Where did the season go? It feels like the winter’s first snowfall was just last week, and now I’m dodging enthusiastic groms and drunk British tourists in cement-thick spring slush at the Freeride World Tour finals in Verbier. Yes, friends, last weekend’s action in Verbier marked the end of the 2022 competitive freeride season. And what a final, and what a season, it turned out to be.
At the first “true” Verbier Xtreme since pre-Covid times, the fans, athletes and organization all seemed to be making up for the past two shuttered seasons. The word spectacle has never felt more apt: Thousands of onlookers crowded the viewing area at the base of the Bec des Rosses, pulsing beats from onslope DJ booths thumped from at least three different elevations between the valley and the contest venue, and dozens of multi-colored tents and flags lined Rue de Medran in downtown Verbier, where the apres crowd sloshed from the bars to the food trucks and back again. All of this before the infamous afterparty at Pub Mont Fort. After two appended, frustrating, absent seasons, the collective release was palpable.
The crowd in Verbier is always the biggest and most fired up of the season. Abel Moga gets a big cheer after his superman front flip attempt. Photo: Jake Fojtik
The storied Bec des Rosses, however, was not dressed her best. Bony, sharky, peppery, sketchy: all these words and more were used to describe the contest face after several weeks without new snowfall. A thin firn of Saharan from last week’s sandstorm patched the blank white face. The organizers wisely opted for three lower start options, rather than making athletes pick their way through the maze of granite at the top. This took some of the heaviest features like the Hollywood cliff and the Dogleg couloir off the table, forcing athletes to consider more creative approaches. Most riders opted for the couloir below Start 1 on the Petit Bec, leaving a brazen few to attempt the main face.
Reine Barkered looks for his line on a bare-bones Bec des Rosses. Photo: Jake Fojtik
Ski Women: Blanjean brings it home
Six ski women took on the Bec. Olivia McNeill, the sole ski woman out of Start 3, brought a technical, calculated approach. Still recovering from long Covid, she skied adroitly through some of the sketchiest terrain on the face, cruising into third place for the day and third overall for the season.
“I’m feeling like 50-60% muscle-wise, honestly,” said the young Canadian rookie. “I like to hit big cliffs, because I know I can land them. I can’t do that right now. The other thing I like is something creative, something different, something really true to me. Even with no big cliffs, I stayed true to my skiing, which is important to me.”
Olivia McNeill skied to third place. Photo: Daher/FWT
Hedvig Wessel on her way to second place. Photo: Daher/FWT
From Start 1, Hedvig Wessel linked clean skiing through a couloir with a mandatory exit air and a big closeout cliff. With a score of 71.00 she finished in second place, securing second place overall for her third straight season.
However, the day belonged to hometown hero Sybille Blanjean, who overcame the pressure, nerves and fear of competing on the Bec in front of a massive crowd to deliver a stellar performance for her first FWT win.
Sybille Blanjean kept the Xtreme title at home in Verbier to the roars of an approving hometown crowd. Photo: Daher/FWT
“This morning I was freaking out,” said the 22-year old FWT rookie from Verbier. “My dad arrived, and I just hugged him and started crying. I was like, ‘Dad, I’m so fucking scared.’”
“It’s crazy,” she continued. “Being at home with all my friends, family, and winning, it’s amazing. I’ve always struggled competing here, but I did really well here today so I’m really happy with it.”
Women's Ski podium: Sybille Blanjean in first, followed by Hedvig Wessel (2nd) and Olivia McNeill (3rd). Photo: Fojtik
However, no one was unable to unseat Jess Hotter from the overall top spot. Despite a heavy slam during her run on the Bec, the Kiwi still claimed the overall title based on her strong skiing throughout the season, with first-place finishes in Ordino-Arcalís and Fieberbrunn and second place in Kicking Horse.
“I’m definitely feeling like an 80-year-old woman, but that’s fine,” quipped Hotter after her crash. “I think I’m going to take it easy for the next couple of hours just to make sure I don’t have a concussion. It kind of doesn’t feel real yet. It’s so weird being on the podium overall, but taking a massive slam the same day. It doesn’t really compute.”
Jess Hotter claims the 2022 Freeride World Tour overall title. Photo: Fojtik
The 2022 Women's Ski Overall podium: Jess Hotter, Hedvig Wessel and Olivia McNeill. Photo: Fojtik
Ski Men: Chabloz seals the deal
The last to ski the Bec, the Ski Men left it all on the line. The competition for the overall title came down to the wire, with the riders ranked first and second overall—Maxime Chabloz and Carl Regnér Eriksson—both landing absolute heaters that left the judges bewildered. There were too many highlights to count: Jack Nichols’ backflip, Abel Moga’s frontflip, Andrew Pollard’s technical freestyle line, and so much more. If you missed the livestream, do yourself a favor and watch the full replay.
Wildcard entrant Aymar Navarro had a truly harrowing crash after a spectacular double-cliff straightline that had the entire Verbier valley holding their breath. Even after years of watching the FWT, my time as a FIS racer and even the overnight shifts I’ve worked in a big-city hospital, watching Aymar ragdoll lifelessly down the Bec is among the scariest things I’ve ever seen. The early word out of the FWT is that he is alright, and receiving treatment in the hospital. Aymar has posted an update on his condition on Instagram.
Aymar Navarro receives medical attention after a vicious tumble down the Bec. Photo: Fojtik
Aymar was flown straight to the hospital, where he's reportedly in good condition. Photo: Fojtik
On a lighter note, the top three ski men brought some of the most complete runs the Bec has ever seen. Ross Tester made a statement early, dropping easily the biggest cliff of the day above a couloir with a mandatory cliff exit—a cliff that, in my notes, is described as: “massive massive massive massive fucked up.” With a backflip tossed in for good measure, Ross’ run put him into second place for the day.
“It was definitely pretty scary,” Ross said about his line. “I knew that I had to clear some drawn-out rocks, and I ended up taking maybe slightly too little speed. But I cleared them, just by that much. I can’t remember if I tail-tapped them, or if I just barely cleared them.”
This huge drop from Ross Tester was the day's biggest send. Photo: Daher/FWT
Maxime Chabloz continued to have the best debut FWT season anyone could ever ask for. His run, flashed within the span of 2 minutes, stacked two huge cliffs, a silky smooth 360 and an authoritative backflip. The run score from Maxime, aka MC Hammer, came in at a whopping 94.00, bumping Ross from the top spot and setting up a nail-biting finish for Carl Regnér Eriksson.
Maxime Chabloz has been almost inhumanly on-point in his debut FWT season. Photo: Daher/FWT
The ever-reliable Swede delivered: Also with blistering speed, Carl aka the Notorious CRE tossed two 360s, a backflip and a closeout cliff without a whiff of hesitation, putting Maxime’s title claim in jeopardy. The judges took a long time deliberating CRE’s score, and the fate of the overall title. They eventually slotted him into third place, sealing Maxime’s overall victory.
Carl Regnér serves up a precise 360 in technical terrain on his way to second place. Photo: Daher/FWT
“I have no words right now,” said Chabloz. “With the first win of the season in Andorra I was speechless, then with the second I was like ‘Damn!’ and now here it’s like ‘What the fuck!’ I’m not the kind of guy that aims for several world championships, so now I kind of feel like, ‘Fuck, my goal’s achieved.’ I’m almost thinking maybe I’m done. But I think I’m definitely going to be back here.”
Maxime Chabloz wins his third Freeride World Tour stop of the 2022 season, joined on the podium by Ross Tester (2nd) and Carl Regnér Eriksson (3rd). Photo: Fojtik
Maxime is borne to the podium to accept his World Champion title. Photo: Fojtik
The 2022 Freeride World Tour men's overall podium: Maxime Chabloz, Carl Regnér Eriksson (2nd) and Ross Tester (3rd). Photo: Fojtik
As always, Verbier delivered huge action, near-perfect runs and scary crashes. What a way to celebrate the end of the competition season: watching people get rad in the mountains under searing blue Swiss skies, a barnburner of an afterparty and an apocalyptic, soul-shattering hangover the following day. All the pent-up frustration from two years of canceled ski trips, absent ski seasons and mask-clad apres was released by the crowd downing beers in the streets of Verbier.
Several athletes expressed concerns about and paid condolences to Mikayla Willis, a freerider who is currently in the hospital following a crash at a Freeride World Qualifier event in Big Sky, Montana, USA. She’s in our thoughts and we’re all wishing her a speedy recovery.