Childhood memories of Easter typically involve putting on nice clothes, going to church, and hunting for painted eggs, but not necessarily in every family. For me, growing up in a family that loved to ski, Easter morning meant a quick breakfast in the lodge cafeteria before heading up the mountain for those last few runs in the rapidly melting New England snow. This year I got to relive a new and improved version of those great memories, as I spent March 29 through 31 at Heavenly Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe. Not only did I get in some great skiing courtesy of Heavenly’s copious base and ubiquitous snowmaking, I also got to watch many of the world’s best freestyle skiers compete for the United States Championships in moguls and aerials.
On Friday afternoon the brothers Wilson—Bradley and Bryon, out of Deer Valley in Utah—finished 1-2 in the mogul event, while Heather McPhie took her second national title in a row with a victory over Hannah Kearney, the reigning World and Olympic champion. On Saturday, as the Wilsons and the duo of Kearney and McPhie took the day off, the rest of the talented field battled it out for the dual mogul title, with top honors going to three-peat dual moguls champion Joe Discoe of Telluride and to Dartmouth College student Sophia Schwartz. Tahoe local Sho Kashima came in second on Saturday after finishing third to the Wilson’s on Friday, but, despite his lack of a win, the news is good for this gutsy skier, who is coming back from ACL surgery and looks likely to be a contender at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Sliding on snow has come a long way since the first freestyle skiing contests were held in the early 1970s. Snowboards, big air, terrain parks, and half pipes are just some of the new wrinkles that have come along to introduce excitement and variety to the slopes. Some of what I saw over the weekend at Heavenly, particularly the high flying acrobatics of the aerials, which were held on Saturday evening, would have been unimaginable back when I was a teenage freestyle competitor, and inverted aerials were banned in junior level competition. But while the landscape has changed, and the levels of performance are higher than ever, some things about freestyle, at least at this particular competition, were reassuringly the same.
First of all, this sport is still family oriented and incredibly fun. Unlike the “Z games” and other, more carnivalesque winter pastimes, freestyle skiing has not succumbed to the monster truck-ification that led to such incidents as the death of “freestyle” snowmobile rider Caleb Moore in January. Moguls, even more than slalom poles, are the original obstacles of skiing—something that pretty much every skier eventually has to deal with—and the ability to ski them fast and well remains the ultimate test of whether or not someone is a real expert. Heavenly has a million of them, and they range in intimidation factor from eminently bashable to the hopelessly obstructive. Due to the unusual set up at the bottom of Gunbarrel, Heavenly’s mogul competition course, the very first thing that greeted me when I arrived on Friday and looked up through the mist was the sublime image of Hannah Kearney, utterly straight and fully extended, flipping backward off the top jump and outlined against the sun.
For those who have not been following the sport, Kearney’s story is worth getting to know before having to endure what are sure to be some serious NBC Sports profiles coming your way this winter during the Olympics. Kearney is from Norwich, Vermont, and grew up skiing at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire, which just happens to be the place where my family and I spent several of those skiing Easters, and is also recognized as one of the birthplaces of freestyle skiing. The first “exhibition skiing contest” on the east coast was organized there in 1971, and it was at this event that Canadian hot dogger (and current Tahoe area resident) Wayne Wong set the whole freestyle world in motion with his flashy jet turns and innovative slope style.
Hannah Kearney grew up on these New England slopes, where gnarly bumps occupy the center of skier attention that might otherwise be lavished on powder-filled chutes at bigger mountains in the Rockies or the Alps. She has gone on to become the most successful skier in FIS (that’s the world federation of skiing don’t you know) history, posting an incredible string of 16 consecutive individual event victories on her way to four world championships. The 2012-2013 season was a particularly challenging one for Kearney, as she suffered broken ribs in a training fall at Zermatt in October, and had to miss several of the early season events before rejoining the world tour in January.
Both Kearney and Heather McPhie, who edged her out at Heavenly with a back flip with a full twist in the moguls, a trick that no other woman is doing right now, were on hand when freestyle skiers got their first crack at the 2014 Olympic venue, Sochi, Rosa Khutor, Russia, which was on this season’s World Cup circuit. McPhie, who looked super confident and stoked on Gunbarrel, said that she liked Heavenly because it reminded her of the Sochi course. Clearly, despite the end of season atmosphere and the present-tense awards on the line, the top skiers are already looking forward to next year, when the Winter Games will put them in front of millions of people worldwide via television. Heavenly, the United States Ski Association, Vail Resorts, and tour sponsor Sprint all deserve credit for running a smooth, safe, and thrilling competition that had the crowds coming back for more until late in the evening on Saturday, when aerialists could still be seen throwing multiple twisting double flips past Heavenly’s signature red tramway.
As for my skiing, while I’m certainly not on a par with the mostly very young competitors, whose startling zipper lines through the moguls radiate such intense energy and confidence, I still managed to have a lot of fun and challenge myself. The weather was very Tahoe, with precipitation at lake level mostly of the liquid variety, but giving way at altitude to a dusting of the real white stuff, or, alternately to bright sunshine above the fog of the inversion. For an easterner raised on spring snow and bumps, there was plenty to do, with the California side of the mountain offering easier options and the double black diamonds of the Nevada side tossing out the riskier thrills.
Alongside the competitors, I enjoyed the hospitality at Harveys, one of the big casino hotels in Stateline, NV, adjacent to the tramway base and the transportation center. The event organizers worked impressively with the hotel staff to make sure that every transfer, every pick up, and every detail was on time and in order, making what could have been a tiring and time-consuming process of getting to and from the event site into just one more part of the fun.
This weekend, Heavenly will do it once more, this time with snowboards, as Shaun White and some of the biggest names in boarding will gather to play poker and grab big air in the High Roller Hold “Em event, which pits top boarders against one another in a combination of poker and aerials. Also this weekend, Glen Plake returns to Heavenly for the Gunbarrel 25, an insanely challenging event in which skiers attempt to log 25 laps on the resort’s toughest bump run between 10 in the morning and when the lifts close at 4. I skied Gunbarrel exactly once while I was in Tahoe, and I can assure you that the Gunbarrel 5 would be prohibitively difficult even for most good skiers. Multiply that by 5 and, well, you can imagine the result. But what better way to celebrate the spring than by skiing yourself silly?