With ski cross, the best take no prisoners

February 18, 2009

Ski-cross champ Aleisha Cline flips out of mommy mode to become a fierce competitor on the slopes.

Aleisha Cline is a snow leopard learning to change her spots as she mounts her skier-cross comeback. Since withdrawing from competitive sport five years ago, Cline, one of Canada’s most well-rounded athletes, has focused on raising a family in Squamish with her husband, mountain biker Shamus March.

Five months after giving birth in May to her second child, Asia, she was back on the prowl. Smiling large, Cline related “In August, I felt like a bag of bones going downhill at the Continental Cup in Australia. But I won, which was a big surprise to me. I figured I might as well keep going.” Interviewed during training at Cypress, the four-time Winter X Games ski-cross champion admitted that an unforeseen challenge was learning how to flip the switch from “mommy to meanie” mode on race day.

Cline’s current quest? Nothing short of a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics. That’s the only bauble not yet on display in her trophy cabinet of ski and mountain-bike honours. On February 6, she took the next step toward achieving her goal at the Freestyle Grand Prix events that previewed Olympic action on the aerial, mogul, and ski-cross courses at West Vancouver’s Black Mountain in Cypress Provincial Park. She won.

Like short-track speed skating, ski cross features fast, furious, take-no-prisoners action among four competitors simultaneously plunging downhill. National alpine ski team alumnus Chris Kent, event coordinator with the B.C. ski-cross team, stated what it takes to thrive in this fledgling Olympic sport: a “diffused focus” frame of mind. “You need a wide view to see the whole group, like Gretzky on a hockey rink, with eyes in the back of your head. Champions like Aleisha look for a hole in the midst of the flow. Once she gets out in front, nobody can pass her.”

When Kent likened ski cross to a “slow-speed downhill”, he meant that racers are launching off jumps and absorbing gravitational forces in banked corners at speeds of 60 to 70 kilometres per hour, far slower than the then-world record 215 kph that Cline clocked at a speed skiing competition in France in the 1990s.

Her talent for gliding across both snow and air has served her well. But skill is not all that’s needed to triumph these days. “The girls are really dirty now, pushing and grabbing. They’ll skate into you!” she lamented with a regretful nod to a more chivalrous era. Funny what being elevated into the global spectacle will do to a once tightly knit, fringe sport family.

In Kent’s experience, cussedness has been a hallmark of men’s ski cross since the sport’s inception in 1994. “When I entered my first ski-cross race at Whistler, I got in the gate next to [American ace] Daron Rahlves. He stuck his pole in front of my ski and I was on my face before I knew it. Such a rip-off!”

Despite that still-smouldering memory, Kent said he’d definitely compete if he were a decade younger. “People who do well in this sport have strong alpine-race backgrounds and stand tall, like Stan Heyer,” in reference to the national ski-cross team member who spanked Rahlves in the final heat to win last month’s Winter X Games ski-cross crown in Colorado.

That rivalry is sure to play out again on Black Mountain. That’s where ski-cross and boardercross course designer-builder Jeff Ihaksi recently gave me a guided tour. The Whistler-Blackcomb millwright draws on his snowboard-racing background “to get a feeling for what the athletes want and how the course should flow by maximizing aspects of the topography. You build using the mountain.”

Ihaksi shaped his first boardercross course a decade ago at Whistler’s World Ski and Snowboard Festival. By 2006, his talents were in high demand in Turin, where he sculpted the inaugural boardercross Olympic course. This season, the 35-year-old is designing all the World Cup cross courses, though he takes pains to credit his team of groomers. In a tradition originated by a Canadian ice maker at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Ihaksi predicted there will be more than a few loonies buried among the run’s rollers, tabletops, berms, and Wu-Tangs.

At a viewpoint that took in both the Lions and Howe Sound, Ihaksi pointed out where the starting gates will be positioned. Cypress’s Upper Forks Trail plummets in steep, tight turns—“B.C.–style”—then unwraps from the forest into a wide-open, X Games course that favours gliders. “Skiers making air in a corner is one of my favourite sights. No matter what feature I throw at them, they’ll master it.”

Think that Cline didn’t know that? -

Follow Aleisha Cline’s blog at www.aleishacline.com/.

Here’s her account of events leading up to her victory:

“Official training started on Tuesday and on the second run the first big double finished off my shins and I was done for the day.
I suffered through the next day of training with a few quarter runs, watching how the course ran.

On Quali day, I opted out of any training runs at all and had my first run under the clock…
I finished 10th! That had been my best finish in a world cup thus far. Honestly, I was quite happy with the result and decided that if worse came to worse it would end up a top 15 at the end of the day, but I’d do my best to make it to the second round!

Well, I went through the 1st and 2nd round finishing both rounds in second place behind the french skiers, Ophelie David, World Champ was in the second round. I mentioned to her before the race that we hadn’t race together in at least 4 years, I think it was in Torino at the World Champs, I was both excited and nervous to start the round with her in it!

To make a long story longer, my starts had been fast all day and in the 3rd round I got out just ahead of Ophelie and safely made it to the bottom ahead of her. She wasn’t very happy and made it know to me at the finish….She should have passed me if she didn’t like skiing behind me!

The final round brought Ophelie, Ashlegh, Karin Huttary [Note: see News post on Karin elsewhere on jc.com] again I was first out of the gate and kept my focus on being first off the double and into the turn. As the race progressed through the second turn and off the 3rd jump, I heard some screaming and hoped it wasn’t something I did, watching the video that evening, it wasn’t.

Near the bottom Ophelie miss judged the step down step up combo and flew upside down and landed quite hard banging her head. She seemed OK at the finish but was shook up and not very happy.

…and the final outcome was that I finished my 40th day of skiing (in 5 years), my daughter’s 9 month birthday and the first ever Canadian held World Cup Skicross event on top of the podium!”

Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie
Original Article

Cypress World Cup Skier Cross Report

February 16, 2009

Austrian ace Karin Huttary continually displayed her fine form during World Cup skier-cross racing on Black Mountain, one of the three peaks which comprise the Cypress Mountain complex in West Vancouver, site of the 2010 Winter Olympic freestyle ski and snowboard events.

Karin her usually brilliant self prepping up at the start.Before race time, Huttary was her usual brilliant self psyching up at the start. Her distinctive pink helmet makes it easier to pick her out during a race.

It's now or never! Karin passes the #1 ranked French racer, Ophelie David.

Three red and white flags flying over the podium. Who could ask for more?! Karin graciously allowed the Canadian women, Aleisha Cline and Ashliegh McIvor, the top 2 places. Canadian men, led by Chis Delbosco, took all 3 podium places.

Following the race there was time to head up Mount Strachan to catch the sunset over Bowen Island, the Strait of georgia, and Vancouver Island in the far distance

Karin beams as she reads for the first time she's second in the world after today's race. This is truly incredible as she broke her back just two years ago! With half the skier-cross season to go, there's still and opportunity for the former world champion to regain her crown.

Winter doldrums shed on Sunshine Coast

February 11, 2009

By Jack Christie Photo Louise Christie

Access: If the thought of leaving your winter burrow to seek recreation a few hours from home has appeal, head up the Sechelt and Malaspina peninsulas, the twin protrusions bounded by Howe and Desolation sounds. By turns rocky coves, sandy beaches, and boardwalk promenades, the 140-kilometre stretch of shoreline from Langdale in the south to Lund at the north is always the most welcoming place to start immersing yourself in the Sunshine Coast’s altered-reality ambiance.

To contact Sunshine Coast Tourism, visit www.sunshinecoastcanada.com/. For Country Cottage Bed and Breakfast, visit countrycottagebb.ca/. Alpha Adventures rents skis and snowshoes as well as offering guided tours, lessons, and shuttle-bus connections to Dakota Ridge. For information, contact www.outdooradventurestore.ca/. Updates on conditions in Dakota Ridge Winter Recreation Area are posted on the Sunshine Coast Regional District’s Web site.

Think winter. Think fun. Think Sunshine Coast. That’s what Sherry Royal, manager of the newly formed Sunshine Coast Tourism organization, hopes Lower Mainlanders will do this month. On the phone from Gibsons, Royal said that after years of attempts, SCT is the water-locked region’s first destination-marketing association.

Most often the Strait of Georgia laps the waterfront beside Highway 101 like a contented puppy. Royal finds this is especially true at Davis Bay, south of Sechelt, where views across the inland sea’s flat expanse roll uninterrupted westward toward Vancouver Island. “This is where I like to walk the beach, sit on one of the benches dedicated to locals, and treat myself to fish and chips from the Beach Boy,” she said.

Where the village of Roberts Creek spreads along the forested shore north of Gibsons, Loragene Gaulin’s thoughts stray to higher elevations—Dakota Ridge, to be precise. As founder of the region’s first bed-and-breakfast, Country Cottage, co-owner Gaulin said “There’s more to the Sunshine Coast than a big, romantic tea party.” She ought to know. Over the past 22 years, she and her husband, Philip, have not only harboured guests in their two cozy, dog-friendly cottages, they’ve made a habit in winter of leading snowshoe and cross-country ski excursions along the Caren Range ridge that snares copious quantities of powder snow as winter storms pass inland. “Over the past year, the access to our winter playground has really improved, though you still need a four-wheel-drive with chains if you go on your own,” she said. “We take our guests with us or they can go with our neighbours at Alpha Adventures.”

In 2000, Jamie and Sarah Mani created Alpha Adventures to cater to the growing year-round demands of both paddlers and skiers. When reached at home, Jamie said the beauty of the Sunshine Coast environment is that you can try one activity in the morning and another in the afternoon. “Outfitted head to toe in neoprene, at this time of year we paddle in sheltered areas like Porpoise Bay or Smugglers Cove,” the part-time Chatelech secondary school physical-education instructor said. One of Mani’s fondest memories is of a wintry New Year’s Day in 2003. “I’d been snowshoe guiding the day before, then changed my kit completely from mountain to ocean gear to lead a group along the coast. It was a magical way to begin the year.”

For the past seven years, the Manis have been offering cross-country ski and snowshoe tours on Dakota Ridge, a 30- to 45-minute drive from their Roberts Creek base. “In those early days, we were part of the fledgling Dakota Ridge Winter Recreation Society,” Jamie said. “There were lots of work parties to clear the trails in this mini-area northwest of Mount Elphinstone between Gibsons and Sechelt.” Last year, the society’s efforts were rewarded with an Olympic funding grant. At that point, the Sunshine Coast Regional District stepped in and granted Dakota Ridge park status. Among other benefits, a grooming machine was purchased to manicure the trails for both classic cross-country and skate skiing. So far, the ridge offers 12 kilometres of trails, complemented by an extensive network of snowshoe routes beneath the sheltering forest canopy. “Much like Mount Seymour, you can stick to the marked and mapped trails or head out on your own to find scenic vistas overlooking the strait,” Jamie, a certified Nordic ski instructor, explained. “Unlike Hollyburn, where I learned to ski, the snow quality here is drier and the terrain less hilly.”

Lately, the Sunshine Coast is enjoying an embarrassment of recreational riches. Jamie pointed out that in the past year, two community centres have opened: a new swimming pool in Sechelt and an ice rink in Gibsons. “I’ve been telling people that Dakota Ridge is a third rec centre all in itself,” he enthused. “This is where to head to shed the grey doldrums of winter. Leave that all behind and get buoyed by the beautiful brightness of the snow.” That’s a bit of thinking that Sherry Royal would surely approve.

Photo CR Louise Christie
Original Article

Avalanches Go to the Dogs

February 2, 2009

Time again for another Whistler Blackcomb podcast produced by Warwick Patterson and hosted by Mark “Toaster” Torley. Now in its second season, this episode includes weather forecasting, avalanche dog training, and a ride on the new Peak2Peak gondola.

Although I was skeptical at first as to how much of a “frequent flier” I would be on the P2P, the 11-minute silent glide between the two mountains has quickly become a regular part of my visits.

I find the best times to have a gondola almost to myself and enjoy the panoramic views, including a superb overview of the heritage Singing Pass Trail that snakes along the flanks of Whistler Mountain, is pre-lunch. By 2:30 pm on weekends, long lines form at both stations. Shades of rush hour in Tokyo as smiling lifties make sure gondolas are packed to capacity.

Note to snowshoers and backcountry skiers: I devote an entire chapter to Singing Pass Trail in The Whistler Book. Winter or summer, this is a classic approach to Garibaldi Provincial Park high above Fitzsimmons Creek. The quiet on the well-marked, 12-kilometre/7.4-mile trail that begins next to the public transit bus loop in Whistler Village rivals that of a Peak2Peak ride-rush hour excepted.