Photo by Joel Reichenberger
Jim Vanderbeek, left, Jake Sivinski, Cameron Ehrlich and EJ Ehrlich will be on the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club’s new big mountain skiing team, which begins competition this winter. Freeskiing, when athletes are judged on their run down a backcountry line, takes a different style, but it’s grown popular. Steamboat’s full-time program is one of the first of its kind in the nation.
Steamboat Springs Steamboat Springs can point to a lot of geographic and climatic advantages when it comes to being a winter sports paradise, from ample snowfall to ideal cross-country skiing terrain and varied vegetation allowing for world-class tree skiing.
Without a huge collection of cliffs or gnarly backcountry pitches, however, it’s not an extreme skier’s dream.
That hasn’t stopped a band of five teenagers who hope to put Steamboat on the extreme skiing map via the newest program offering from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
Steamboat may not be the big mountain capital of the world, but it’s home to one of the sport’s first full-time big mountain skiing programs.
Big mountain skiing, or freeskiing, basically takes competition into the backcountry.
“It’s like if you got dropped off on the top of Emerald and had to decide, ‘What’s the coolest way down?’” said Erik Skinner, who folded the program into the Winter Sports Club’s freestyle wing, which he directs.
It’s a judged sport that’s developed parameters, but what exactly differentiates a winning run from a losing one can be hard to decipher. Athletes look to balance the “wow” factor with solid, stable skiing. Choosing a good line is key, as is the ability to adapt on the fly, land a few big hucks and slip in a trick or two whenever an exclamation point is needed.
“It allows for interpretation and imagination,” said Alejandro Blake, event coordinator at Taos Ski Valley, which this winter will host the Extreme Freeride Championships for the seventh consecutive year.
“Part of the appeal (is) people can take elements of what they’re doing in the park and implement it into this,” he said. “The sky’s the limit. You never know what someone might pull off on their cliff drop — things that weren’t even possible five or 10 years ago.”
Competitions started to spring up in the 1990s, and the sport has gathered momentum in recent years. Several worldwide tours are active, and there are a few stops in Colorado and elsewhere in the United States.
Junior competitions have been added as the events have grown, with the Freeride World Tour adding a junior division in January.
The event in Taos has a capacity of about 130 skiers, and it has sold out each of its six years.
“Juniors have always been a big component of what we do here,” Blake said. “We’ve seen junior athletes be as dominant here as any of our senior men’s competitors, so there’s no question there’s a place for them.”
The Winter Sports Club’s athletes have five or six events on their schedule.
The Winter Sports Club has associated itself most closely with those events that are represented at the Olympics, but it also has a history of following winter sports trends and getting out in front of the next big thing.
That, club directors say, is big mountain skiing.
“If it’s going to give young people an avenue to stay interested in athletics, then we’re going to try to figure out a way to do it,” Skinner said.
There wasn’t a clean start to the program; instead, it came in coughs and spurts. The idea was brought up several years ago, and last year, a once-a-month program was offered.
This winter marks a new page for the club. Officials initially planned a program with instruction two days per week but found enough interest to turn it into a full-time competitive division with experienced backcountry skier Kerry Lofy at the helm.
The athletes will train three times per week with Lofy, then twice per week with the club’s freestyle skiing ability program.
“I want to teach them how to ski and do it safely,” Lofy said. “They’re going to ski the backcountry no matter what, so we might as well teach them the right way to do it. We’ll also work on how to pick a line, how to hit a cliff correctly, how to take off and how to land solid — and what your form should be like in the air.”
It isn’t dreams of sponsorships or some distant Olympic bid that have inspired the Winter Sports Club’s foundation class.
“It’s where my heart lies,” said Jake Sivinski, who moved to Colorado from Washington to become one of the five skiers in the program.
That’s what drove Lofy to the sport after his history as a downhill racer. He’s spent his time in Steamboat trying to soak up every rock and ridge, whether in the backcountry or on the tamest of groomed runs. He’s competed on freeskiing tours himself, and now he’s turning his passion to coaching.
And he’s got a crop of eager athletes.
Training has consisted of work on the water ramps and dryland conditioning. Once the season begins, the class will shift to training in and out of bounds at Steamboat Ski Area as well as terrain more suited to extreme skiing in other parts of the state. Focuses will include reading a mountain to pick a winning line, finding features that lend themselves to quick tricks and, above all else, safety.
“This is where skiing is going, and we want to be a part of it,” skier Cameron Ehrlich said.
“I used to race gates, and I’ve done the park,” Sivinski added. “This is all that’s left. I like the competition, how you get nervous. It’s just a lot of fun.”
— To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com