Maybe it shouldn't seem as surprising as it did. After all, Vermont's Mad River Glen is a hard place to ski. But still. Three kids from the same Vermont ski area monopolizing the podium at the vaunted Crested Butte Extremes, the holiest of big-mountain ski competitions?
Sunday's spectacular final -- which took place in more than a foot of fresh snow for the second straight year -- saw both of last year's Snowbird Subaru Freeskiing World Tour champions, Lars Chickering-Ayers and Angel Collinson, win for the first time at Crested Butte's Subaru U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships. It marked the latest chapter in their fast-rising careers: Chickering-Ayers won last month in Revelstoke, and Collinson recently took top honors at the Freeride World Tour stop in Chamonix. So in a sense, you might say the winners were expected to win.
But the rest of the men's podium, in particular, was a stunner. Runner-up Tom Runcie, a 25-year-old Crested Butte painter who grew up competing against Chickering-Ayers in Mad River Glen mogul contests, became the latest local hero at this storied event. And third-place finisher Silas Chickering-Ayers, Lars' 18-year-old brother, went from podiuming in the juniors contest last year to beating some of the sport's top pros.
With the defending champs, Griffin Post and Claudia Bouvier, having been eliminated on Saturday, Sunday's finals on High Life and Spellbound turned into a showcase for what can happen when technical masters are given knee-deep snow to jump onto. There were backflips aplenty, a doomed 720 attempt by Johnny Collinson, and the mongo air of the day: a 50-foot front flip by 39-year-old Crested Butte landscaper Gabe Robbins, which won the Sickbird award.
Ironically, Lars Chickering-Ayers didn't use huge airs to win, but rather the fast, always-somehow-in-control skiing he's become known for on the tour. His win came five years after he entered the finals in first place at age 18 then dropped out of sight. "I've always had a first-or-last mentality, and I've finally gotten solid enough that I'm putting the runs down," he said. Eighth-place finisher and Crested Butte local Rob Dickinson said: "I don't know Lars well, but he appears to have not a shadow of doubt in his mind. When the rest of us are freaking out, he just knows he's going to win. It's kind of the Michael Jordan thing."
The softspoken sons of Mad River's ski patrol director, Lars and Silas are in the middle of a season-long road trip chasing the North American competition circuit in their black van. They were joined for dinner Saturday night by Angel Collinson, who used her final run Sunday morning to distance herself from the rest of the women. Skiing fast and making the most of the features in play, the 20-year-old showed why many consider her the brightest star in women's big-mountain competition these days.
"It was kind of sweet because about a third of the way down your run, you totally forget it's a comp run and you're just getting face shots," Collinson said, adding that her mindset hasn't changed since she made her debut last winter. "I've always kind of come in with no expectations, because it is a judged sport and you don't really have any control except for skiing your hardest."
Emiko Torito, who spent 10 years on the World Cup moguls circuit, finished second to Collinson and was followed by Ashley Maxfield, another Vermont native, in third.
As is often the case, Crested Butte locals showed up in force at the bottom of the venue, grilling shishkabobs in the windy snow, sipping whiskey and rattling cow bells. They had plenty of hometown talent to cheer, including perennial favorite Ryan Sutton -- who billy-goated an exposed series of rock steps in a line no one else took -- as well as fifth-place finisher Caleb Mullen. Four of the top eight men were locals, headlined by Runcie, a smooth-skiing Dartmouth grad with an earth science degree.
As French big-mountain star Julien Lopez said while sipping red wine at the awards ceremony: "The level of skiing here this week was so high -- and not just from the heavy hitters that everyone knows."