This weekend, the first-ever Junior Freeride World Championships is taking place at Snowbird, Utah. It's the season finale, for 40 skiers aged 15 to 17 from all over the world, to the Junior Freeride Tour, a series of big-mountain contests that have served as the youth version of the Freeride World Tour.
The Junior Freeride Tour is now in its fifth year and competitive big-mountain skiing and snowboarding programs for the under-18 squad are popping up everywhere.
"Ten years ago there were three teams and one comp," says Eric Deslauriers, head coach of the Squaw Valley freeride team. "Now there are more than 50 teams in North America and over 30 comps."
Historically, those who've excelled in big-mountain ski competitions like the Freeride World Tour are athletes who grew up in ski racing programs and translated their strong ski fundamentals to freeskiing. Legends like Shane McConkey, Ingrid Backstrom and Hugo Harrison grew up in race programs and in more recent years, Crystal Wright, Angel Collinson, Chris Davenport, Arne Backstrom, and Jérémie Heitz are a few more examples of racers turned big mountain champions.
But less of tomorrow's big-mountain competitors will come from racing programs -- instead they will learn their skills straight from junior freeride programs. So the question remains: Will the next generation of freeskiers be better off having grown up in freeride programs or does traditional race training have its merits?
The high school telemark program I participated in at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School was in fact an early freeski program -- we went to the Taos Salomon Freeride Championships before there was even a junior division. Our team spent time working on ski fundamentals and doing video analysis, but it wasn't until we got onto a race course that I felt what it was like to angle my body, hold an edge and load a ski. I think a lot of skiers can attest to the technique that is developed skiing gates.
"I would never been such a successful big mountain competitor without a ski racing background," says Crystal Wright, the 2012 Freeskiing World Tour champion. "I think traditional training is key for our sport and it doesn't just help with ski technique but also with the mental aspect. The competitive environment and strength training are absolutely essential."
Teams like the Squaw Valley freeride team do pre-season dryland training just like junior race teams, and, Deslauriers says, "Teaching good skiing fundamentals in freeride programs is important -- it has to be a focus."
Plus, freeskiing programs do teach important skills that can't be grasped on a race course. Says Deslauriers, "We teach kids how to read snow, terrain and assess hazards. The kids are taught how to balance their ability with the terrain they choose to ski. We also teach the equivalent to an AAIRE avalanche 1 course so kids know how to stay out of trouble in avalanche terrain."
But, says Chris Davenport, a former ski racer and a two-time extreme skiing world champion, racing still teaches skiers the fundamentals. "While freeskiing programs are definitely a step forward for today's young athletes, the skills developed through coached race training -- such as edge control, body position, speed control, and line selection -- are freeskiing fundamentals and can be refined more critically in a hard-snow environment," says Davenport. "Plus the focus, dedication, and hard work that most alpine race programs require goes a long way toward creating successful athletes of any kind."
If freeskiing programs are able to teach these skills, perhaps today's youth will enter the adult freeskiing scene with a more diverse skill set than the older generation. But if ski technique and work ethic suffer, young athletes may miss out on the underlying fundamentals that make for technically sound skiers.
Drew Petersen, a 19-year-old skier who won the junior division at the 2012 Salomon Freeride Championships in Taos, N.M., learned to ski chasing his dad and brother around the mountain. "The mountain was my coach growing up, skiing hardpack on steep terrain shaped my turns and my skiing technique without coaching and without a structured regime," says Petersen.
The reality is that most kids who grow up skiing or in ski programs don't make it a career choice. "Whether kids grow up in freeride programs or not, it comes down to getting out there and skiing," says Petersen. "If kids are having fun, putting their time in on snow, and still skiing with good technique then it doesn't matter whether or not they grow up in freeride programs, traditional race or mogul programs, or just skiing like I did."
Adds Deslauriers, "Our program is more than just about the skiing, it's about the life lessons the mountains have to offer. And if fundamentals are a focus, the kids can learn to be good skiers, too."
[Jake Sakson has been competing in big-mountain contests since he was 17. To date, he is the only telemark skier to land on the podium in a Freeskiing World Tour contest.]