The question was simple yet impossible at the same time.
What are the most impressive tricks in freeskiing?
Inevitably, whether a skier prefers triple corks or zero spins or unnatural alley-oops, his answer is shaped by his interpretation of "best." Does best mean hardest? Most technical? Most stylish?
The way in which a certain few perceive this question will determine much in the year to come, climaxing with freeskiing's Olympic debut next February. The possibilities, for better or worse, are vast.
"For me, the 'best' tricks have always been ones where the rider took something that would be considered difficult by their peers and personalized it," two-time defending X Games Aspen SuperPipe champ David Wise said. "Combining a high-technical difficulty trick with a unique style and grab is what makes the 'best' tricks."
Wise, who won the FIS world championship March 5 and will be vying for his first gold at X Games Tignes next week, was one of many elite skiers and coaches interviewed for this story. The idea was essentially to dissect the sport's cutting edge, but with each subsequent athlete, it became more like a dinner table conversation that unfolded across hemispheres and continents, at trade shows and competitions, over the phone, via e-mail and Skype.
Before we start, a disclaimer: This story is not intended to be scientific. It's subjective and abstract, much like freeskiing itself. There's a good chance we're forgetting something or awarding too much legitimacy to something else. The goal was simply to see where the sport stood, going into the most visible season in its history.
Unnatural double cork 1260
Two years after Wise landed the first one in competition, many still believe this to be the baddest trick in pipe skiing. Justin Dorey, who landed the trick when he won the Breckenridge Dew Tour this winter, said the rotation terrifies him. "It might be the hardest trick in the game right now because it's an actual double cork spin, and not just an unnatural 180 with two flips," Dorey said. "Also, for some reason it's harder, in my opinion, to set unnatural rotation forward than switch." Although it's still rare to see one executed in competition, the trick is attracting younger devotees like Alex Ferreira, who was 17 when he landed one last spring in Whistler, British Columbia.
Giant zero spin
A trademark of less-is-more master Duncan Adams, the zero spin -- or switch straight air in Adams' case -- can be a mesmerizing sight when thrown 20 feet above the pipe. "One of the hardest parts about skiing pipe is going big," U.S. halfpipe skier Gus Kenworthy said. "To go big on a zero air, like Duncan Adams, is crazy. It's completely blind from the switch takeoff to the switch landing and he's landing high up on the wall." Because the difficulty changes so much with amplitude, it also reinforces why a criteria-based judging system, like the one used in Olympic diving, with difficulty values assigned in advance, won't work for freeskiing.
Switch down-the-pipe double cork/double flatspin 1080
"I make the case that the switch double cork is still the hardest trick in pipe skiing," Wise said. "The rotation makes sense, but mastering the timing on the takeoff is a truly difficult and dangerous thing." New Zealand innovator Jossi Wells was the first to land one (out of competition), and a number of skiers often throw it in practice, but almost none has it in his competition run. If you recall Dorey's vicious crash while attempting this trick at X Games Aspen in 2012, you know why.
Switch alley-oop double 900
Noah Bowman, then a 19-year-old Canadian upstart, went from X Games alternate to silver medalist in 2012 thanks to this trick, which he learned two days before the event. "Since [Bowman invented it]," Kenworthy said, "I believe that people have even started to dabble with spinning it both ways, which is pretty wild."
Double cork 1080 true tail
How an athlete grabs his ski while spinning and flipping down the pipe often has as much to do with a trick's difficulty as the inversion and rotation. The double cork 1080 is nothing special nowadays, but when you add a true tail grab, as Kevin Rolland did at X Games Aspen this year, the difficulty spikes.
Unnatural double alley-oop flatspin 900
Not only is it difficult to spin alley-oop (back up the pipe instead of downhill with your momentum) more than 540 degrees, it's even harder to get a good pop off the lip when spinning in an unnatural direction. Hence the reason this trick makes our list. Dorey has landed unnatural double alley-oop flat 9's in practice but never in competition. If he or anyone else breaks it out next winter, watch for this trick to play a key role in the Olympic final.
Up next: Everyone agreed that linking switch tricks can make a pipe score skyrocket (see Bowman's three straight switch hits in his silver-medal X Games run), but the moment someone starts linking switch alley-oop spins, the consensus is that the scoring boost will be even higher.
Nose butter triple cork 1620
Need another reminder that sports are 90 percent mental? The night before Swedish jumping jack Henrik Harlaut landed arguably the greatest trick in freeskiing history, he told Sammy Carlson he was going to do it. "I didn't doubt him for a minute," Carlson recalled. When asked later how he built up to the historic triple 16, Harlaut said the key was visualizing how he would do the last cork 360. Once he pictured himself landing it, he said, his confidence took over. "Since nobody else has done them before, you have nothing to look for except exactly how you would do it," he said.
Nose butter double cork 12
Harlaut remains the only skier throwing nose butter double corks in contests, despite the fact they've proven to be unbeatable. He's so automatic that you forget how catastrophic it could be if he ever missed the butter on his takeoff.
Switch triple 1440
Triple-cork variations are still relatively scattered. This one, first landed by Kenworthy, remains a rarity due to the backward takeoff.
Unnatural rodeo 1080
Few pro skiers have a strong unnatural rodeo, but Tom Wallisch is one of them. Wallisch, the recently crowned FIS world champion in slopestyle, has thrown it with three full rotations.
Switch triple rodeo Japan
Carlson landed this trick with a 1260-degree spin at Mt. Hood, Ore., a few summers ago, then Kenworthy bumped it up to a 1440 with a Japan grab to win the Jon Olsson Invitational (JOI) last spring.
The knock on triple corks is that it's hard to make them look good, what with so much flipping and spinning happening at once. The flatspin is one of skiing's most stylish tricks, but even after Bobby Brown introduced this in 2010, the fact that it still hasn't caught on speaks to its difficulty.
Double cork 720
A 720, even of the double-cork variety, seems an unlikely candidate to make this list. But it's actually harder to spin less during a double cork, which is why Swede Frej Jonsson's double cork 720 last spring had everyone talking. "It's totally going against the flow of things," Brown said. "No one thought that was really possible." Not surprisingly, Harlaut has also done some of these.
Switch double misty 1440 double Japan
Still regarded as one of freeskiing's most technical spins and axes, Swiss teenager Kai Mahler has added a double Japan grab to the forward-flipping move that gave Brown X Games gold in 2010.
Double rodeo 1080
Skiers often bring up this trick, another of Harlaut's specialties, when asked which double-flip variations are technical enough to compete with a triple cork. It requires Harlaut to do the second upside-down 540 completely blind.
Switch unnatural 1440
Wallisch landed this trick -- a massive spin for an unnatural rotation, to say nothing of the switch takeoff -- three years ago during the X Games Big Air. Said Brown as a way to justify its inclusion: "No one has done it since."
Up next: It's hard to believe standard double- and triple-cork 1620s have been usurped, but they have. Expect to see even more triple variations evolve this summer and fall. "I think that's where skiing will go next," Carlson said. "I think you'll see people getting so comfortable with all sorts of different types of double corks that they're going to start taking everything to three. I just hope everyone keeps it safe, because when you start throwing triples, it's an insane amount of risk that people are taking."