Take the rugged and towering terrain of Silverton Mountain, some adventure-seeking enthusiasts, a couple helicopters and a sport with seemingly no limits, and you'll find one of the most unusual events in action sports. It carries a certain kind of excitement – an excitement that can be created only at the Red Bull Cold Rush.
Cold Rush is a three-day backcountry ski event that, for the last two years, has taken place at Silverton Mountain. It is the only event that brings together the top skiers in the world to compete against each other in the two different disciplines of free skiing: Big Mountain and Slopestyle. It also is the only event that fuses together the two opposite sides of free skiing into one competition. This year, 23 skiers competed March 5-7.
“The Cold Rush combines every part of free skiing and what we do into one little event,” said Sean Pettit of Whistler, British Columbia, the 2010 and 2011 Cold Rush winner. “It's a combination of everything we do and what we can do to our potential. They put it on a big scale and make us push our limits.”
Before coming to Silverton last year, the first four Cold Rushes were held in Whistler. As the highest and steepest ski area, topping out at 13,487 feet, Silverton Mountain was the perfect playground for this event.
It also put Silverton in the spotlight of the skiing community.
“The Cold Rush really highlights our skiing,” said Jen Brill, who with her husband, Aaron, owns the ski area. “We have some of the sickest terrain in the world, and people who haven't been out here yet can see that this is not your average resort.”
The Big Mountain competition on Day 1 of Cold Rush provided another example of how this event is extreme: A morning avalanche wiped out a third of Storm Peak's north face where the event would take place. That forced competitors to rethink their lines.
“It's always kind of tricky, and you have to just go with what you're comfortable with,” said Michelle Parker of Squaw Valley, Calif., one of the Cold Rush competitors. “You just have to be adaptable to the snow and the terrain.”
The course designer and Silverton Mountain guides made a few safety runs, one at a time, to test snow conditions before the slope was deemed skiable and the competition could begin. Once the cinematography and Red Bull helicopters were in place, the first day of competition was under way.
The athletes were helicoptered to the top of Storm Peak. The first competitors seemed to ski with caution, but once the athletes warmed up to the venue, the show was on.
As the day continued under a flawless blue sky, the skiing was unreal. Whether ripping huge turns down the open Grande chute or billy-goating their way down the narrow Scarface and Pequeño chutes, the skiers started to really show their abilities and showmanship.
With eyes glued to their binoculars at the bottom of the slope, spectators and athletes hooted and hollered as the event continued. Skiers were welcomed at the bottom of the slope with a chorus of congratulations ... or condolences.
“The Big Mountain venue is ideal. It's fun, long and you get helied to the top of a sweet peak.” said Rachel Burks of Alta, Utah, the eventual women's winner.
Day 2 was the Slopestyle competition. This event is what makes Cold Rush unforgettable. Unlike the groomed park runs typically found at resorts, these athletes instead took on an extreme, backcountry slopestyle course. The course had two custom features built into it along with three jumps. These features required an immense amount of work and thought.
“We tried to incorporate the mining heritage,” said Pep Fujas, a Cold Rush competitor from Mammoth, Calif., who designed the courses. “We figured out that it might be cool to make a jump look like a mine tailing, another look like an entrance to a mine and a rail that looked like a railroad.”
The first custom feature was a railroad track representing the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. After that, the competitors also could hit the, “Mando Mine” step-down jump, which propelled skiers as far as 100 feet, or the step-over hip jump. Lower on the course was the “hip” step-up, then the “Castle Mine” step-down feature.
With a picturesque backdrop and clear, blue skies, the remaining athletes (a few were injured on the first day) headed over to the Mandatory Air run. Each of the athletes received two runs to show their skill and creativity.
If the skiers had any trepidation, it was not evident. They skied with intention to impress and held nothing back.
“We were really unsure at first, though everyone ended up sending it and obviously came out with some sweet results,” Pettit said.
“Everyone was out there to cheer each other on and to get through the tough Slopestyle course,” said Anna Segal of Melbourne, Australia.
Poor snow conditions forced cancellation of the “Cliff” competition on the final day. Instead, the athletes were rewarded with a free day of skiing on the mountain before gathering that night for the judging session.
Unlike any other competition in the free-skiing world where a panel of judges ultimately decides the winner, in Cold Rush, the athletes themselves do the judging. They gathered at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton with pens and judging sheets, watched all the footage from the competition and decided who was the best all-around skier and Cold Rush champion.
“A lot of events are panel-judged, and a lot of times you're like, ‘This person shouldn't have gotten this score or this person should have got that score,'” said Dane Tudor Rossland, British Columbia, who scored highest to win the men's competition. “So when I heard we're judging ourselves, I was hyped, as the athletes we want there are making the decisions.”
Fujas placed second, and Sage Cattabriga-Alsoa of Alta was third.
Burks was named the Cold Rush women's champion. Jackie Paaso of Squaw Valley took silver, and Parker got bronze.
“It's the biggest honor, and I'm so stoked that I don't really have words,” Burks said. “I've never been on a No. 1 podium, but to be on the podium at Red Bull Cold Rush is the biggest deal in the whole world, and I'm just elated.”
Jamie Wanzek is an Animas High School junior serving a three-week internship with The Durango Herald. Wanzek also is a competitive junior skier on the Purgatory Freestyle Team who qualified for this year's USSA Nationals.