backstrom and Jonathan Penfield all graced competition rosters.

Younf boy jumping off small cliff at Snowbird

In 2013, the European-based Freeride World Tour merged with the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour and the North Face Masters to create a cohesive tour and a straightforward path for big mountain athletes to qualify for the prestigious Freeride World Tour (FWT). FWT visited Snowbird the following season and the best freeriders in the world traveled to Utah. Legends like Sam Smoothy, Jackie Paaso and Crystal Wright competed on the global stage at Snowbird. Yates competed at Snowbird that year and went on to clinch the FWT title at the final competition in Switzerland.

Following a 6-year hiatus, the IFSA Freeride World Qualifier (FWQ) Series for adult athletes made a victorious return to Snowbird in 2021, despite the Covid-related challenges. The FWQ Series shines a bit brighter with Snowbird back in the rotation. The terrain and reliable snow make Little Cottonwood a mandatory stop for serious freeriders hoping to qualify for the Freeride World Tour.

Currently, the FWT includes about 60 athletes, of which only six qualify as rookies from the North American IFSA FWQ Series each season. Top ranked FWT riders include Little Cottonwood Canyon locals Ross Tester, Isaac Freeland, Andrew Pollard and Jaqueline Pollard. The athletes of Snowbird and Alta are truly some of the best in the world.

Female jumping off a snowy cliff at Snowbird on a snowy day

Should you spy an ebullient gathering beneath Silver Fox or cheering alongside Baldy’s natural amphitheater, stop and witness a revolution in winter sports. You may witness 16-year-old Bird athlete and snowboarder Lila Yeoman soaring off a cliff to collect another win. Yeoman got her start competing at Snowbird when she was 11, admiring athletes like Yates who earned yet another Snowbird win last season. These days, you’ll find members of freeride’s old guard mentoring, coaching and competing alongside young athletes hungry to travel, compete and ski or shred the world.

Come catch the action and watch the evolution of what’s possible in skiing and snowboarding continue to expand. The athletes on Snowbird’s steepest faces are behind the rapid progression of winter sports and what is possible on a pair of skis or a snowboard.  

About the Author:

Born in Utah of pioneer stock, Lexi had no choice in the matter of becoming a skier. With her father busy in the Snowbird Medical Clinic most weekends, Snowbird served as free daycare for Lexi and her sister, Andi. The two ran amok on the mountain, completing thousands of laps down Mini Miner's Camp. Lexi works as the Director of Freeride for the International Freeskiers & Snowboarders Association (IFSA) and recently began painting her favorite mountains, including Snowbird, with watercolors. Check out her artwork at  www.kapowder.com

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