Is the Freeride World Tour Safe?

More than five competitors were injured at the Fieberbrunn stop amid questionable snow conditions

March 21, 2017 By Hadley Hammer

The Fieberbrunn competition is one of the most heavily attended stops on the tour. PHOTO: FWT

Skiing will always have inherent risks. Big mountain competitions will always have even more. With a set timeframe, budgets, and sponsor pressure, the decision making process on the Freeride World Tour is complicated. Often organizers are at odds with Mother Nature and competitions are held in less-than-ideal snow or light conditions. So when are conditions too dangerous for skiers to compete safely?

Last week Fieberbrunn, Austria, hosted the third stop of the Freeride World Tour. The event was the last chance to qualify for the final two stops in Haines, slated for this week, and the infamous Bec des Rosses, in Verbier. With the rest of the season on the line, riders certainly felt the added pressure. For many, everything had to be put on the line to secure their continued spot on the tour. The paradox was apparent—you had to risk big for a big reward.

Carl Renwall takes a calculated risk in Austria. PHOTO: FWT

But in this case, it’s easy to argue the consequences were too high—both in terms of riders' safety as well as the image of the sport. The Fieberbrunn competition is one of the most heavily attended stops on the Freeride World Tour. Freeskiing is revered in Austria, as skiing is their national sport. The event is a massive production, second only to the finals in Verbier. For the past four years, the Wildseeloder North Face venue has proved to be problematic, and this year was no different. The face is steep, avalanche prone, and littered with cliffs and rocks. It pushed skiers mentally and physically, and perhaps the event never should have happened in the first place.

Author Hadley Hammer is also the host of "Nausicaa Cast," a Powder Radio podcast exploring the trajectory of the world's leading female skiers who have dedicated their lives to snow.

The venue was controlled the morning of the competition, leaving multiple slide paths and further exposing rocks on takeoffs and landings. Serious crashes occurred. Top riders including Jeremie Heitz, Bene Mayr, Dennis Risvoll, Ivan Malakhov, and Mark Mikos all sustained injuries.

"Sitting atop the venue and watching so many heavy hitters go down as hard as they did it messed with everyone’s head up top," said competitor Conor Pelton. "It felt like every other guy was going down and going down hard."

To the common spectator, every big mountain competition seems dangerous, but riders and organizers are thoughtful and constantly evaluating the risks.

Read “The End Game,” a feature on the delicate balance of risk versus reward, relevancy, and staying alive in the digital age.

But risk tolerance is different for everyone—riders and organizers alike. Two schools of thought arise: Consequence of death or injury should be eliminated wherever possible, versus the argument that high risk elements have their place in the sport, and are to be mitigated only by the athletes.

Drew Tabke (who was absent at the Austria event due to scheduling conflicts) argues that death and season ending injuries shouldn't be an option. By closing dangerous lines, you prevent riders from hurting themselves.

"You can't give riders the option, because they will go based on the pressure," says Tabke.

In Fieberbrunn, the stress of fulfilling partner and sponsorship obligations for the organizers was equal to pressure felt by the riders. The organizers are tasked with a huge responsibility of highlighting the athletes, sponsors, location partners, and the sport.

"We pretty much pushed the limit of what should be a proper face and snow conditions to have a comp on, but with the weather outlook it was the only possible chance to get the comp off," says Pelton.

So the questions have to be asked: What is the benefit of continuing to run, or even starting the competition? Does it send out the right message? Does it put the athletes in jeopardy?

Are organizers and riders keeping the long-term outlook of the success of the Tour in mind while making short-term decisions? Furthermore, who answers these questions—the riders, judges, organizers, or partners?

Just like a powder run can erase your memory of a heinous refrozen crust run, successful comps like last year's Haines event will help riders and organizers forget the dangerous conditions of Fieberbrunn. But difficult competitions create an opportunity to reassess practices, rules, and processes. The FWT has a storied and important place in the world of big mountain riding and hopefully organizers, athletes, and partners will continue to create discussions around producing the best—and safest—events. It’s essential for the long term health of the sport.