Fickle Freeriding |

Fickle Freeriding

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunNissan Mammoth Challenge contestants head down the windswept face of McGee Mountain after the extreme competition was rescheduled due to firm conditions.

Monday, Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. I got the call ” it’s on.

At 10 a.m. the next day the Nissan Mammoth Challenge, the only North American stop on the prestigious Freeride World Tour ” an extreme ski/board contest series ” would get underway on McGee Mountain, a 10,871-foot peak just south of Mammoth.

Though ski resort-based extreme comps are nothing new to Mammoth or Tahoe, the Nissan Mammoth Challenge was poised to be groundbreaking. The contest pitted more than 50 of the world’s most elite skiers and riders vying for a $10,000 top prize in a one-run-takes-all format down the 3,500-foot face of a “backcountry” peak. Somewhat like the Mavericks Surf Contest, the event was to be determined by the best weather during a four-day window. All the contestants would be dropped on McGee via helicopter.

Never before had a Sierra Nevada extreme comp ever attempted such high-budget logistics.

By 9:05 p.m. Monday I was packing my car in Truckee. At 7 a.m. Tuesday I started splitboarding up the flank o McGee Mountain. This was something I had to witness from the top.

Adding fuel to my desire to attend was the fact that two Squaw Valley extreme phenoms, skier Cody Townsend and rider Ralph Backstrom, had just won coveted spots in the contest by beating out fields of more than 100 skiers and riders in a three-day qualifying contest held the week before in Mammoth. Townsend and Backstrom both took the top spot in their divisions, crushing an incredibly strong field with powerful and smooth runs.

By 9 a.m. contest day I was nearly at the summit ridge, watching helicopters incessantly buzz by. Having climbed up dense windboard snow most of the nearly 3,000 feet, it crossed my mind more than once that the conditions were not ideal for full-throttle riding. Explicitly life-threatening consequences could await those who pushed it and failed. It was firm.

I arrived at the contest venue just before 10 a.m. to find the athletes scattered down the craggy face of McGee, eyeing possible lines and throwing rocks into chutes. The rocks were bouncing. Not a good sign.

Tick … Tick … 10:15 a.m.

The radios lit up looking for the first athlete to drop. No sign of jersey No. 1 ” legendary French rider Xavier de la Rue.

A couple minutes transpired, still no rider on deck. Then the radios crackled again: “The riders are ready to mutiny. They don’t want to compete.”

As much as it hurt to hear, I couldn’t blame them. The conditions were barely edgeable, borderline bulletproof. There were technical lines that would have gone, but only the insane would have attempted big airs. Footage of the undoubtedly scratchy skiing and riding would not have been the 80-foot-air-to-pillowy-landing video that glues your eyes to the TV screen at the bar. For the safety of the riders and the image of the sport, the organizers agreed with the athletes and the event was postponed.

With the contest canceled for the day, everyone rode down the face for fun, myself included. Most of the face was smooth windboard snow, but there was a little breakable crust thrown in for good measure. The descent was challenging and quite fun, but not worthy of competition.

After waiting out two days of minor storms, the contest was rescheduled for Friday.

But there would be no helicopters and no 3,500-foot face this next attempt.

The contest was held on a barely 500-foot-tall, permanently closed cliff face inbound at Mammoth.

Despite its minuscule stature, conditions in the contest arena were much improved.

With fresh snow, the level of riding and skiing was indeed extreme. The short, steep face forced everyone to execute a mandatory air, and most hucked huge airs into tight, treed landings.

European riders and skiers swept the podiums aside from U.S. female skiers Jess McMillan and Tiffany Noel, who placed first and second.

Backstrom placed a respectable eighth and Townsend placed 14th.

Though whittled down to size by Mother Nature, the Nissan Mammoth Challenge made a valid attempt at ushering in a new era of extreme competition in the Sierra.

From the three-day qualifying contest that allowed locals to battle the world’s best to the over-the-top heli drops on a true Alpine face, the contest strived to up the ante for both contestant and spectator.

As an extreme athlete you’ve gotta “go big,” but then again, you’ve gotta “go home” afterward too. I applaud the contestants and organizers for knowing how to do both.

Here’s hoping the Freeride World Tour stops back in the Sierra next season.

Go to for more information on the Nissan Mammoth Challenge.

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