Imagine a contest where a helicopter lifts you to the highest peaks in New Zealand's Mt. Aspiring National Park, and for two days, you get to ski powder, cliffs, and backcountry kickers. That's the basic premise of the World Heli Challenge, a big-mountain and freestyle ski and snowboard contest that was founded in 1995, discontinued in 2001, and then resurrected in 2009.
At an awards ceremony on Thursday night in Wanaka, New Zealand, the winners were announced a week after the contest finished up. Top honors for the X Factor awards went to American skier Jacqui Edgerly for the women and Kiwi snowboarder Will Jackways for the men. This was the first year that skiers and snowboarders went head to head for the top spots. Edgerly and Jackways were selected based on their overall performance and not necessarily on points earned during the competition.
Edgerly actually placed second overall in the women's ski rankings behind Australian Nat Segal. "Jacqui took the prize for her determination and amazing line choice," said head ski judge Dion Newport. "Not landing her run put her back in second position but her amazing show for the cameras and viewers earned her the X Factor Award." Australian Victoria Beattie rounded out the women's ski field.
"This contest has been incredible," Edgerly told ESPN.com. "We were fortunate to have good snow and epic terrain. Day one the snow was consistent and light for freestyle day."
Jackways took the top-ranking spot in the overall men's snowboard field, followed by Japan's Shin Biyajima and Finland's Antti Autti. "Will stood out during both days of competition," said head snowboard judge Mike Hygemann. "He had an amazing first run in the freestyle day where he showed great control and use of terrain pulling off 360 spins, a tail grab air, a method air and an indy. The extreme day saw him taking a very challenging line which he executed with aggression and style."
In the men's ski rankings, Italian Markus Eder took first overall, followed by defending champ Kiwi Sam Smoothy and American telemark skier Nick Devore. In the women's snowboard rankings, it was New Zealand's Abby Lockhart in first overall, Australia's Ratty Sheidow in second, and American Jett Elkins in third.
Last week, the athletes competed in the two-day contest (held on any two flyable days during a long weather window in August). The freestyle day last Thursday saw a mix of tricks off natural and manmade kickers including 360s, flat threes, cork threes, method airs and backflips. Last Friday, the crew returned for the extreme day on Mt. Albert, a judged big-mountain contest. "Overall we saw a great show of ability and strength in terrain that they have never seen before, let alone ridden," said Hygeman.
"This year, the snow coverage was much better, opening several lines that were unskiable in 2011," said event founder and director Tony Harrington. "The competitors took full advantage of the conditions, showing us why they stand amongst the best in the world, skiing long fluid lines down spines, off rock faces and through narrow chutes."