A Summary of the Red Bull Snowthrill of Alaska, March 21-30, 2002 by Leslie Anthony (used by permission)
On March 29, 2002, the wan, afternoon light flooding the main intersection of Haines, Alaska, illuminated a Feliniesque diorama of art imitating life, life imitating art, and a cast of international athletes and image-makers imitating … well, themselves.
POWDER magazine’s David Reddick lined up a shot of a shaggy, somnolent mutt guarding a chainsaw in the back of a pick-up; steps away, European sequence-king Jean-Marc Favre shot Canadian sensation Pierre-Yves LeBlanc lounging beside a wooden raccoon; Austrian Ullrich Grill snapped off Abbey Road-like stills of LeBlanc’s fellow Whistlerite, Hugo Harrisson, in a crosswalk; and a phalanx of France’s best searched the streets for the perfect representation of something categorized as Alaskan Lifestyle—Dan Ferrer captured a Warren Miller moment of Guerlain Chicherit strolling the dusty street incongruously dressed in full ski wear, while Seb Leon lined Enak Gavaggio and his skis up against a jagged mountain backdrop in a back alley.
Despite the legion of foreigners madly dashing through their tiny town, interrupting the time-lapse passage of traffic, the good people of Haines couldn’t have been more excited. In fact, by the time the paparazzi invasion reached its zenith this afternoon—with the crew fanning out in post-triumph brio after a day spent crowning the Red Bull Freeskiing World Champions—many of the local gentry were already on a first-name basis with twelve of the world’s top ski photographers and the eight male and four female athletes who’d invited them here from the four corners of the globe for this first-of-its-kind event.
The idea behind the 2002 Red Bull Snowthrill of Alaska was simple: A competition that combined the elements of skiing and photography in a battle of athleticism, creativity, teamwork and talent. Twelve athletes and their chosen shooters would be given a predetermined amount of heli-time, and a mandate to create the world’s most startling ski photography, to be judged in 12 categories for a total of $35,000 USD.
There would also be day of traditional freeskiing competition integrated into the nine-day event, during which a peer-judged male and female world champion would be chosen. The intent was to create the next evolutionary step in competitive skiing.
“The Snowthrill has been around for five years, and every year we’ve stepped-up the quality and innovation,” notes Carloyn Deighan, Red Bull National Events Coordinator. “Last year we moved it to Cordova and that was cool because it was a new venue and we had a full range of down-day activities plus two awesome days of skiing—but it was still a traditional competition and at this point in the sport’s history, everyone has been there, done that.”
Conceptualizing this year’s Snowthrill around the question of “how did freeskiing come to Alaska?” Red Bull’s planning team quickly realized it was primarily through the photographers who had been there.
“We wanted to combine the efforts of shooters and freeskiers because athletes get their greatest exposure from photos, but we also wanted to step out of the box. As action sports evolve, traditional competitions with rigid judging criteria and set rules lose their shine. But jam sessions, demos, exhibitions and things like that get athletes more jazzed,” finishes Deighan.
Eliminating the structure around competitions, it seems, puts athletes more at ease in their surroundings and willing to step it up. When you add in the invitational component—where athletes don’t fulfill standards to prove themselves because being chosen was proof enough—you create a different participatory climate. In other words, give an athlete/artist their own guide, four hours of heli time in some of the world’s most spectacular mountains, a photographer to consult and consort with, and the freedom to choose where they can go and it adds up to the ultimate freeskiing session.
On the ground, the event more than lived up to its billing as an historic gathering of photographic and skiing talent. Things got off to an interesting start with a boat ride from Juneau to Haines that featured big swells, a little nausea, and plenty of camaraderie. In town, the group headquartered at the Captain’s Choice Motel, dining in an adjacent Legion Hall that featured hearty, home-cooked food and super-friendly servers. With all the comforts of home in place, the stage was set.
The peaks around Haines are more than impressive, rising directly from the ocean to 7,000 feet and featuring Chamonix-like spires, broad powder fields, and Himalayan-like fluting. This much was obvious the following morning as participants shuttled out to 33 Mile, the roadhouse staging area and nerve center for the event.
The interior of 33 Mile was pure Alaska—a fossil Mammoth femur, petrified wood, antique whiskey bottles, antlers, portraits of dogs, cabins and John Wayne. There were also snowshoes, a turn-of-the-century broad axe, and a collection of red-neck bumper stickers like: I’m Pro-Choice. I choose to hunt, fish, trap, eat meat, and wear fur.
Gear was assembled and a second round of breakfast downed while outside, Event Producer Ellen Winkler, Logistics Coordinator Ryan Ernst, and Kerry O’Neil, Red Bull Field Marketing Manager for Alaska, hunched over computers. Beside them, Bruce Bauer of local Out of Bounds heli-skiing set up central radio control and dispatch for the helis. On a topo map spread across the table, groups would move around in Bauer’s mind like chess pieces; asked where any pair were at any given time and he’d point unerringly to some microscopic alpine feature.
For the first part of that first day, however, only head guides and AK veterans Dave Swanwick and Jim Conway were flying, while the rest kept their eyes on a front of milky clouds trying to barge its way past the high pressure which had sat over the area for the past three weeks. During that time, high winds had hammered most of the snow, and the guides were searching for zones where photographers might pull off some one-hit miracles.
Teams were anxious to start shooting, but pondered whether it was worth burning precious heli time to head out—perhaps only to get caught in weather. Every team had their own philosophy, yet each watched closely to see what others had in mind. To the untrained observer, nothing was happening, but the event concept was actually in full bloom: the feigned laughter, intense posturing and silent strategizing were all part of the competition game. It eventually became obvious that skies would remain clear, and Enak Gavaggio summed up the sentiment, “It is better to have good light and bad snow, than bad light and good snow.” Just as quickly as they had invaded 33 Mile, the group evacuated it.
Half the teams decided to fly, while the rest fell back on different plans like snowmobiling or staging lifestyle shoots—creatively taking advantage of less-than-ideal conditions in hopes of bagging a few stellar shots.
And so it went over the next several days as teams jockeyed for position in the choppers and storm clouds jockeyed for position along the coast. On one blessed occasion the clouds won, resulting in two feet of fresh snow to replenish the scoured venues. The see-saw battle between high and low pressure mostly resulted in clearing skies, however, allowing the groups to fly seven of nine days. Working hard, they also learned some hard lessons in curbing personal expectations in favor of cooperating to overcome unforeseen logistical problems: On the day Davenport/Markewitz and Chicherit/Ferrer flew together, for instance, the former wanted big-mountain powder lines and the latter a big crevasse gap-jump—two incompatible objectives. Ultimately, however, it all worked out. Several days later, the crevasse crew—who earned the name “crack-heads”—got their wish, and Chicherit spent hours throwing laid-out back flips and mistys over a crevasse in eerie, spindrifty light. In another valley, Hugo Harrisson and Kaj Zachrisson were pumped at the two spines they’d skied, unaware they’d stolen them from under Jamie Burge and Andrea Binning’s incredulous eyes. Similarly, Jenn Ashton was inadvertently poached on a line she was climbing for. Upset at the time, she soon felt better after making a bold first descent down a very exposed face fittingly labeled, “Headstrong.”
The loudest rancor, however, arose over the big-mountain contest. In order to honor the past, contest-based events in Alaska, Red Bull had intended this as part of the competition from the beginning. The excitement after five days of doing what they wanted, however, now made putting on game faces difficult for athletes, while photographers felt they could use the good weather to better advantage—working on the photo categories in which they could really pull down some coin
“The comp scared everyone because they didn’t want to step back into that role,” Deighan later acknowledged. “But once they were out there they had fun because they didn’t have to fulfill any real judging criteria—their peers were just looking for who had the coolest run.”
The comp began on another beautiful bluebird morning. By 9 a.m., teams had been hoisted to the ridge opposite the east-facing venue to scout lines, talk smack, and get jazzed. Achieving critical competitive mass was definitely in order given the general lack of stoke. But the whole vibe changed once things got underway.
The men went first with LeBlanc picking a bold line and skiing it well until, halfway down, he crashed on a huge mute grab air. In typical understated fashion, Harrisson tore the face apart at subsonic speed. Gavaggio hit a blizzard of smaller airs, Davenport carved a powder line that he and Markewitz had conspired to get the only shots of by, Rick Greener was solid, Zachrisson ripped and might have scored near the top had he not beatered near the bottom, and Chicherit was looking sweet. But it was Swedish gladiator Sverre Lillequist who had by far the best run, The men’s runs were judged by the women, who in turn were judged by the men: Andrea Binning’s line was impressive, Jenn Ashton’s was stand-up but full of traversing and somewhat pedestrian by her standards, Jamie Burge was nuking her way to the top ranking when she blew up in the main gully, and Anne Catelin threw down a solid run of maching technical sections and modest air. After two runs were completed it was Lillequist, Harrison and Chciherit one, two, three in the men, and Catelin, Binning and Ashton for the women.
Despite the initial struggle to get high-strung thoroughbreds out of the gates, crowning the World Champions went off without a hitch amidst wall-to-wall smiles.
On the final day of shooting, the exhausted crew dutifully dragged themselves out to 33 Mile for one more round of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Though some worked hard that day to fill in gaps in their body of work, the energy level had tanked after the previous day’s glory. For some, the Karma bank was also running dry. Pierre-Yves LeBlanc narrowly missed turning his 28th birthday into a date with death when a Grade-2 avalanche and threw him over some cliffs. It was time to call the event and declare a raving success.
“We’re really happy with how it turned out. The athletes and photographers were really supportive and put a lot of effort into it,” says Deighan. “The media is genuinely excited to see something new in the freeskiing world. The outcome so far has been great, but we really won’t know the full impact until this fall—when the People’s Choice is available for voting, articles come out, and the TV show airs.”
Indeed it’s hard to imagine a first-time, cutting edge event coming off any better. The athletes and photographers could not have been happier, organizers more pleased, nor the townspeople of Haines more receptive. Even Felini would have been proud.
Scott Markewitz (USA)/Chris Davenport (USA)
Fred Foto (USA)/Rick Greener (USA)
Alexander Klun (SWE)/Sverre Lillequist (SWE)
David Reddick (USA)/Jamie Burge (USA)
James Lozeau (USA)/Jennifer Ashton (CAN)
Tony Harrington (OZ)/Andrea Binning (OZ)
Paolo Biamonti (ITA)/Anne Cattelin (FRA)
Ulrich Grill (AUT)/Hugo Harrisson (CAN)
Jean-Marc Favre (FRA)/Pierre-Yves LeBlanc (CAN)
Christoffer Sjostrom (SWE)/Kaj Zachrisson (SWE)
Seb Leon (FRA)/Enak Gavaggio (FRA)
Dan Ferrer (FRA)/Guerlain Chicherit (FRA)
Photo Editor Judges:
Powder magazine, USA, Keith Carlsen
Skiing magazine, GER, Klaus Polzer
National Geographic Adventurer, USA, Sabine Meyer
Outside magazine, USA, Quentin Nardi
Skieur magazine, FRA, Dominique Daher
Skier magazine, CAN, Colin Adair
Fall Line, UK, Sarah Wolfenden
Skiimbaja, SWE, Harri Lindfors
World Champion Judges:
Judging Phases, Categories and Prizes
Unless otherwise specified, prizes are awarded to the photographer/athlete team in each category.
Photo-Editor’s Choice: The World’s most renowned and respected photo-editor’s will judge photos on-line in the following categories.
1. Best Sequence ($2,000)
2. Best Air ($2,000)
3. Best Fly on the wall/Big Mountain shot ($2,000)
4. Best AK/Lifestyle ($2,000)
5. Best Powder Turn ($2,000)
6. Best Feature Story Sequence ($5,000)*
* a minimum of five shots that best describe the Red Bull Snowthrill of Alaska. All shots may either be new or have already been used in other categories.
Snowthrill of Alaska Event Choice: Judged on-line and through high-resolution hard copies by a panel including official Red Bull photographers, non-participating athletes and the organizer. ($2,000 awarded to photographer only)
Red Bull Action Choice: Same judging criteria as above. ($3,000)
Red Bull Choice: Members of the Red Bull Photofiles will select two shots from the entire portfolio of images taken during the Red Bull Snowthrill of Alaska. Only one shot will be awarded as the Red Bull choice. Judges will vote on actual hard copy slides submitted to Photofiles. ($2,000)
World-Champion Choice: Former World Champions of Freeskiing will be selected to vote on-line and through high-resolution hard copy shots in the following categories:
1. Best Men’s Team ($3,000)
2. Best Women’s Team ($3,000)
People’s Choice: Best overall shot chosen by each photographer/athlete team submitted for on-line voting by the public. ($3,000)
Red Bull Freeskiing World Champion: An award for both men and women’s Red Bull Freeskiing World Champion was awarded on site. Peer judging was based on traditional IFSA criteria: line selection, aggression, control, fluidity, and technique.
1. (Men) Sverre Lilliquist ($2500)
2. (Women) Anne Catelin ($1500)
August 1: People’s Choice goes live.
August 1-Nov. 30: People’s Choice judging.
31st January 2003: Awards and Results presented at POWDER Video Awards at SIA, Las Vegas.
Will be presented at the Powder Awards at SIA Las Vegas 31st of January 2003