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Elite freeriders spend week shredding Crystal Mountain’s iconic backcountry

VIDEO: Freeride skiing competition at Crystal Mountain

Top regional skiers and snowboarders vie to move up to the Freeride World Tour
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Top regional skiers and snowboarders vie to move up to the Freeride World Tour

A few hours before his shift Thursday, the bartender hiked into the mountains for a backcountry skiing competition.

Last week’s Freeride World Qualifier at Crystal Mountain lured some of the world’s best extreme skiers and snowboarders from places such as British Columbia, Chile and Europe.

Amos Blinder, 43, came all the way from the bar at the bottom of the hill.

For eight years, the Massachusetts transplant has skied Crystal by day and tended bar at the Snorting Elk Cellar by night. When he learned the world tour qualifier was coming back to Crystal he signed up. The Snorting Elk was his sponsor.

He said he entered the competition in 2014 but was eliminated after “crashing pretty hard” on the first day. His goal this time: Make the finals.

Atop Silver King, Crystal’s tallest and most precarious peak, that’s precisely where Blinder found himself. He’d earned the 25th and final spot in the finals and it came with the honor of going first.

To anybody who gets into freeriding, I’d say, you’ll be young for the rest of your life.

Chuck White, Crystal Mountain’s freeride events technical director

The finalist got one run to impress four judges watching from the neighboring peak, The Throne. Competitors ripped down narrow chutes, hucked themselves off cornices and cliffs and took lines with names like Brain Damage.

So challenging is the terrain that just getting to Avalanche Basin to watch required expert skiing or snowboarding skills. And, as temperatures warmed, announcer Chuck White warned spectators to look out for falling chunks of snow.

The small collection of spectators cheered its approval as Blinder dropped over a cornice 1,100 feet above and then ripped between two rocky features. He was smiling as he finished.

White bellowed over the loudspeaker, “That’s your bartender ladies and gentlemen.”

Blinder knew it wasn’t enough to crack the top 10 or collect any prize money, but it was the perfect ending to his personal Cinderella story.

“I get to ski against these guys all day and they give me all their money tonight,” said Blinder, who learned he’d finished 16th before reporting to work.

WHAT’S FREERIDE?

Kiana Putnam of Alaska was in first place entering the women’s snowboard finals but slipped to fifth on the final run. While a little prize money would have been nice for the unsponsored athlete, that’s not why she competes.

The sport, she says, is about comradery, creativity and expression.

There is so much room for your creativity and everybody has their own strength. … It might be technical entrances through things that people think are undoable. Or it might be sending big airs.

Kiana Putnam, freeride snowboarder from Alaska

Freeriding is a simple idea. No clocks. No gates. No man-made obstacles. No set course. No grooming. Just choose a line and go.

It’s what lures many of the competitors from the more traditional skiing and snowboarding competitions like those featured in the Olympics.

“There is so much room for your creativity and everybody has their own strength,” Putnam said. “You have to be smart and plan but also showcase your strength. It might be technical entrances through things that people think are undoable. Or it might be sending big airs.

“You aren’t just trying to do the same thing as everybody else a hundredth of a second faster. And at the end you’re just judged anyway so the person you beat, you might think she had the better line that day.”

White, technical director for Crystal’s freeride events, says that’s why freeriding “transcends a lot of modern sports.”

“Other sports are cutthroat and athlete don’t talk a lot to each other,” White said. “Here everybody cheers for each other.”

GROWING PROGRAM

With Silver King and other serious terrain just outside the controlled slopes of the resort, Crystal Mountain’s reputation has lured freeriders for decades. Most just play in the backcountry, but White says Crystal’s program has been growing recently.

Curtis Yanasak, a 2006 Puyallup High graduate, came through the program. Thursday, the snowboarder took big air off a cliff high on the King and seemed destined for the podium. A tumble lower on the mountain left him in 15th place.

Crystal’s next freeride competition is a junior event March 26-27.

Yanasak is an instructor and coach for Crystal’s freeride program.

“I get beginners and people who want to learn to do a backflip,” he said.

Through private instructions and camps, youth learn avalanche safety and how to ski and board steep, technical terrain. Crystal’s final junior competition of the season is March 26-27.

White is 48 and says he still leaps off cliffs with the kids. “To anybody who gets into freeriding, I’d say, you’ll be young for the rest of your life.”

CALCULATED RISK

Caleb Cole of Greenwater finished eighth in the skiing competition Thursday and afterward described the sport as “all about calculated risk.”

Even a slight miscalculation can be devastating.

During the finals, Andrew Rumph of Colorado took a scary tumble. Slightly farther left than he wanted to be meant he was suddenly catching more air than he wanted. His weight was too far back when he landed and, he says, “I did a few cartwheels into trees.”

Rumph came to a stop against a tree he says likely kept him from plummeting over a cliff. He collected himself, did a quick head-to-toe inventory then patted his head, the signal that he was OK.

These sudden reminders of the risk aren’t something the athletes dwell on.

“I forget it as fast as possible,” Rumph said.

But some accidents are impossible to forget.

I did a few cartwheels into trees.

Andrew Rumpf, freeride skier from Colorado on his fall Thursday

Five skiers later, Edward Dujardin of Colorado lost control. Spectators gasped as Dujardin careened into a tree. His cry for help could be heard across Avalanche Basin. The Crystal Mountain ski patrol rushed to help him. He broke his femur and was airlifted to a hospital for surgery.

For an hour, the final seven skiers waited atop the King trying to stay warm and ignore screams of pain they heard over the radio.

“You don’t know if your friend is OK and it sucks,” said Eric Bryant of Tahoe. Bryant was in seventh place and was next to go.

“It’s the last thing you want in your head (before skiing), that’s for sure,” Bryant said.

He knows the feeling all too well. He said he skied following a fatality during a 2011 world tour event in Kirkwood, California.

Bryant needed to dazzle the judges to move up in the standings. Spectators roared their approval as he ripped down the upper mountain. But lower on the mountain he dropped off a cliff and couldn’t stick the landing. He finished 18th.

“I took a chance and lost,” he said. “You win some and you lose some.”

Freeride Winners

Sixty-two skiers and snowboarders competed in the finals of the Freeride World Qualifier at Crystal Mountain this week in hopes of scoring cash prizes ($750 for the skiing winners, and $500 for the snowboarding winners) and points toward a spot on next season’s Freeride World Tour.

CATEGORY

WINNER

HOMETOWN

Male skiers

Mark Mikos

Crested Butte, Colo.

Female skiers

Ashley Bembenek

Crested Butte, Colo.

Male snowboarders

Davey Baird

Homer, Alaska

Female snowboarders

Audrey Hebert

Banff, Alberta

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