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Friday, March 21, 2014
The Mighty Bec des Rosses

By Devon O'Neil
XGames.com

There may be no competition venue in professional sports more notorious or feared than the Bec des Rosses in Verbier, Switzerland. This notion has been reinforced often since the pyramid peak's 1,800-foot north face -- which is riddled with six-story cliffs, closeout chutes and a slope that hits 60 degrees -- first hosted the Xtreme Verbier freeride contest in 1996.

When the 19th edition of the Xtreme -- now the final contest on the six-stop 2014 Swatch Freeride World Tour by The North Face -- takes place next week (it was postponed from Saturday due to a storm), you can bet the notion will be reinforced again, likely more than once.

Not all of the skiers and snowboarders who compete on the globetrotting Freeride World Tour -- which has struggled this year with cancellations and postponements due to weather and snow conditions -- get a chance to compete on the Bec. Only the top athletes in each discipline qualify for the tour's finale, plus a few wild-card invitees.

In other words, those who are invited to compete are the best -- technical and highly skilled athletes on big-mountain terrain. Yet crashes are inevitable. And when someone crashes on the Bec, eyewitnesses tend not to forget it.

A skier drops into the legendary Bec des Rosses, the final competition venue on the Freeride World Tour.

"We're talking about a face where if you fall on the top third, they're going to find you at the bottom," says Sam Smoothy, a Kiwi freeskier who enters the FWT finale ranked No. 2 in the world. "And there are lots of rocks in the way."

To win on the Bec turns a freerider into Alpine royalty. To finish upright is often just as gratifying.

This year's competition is most intriguing because Smoothy, who has lived in Verbier for nine winters, has a prime chance at redemption after losing the world title in a crash on the Bec in 2012. No one wants to win more than he does.

He and the other competitors will be riding a face that has only 60 percent of its normal base -- nearly 4 feet of snow instead of the 6½-foot average. If there are tiers of nastiness on the Bec, current conditions rank on the high end, like surfing Mavericks at low tide when the great whites haven't eaten all month.

Which, of course, seems only fitting for this event. Next week, the Bec will bare its fangs once more. In advance of the event, we compiled a brief oral history of freeriding's nastiest venue from those who know it best.

Xavier de Le Rue (four-time Xtreme Verbier snowboard champion and Verbier local): The Bec des Rosses is something scary. You see it from everywhere in the resort. It's always this big wall facing you. It looks like it's not even rideable.

Nicolas Hale-Woods (director of Freeride World Tour and Xtreme co-founder, along with Philippe Buttet): I rode it for the first time while filming a snowboard movie in 1994, and spontaneously a lot of public just sat there and watched us. We thought it would be interesting to bring a panel of the best snowboarders and showcase them on the Bec.

Steve Klassen (the only five-time champion; won inaugural Xtreme in 1996): When we did the first contest, there were really two different ways to approach Alpine riding. Guys like Jérôme Ruby and Bruno Gouvy tried to get into the gnarliest positions they could find and make their way out of them. The Americans, we had more of a freestyle approach. We were going to find the way down the mountain that had the most airs that you could link together and make it look really good for the viewing public. There were people from Europe who did not want that type of riding being shown as the high end of Alpine snowboarding. But we were like, 'No, you guys, this is the direction it has to go.'

Hale-Woods: My favorite memory is still the men's podium at the first event. It was Klassen in front of a local rookie named Gilles Voirol, who was one of the best snowboarders of his generation but died in 2002 (the Verbier trophy is named after him), and Jérôme Ruby, a famous mountain guide from Chamonix, in third. The Bec had never been ridden with that kind of elegance, fluidity and pace.

Klassen: The competitors who have been there for a long time, we all agree that the Bec is a female. It's hard to describe, but there's female energy in that mountain. I think the reason she let me win a lot in the beginning [three of the first four years] was because I came with a social energy of wanting everyone to get along. I saw the Grateful Dead a lot and I brought that vibe to the scene. And since I won so many times, I got to dictate what the social structure was.

De Le Rue: I first rode the Bec in 2002, and my second or third year doing the Xtreme, I remember Steve Klassen said to me, 'I think you're going to be the future of the sport.' I was shaking when he told me that.

Klassen: There were some French guys who wanted it to be hyper-competitive in the early days; they wanted it to be like ski racing. But Nicolas and I and Gilles Voirol wanted it to be about camaraderie. That's because riding the Bec is a life-and-death thing. You might have to dig someone out from a hole. You're looking out for each other.

In addition to turning its victors into heroes, the Bec has made plenty of others famous for surviving violent crashes. Three of the most widely cited: JT Holmes tomahawking 22 times in 10 seconds, Ludo Lovey pinballing through rocks for 1,000 vertical feet, and Ruby's infamous near-miss in 2000.

Fans observe competitors on Verbier's pyramid-shaped peak known as Bec des Rosses.

De Le Rue: Ludo crashed in a spot where you are not supposed to crash at all. He tumbled a few hundred meters over rock. I had the feeling like I was watching someone die in front of my eyes.

Aurélien Ducroz (three-time ski champion): The first year I got invited to Verbier, in 2004 [the first year skiers were included in the Xtreme], I was 22 years old. The only thing I knew about the Bec des Rosses was the story of Jérôme Ruby, because he was from Chamonix and a friend of my father and me. I was scared because of what I heard about his crash.

Hale-Woods: Jérôme tomahawked 80 percent of the face in the central couloir in 2000. He had just put new bindings on his board that morning and the inserts were bad. After a super extreme entrance that we rarely open -- right under the starting gate, a solid 60 degrees -- he took four turns and on the fifth turn his binding failed. He fell, hit a rock with his cheek and was knocked unconscious. Then he tomahawked the whole face with one leg strapped into his snowboard.

Like the gruesome crashes, everyone recalls their debut on the Bec, for better or worse. In general, it gets better and easier from there. Respect for the face plays a key role, veterans say.

Sam Smoothy: The first time I skied it, I had been trying to get someone to go with me for a week. No one wanted to. After looking at it for many years, it had become a big thing in my mind. So I walked up there by myself, took my time and skied it to the bottom. I remember rolling out the apron at speed; that was a special moment for me, really starting to feel comfortable on the big lines of Europe.

Shannan Yates (2010 women's snowboard champion, No. 1 on 2014 FWT): My first time riding the Bec was memorable because I won the Xtreme. They haven't started the women from the top since I've been on tour; we have a separate venue on the looker's right shoulder of the main face. I don't mind it. When I look at the Bec, it's not a mountain where I go, 'oooh, I want to ride that.' It's more like, 'ugh.'

Hale-Woods: We close the Bec on March 1 for the competition. There's no legal basis for this, but we pay a guy from the valley to guard the bootpack so the face doesn't get trashed. His name is Eddy; this is his 12th year doing it. He's the type of character who is respected because of his physical appearance, and he has a diplomatic way to make you understand that it wouldn't be a good idea to go up.

For how much it intimidates people, the Bec is almost impossible for its challengers to resist. Klassen has entered 16 of the 19 Xtremes. De Le Rue and Ducroz no longer follow the Freeride World Tour but they still get wild-card invites to compete every March in Verbier.

Klassen: I don't think I'll ever be able to pry myself away from the Bec completely. I have a connection to that mountain that goes far beyond what anyone can imagine. I still feel like I can podium. But I decided this year that 2015 will be my last Xtreme. It'll be the 20th edition and I'll be 50 years old. It was a reluctant decision.

Ducroz: As soon as I can't ski like I used to, I won't come anymore. But I was looking yesterday at the runs I've done on the Bec for the last six years, and the speed difference is huge. I finished 30 seconds faster last year than I did in 2009.

De Le Rue: Compared with all the other faces on tour, the Bec is the only one in my opinion where you have enough size for true big-mountain riding. The rest of the faces are way too small and I'm tired of that, to be honest. On a face like this, if you're a good rider, you can show it.