Over the past week, like birds flying south for the winter, an elite group of freeskiers and snowboarders began migrating from various mountain ranges around the world to interior British Columbia, where a new kind of competitive glory awaits.
Their destination, Revelstoke, is set to host the opening competition this week on the revamped Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face (FWT), which will crown undisputed world champions in the freeriding discipline for the first time. The "Top Gun"-esque big-mountain circuit represents a merger of three tours that carried on separately in North and South America and Europe in recent years.
Revelstoke, the sole Canadian host resort, offers one of the most enticing venues on the six-stop circuit: a 1,600-vertical-foot, out-of-bounds face known as Mac Daddy. Thanks to above-average snowfall in the Selkirk Range (Revelstoke Mountain Resort has already received 250 inches this season), locals say Mac Daddy's bedrock has been blanketed to a perfect degree for the competition.
"It may be a little more textured than last year, as we've had more varied wind directions this season rather than consistent loading patterns of last season," said RMR avalanche forecaster Troy Leahey. "It does look good, the stability has been good for the last week and the Mac Daddy has seen some skier traffic, and reports are coming back that it's skiing well."
This is welcome news to the competitors, who will get one shot at the face and are only allowed visual inspection. The one-and-done format marks the biggest change for North American competitors used to taking multiple runs over two or three days. "I think that's going to step up the level on people's lines," Josh Daiek, who won the now-defunct Freeskiing World Tour last year, said from Mt. Baker, Wash., before driving to Revelstoke. "It's going to be intense. People are going to be hungry and going for it."
The men's freeski field is the largest on tour, with 36 athletes from 11 countries slated to compete in Revelstoke. Reigning FWT champion Reine Barkered of Sweden, whose drive to the interior included a training stop at Whistler-Blackcomb, said much of the talk among European competitors has been about the increased number of athletes on each venue, as well as the fact that deeper fields will make it tougher to win.
"I haven't met or seen all the new guys that much," he said. "There are people I haven't really been keeping track of. There could be a huge surprise going into Revelstoke with a lot of new names. It's pretty exciting."
As with the freeskiing ranks, where 2012 FWT runner-up Drew Tabke and third-place finisher Aurélien Ducroz have entered, the men's snowboard field includes the entire 2012 FWT podium. Reigning champ Douds Charlet of France will contend with American Ralph Backstrom (who won at Revelstoke last January and is the only one of four winners to return this year) and Austria's Flo Orley, among 11 others. Three-time FWT champ Xavier de Le Rue said he's skipping this event because of fatigue from a recent expedition to Antarctica but plans to enter subsequent competitions on the circuit.
"Revelstoke is very different from the Alps; every day I ride 2,000 meters in one run, so this face is shorter," said Charlet, who traveled from his hometown of Chamonix on Friday. "But I really like this spot because the snow is very nice. I'm just riding easy for myself and looking for the best conditions. I'm riding to have no stress."
The women's freeski field includes 2012 FWT champion Christine Hargin of Sweden as well as Jackson Hole's Crystal Wright, who was crowned 2012 champ on this side of the Atlantic. Yet while Hargin has been training in Revelstoke for a week and said she's confident she can defend her title, Wright simply will be happy to reach the bottom of Mac Daddy upright. She broke her fibula and tibula in a gruesome mountain bike crash in May -- a week before committing to the 2013 tour -- and will be skiing with a 12-inch rod in her leg.
"I definitely have a different mindset and different goal coming up to Revelstoke," Wright said while driving to British Columbia from Wyoming. "Last year my goal was to try and win the tour. I skied a pretty big line at Revelstoke, still by far the best line I've ever skied. And I'm not really feeling that, yet."
With reigning FWT and Revelstoke women's snowboard champ Maria DeBari having stepped away from competition, that division is wide open. Shannan Yates, a two-time winner of the former North American Masters tour, headlines the field.
"I'm excited about being on this face," Yates said of Mac Daddy before hopping in her car and driving through the night from Utah. "It's the venue that the skiers got last year. The snowboarders didn't get it. It's pretty steep in spots, so there will be a lot of slough management. I think some of the women from the Masters tour haven't been on a face quite this size. So experience will definitely be important."
Competition director Bryan Barlow said the goal is to run all four divisions on Mac Daddy in the same day. But Mother Nature isn't making it easy. Heavy snow is in the forecast this week, meaning the event could use most or all of the Jan. 7-12 weather window. Stay tuned for more coverage here as the plan unfolds.