WANAKA, New Zealand -- The premise of New Zealand's World Heli Challenge is this: Fly the world's best riders to some remote, virgin snow high in the Southern Alps. Let them draw lines in it. Let them leap off of cliffs into it. Sometimes, let them crash into it. And then whisk them away, to a warmer place, at a lower elevation, with a steady supply of Carlton Dry. It's the epitome of glamor. But it doesn't come cheap: Entrants pay $2,200 in fees and sign their lives away in waivers.
Ideally, there are two days of competition (one freestyle, one extreme) in the two-week fly window. This year's event ended a little anticlimactically when the extreme day was canceled due to poor weather and high avalanche danger. This is only the second time in the contest's 15-year history that the two days have not been completed.
"The decision to not proceed with the Extreme Day of this year's World Heli Challenge was a disappointing and tough call to make but ultimately was the right one for a number of very compelling reasons, first of which was safety," event manager KJ Randall said. "The conditions were steadily stacking up against us and after extensive consultation with our guiding team, snow safety crew and our heli operators, the decision became clear."
The winners, who get a trip to Alaska) were announced on Thursday at the awards showcase: Will Jackways and Abby Lockhart won the overall snowboard titles and Sam Smoothy and Taylor Rapley won for women.
The judging is straightforward: Riders are judged on style and control, number and difficulty of tricks and, perhaps most importantly, overall impression. While the head judges were on the mountain, the rest of the panel watched high-definition footage of the athletes to determine the winners.
Seven o'clock on Monday of last week saw the whole Heli Challenge crew gathering outside of Racers Edge, on Wanaka's still-sleepy main street. We convoyed to Makarora and waited for a few hours until the weather cleared. The 22 international athletes -- both skiers and snowboarders -- cranked up their car stereos and played hacky and cricket to pass the time.
Just after lunch, two helicopters began ferrying loads of six to the summit of Mount Turner. At 7,053 feet high, the location had never before been ridden in this capacity. Snow stability was described as "fair," which meant there was a chance of avalanche, and the landing zone at the top of the mountain was labeled "quite spicy."
The chopper waited at the bottom of the 2,000-foot course as the riders above scouted their lines. The competition got rolling around 2:45 p.m. and progressed in a rapid-fire sort of fashion until the sun began to sink and the clouds reappeared a couple of hours later.
The point of the freestyle day is to see how well the skiers and boarders can use the backcountry's natural features to pull off airs. New Zealand skiers Sam Smoothy and Charlie Lyons, who both rank on the Freeride World Tour, had 360s on lockdown while Fraser McDougall got my vote for "most memorable" with his multiple attempts at double backflips -- even if he didn't land them.
"[My headspace] was pretty mellow," McDougall said afterward. "It's soft snow, still, so crashing doesn't really hurt that much. I've been doing lots of trampoline training, so I felt [the first rotation] come around and just went for the second one. Every year [at this event], people just charge it."
On the snowboard side of things, last year's winner Will Jackways (also from New Zealand) had two smooth and stylish rides.
Colin Boyd, from the East Coast of the U.S., and Finland's Antti Autti also made positive impressions. Canadian snowboarder Jessy Brown was a standout among the women's competitors with her interesting airs and lines.