Eddie Bauer skier and defending Freeride World Tour champ Drew Tabke just wrapped up his third competitive stop of the season in Austria. We’ve been tracking his results, rebroadcasting his runs and running his sick photos (with the #tabkeontour hashtag) from the freeride meccas of Courmayeur, Chamonix and Fieberbrunn that make up the European leg of the traveling big-line circus. But before he dropped in to the alternate venue in Austria, The Flyin’ Hawaiian sent us this report, literally from the road, to provide us a window on his day-to-day existence on the world tour. —LYA Editor
Words, Images and Captions by Drew Tabke
I’m writing this blog as we drive through a tunnel in Austria, somewhere between Zurich and Innsbruck. In the car are fellow Freeride World Tour competitors Griffin Post, Hadley Hammer, and Sasha Dingle, and we are on our way to Fieberbrunn, Austria, for the third stop of the 2014 FWT.
I’ve been in Europe for a little over three weeks now. My trip started out in Zermatt, Switzerland, where I was on-site for the 2014 Swatch Skiers Cup. Instead of competing, I was at the event as a journalist. It was the third year in a row I’ve had the position of editor-in-chief of the event, and it’s a welcome change of pace to observe the intensity of competition instead of being in it. Being in Zermatt for the event is an incredible opportunity – in addition to the elite ski competition I get to watch, there is unmatched skiing and ski touring in the area to take advantage of during my free time. It is definitely the best office I’ve ever worked out of.
Zermatt is a more classic European resort in the sense that off-piste skiing and freeride is still fairly uncommon. Easy-to-access powder stashes lie in wait for days or weeks without seeing any tracks, as opposed to places like Verbier, which are crawling with freeriders from around the world hungry for first tracks. And although the region was having a below-average winter for snowfall, the cold valley preserved the snow that fell right before our arrival, and we had great skiing all week. During the event itself, my Eddie Bauer teammate KC Deane was in attendance as one of Team Americas’ athletes. Thanks to some great skiing by KC and the whole team, Team Americas defeated Team Europe, tying the score for the history of the event at 2–2.
After Zermatt, I packed up my bags and met up with David Carlier to catch a ride to Morgins, Switzerland, which lies in between Chamonix and Lausanne. David is the head of communications for the Freeride World Tour, is an amazing photographer, and loves climbing, skiing, paragliding, kayaking, swimming, traveling and… you get the idea. We went up to a family chalet in Morgins for the night and got up early the next morning to register for a local randonée race, the Yannick Ecoeur Trophy. The Swiss are fanatics for randonée racing, and all across the country there are multiple races each weekend, from recreational to pro, from sprint to endurance. David and his wife will compete in the Patrouille des Glaciers this May, a legendary ski touring race which crosses 110km from Zermatt to Verbier, so these small weekend events serve as training for the big race of the spring. These races are almost all done in teams of two or three, so David and I formed a team of two. About 200 skiers were at the starting line, and the gun went off. We went pretty quickly, leaving plenty of groups in our wake, but just as many groups were well ahead of us. Some of the fastest mountain athletes in Switzerland were in attendance, so while we kept moving as fast as we could, the leaders disappeared ahead in a matter of minutes, literally running up the hill. It was a very short course, with a net gain of about 1,000m, and when we finished after about 2 hours, the winners had already finished an hour before us. After the race we enjoyed a community pasta party with our fellow racers, and then David dropped me at the train station in Martigny.
In Martigny I jumped on a train headed for Chamonix. In Cham I met up with my friends Marq Diamond and Josh Daiek. We crashed at Marq’s house for the night and drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel in the morning to Courmayeur, Italy. In Courmayeur we met up with the general manager of the Freeride World Tour in Europe, Nicolas Hale-Woods. Since Josh and I were in town a few days before the FWT event, the first of the year, we took a day with Hale-Woods acting as athlete advisors to give our feedback on possible venues for the FWT comp. Courmayeur, as much of Europe, had seen below-average snowfall so far in 2014, so the venues we had used for competition in the past were not in good enough condition to compete on. We ended up selecting a backup venue, as the clouds closed in and it began to snow. With a few days until competition, Josh and I took full advantage of the conditions in Italy, skiing both the Courmayeur ski area and the Helbronner tramway across the valley, which leads nearly 8,000 feet up the south flank of the Mont Blanc massif.
Eventually our fellow competitors arrived, and it was time to think about the competition. We did our visual inspection of the venue through occasional breaks in the clouds, choosing our lines down the face. But the weather posed extreme difficulties for organizers. At FWT events, we normally have a weeklong weather window to wait for ideal conditions, but this week’s forecast showed no clearings for the entire week, except for a possible clearing on the afternoon of the very first day. The organizers decided to go for it.
As forecasted, the next day dawned socked in and snowing. But the competition was set up and ready to go should the clearing come at 1pm, as organizers were hoping. I had drawn number 2 for the run order, so I went up to the starting gate to wait for the possible clearing, as I’d have to drop in immediately. It finally cleared enough at around 3pm, and I dropped in on my first competition run of the year.
My run went poorly. I had picked a line based on predicting the snow conditions, and I guessed that the landing of my big air would be soft. When I actually hit it, the landing was hard as rock – it had avalanched at some point, leaving a hard icy surface behind. I had a really big backslap on the landing, causing me to miss my final feature. Though I didn’t crash, I knew my run was a wash and wouldn’t produce a very good result. As I sat in the finish area, depressed, the clouds moved back in and put the event on hold. Only 8 riders had gone.
We waited for hours, but it never cleared again. As stated in the FWT rules, if the event doesn’t complete at least 66% of the field, it is considered incomplete and everyone runs again the next day. I was saved by the weather and would have another chance! But when?
The weather closed in hard and it snowed all week. Stressful for organizers, but for the FWT riders it was a dream week, skiing really good powder with friends for days on end. Finally, near the end of the event window, a solid clearing was forecasted and we were set to run again. Competition day came, and it was beautiful. Sunny and cold, with an incredible blanket of snow on everything. The venue looked totally different after all that snow, so I picked a totally different run than the one I tried last time. The event started, and I dropped into my run. Running so early in the field meant there were very few tracks on the face, and as I headed into a hard-to-reach part of the course, I was the only track on the face – a dream scenario for any Freeride World Tour competitor. I aired into a hanging snowfield, laid down a huge slash turn to ditch some speed, and did a 360 off the air at the bottom. I got to the finish line really stoked, feeling like I had possibly laid down a top-5 run. But then my scores came in. 75.00. I knew that wouldn’t be enough to keep me high in the rankings with the next 30 riders still to ride. In the end I would finish 8th.
Talking later to the judges, I was docked for three issues – going too slow (which I justify because I was getting freshies), a backseat landing on the 360 (but just barely, come on, guys), and skipping the last small feature other competitors hit (I thought that jump was really lame, so I did a big pow slash right next to it). In hindsight, I believe I didn’t deserve to finish higher than 5th, but I was under-scored partly by running so early in the field. Now it was time to look ahead to the Chamonix competition, which would be in just a day or two.
That same day I got a ride back through the tunnel with Marq to Chamonix, as the next morning was to be inspection for the Cham event. Well, the snow continued to fall, and the next day was socked in. No inspection. The next day we went up to try again, and found two feet of fresh, fluffy snow. The clouds cleared in the afternoon and we got to look at the venue, the Aiguille Pourrie, and picked our lines. As part of the FWT’s commitment to promoting safety in the sport, we also ran through rescue scenarios in a short clinic with the PGHM (Police Gendarmerie Haute Montagne) of Chamonix, one of the most elite professional rescue organizations in the world.
The next day was comp day. With weather forecasted to come in the afternoon, we went with an exceptionally early start, made even earlier since we riders had about a 90-minute climb to arrive at the top of the venue. Snowboarders started first, loading up the first trams at the Flégère area of Chamonix at 6am. As the sun came up from behind Mont Blanc, the first riders were ready to drop. This time I was super-late in the pack, the 31st skier. Finally my turn came and I dropped in to my run.
Normally I have my run very clear in my head down to every single turn and air of the run, but for some reason I couldn’t figure out my run for this event. I knew what line I wanted to take, but the main air eluded me. I couldn’t decide what angle to take, so I decided to just take whatever line looked best when I arrived. My run was going well, but as I approached this feature I realized it was much larger than I predicted, which caused me to pause. I took the air and landed very centered in a landing track of another rider, and fell in a forward somersault. NO! A crash! I continued my run and did a backflip just for fun on the bottom air, knowing this would be a bad result.
In a way, the crash was actually a big relief. It had been over two years since I had crashed in competition, so to finally take a big crash and have my body and equipment stand up to the test gives me confidence going forward. Part of the strategy of the FWT is that at the end of the season, your best 4 of 6 runs are counted for the overall points race, so two scores are throwaways. I finished 23rd in Chamonix, which will hopefully be one of those throwaways.
Now that tunnel I started writing this blog in is far behind, and we’re almost to Fieberbrunn. I really like competing in Austria. Skiing is the national sport and people are fanatics. People recognize us athletes here as though we’re celebrities, something that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. I won here in 2012, so hopefully I can use that experience to produce another good result this year.
After the event here, I fly home from Munich to Seattle for a welcome home-cation. After about a week at home, I’m back on the road with a trip to Japan, which is quickly followed by the two North American FWT events, Kirkwood and Revelstoke.
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