The 2022 Freeride World Tour stop in Fieberbrunn is in the books, with Jess Hotter from New Zealand and Austrian wildcard competitor Max Hitzig taking the wins in the ski categories. There were a few firsts for the long-running event on the Wildseeloder. This year it’s the first stage of a new two-stop FWT Final, ranking equally in importance alongside Verbier’s Bec des Rosses. It also played host to an experimental best-of-two-runs format not seen before on the FWT. What mattered most, however: The competitors delivered an amazing show despite less than ideal conditions.
Fieberbrunn has been a Freeride World Tour stop since 2010, a long-running tradition second only to the iconic tour final in Verbier. Maybe it’s because of that history that this year, Fieberbrunn has been awarded the status of a tour final, meaning that the riders’s cut happened before the Austrian event, with only the best 12 male and 6 female skiers advancing to take on the contest face on the Wildseeloder. However, that didn’t mean that the competition was short on action. Quite the contrary, in fact. Thanks to the two-run format, spectators enjoyed an enormous amount of high-level runs.
Following a two-week dry period with no new snow, the conditions on the contest face were not exactly inviting. The overall amount of snow wasn’t the issue, but rather the lack of soft snow in general. The Wildseeloder face is split between a more east-facing side and a pure north-facing side. While the east-facing side had some hope of softening up in the sun, the north side stayed pretty much rock-hard throughout the day. As a result, the vast majority of runs took place on the east-facing side, and the few exceptions were not awarded for their audacity.
Abel Moga attempted the huge drop in the central part of the face, a 20-meter mandatory air, but the young Spaniard couldn’t hold on to the landing and had one of the biggest crashes of the day. On his second run, Abel wisely chose to go where everybody else was going, and earned redemption with a seventh-place score. Current tour leader Maxime Chablot chose a different line on the shady side, which included a backflip high up on the face. He crashed on his first attempt and had some control issues in the landing on his second try, which the judges punished hard enough to leave Maxime in tenth place. Everybody else—particularly all the high-scoring runs—went for the other side of the venue, almost transforming this freeride competition into some sort of backcountry slopestyle where following a more or less given line was key to success.
Leo Slemett sends a big drop. Photo: Jeremy Bernard/FWT
In the women’s contest, Jess Hotter showed the best performance on that line right at the start of the event when the sun hadn’t softened up the slope yet. Her opening run stood the test of Hedvig Wessel’s and Elisabeth Gerritzen’s second runs, which took advantage of softer conditions later in the day, but still couldn’t surpass Jess’ high score, mainly due to some additional features that she hit lower down on the face. As for her own second run, Jess crashed while sending the famous “Stefan Häusl Cliff” farther than any other girl. The rest of the competition either opted for safer lines that avoided the mandatory air, or crashed somewhere in their runs. All in all it was another well-deserved win for the Kiwi rider, who now has a commanding lead in the overall ranking with two wins and a second-place finish. The second-place finisher was Hedvig Wessel, who’s also second in the tour rankings. But the points gap between Jess and Hedvig is more than double the size of the gap between Hedvig and defending tour champion Elisabeth Gerritzen, who now sits in fifth place overall.
Jess Hotter on her way to the win. Photo: Dom Daher/FWT
The women's podium: Jess Hotter, Hedvig Wessel and Elisabeth Gerritzen. Photo: Bernard/FWT
On the men’s side, the winning run was also a first-run performance, and it came from 18-year-old Austrian Max Hitzig. Max received a surprise wildcard thanks to a pair of very strong performances in the recent Freeride World Qualifier competitions. He put down a flawless run with three freestyle tricks and unbelievable composure in his landings. The highlight was undoubtedly a transfer 360 from the chute next to the Häusl Cliff, a move pioneered by Sam Anthamatten that has seen quite a few crashes over the years due to a heavy-impact landing. Max followed up this feat with a standard 360 over a windlip and a not-so-standard backflip over a cliff before hauling down the final slope with mach speed. On his second run, Max repeated his flawless performance up top before losing a ski mid-slope after apparently hitting some hidden chunk of ice in the softening snow.
Max Hitzig launches his way to first place in a memorable FWT debut. Photo: Daher/FWT
The battle for second place in the men’s field heated up during Run 2. Carl Regnér Eriksson held the runner-up position after his first run based on a strong performance down the “standard line,” which consisted of the Häusl cliff up top, then a windlip that literally everybody 360ed, followed by another drop that Carl and several others backflipped before a full-speed charge to the finish line. During Run 2, several riders improved on their lines, including Kristoffer Turdell, who transformed the mandatory air up top into a double by adding another small cliff for fourth place overall, and Leo Slemett, who chose a more creative line at the bottom including another backflip for third place overall. Having dropped into fourth place before the start of his second run, Carl decided to step up his run with a lofty 25-meter 360 at full speed in the lower section to complement his 360 and backflip up top. It fell short of the win for the day, but it put Carl back on the podium for a well-deserved second place.
Carl Regner Eriksson tosses a 360 on his way to second place. Photo: Daher/FWT
My last shoutout goes to Finn Bilous, the final skier of the day. Primarily known as a slopestyle rider, Finn had focused on freestyle for most of the season, including an appearance at the Olympics just a few weeks ago. In Fieberbrunn made his FWT debut as a wildcard, following the footsteps of his brother Hank. Building on his freestyle prowess, Finn stomped a beautiful 720 over the windlip on the standard line. After he made it to the finish area following a solid, but not outstanding run (besides the 720), it took the judges a long time to come up with his score. Considering the beautiful 720, Max Hitzig might have become a bit nervous in the hot seat, but Finn’s score put him in sixth place—still undoubtedly a great result for the newcomer.
The episode nevertheless shines a light on the difficult question confronting the FWT. What is more valuable in runs that share the same line: more style in the air, or more composure and energy in the actual skiing? I don’t want to get mixed up in this discussion, but it’s obviously a question that is currently being heavily discussed on the Freeride World Tour; a question that’s not likely to be resolved in the immediate future.
Men's podium: Max Hitzig, Carl Regner Eriksson and Leo Slemett. Photo: Bernard/FWT
Thoughts on the two-run format
Let’s wrap up with some thoughts about the new best-of-two-runs contest format. These are statements collected from the riders just after the contest had ended.
Carl Regnér Eriksson: “It’s a lot of impressions. Usually I’m tired after doing just one run, both mentally and physically. So to recharge and head up again takes a lot of effort, and I’m super impressed with what all the riders managed to do today. I’m just happy that I could show two good runs. It was a lot of stress, but it was also lots of fun. When I was up on the start for the second run, I didn’t follow how my competitors were doing, and tried to look at it like a new competition. So I went all in again, and it worked out. I am super happy with the result.”
Kristoffer Turdell: “For me it was good since I made a few mistakes in my first run, and then could improve in my second run. It also had softened up for run 2, so it was more fun to ski the face in these conditions. It can go both ways, though, since there were also a lot of tracks and some landings were pretty bombed out. In general, I am in favor of staying consistent, so I like it that in order to win the overall title, you need to show a lot of consistency in your skiing over the season. Overall, I’m just happy that we managed to have two runs today. It’s always a big relief when a competition is over. It doesn’t really matter whether you are first or last, you are just happy to be down here with your friends, everybody is healthy, and you can chill with a beer in the sun.”
Hedvig Wessel: “After the first run today, I felt like I didn’t want to do this again, but when I was up and prepared for the second run, I thought it’s cool to have another chance and it was actually fun to do it. But I think you have to take the conditions into account. If it gets worse during the day or even dangerous, you can’t have a second run, even if it was scheduled before. Today the conditions—specifically for us girls—improved since the whole face was still super icy in the morning and much better when we did the second run. So today it was a good thing to do.”
Jessica Hotter: “It takes a lot of energy and mental focus to do one run, and then to do another one with changing conditions is even more demanding. I think this format works best when there are even conditions throughout the day and all over the face, but with these challenging conditions that we were facing here, it’s a mixed bag. For the second run, some places were better to ski since they softened up, but some were actually more difficult because they were all chopped up and it’s hard to follow how everything is changing during the day. But if conditions are good across the board, it’s a cool thing to have a second run and maybe the chance to try out new things.”
Olivia McNeill: “I am rather new to competitions overall so I don’t have that much experience to compare it to, but I think it’s cool to have another opportunity to show what you can do. On the other hand, every run is also lots of mental stress, so you have to go through that twice. I think there are a lot of aspects in competitions that I still need to get my head around, so more opportunities are generally a good thing for me. But to go through all the emotions again is also exhausting. In general, I think the format is cool, but if conditions on the face are getting worse during the day, then we shouldn’t have it.”
Lily Bradley: “I really like this new format because every time you get to the bottom of a run and something maybe didn’t work out like you wanted it to, you wish you could do it again, and now you have the chance to do it again. That’s cool! I also think it will push people to try out more things, because if you only have one chance, you might not want to risk some things, especially when you don’t exactly know how the conditions are. Now with a second chance I think people will try more things, and that’s good for the sport.”
Max Hitzig: “In general it’s great to have another chance, but of course it also depends on your personal situation. Today I was in the lead after the first run, but conditions were softening up so I knew that people would go for it and try more tricks in their runs. So I had to do the same, which didn’t quite work out—but fortunately it was still enough to take the win. Some people got really close, though, and I had to wait until the last rider was down to be sure. That was almost more stress than standing on the top of the face and preparing for my own run.”
All in all, the riders’ reactions towards the new format were rather positive, but it also seems like they haven’t reached a consensus. It remains to be seen whether this format will be applied more often in the future, since it not only requires a competition face with good conditions and lots of possibilities to make sense, but also requires small starting fields in order to make it through the competition. If we see this format more often it will undoubtedly push the sport, but it might also change the direction slightly; the strategies that riders will apply to adapt have yet to be seen. One thing is for sure: It will stay interesting. As always, freeride contests will remain an impressive show.