It’s 26 February and we’re standing in the middle of a snow covered valley in Zermatt, Switzerland. The helicopter is running late, and it’s very, very cold.
The chopper arrives, and we’re bundled in while the blades fire frantically above. We take off and fly straight over the valley, speeding past mountain peaks and eventually touching down on a snowy flat patch surrounded by ferocious mountains.
The crew yell at us to get out and get down on our knees in their native Swiss-German. We abide and soon see why. A blizzard of snow rips past us as the helicopter takes off again and leaves us stranded in a spectacular setting otherwise inaccessible to man.
Untouched powder lies all around, mountain peaks dominate the perfect skyline, and there are no signs of human presence anywhere except a Swatch branded inflatable and a tiny figure standing on the edge of a mountain peak hundreds of feet above.
It’s Swedish freeriding legend Sverre Liliequest, and he’s getting ready to drop in.
This is the Swatch Skiers Cup. The second and final day, and the beginning of the big mountain contest. The event takes on the Europe versus America formula romanticised by golf’s Ryder Cup and brings it to the breakneck world of professional freesking.
American team captain Seth Morrison and Julien Regnier, his European counterpart, had handpicked nine riders each for the event, and each of those riders would go on to face off one-on-one against two rival counterparts each day.
One point is awarded for the winner of each heat, and the team with the most points at the end of the contest is awarded a trophy, the bragging rights, and a cheque for $16,000.
You can’t claim that prize without taking on a fistful of danger of course – dropping down a cliff is rarely the safest experience. The legendary Morrison is open in admitting, though, that the fear factor is just another part of the sport.
“I never go searching out for fear or adrenaline,” he said. “It comes with the territory. If someone else falls, I’m still going to go for it.
“You’re competing against others up there, but mainly against yourself, and you’re supposed to go for it – there are just some spots where you really have to pay attention!”
Unfortunately, tragedies do happen though, and the death of freeskiing legend JP Auclair last year hung over the event in no small way. JP was tragically killed in a mountaineering avalanche months after captaining the Americas to a win in the Skiers Cup in 2014.
Thankfully there were no serious injuries in the event this year – but it was clear that a lot of the guys were doing it in honour of JP. The captains told how such an awful occurrence does make you think about the nature of the sport, and admitted it’s always going to be a risk when you’re out there in unpredictable conditions.
“JP was a big influence in the industry and the sport, and he was a good friend,” said Regnier. “It’s very emotional, and it’s in the back of everyone’s heads. A lot of the guys who he captained last year are here again this year. We miss him for sure.
“If you lose a friend you’re always going to have thoughts about your sport. It’s a dangerous sport, and what happened to JP is in a way not surprising – he was a mountaineering guy and when you’re out there, you take a lot of risks that are very random.
“He was a mountaineering guy and when you’re out there, you take a lot of risks that are very random”
“He didn’t do anything wrong but nature didn’t work right for him. Of course it makes you think about it all but it’s our passions and our lives. We know the risks and we’re ready to take them.”
Morrison too was doing it for Auclair: “It’s super cool to be the team captain, and it means a lot after the passing of JP, who was someone I deeply respected and learned a lot from. I wasn’t planning on doing this event, so it is really out of respect. We shared a lot and gained a lot from each other.
“It’s all about putting on a show now, getting people stoked and doing it for JP. He was a big part of all of our lives and now it’s our turn to give back.”
And put on a show they certainly did. Seth Morrison was nailing backflips off every cliff that could handle it, and Cody Townsend – now famous for the viral ‘crack’ line – had a special tribute of his own, hucking a double backflip off a small kicker on day one.
Speaking after his run, he said: “Some of my best friends passed away this year, Timy Dutton and JP Auclair. They had both done double backflips and I hadn’t done one in a couple of years, but after seeing JP do one last year [in the Skiers Cup] I was like ‘God I’ve got to do that again’.
“I just had to do it. It wasn’t the jump for it, I didn’t have the speed and it wasn’t the right length, but I decided I’d just try it anyway!”
Sure, Cody didn’t quite stick the landing, but he perfectly captured the spirit of the contest with his efforts. Respect and homage were rife, and they were being shown by the athletes who were absolutely sending it.
It was 10-8 to Europe after a first day which saw Cody attempt that double, two riders take on injuries which would see them miss out on day two, and Seth Morrison stomp a crazy backflip off a cliff face and a front flip from a kicker in one run, which you can check out below.
“I had no plans of going off that cliff,” Morrison later laughed. “But everyone was asking if I was going off a cliff, so I just thought, ‘alright, I guess so!’ I didn’t even have the opportunity to stand and look off it first, so it was kind of rolling the dice.”
Sverre kicked off the spectacular second day in the big mountain contest, similar to the slopestyle, but with no man made features at all. The riders were simply choppered up to the top of a mountain face, and left to get down it as stylishly as possibly. And man have they got some style.
Current freeride world champion Loic Collomb-Patton left us all stunned when he stomped this amazing run in the big mountain contest. Forget 50 Shades of Grey, the steeze on this run is enough to turn the most frigid of skier on, if such a things exists.
At the end of the day it would be Europe on top again. 20-16 was the final score, with the trophy staying on the continent, but in all honesty, the Skiers Cup is much more about the spectacle, the atmosphere and the showcase than it is about the victory.
It’s an event that takes 18 of the best skiers in the world and leaves them in fearsome, spectacular settings where they can let their imaginations run wild. It’s an event which allows the riders to pay homage to lost friends and innovators.
It’s an event that challenges the sport’s elite to go one bigger and one better, and it’s an event that well and truly reminds us, there’s a reason why they call them professional.