Freeride athletes took centre stage at the Winter Games NZ today with The North Face Frontier four-star competition delivering all the thrills and spills in this exciting big mountain event held at The Remarkables Ski Field in Queenstown. The 50-strong start list featured some of the world’s best skiers and snowboarders, all ready to throw down in the fiercely steep and exposed terrain of the Alta Chutes.
Sanctioned as a Freeride World Qualifier Tour competition, The North Face Frontier four-star event has helped launch the international careers of some of New Zealand’s best freeride athletes, including the current Freeride World Tour champion. Jess Hotter, who headlined the women’s freeski category.
With a strong Kiwi contingent featuring a host of past and present FWT competitors along with some international stars including a two-time Olympic medallist in the mix, it was always going to take something special to land amongst the medals at today’s event.
The women’s ski podium was certainly hotly contested and the judges had their work cut out for them deciding the final places faced with one of the classic freeride judging conundrums of freestyle tricks versus gnarly, steep lines. Three of the competitors landed backflips, which has never been seen before in a women’s Freeride World Qualifier competition.
“By far the standout category today was the women’s ski,” said head judge Dion Newport. “It was the most insane freeriding from female competitors that I’ve ever seen, by far.”
Separating first from second was a tough ask with Jess Hotter landing a perfectly executed backflip but the USA’s Kelsey Wittels picking up huge points for attacking the course with an aggressive run right in the fall line. In the end it was the control and fluidity of Hotter’s run that tipped the scales in her favour.
“I finally put down a backflip in competition so I’m really stoked, I’m so happy,” said Hotter. “I tried backflipping on the Freeride World Tour in 2020 and I under rotated it so I’ve been wanting to do it ever since but the conditions on the tour this year did not call for that. This is my trick redemption.”
Second-place finisher Wittels was also happy to get some redemption after an equipment failure in the two-star event on Monday saw her break a ski and crash out of podium contention. Putting all that behind her, she took the brakes off today.
“There’s this big meaty cliff in the middle that I had my eye on so I tried to line it up. When you look over it, it just looks way too big but it’s too late then so I sent it as big as I could,” she explained.
Kiwi Jessie Violet, winner of Monday’s two-star competition, was delighted to land her first-ever attempt at a backflip in competition to finish in third place today.
“Winning on the two-star definitely gave me confidence for today,” she said. “It’s really motivating for me to step up my skiing and be on that higher level. I had the goal for myself that I wanted to backflip in my run and I did that so I’m really happy.”
Canada’s Justine Dufour-Lapointe who is an Olympic medallist in moguls and now trying her hand at the freeride discipline, was the third female competitor to nail a backflip today, putting her in fourth place overall.
Women’s snowboard was the first category of the day with British competitor Melissa Brandner first to drop and laying down the top scoring run straight out of the gate.
“The chute really reminded me of home,” Brandner explained. “I live in northern Norway and we ride chutes like that a lot. That made me feel a little more comfortable, especially dropping first.”
New Zealand’s Maria Kuzma, a former Freeride World Tour competitor who has been a familiar face on The North Face Frontier podium over the years, finished in second place with Switzerland’s Zoe Macgeorge in third.
First place in men’s snowboard went to another local legend with 41-year-old NZ rider Roland Morley-Brown putting his experience to good use, showcasing impeccable riding along with some expert knowledge of the course to claim his sixth podium finish at this event since 2015.
“I spend pretty much my whole season up here hiking around in all these chutes, I love it here,” he explained. “I’m the old dog so I definitely feel pressure to do well.”
Ronan Thompson, winner of the two-star event, was delighted to claim his first podium at a four-star event, finishing in second place with a fast run incorporating backside and frontside 360s.
“Finishing on the podium is insane,” he said. “The last time I did this comp I fell over. It was the same thing, I’d won the two-star competition beforehand but then I fell in the four-star so it’s an absolute pleasure to podium today, it means the world.”
Switzerland’s Niklas Meindl rounded out the men’s snowboard podium in third place.
Kiwi athletes went one-two in the final category of the day, men’s ski, with Blake Marshall putting his local knowledge to good use, finding all the best nooks and crannies and skiing an aggressive line which earned him the top score.
“It went to plan,” he said. “I was the first one to get into the waterfall section so I got some fresh snow. I’ve definitely skied that a lot of times, I know my way round there and it plays to my advantage.”
Ski racer turned freeride competitor and coach Ben Richards (NZ) was feeling some nerves with several of his young students watching on from the bottom of the course. “I was actually kind of nervous, I had to practise what I preach to them,” he said.
His plan to channel his ski racing roots and ski a fast, fluid line almost backfired as he came in a little too hot and almost overshot most of the features he’d planned to hit.
“I was planning on doing a few more tricks but once I gained that much speed it was kind of hard to shut it down,” he explained. I did the 360 at the top of the course but after that I pretty much just had to point it downhill.”
Whether to plan or not, the judges liked the approach and awarded Richards second place with Henry Zakowski (USA) finishing in third.