It was nearing midnight Wednesday in the Grand Imperial Hotel when Dane Tudor and Rachael Burks found out they had won Red Bull Cold Rush, the world's foremost backcountry freeskiing competition held at Silverton Mountain, deep in Colorado's Southern San Juan Range.
Each won handily among a heavily talented field of athletes, who voted on the results after watching 90 minutes of video from the week's runs, which were pared to two days after large avalanches forced the cancellation of the cliffs competition on Wednesday. Neither Tudor nor Burks could stop smiling on the podium, but it wasn't only because they'd won Cold Rush, of all contests one can win in this sport. It was because neither had tasted victory in years, if ever.
Despite their reputations as two of the world's best all-around skiers, Tudor's last win came as a junior competitor in his native British Columbia, and Burks had never won a single freeskiing competition before this week. They changed that with clutch performances on Monday's big-mountain venue and the one-of-a-kind slopestyle course Tuesday.
First-time Cold Rush competitor Pep Fujas -- the only skier not to crash this week -- finished second, and Sage Cattabriga-Alosa earned his second straight Cold Rush podium in third place, following last year's runner-up finish. Jackie Paaso claimed second for the women, followed by Michelle Parker.
"I always give it my all and try and send it, but this year I came in with a different approach," said Tudor, who finished third last year and now heads to Haines, Alaska, for a month of filming. "A lot of times I'll just swing super hard and I end up falling. This year I tried to be more consistent and land all my runs. I think the majority of straight pow rippers are here, so to be on top is crazy. I watched a lot of people this week and thought they were worthy, too."
Tudor strung together two high-speed, technical runs in the big-mountain event, spinning off big cliffs and sticking a ridiculous double drop that featured heavy exposure. He followed that Tuesday with a show of versatility in slopestyle, landing a smooth 720 into a large switch cork 540 off the biggest jump on course. "The winner was Dane, hands down," Fujas said.
Fujas -- competing in his first contest in "five or six years" and his first-ever big-mountain event -- proved that last year's injury-plagued season had no effect on his ability to do everything with style. "This contest doesn't even really feel like a contest," Fujas said. "You're going out there skiing with a bunch of your friends and just rooting everyone on, and you want everybody to do well. It's more like a session than anything. I never got really nervous or crazy competitive and zoned in and focused on trying to be the best."
This contest doesn't even really feel like a contest. You're going out there skiing with a bunch of your friends and just rooting everyone on, and you want everybody to do well.” --Pep Fujas
Big-mountain specialist Cattabriga-Alosa secured his podium spot with creative thinking as much as standout skiing. He was the only competitor to hit three jumps on the slopestyle course, taking a unique angle to do so and sticking 360 variations off of each feature. "In general when I ski, I like to find that extra little something," Cattabriga-Alosa said.
For Burks, the victory brought a measure of redemption in addition to wide-eyed shrieks of celebration. Last year, she broke her ankle three days before Cold Rush and missed the event. Her determination led to this week's win, as she crashed hard on her first runs both days then returned to the scene of her carnage and nailed each jump she'd fallen on -- a 30-foot cliff the first day and a gorgeous backflip the second day. She landed her backflip moments after Paaso put the pressure on by sticking the first front flip she'd ever tried.
"Oh my gosh, I'm elated," Burks said after the awards ceremony, wearing a spiked black wig and headband in honor of the heavy metal band that played deep into the night. "I've never in my life been on top of a podium. I competed on the world tour for five years, and the best I ever did was third place. I'm 30 and on top of my first podium!"
Dash Longe dominated the big-mountain day to cement fourth place overall, and Andy Mahre combined technical skiing Monday with smooth rail riding and a perfect 720 Tuesday to place fifth overall. Perhaps the surprise of the contest was 17-year-old Whistler native Logan Pehota, who took sixth place and opened a lot of eyes with technical and stylish skiing both days. Two-time defending champion Sean Pettit finished 10th and relinquished his title.
While an event like this includes so many brilliant moments (and 11 TV cameras to capture them for NBC -- the event will air nationally on NBC on March 24), a few stood out among the lot: Wiley Miller's nose butter 720 off the cornice Tuesday, Leo Ahrens' relentless if futile pursuit of a double cork and Dave Treadway's hold-your-breath line on the big-mountain venue, which included a spine that had never been skied, according to Silverton founder Aaron Brill.
Said Treadway: "I get a rush out of making something that looks kind of impossible, possible. I had every turn memorized by the time I dropped in."
The week wasn't without some spectacular carnage as well, and some competitors abandoned the event halfway through due to injury. Richard Permin (knee), Callum Pettit (knee) and Kye Petersen (neck) left after Monday's big-mountain day, and Josh Bibby's and Tobias Tritscher's weeks also were cut short due to crashes.