During its six years in existence, the backcountry freestyle throwdown known as Red Bull Cold Rush has gained a singular reputation among the world's elite freeskiing competitions.
The reasons are many, but in a sport with various disciplines and athletes who specialize in each of those disciplines, Cold Rush is known for anointing the best all-around skier -- as chosen by the athletes themselves. Which is why no title in the sport is more coveted.
"I don't think you can give anybody 'best skier in the world,' regardless of discipline," said first-time Cold Rush competitor Pep Fujas. "But for this particular niche of skiing, yeah, I think you can crown the best here."
Two-time defending champion Sean Pettit added: "This event includes everything that we film with, and when it's all put together, with these skiers, athlete judged -- it resembles no other contest in any way."
Cold Rush kicked off Monday with a two-run big-mountain competition in a breathtaking, cliff-strewn cathedral off the backside of Colorado's Silverton Mountain -- the first of three contests slated for this week. Explosive-triggered avalanche crowns up to eight feet deep lined both sides of the venue, with chunks of debris having wiped out much of the powdery apron and groomed runout below.
The most memorable line of the day belonged to Andy Mahre, who slithered through a series of narrow chokes and frighteningly exposed rock bands before exiting with a mandatory leap of faith over a minefield. (He later skied his entire second run switch.) Dane Tudor, Kye Petersen, Dave Treadway, Pep Fujas and Dash Longe also put together impressive runs as a trio of helicopters filmed from above, and Rachael Burks paced the women by nailing a 30-footer at the end of her second run. The field now turns to Tuesday's slopestyle competition on a course built by Fujas and a small army of laborers over the course of four months.
On the eve of the opening day, competitors gathered in the town's funky old mining museum to rehash their seasons and preview a week of competition unto itself. Most agreed Pettit is still the man to beat, even if he doesn't share their opinion. "I'm just a competitor here like everyone else," Pettit said, insisting that all 18 men can win. "Everybody here, they're invited for a reason. There's not just five or six guys who are invited because they're going to be competing against each other and the rest are invited as extras. Everyone's invited because everyone has a chance at the No. 1 title."
Defending women's champion Grete Eliassen is unable to compete due to a torn ACL, but she's here this week supporting the rest of the women and representing Red Bull, her sponsor. Her absence has opened up the women's field, with former slopestyle pro Michelle Parker in good position to move up today.
Last year's men's runner-up, TGR film star Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, set an early bar in Monday's big-mountain event, sticking four clean landings on his opening run. Although he too believes the overall title is up for grabs, he also respects how hard it is to win. "The roster here is pretty insane, and I feel like if everyone stuck their run exactly how they wanted to, the judging would be extra tricky," he said. "So it really comes down to not making a mistake. And I think that's what Sean does well, is his confidence and his skill don't allow him to make a mistake. If he does make a mistake he's not going to win, because the level is definitely high."
As for the judging, in contrast with other competitions, there are no official criteria like fluidity or style. "No one tells us how to judge, it's just based on what you think," Cattabriga-Alosa said. "The top five are usually pretty obvious; after that it gets harder. But after that it's kind of a wash anyway."