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Drew Tabke Reflects on Expectations and Reality at the Chamonix Freeride World Tour
Posted on February 9, 2016


Eddie Bauer freeskier Drew Tabke just completed the first two stops of this year’s Freeride World Tour, earning two 11th place finishes in Andorra and Chamonix. Before he headed south on his midwinter World Tour break, Tabke checked in with an essay on expectations and reality in one of the world’s biggest freeride venues. —LYA Editor

Approach to the start gate at the FWT Chamonix P: J Bernard

Words by Drew Tabke, Images courtesy of the Freeride World Tour

I’ve competed in big-mountain skiing for nearly a decade, so I like to think I have the sport fairly well figured out. But regardless of how much of a handle I think I have on all the variables each event will present—schedule changes, conditions, personal physical state, other competitors—I still am constantly surprised and always feel that there is a lot more to learn than I already know. The second stop of the 2016 Freeride World Tour just wrapped in Chamonix, France. I finished in 11th place with a respectable, but not outstanding, performance, and I’m now in 11th place overall looking towards the third stop in Fieberbrunn, Austria, next month.

The lesson that stands out the most from this year’s event in Chamonix is related to my expectations and desires in the mountains versus reality. The game of competing at the top level of the Freeride World Tour is a tough one. One of the key components in these events is “visual inspection.” We look at the face through the naked eye, photos, binoculars; we get to watch a guide or forerunner descend the face to assess security/quality; but we don’t get to ride the mountain until our competition run. So to do well, you not only need to be a ripping skier who can put down a technical, fluid run on big terrain, but you also need to have a finely honed mountain sense that allows you to assemble an accurate assessment of what you’ll find once you finally go ride your line. How big, how steep, what type of snow—and the list goes on.

In Chamonix this year, the week before our arrival for the competition, conditions were dismal. Not just hot, dry and rocky: friends were saying it was “unskiable.” Breakable crust and rock-hard snow: it was looking grim for a big-mountain competition. But we got lucky. A storm popped onto the forecast like clockwork for the few days before the event. The storm came in warm, and left cold, setting up stable, deep, fluffy snow across the Chamonix area. The day before the competition is inspection day, and the athletes alternated between checking out the venue from the spectating area and taking runs in the untracked, deep powder of the Index lift. It seemed like we were due for a competition with superb snow quality.

“To do well, you not only need to be a ripping skier who can put down a technical, fluid run on big terrain, but you also need to have a finely honed mountain sense that allows you to assemble an accurate assessment of what you’ll find once you finally go ride your line.”

 

There were some spots in the snow that were a concern. In particular, the steepest areas on the competition face looked like perhaps the new snow had slid off onto the old, hard rain crust. Through binoculars, this was detected by slight changes in texture and how light bounced off these areas differently. We also watched a couple of forerunners descend, and they gave us a verbal report, reporting generally excellent snow, with some ice lurking in the steep and wind-affected spots. When we went to bed that night, it was dumping in Chamonix. The competition was the next day and all signs seemed to point to epic deep pow on the venue.

The next morning we headed up early, ready to get a final look at the face before making the hike up to the top. In hindsight, I believe that as the day progressed, a gap between my expectations and desires and the reality of the mountain began to grow. The first sign was the lack of new overnight snow up on the mountain. It had snowed nearly as much in the valley as it had thousands of feet higher on the competition area. And in taking a warm-up run at dawn, the snow was obviously very wind-compacted and dense compared to the previous day’s amazingly fluffy skiing.

The next sign was that the hiking track up to the top of the venue, well established the previous day as guides ascended to make preparations, had been completely erased overnight. I watched through binoculars at dawn as the lead guide waded upwards through chest-deep snow, re-opening the track during two hours of laborious swimming.

The third sign was the briefing from Stephane “FanFan” Dan, one of our lead guides. He had descended the face first thing in the morning and reported a hard, thin crust on the snow surface almost everywhere he skied.

So in my mind, using these and other pieces of info, I made the following assessment: The snow was deep and soft almost everywhere on the face, aside from possible hard patches in the steepest and most wind-affected areas. The crust reported by FanFan (likely a suncrust from the warm inspection day) would be very thin, and would likely be unnoticeable due to solar warming by the time I dropped in for my run. The snow would be dense due to the effects of the wind, but otherwise quite soft and deep. I chose a line to avoid the areas I most suspected of holding ice or crust so that I could ride the best possible snow for my run. My line decided, I hiked to the top and waited for my turn to drop.

The venue at the Freeride World Tour Chamonix. P: J Berneard

Finally, after some typical nervous waiting, my number was up and I slid into the starting gate. I dropped in and found excellent, fluffy snow on the top. I approached my first air, a 20-foot cliff drop, and landed on snow much firmer than I expected. I leaned back to absorb the unexpected impact with a slight loss of control and continued into the rest of my line. “NO!” I thought to myself. In this competition, a simple error like that can be the difference between a good and bad result. I approached the next part of my line, which I expected to be excellent powder. Instead, I found challenging, breakable crust. While in the video it doesn’t look too bad, it was much more difficult than the perfect snow I was expecting. I hurried to make adjustments to continue skiing fluidly and with strong technique, but with the snow much more difficult to ski and less deep than I expected, I made a change as I approached my second feature. I elected a faster, lower-impact air which I landed well, instead of my initial plan of a huge air to my right.

Things were not going well. I landed poorly off my first jump and I had less-than-perfect skiing on the way to my second feature, where I then took the smaller of two options. I knew I needed to increase my score drastically, so instead of hitting my third and final jump conservatively as initially planned, I took a different line and went for an unplanned 360 with bigger air. Again, the snow was denser than anticipated, and though I landed and skied away fluidly, it wasn’t the perfection needed for a podium. I reached the finish line and awaited my score, knowing I hadn’t done enough. The scores came in at around 75 points, and by the end of my category I was in 11th place.

“The disappointment is that I misread the mountain. I let my expectations and desires skew my judgment, which resulted in me assessing the reality of the conditions incorrectly. The signs are all there in hindsight.”

 

My disappointment accompanying the result is unrelated to judging or to my physical abilities. The disappointment is that I misread the mountain. I let my expectations and desires skew my judgment, which resulted in me assessing the reality of the conditions incorrectly. The signs are all there in hindsight. Though I didn’t find any of the dense snow or breakable crust while freeskiing the day before the event that I found in my competition run, I shouldn’t have ruled it out: the lift-accessed terrain is a slightly different aspect than the venue. Our guide, FanFan, is an excellent, highly experienced Chamonix local. He told me of the crust and didn’t mention any of the hard, icy layer that I was concerned about. Nonetheless, I fixated on avoiding the icy layer that, in my mind, I was sure was there, and convinced myself that the crust that Fan Fan had warned of wouldn’t affect me. I chose my line and skiing style based on an assessment that proved to be incorrect, or at least incomplete, and my skiing and my result reflect those errors in judgment.

In the end, however, though disappointing, this just convinces me more that the sport of big-mountain freeskiing is a wonderful and worthwhile endeavor. It is a laboratory where we can train and experiment with ways to understand and approach the mountains, in a safer and more supportive environment than the high, truly wild mountains that I and my friends aspire to play in. Because one thing is certain: when we step beyond the playground of controlled environments, be it a Freeride World Tour competition or your local ski hill, and into the wilderness, nature is the single judge with whom we must all reckon.

Check out the full schedule and rankings for the Freeride World Tour at Freerideworldtour.com

Author: - Tuesday, February 9th, 2016
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  1. Jim

    Judged events are silly.


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