Immersed in the Valle Nevado mountains of Chile, the world’s best skiers gather for the first ever Europe vs. Americas Swatch Skiers Cup : we witness the story first hand behind this unique event…
The Swatch Skiers Cup is based on the novel idea of having two teams, one from Europe and the other from America, who duel it out in a freeride and a freestyle event – a concept conjured up by two Swedish freeskiers : Kaj Zackrisson and Sverre Liliequist. Inspired by the famed Ryder Cup of golf six years ago, the pair wanted to encourage team spirit and cultivate camaraderie in what can be a rather individualist sport. The two then shared their idea with Nicolas Hale-Woods, organising director of the Freeride World Tour – and who, less than 1.5 years later, had set up the project with his team – from finding sponsors to creating the event itself.
It’s now the dawn of the Swatch Skiers Cup. I’m on an overnight flight to Santiago and am awoken by an incredibly beautiful sunrise over the snow-capped Andes. It’s a surreal vision of another world. And it’s at the summit of these majestic mountains that the competition will take place.
Upon arriving at the luxurious hotel W, I start exploring my surroundings. Our accommodation is in a chic business neighborhood in Santiago, which is under American influence with high towers, fast food and elegant cars. The hotel has a lounge atmosphere with constant music and a magnificent terrace with a rooftop pool on the 21st floor that boasts a unique view of the city with the Andes in the background. The service is also very efficient service – you don’t have time to put your empty glass on the table and it’s already gone.
The skiers share one room between two people (I am alone, which is called luxury !). And they feel privileged to take part in this competition, which is so different from any others : another difference being that their accommodation, food, and transport are taken care of for a whole week. For once, the competitors are really pampered !
When I arrive at the event, I’m welcomed by the organizing team behind the Swatch Skiers Cup in person, who have already been on site and active for the last couple of days. In addition to the skiers, they will be tested throughout the event too – some seeing it’s success and completion as a personal challenge… There are many occasions where you can lose your calm in the event business, yet the team are alert and approachable despite any fatigue : they are always highly organised and professionalism for the event’s entirety.
According to Aurélien, a central pillar of the team, success is simple – dependent on two major factors. Firstly the weather, which will determine whether or not the spring snow allows for skiing, or if the sky allows helicopters to take off – with the knowledge that conditions can change by the hour. The second determining factor is the human being, with his tardiness and his forgetfulness (where is my ski boot ?). To these two elements you then add an additional difficulty : managing transportation when the ski resort is one and a half hours away from the city.
There is also a technical team, made up of cameramen, photographers and journalists. All these extreme sports enthusiasts may get quite touchy, working in the middle of the night to get pass information back to the European continent, which wakes up six hours before we do… (what a great idea these time zones !)
A photographer, fellow journalist and I decide to explore the off event and visit Santiago’s university square, which witnessed this year’s student uprisings that still stir the city. Still present are the banners and posters demanding that higher education are free for all. Then, in sharp contrast, we’re plunged into the typical covered-market atmosphere (I love it) where in joyous rowdiness locals eat shoulder to shoulder with tourists.
That evening the competition begins, opening with presentations from the two teams. The choice of who will confront who in this backcountry duel is announced by the captains – Kaj Zackrisson for Team Europe, and Mark Abma for Team Americas. But, the atmosphere stays relaxed despite the small tension that appears the day before the big event. To immortalize the pending duels, we finish by taking shots of the skiers pretending to confront one another in a game of chess… fun idea !
One-way ticket to the Big Mountain Freeride !
Our journey to the ski resort of Valle Nevado is via a minibus, set to a soundtrack of moving local reggaeton. There was almost too much of it, witnessing our driver’s skill : overflowing with enthusiasm, he hurries up the dangerously winding road, leaving quite a few passengers coming out of the experience feeling queasy. Through the window, exotic wild landscapes fly by. The cacti make way to a couple of pines, growing from soil that stays arid despite the snow.
For the kick off of the week long Swatch Skiers Cup, day one plays host to the Big Mountain Freeride event – as the sixty or so backcountry skiers are helicoptered to the beginning of the course at 3500 m. It’s also my helicopter baptism and completely magical to fly over the wild summits of the Andes !
I also realized what a privilege it is to be here, as Chopo Diaz, a Chilean on Team Americas, reveals the economic reality for locals : just 1 % of Santiago’s population has skied only once in their life because the ski-pass is so very expensive.
After an introductory speech from the two team-captains, the start is signaled. Under an intense blue sky, we’re absorbed in the magnificent downhill runs – a difference of 400 metres in altitude – of the skiers who have found their trajectory, and are preparing some nice surprises. 20-year-old Markus Eder stands out, choosing a line that is only visible from the helicopter as the Italian weaves through a series of corridors of 10 to 15 meter cliffs. Then, at the end of their run, each skier is interviewed at the finish line – a challenge for the cameraman who has to protect his gear from the mini snowstorms created by the constant comings and goings of the helicopter.
Day one of the Swatch Skiers Cup ends with a nice victory by Team Europe with a score of 6 to 2, with only one match running over the time limit. Team Americas took the first two one-on-one runs thanks to Oakley White-Allen of the USA, and Diaz, but then the Europeans pulled forward to lead the remaining matches. I ask Kaj, aka Captain Europe, who always looks so at ease on his skis, if he’d found the run difficult. He answers : “It’s always difficult, but yes I am confident”. But despite his public poise, before the freestyle day, he confesses to me that he is dreading the upcoming event because it isn’t his favorite playground. Nevertheless, he goes on to win the battle.
Halftime at Punta de Lobos
From the heart of the Andes’ peaks, on day two of the Swatch Skiers Cup we head to the ocean, embarking on a Surf-BBQ expedition three hours from Santiago (or, four hours in reality as our drivers get lost). As we descend the landscape dramatically changes hue : the horizon, painted green by weeping willows and eucalyptus trees, makes way for small bushes and cacti that grow wildly, with orange groves scattered between.
At the end of our three hour quest, the famous Point of the Wolves, or ‘Punta de Lobos,’ awaits us for a day of surfing. Some of our fellow slide addicts on the trip are as experienced on water as they are on snow, and for others (myself included) it’s a first.
The waves are magnificent and there are very few people on this famous break. It’s incredible, with conditions that are beyond ‘ideal.’ For me, it was an incredibly positive first experience thanks to Elisabeth – organizer and only other female representative at the event. Her coaching meant I managed to stand up on my board and came out smiling from ear to ear with pure glee.
I suppose that surfing ignites that same elixir of life which stimulates our ski enthusiasts – that pushes them to walk hours in the snow and cold, searching for the ideal spot. At least that’s what I thought I could see sparkling in their eyes.
Post surf, a homely barbecue awaits us in a surfer-style lodge named the Chilean Waves. And as a fire is lit outside, the laid-back summer camp atmosphere of day two at the Swatch Skiers Cup is complete.
Backcountry slopestyle : the revenge
Under a radiant sun we’re united once more at the ski resort of Valle Nevado, for day three and the second leg of the Swatch Skiers Cup : the famous ‘backcountry slopestyle’ contest prepared by shaper David Ny.
Posted on a terrace, the circle of international media bonded with the Chilean and Argentinean press, wowed together by the contest. There may have been anxiety and lost skis due to icy snow at the bottom of the first jump, but the spectators only saw the long line of crazy tricks. And, unlike a purely park-based slopestyle contest, no skier could test this backcountry ‘park’ before going for it. Instead, all each could do was some visual scouting : some skiers chose their lines by studying them meticulously before – while others just improvised once they were out there.
Swiss competitor Henrik Windstedt, took two victories that day, despite hurting his back following a brutal landing. “When you are young, you don’t know your limits, and you look for them. You don’t know fear either,” explained the 28-year-old. “Later, when you are older, you know where they are and you learn to respect them.” For these guys, fractures and bruises are all part of their routine.
There could only be one winner in this two horse race as Team Europe took the trophy winning 14 duals over Team Americas 10 – celebrating in typical continental style with a laid-back and joyful affair.
Even with the epic performances of Canada’s Rory Bushfield and Dylan Hood of the US, Team Americas couldn’t quite top the scoreboard. The tight race between the two teams meant that a stale mate at the end of this second event had to be disputed through two rounds. “Everybody has one objective : to come back next year and win that trophy !” perfectly summarises Canadian Mark Abma, Team Americas Captain.
The contest maybe over but the celebrations have just begun. The cameraman wants one last awesome shot : the two teams filmed from the helicopter above as they stand on the roof of the highest building of Santiago. It’s almost Hollywood. On our stunning hotel terrace cocktails are shared in happiness, with delicious aperitif, closing ceremony and a movie featuring highlights of the week. As I soak up the occasion, a small thought passes through me : after sharing such a rich and intense few days together, this special group of people is about to disperse. But first, before we part ways, the night continues in the VIP corner of a nightclub packed with tourists and trendy locals, who we join dancing to some Chile electro vibes.
By common consensus, the week was a complete success and “it will be difficult to do better”. Completely different from ordinary competitions, where solo sportsmanship is focus, for the Swatch Skiers Cup, camaraderie and team spirit were ever present. As young Swiss skier Nicolas Vuignier perfectly articulates, “normally it’s everybody for themselves – but this time your team was rooting for you at the start.”
For me personally, it was a great pleasure to hang with these snow-adventurers who radiate positive and infectious energy. Many have developed strong expertise in mental control – and you can feel it. Cheerful, confident personalities that know how to take risks : who make doing the impossible is possible : and are completely inspiring and invigorating.
So, are there any tricks of the trade ? “Breathing helps me surpass stress on both my skis and in life”, answers Oakley simply, miming to deeply breathe in and breathe out.
But now everybody must return to their usual activities and life : Oakley will be training for the next season, and promoting his ecological bamboo ski poles ; Nicolas will finish his studies ; Seb Michaud of France is organizing his own competition in Argentina ; while Swatch Skier Cup masterminds Kaj and Sverre return to distributing their own ski apparel brands – Hestra gloves and Kask.
Already, I’m looking forward to next year, for the second edition of this newborn Made by Swatch event, already fun and so appreciated. As Richard Permin of France sums up : “I think this the best atmosphere I have ever felt in a competition”. Amen to that. For more information, photos and videos go to skierscup.com.
Kaj Zackrisson (SUE – 39) capitaine
Sverre Liliequist (SUE – 39)
Seb Michaud (FRA – 38)
Richard Permin (FRA – 26)
Nicolas Vuignier (SUI – 20)
Markus Eder (ITA – 20)
Henrik Windstedt (SUE – 28)
Chris Booth (AUS – 23)
Mark Abma (CAN – 31) capitaine (blessé)
Chopo Diaz (CHIL – 28)
James Heim (CAN – 29)
Oakley White-Allen (USA – 32)
Rory Bushfield (CAN – 28)
Josh Bibby (CAN – 28)
Dylan Hood (USA – 27)
Matt Margetts (CAN – 23)
Dana Flahr (CAN – 29)