Tahoe Junior Freeride Series at forefront of youth big-mountain skiing
This story first published in the 2014-15 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, a product of the Sierra Sun. The magazine is available for free throughout the Lake Tahoe and Truckee region.
TRUCKEE, Calif. — Once upon a time, young skiers and snowboarders had only goading compadres to help progress their skills on big-mountain terrain.
But that was back in the early 2000s.
By 2008, a handful of Tahoe-area ski coaches had formed the Tahoe Junior Freeride Series (TJFS), creating a competitive outlet with an emphasis on safety and technique for up-and-coming freeride skiers.
“At Vail,” said TJFS co-founder Jason Dobbs, speaking of his home resort, “there was nothing like (the TJFS) whatsoever. It was just friends skiing around a mountain looking for cliffs to jump off, and propelling each other to face our fears, using the confidence we built skiing in moguls or racing programs and bringing it to raw terrain that now is suitable for freeride venues.”
Another TJFS co-founder, coach Eric DesLauriers of the Squaw Valley Big-Mountain Team, made a name for himself as one of the original big-mountain, cliff-hucking skiers in the late 1980s, when Warren Miller flicks were redefining the limits of the sport.
He, too, was on his own as far as learning the ropes of skiing — and surviving — big, exposed terrain in those early days.
“I grew up skiing Bolton Valley (Vt.) and racing with my brother, Rob,” DesLauriers said. “When we got out to Squaw Valley, we saw my buddy Tom Day in a Warren Miller film and we were like, ‘That looks awesome. We can do that. Let’s go get a piece of that.’ And then we just gradually learned more and more over the years.”
READ MORE: Visit tahoejuniorfreerideseries.com to learn more about the Tahoe Junior Freeride Series.
Thanks to skiers like DesLauriers and Dobbs, and their trial-and-error experiences, the current generation of youth has the distinct advantage of learning from coaches who not only have the knowledge to pass on, but are also looking out for their pupils’ well-being. It’s what the Tahoe Junior Freeride Series is all about.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Before the formal introduction of the Tahoe Junior Freeride Series in 2008, DesLauriers and his former assistant freeride coach at Sugar Bowl, Sean Carey, held a small youth competition between the Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley teams.
“It really started when I moved over to Squaw from Sugar Bowl in ‘07, and basically at the very beginning we had a little invitational between the two resorts to prove to people that we could pull off an event safely,” DesLauriers said. “There were 10 boys and five girls, and then it grew from there. Now it’s going crazy. It’s proven to be a great thing.”
Dobbs and his freeride team from Squaw Valley — now called Squaw Free — joined forces with DesLauriers and Carey in 2008. Along with the freeride team from Alpine Meadows, the series was off and running with four competing clubs.
They were at the forefront of the youth freeride movement. The only other contest series like it in the country was held at Crested Butte, Colo., DesLauriers said, and it was an extension of an existing adult big-mountain series, the Junior Freeride Tour. As opposed to that tour, which rewarded cliff-hucking more than other aspects of big-mountain skiing, DesLauriers said, the TJFS placed an emphasis on form and execution, and thus safety.
“We shaped the comps in such a way that the judging was more about technique,” DesLauriers said.
“It used to be more of a huckfest in the early days. We started out slow, trying to keep it sane, and I think it’s going in the right direction now. But it was a battle for a few years, when the junior tour was being run by the people running the adult tour, especially in Crested Butte. They were rewarding big airs, and that was kind of what it was about.
“With our series here, I think we were ahead of the curve in that respect. We were very tight with the coaches and judges about what kind of skiing we were looking to see and who was winning the events. It’s one thing to say the words, but at the end of the day, the kids are going to remember who was on the podium and what they did to get there. So all of us from Tahoe were making a big push for that.”
A different generation
Thanks in part to snowboarding — which is now included in the TJFS — skiing technology grew by leaps and bounds over the past decade. No longer are skiers required to ride skinny skis in powder conditions. Skis are now designed specifically for fresh snow. They’re wide, rockered, softer-flexed and tapered to float.
While the technology has advanced skiers’ abilities to rip through powder, it’s also created an easier learning curve. This is where the modern youth freeride coach comes into play.
“I think that with the shorter, steeper learning curve of skiing on wide skis these days, it’s good to have a coach, because the ability can exceed the knowledge that you gain through experience,” said DesLauriers, whose generation of professional skiers included pioneering legends such as Scot Schmidt, Doug Coombs and Glen Plake. “In the old days, it took a long time to become a good skier on skinny skis in the powder. But now it’s much easier. So it’s good to have a coach to sort of balance kids’ ability with the terrain and exposure.”
Dobbs said this is particularly true when young skiers are standing at the top of a contest venue, their adrenaline and competitive juices flowing.
“As kids will be kids, it might be unsafe to allow these competitions without sound coaching, because the fuel of standing in a start gate in a competitive atmosphere is important to temper to a reasonable level,” Dobbs said. “That’s a huge part of our coaching jobs. It’s our duty as coaches to be aware that we are only guiding them through features they’ve already demonstrated confidence in.”
As witnesses to this new generation of skiing, and with their own children at the forefront, parents understandably have concerns about the safety of youth freeride competitions. And while coaches are tasked with maintaining a certain level of safety, skiing — like many outdoor recreational sports — can indeed be a dangerous endeavor.
“The coaches and TJFS staff are committed to safety, but skiing has inherent risk whether you are skiing recreationally or competitively,” said Paul Cotter, a coach with the Sugar Bowl Freeride Team. “The venues are always analyzed for risk and some of the higher-risk options are eliminated from the venue due to safety concerns. The coaching staff works with the athletes for the best possible line choice for the athlete’s ability level to minimize the risk.”
Dobbs is part of the Tahoe Junior Freeride Series’ board along with DesLauriers, Trevor Tanhoff, Jacques Fix, Wes Pryatt and Cathy Howard, the series coordinator.
The board members meet throughout the year to ensure they are meeting the demands for growth while maintaining their mission of creating a competitive developmental series. That includes updating policies and judging guidelines they want emphasized, working with resorts to nail down calendar dates, and ultimately registering and executing each of the events.
This winter, the TJFS will include four events instead of its previous three — Jan. 9-11 at Alpine Meadows, Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at Squaw Valley, March 6-8 at Sugar Bowl and March 27-29 at Kirkwood.
In addition, Dobbs said that based on its success, the TJFS will host two national events through the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association (IFSA) Junior Tour. They also are tentatively scheduled to host the IFSA North American Championships at Squaw Valley and Alpine from April 8-12.
Some of the top talents coming up through the TJFS include Cole Harrity, the Winans sisters — Annika, Mia and Britta — Chase Whitney, Cody Atwood, Xander Guldman and Louis Norris, among others.
“It’s just taken off like a rocket,” DesLauriers said of TJFS and its growing number of competing athletes. “We have such a high concentration of really good skiers here. (The series) is now its own thing, and it’s super competitive.”