It has been quite an challenging six months with a lot of change. I changed jobs and cities, battled some crappy illnesses and on top of that it was the worsted powder-less winter that I can remember in our parts of the alps. Sure there were a few days here and there but all in all ups and downs none really satisfying and all of them a bit of a compromise. In such turbulent times it is often best just to follow your heart and bridge troubles while somewhat reinventing yourself without loosing perspective and goals in the process. Sometimes it is good to stop doing compromising for the sake of stability and just get out there.
It was November. In fact it was Christmas. I had been home in Maribor for a two weeks already after being diagnosed with intense case of intestinal swelling that had been a byproduct of a viral infection at home mixed with bacterial leftovers from a Bali belly. I had lost 7 kilograms in 5 days and feeling like burned out shit. That was also the time when our psycho sociopath boss, unhappy with his own life decided to sack us regardless of being one of the best offices of Advantage Austria in the whole world. For Christmas I got a one liner fuck you lie saying “you are being let go because your position is being canceled for reorganization”. So being home sick with unemployment and no income looming I decided that this was not going to be one of those downward spiral stories that are far to common in our little country. I had plans for the winter. Big plans. And I would not let any of these events stop me form making them real.
A month earlier I had talked to my buddy Jan about the possibility of us two doing something no one from our country had done in quite a while. Try to do a contest season in the Freeride World Tour qualifiers. I figured, hell this is gonna be a fun adventure. Since I had a few sponsors now it would also be good to represent them. I would have three months of lee time before being let go where I would not have to show up at the office so for once I had the time. We made a plan payed for the licenses and enrolled in the first 1* Event. Our plan was simple. Try to do three contests and see where we stand without pushing ourselves to much to see the level the contests are at.
The Freeride World Tour qualifiers consist of a ton of different Freeride contests that all run under a points system overseen by the Freeride World Tour. Think of it as the FIS of the Freeride world without the evil corporate FIS part. The events are rated by difficulty by a points star system from 1-4 *, the latter being the most difficult. The start list is formed form a seeding list of rankings from your overall points at the Freeride World Tour. So in short. The higher you finish, the more points you get. The more points you get the better contests you get to ride. The goal here was to get a good basis of points so that we might compete at a 3* event next season. The whole system is set up progressively so being a one shot wonder will not get you far.
Soon after new years passed and we returned from working as ski instructors in Val Cenis (more on the exploration of that area in the next post) we got confirmation for our first contest. We would go to Hochkar, a small resort on the border between Styria and lower-Austria not far from my home in Maribor.
OPEN FACES 1* FWQ HOCHKAR
I had been at Hochkar only once. After the first snowfall at home on a weekend we randomly ended up at the resort in December. We did a few fun runs and it had a nice face that ended up being the contest face. It was interesting to see the resort host a Freeride event as it is more family oriented. Jan had arrived in Maribor the day before. I had been busy renovating a old flat we had where I would move in after quickly getting out of Ljubljana. It was a move to curb running costs to a minimum until I found another job. So at 3 am on a Saturday morning we were off.
As we arrived a lot of the riders were already assembled. This was the first time we would go trough the normal “ritual” before a race. Register, pick up your BIB aka race number (with goodie-bag 🙂 ), get lift tickets and head to the riders meeting at a hut at the top of the resort. There the race director would explain the whole procedure, kinda like a flight attended, on the general rules of safety and conduct. This one was more elaborate as the 1* events often include newcomers like us two.
Then we would all have a chance for the face inspection. We could check out the features on the face and the snow conditions to see if the runs we had planned would be doable. A few days before the race we all got zoning information. Essentially that consists of a map of the course boundary on where you are allowed to ride and where not. Then you let your creative juices flow and find a nice way for you off the mountain. I had two versions in my head. One was to head left and one to head right. Most riders would definitely choose the riders left. I decided to go right, and so did Jan.
Then it was race time. We moved up to the starting gate. Before getting there you have to pass a security inspection that checks all your safety gear. Beacon, probe, shovel and a separate back protector. Integrated back protectors are not allowed. We also got RECCO reflectors. Part of the ongoing effort to insure more safety on th FWT was to partner up with RECCO and make the reflectors mandatory in case something happens. After all time is essential in crisis.
My BIB number was 38 so I would start rather late. Jan with 26 would go first. I was excited. I had not felt the nice itching of contest excitement since my last race at the Freeride Battle on Kanin in 2008. Yes it had been that long. Jan started off. I did not see much of his run from the top and did not know how well he had done. Soon after it was my turn. In a ritualistic preparation I checked my boots, bindings, backpack did a bit of stretching and proceeded to the starting gate. Being called up I started to the riders right. Check out the run in the video bellow:
The upper part was easy. I did a few turns and tried not to build up to much speed. I the middle part I had decided on two options. Either do a small drop on the right or go directly on a spine and show off my good steep skills there. I thought that would count for more points, so after coming in a little low for the drop and traversing I did the latter. It felt great. A photographer captured me just as I entered the lower chute. From there I did a few fast speed turns and finished the race going over a little kicker they built at the bottom. That was it. I was super pumped. I had made my first contest run. But how well did I do? Fact was that my Solomon Q118 performed superbly and I had the amount of control with it I had missed on my old Rocker2s.
As we waited in the the sun of the super cool chill area the results were announced. I finished 18th… out of 32 in ski men. Well that was a surprise. After all the BS lately a really welcome one. After the race we even got a opportunity to talk to the judges and my spine choice, as great as it had looked was not that lucrative for points. I also got a bit of penalty for traversing that I mitigated with doing controlled speed turns at the bottom of the run. The judge said that with a few adjustments I could easily make it under the top 15. Also made a few new friends who we would see in our later contests trough out the season! The day after the race we built a little kicker on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere to practice our airtime. It was super fun and chill. Not riding park for ages thou was showing.
2* FWQ PITZTAL WILD FACE FREERIDE EXTREME
The second contest of the season brought us to Pitztal. I love Pitztal and it`s surrounding glaciers. The Race known as the Wild Face Freeride Extreme has kind of a history here. Also it is the only qualifier where your line is not judged by the five criteria, namely LINE, FLUIDITY, CONTROL, AIR&STYLE and TECHNIQUE but by a single one… TIME. It is a timed race. The only thing that counts at the bottom of the run is your time.
We arrived to the riders meeting late in the evening. A bar named the “Hexenkessel” – Witches pot, was the meeting point. At the briefing we learned that this year the venue for the contest would be a totally different one. Usually it would start at the Mittagskogel and end at the foot of the base tram station. Scouting a month earlier we did not ride it but knew roughly where to go. This year thou the lacking snow conditions forced the organizers to move the race way up to the other side of the valley.
We would start far away from the resort after a 2.5 hour tour just under the panorama Platform of the Sölden Ski resort at the Linker Fernerkogel Peak (3.278m). Then we would speed down a 2.5 km stretch loosing 828 hm to the finish at the phenomenal ice arena of Eisloch Mittelbergferner (2.450m). Unlike the valley, the conditions there would be great. We also ran into Andre and a few other buddies we meet at Hochkar. After a short night crashing on Flo`s couch back in Innsbruck early that Saturday in February we were ready for the race. Hell we even brought speed wax 😛
Before getting under way past the main Glacier on our ascent we had the mandatory safety check. We were not ascending fast. The goal was to conserve energy for the race. Our BIBs were quite on high side again and we were in good touring condition. As we moved up we passed a lot of riders… soon we were in the first group. Funny how used I had become to Jans higher tempo. I did run into a bit of trouble just bellow the top thou.
For the races I use my Salomon Q118 powder ski. Its on the wide side with 118 under foot. For skinning I just use the skins from my touring ski, the mountain explore 95. That one is only 95 under foot but the same length. Problem is when you are edging on hard pack there is no grip from the skins. It is an annoying compromise but, since I am not swimming in cash to have another extra pair of skins lying around it has to make due. Still after a bit of torture I made it to the top too.
The weather was awesome. We even took a few pics from the peak with a magnificent view of of the entire Pitztal Glacier area. The start took it`s time. Not all the competitors were in good touring condition. Some needed more then an hour longer and had to start later.
After a short while we waxed our skis with the speed wax. Jan had also taken care of our skis and made a hell of a good job preparing them for the race. Mine were so fast I was barely able to hold myself at the start gate. Then Jan took of first. I filmed his start and he was speeding down the side of the mountain like a bullet. Soon he was gone behind the first corner.
Then a few riders latter it was my turn. 3,2,1, and bum. I started full throttle on the already tracked side of the mountain. My legs were still ok and I was speeding past the first three gates. In the riders meeting we learned in a bit of a messed up manner that after the first long open line there would be a sharp left turn just under a 45 degree drop. In the photo it looked doable at full throttle, only in reality it was not. Since I did not trust the picture from the briefing I took a bit of speed off but still dropped almost half of the steep incline. A was center and saw the gate to my left.
To make a good transition you had to pass just by it in order to keep the speed for a very long flat traverse. I pulled my whole weight to the left put my skis to a 90 degree angle and hoped that my knees would hold the compression. If I came in to low I could say any good standing goodbye.
It worked and I speed on to the flats and the last two big turns. Here my knees were already giving me a hard burner. When I passed the finishing gate I used all of the compression to gain one or two last milliseconds. Bam… I had made it. But what was my time. I was so stoked that I only heard that at that point I was in 6 position, but the brunt of the best 30 was still at the top.
I joined up Jan who was looking kinda bummed. He told me that he had come in to low on the steep drop point going full throttle and while trying to get the corner crashed. So he had lost a lot of speed on that flat part. Regardless with his end time he must have been really fast on the upper part. I figured with Jan`s super trained physic his knees could hold more then mine. It reminded me that I was far from being 100% fit this winter :(.
After the last rider made it to the bottom we learned our times. I made 20th position with 4:16.22 a whooping 1:20.54 behind the winner Tobias Heinle form Germany. He needed only 2:55.68. Damn I will need to do this better next season. Jan had lost a lot of time because of the crash and came in at 34. Still a lot of riders did not even finish. 14 out of 51 in our category SKI Male. Damn thats a lot 😛 I was not super stoked with my time but was happy about my final standing. After all the goal was to stay in the 20th range to get points and this was our first 2* event. True one of a different kind but we would soon be rewarded with another.
OPEN FACES 2*FWQ GASTEIN
It was April already. Jan and I had applied for the 3* event at Kaprun but did not make the seed list. We also entered the final Open Faces Event to be held at Bad Gastein for the first time just for kinks. I had already given up on doing more races as there was little to no snow. I was at the cinema with a few friends watching the new Power Rangers movie when I got an email from the organizers.
“Due to a riders injury you are next in line on the wait list. Please let us know if you can attend the race on Saturday ASAP.” What ? Wuhu.. I was super stoked and called Jan right away telling him to also check his inbox. There was no mail. So I started planing. We had a big tour planned for Sunday so I would head out to Gastein on Friday, find a place to sleep, do the race and then afterwards head to Gorenjska to a birthday party and subsequently do the tour on Sunday. The catch was that I had had a bad cold. It moved to my sinuses a week earlier and I was not well. I left me with some bit of a inner ear infection that messed with my balance. Not good. Still I was hoping that it would at least partly clear itself out so I could do the contest.
A day passed and on Thursday Jan called me all excited that he was in too. Wuhu ! I would get to do the last contest with my buddy :). Quickly I re-planned. We would go to the race directly while I crashed at Jans place. After all it was only a good 2 hours to Gastein if we took the Train tunnel form Malnitz. To our misfortune there was no train that early so we had to drive all the way around adding another 1.5 hours :(. So one more time we got up at 3 am and were off to Austria.
We arrived at the Base Station of Bad Hofgastein where the contest would take place. I had never been here before. Usually we did the run down from Mölltal Glacier to Bad Gastein. Hofgastein is a stop earlier and I never actually took it as a spot for a race. When we made it to the hut for the riders meeting one thing was apparent.
Even thou it was a 2* event this one would be huge. We had a video Live stream with starter cam, drones and photographers buzzing around, a giant video-wall in the big chill area. Wow epic effort on the organizers part. The riders meeting was pretty much standard and the conditions on the face seemed to be a lot better then I had expected. There was only one issue thou. But later on that.
The ascent to the start was nice. This time we would only need to hike for a good 20 minutes. With the security check complete we were under a peak once again. Waiting to be called up. This time I had the lower bib number of 40. Jan was 50. I still had not decided what route on the face I would take. I had two possible candidates. One went center to the right and another to the left into a steep part. I decided on last minute to do the latter. Check the video 😛
I had finished the upper part ok. I decided to ditch any drops because I had only one goal. Get down ok to get more points. The snow had turned to mush in the hour we were up there and my skis were not waxed ok for these kind of conditions. In short they were sticking as fuck. After letting go just as I got out of sight from the camera my left ski sticked a bit to much to the snow and my binding released. I crashed and of course a lost ski meant DNF. I was bummed. I thought that there would be no points for me.
After passing the finishing gate I stopped for a minute. I wanted to make sure Jan did not suffer the same sticky fate so I tried to call him on the phone to give him a heads up. He did not pick up. Probably getting ready in his pre-race routine. A few minutes later I watched him start off a great run. He did a drop I left out and went on to the riders right. The other line. Good choice. He was doing ok until suddenly on a lower flat part he slipped fell and turned. Fortunately he did not loose a ski. He got up and quickly passed the finishing gate. It was a bit sad to watch because as it later turned out Andre also did a comparable line and finished 13th.
In the end we were chilling in the riders area. I finished 35 with a DNF and Jan was 27. Still it was a really nice sunny day and I was not gonna let that ruine it for me. We chilled a bit and made it back home where it was 22 degrees. We went climbing to a local spot where after a crappy line I noticed that my head was not into it. On the next day we did the big tour where I was really not ok.
Now I knew it was time to regenerate and heal. After all the last six months had been quite the up and down, but I have to say that the contest part went well as planed. Without any training I proved to myself that my skiing level for the competitions is solid and I can push it a lot lot more if I want to. So there is a lot of room for improvement. I am also happy that I did get a few points for the race even after DNF so in the end I finished just a bit better then my original season goal for the EURO-OCEANIA Ranking. I might be first in Slovenian out of two lol *yeah its a joke :P* but still I came in at 195th position and am 334 on the world FWQ list. So yeah super happy 🙂 🙂 :).
Also at this point I have to give a big thanks first to my riding buddy Jan. I would have never thought that I would do all this stuff with you after meeting unexpectedly on that climbing trip almost tow years ago. The world has a weird way of making things work and I hope we will continue to do all this crazy shit and more together :). Also there would be no big riding for me without the support of my sponsors: Salomon, Leki, extreme vital, Ferrino and Carinthia. After all skiing and mountaineering are super expensive and time consuming endeavors. With climate change only people who deem it their lifestyle will remain and I guess I am one of those idiots 😛