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Freeskiing: Post, Ashton score wins at Crested Butte extreme champs

Freeskiing: Post, Ashton score wins at Crested Butte extreme champsCRESTED BUTTE, Colorado – Clear blue-bird skies welcomed the athletes for the 15th annual U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte from Thursday though Saturday. A competitor's dream, the three days of the contest saw nary a cloud, while the snow was definitely above average for this heavily skied, steep ski area where locals get after all the double black diamond steeps every day, and skiing across rocks is just expected.

Competitors who made finals day were treated to skiing in 'the Hourglass' a permanently closed area of Crested Butte's North Face that has been used as the finals venue three times in 15 years. The Hourglass provides a venue with soft unskied snow at 50-plus degrees, as well as numerous areas of high exposure to cliff faces strewn with trees in the landing zones. Although soft, the snow is treacherous – lack of skier traffic means the base is airy and inconsistent, while a relatively shallow snowpack leads to hollow sugary pockets, especially around rocks and trees – and there ain't much else up there folks.

On the looker's right of this venue, a fall can be serious to lethal. The top of the looker's right line is called the Bermuda Triangle, where a loss of control will send you tumbling down a 50-degree face over boulders into higher cliffs and trees below. At the bottom is a cliff face from 18 to 45 feet high, with a jagged cove etched into it called Gary's Gap. In 2003, local Gary Hicks gapped this cove, moving from looker's right to left, a 50-foot leap or so followed by a 35-footer off the left lobe that move won him the contest and put his name on the feature. This incredible moment has to be the finest display of athletic vision and courage in the event's history. All that means anyone skiing on the far looker's right will garner line scores in the nine-point range, so a skier greasing this area is hard to beat by anyone taking a lighter line.

Griffin Post, a Sun Valley native attending Denver University, took first in the men's field. Post was 19th coming into the finals day, and moved up to eighth after his first run. Both of Post's runs were in the looker's right side of the venue, and he skied with incredible fluidity and speed through the sugary snow, airing quickly over the exit cliffs. Post is a former junior alpine racer, and this is his second big-mountain contest, the first being Snowbird's freeskiing nationals three weeks ago. 'Snowbird didn't go too well. I got banged up pretty good, but I guess I just laid it down today. I try to ski a line I know I can ski with speed and not hesitate' Post said.

Post's accomplishment is particularly noteworthy at Crested Butte, where trees and tight lines make these hard venues to get wired in a couple of days. Locals' knowledge often translates into podium finishes, and Post edged two locals – Ryan Sutton and Jesse Hall – to take the $6,500 first prize. Both Sutton and Hall had major holdups on their respective first runs, which eroded their leads. Sutton lost a ski on his first run, threw it down in part to show the judges what the holdup was, then aired a 19-footer one-skied and landed. In almost the exact same area, defending champion Hall basically crashed on his first run, missing his landing and winding up in a tree well, but was not spanked by the judges – perhaps they could not see it due to the tree factor, or perhaps they wanted to see Hall make it all the way to the last run.

2004 champ Jen Ashton took home first place for the women. Ashton garnered the highest score in Friday's competition of all men, women, cats and dogs. The Whistler native straight-lined a double jump from Body Bag cliffs Friday, stunning all in attendance. Exiting into a treed area at 50 miles an hour and sticking it contributed to a commanding lead of 14.8 points. With final scores accumulating over the two days, Ashton figured she could win based on that lead. Both of her final runs were on the left side of the venue, where the line score is at best a seven. Despite the more moderate terrain, Ashton's runs were not particularly interesting or greasy, but she maintained her lead to take the top place on the podium.

Second-place finisher was Wendy Fisher, the defending women's champion, a Butte local, ski movie star, 1992 Olympian, and new mother. Fisher took both runs in the nine lines, and had a little hesitation finding her way through the exit cliff on her first run. Her second run was much more fluid, but she cratered on the landing coming out of the same cliff band. The judges did not see this or decided to call it a loss of control rather than a crash – it probably helps to be the defending champ at a moment like this.

Another Butte local, Carrie Jo Chernoff, put in a great performance, the first woman skiing in the nine lines and going to the biggest exposures she could find. On her second run, Chernoff dropped right in to runnelled elevator shafts hanging above the highest cliffs in Gary's Gap. 'The snow was really good where I was skiing, so I got a little too low to hit the air I had planned' she said. 'I took one sidestep up to get back on my line. I wanted to go to my right, but I realized it wasn't going to happen. Sometimes you just have to go with it.'

Chernoff poked around on the rotten sugary snow 52 degrees, above a 50-foot exposure, finally finding a safe way through. It was a tense moment for everyone, but Chernoff had enough calm to hit the 22-foot exit cliff cleanly when she got free. The pause probably cost her the victory, although weighing it against Fisher's crash and Ashton's skiing seven lines medium-rare it is not entirely clear why. Chernoff was satisfied with her third-place finish and loved the hometown crowd's support. She also respected the winner's strategy. 'Jen took huge risks on Friday. Coming out of Body Bag she could have easily blown up and been out of it, so she could afford to ski conservatively Saturday. She took all the risks up front – I guess it paid off' Chernoff said.

Many other fine performances were delivered, including Chris Tatsuno of Boulder, Colorado, doing a 60-foot front flip, and veteran Gary Fondl of Frisco, Colorado, delivering two clean runs in the nine lines with 30-plus footers and finishing fifth at the young age of 39. Fondl will no doubt clean house if he competes in masters division next year.

All in all, the level of skiing exceeded that of recent years, and there were a lot fewer crashes than last year. Capping it off was a crowd that blew the sleeping caps off of the hibernating bears. Fine weather brought out the locals and a Crested Butte party was in full swing at the venue, complete with beers, brats and local 'Hollywood' giving out free shots – good Colorado fun. Unfortunately with the finals being on a permanently closed area, there was no traditional 'bear' skiing after the contest. (A contributing factor to the lack of nudity was also that the once-numerous Aspen contingent is getting too old for this contest).

Adam Heller is a former professional freeskier, with years of experience out of Chamonix, France, and currently works as a sports journalist and photographer based in Boulder, Colorado.

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