THERE was a slightly surreal air to this year’s inaugural Coe Cup freeride event at Glencoe.
To the uneducated eye, the sight of dozens of competitors in full ski gear hoofing their way up the mostly snow-free foothills of Meall a Bhuiridh towards the contest site must have been utterly baffling: where were they all going, these day-glo-clad people with skis and snowboards strapped their backs? Equally incongruous, for those in the know, was the presence of US Olympic skier turned freeride legend Jeremy Nobis, who had flown all the way across the Atlantic to act as a judge. What was a man used to staying in glamorous hotels and luxury heli-ski lodges doing living out of a camper van in the Glencoe car park? Didn’t he have better things to be doing in late March?
Nobis alluded to the somewhat unorthodox set-up while explaining how the judging was going to work on the morning of the competition.
“This is gonna to be one of the most – uh – unique events I’ve ever been to,” he deadpanned, to much laughter.
“But look,” he went on, “I’m impressed with the hill - the hill is really steep, so speed is not a factor in the judging today. If you overshoot the run-out at the bottom you’ll go right into the rocks or the peat or whatever you call it, so I want you guys to focus on controlling your speed - show me good turns.”
The hill Nobis was referring to was the area of the Glencoe ski area known as The Face – home to The Flypaper, the steepest in-bounds run in Scotland, and a number of similarly white-knuckle descents. Even during the most ferocious late-season thaws, this corner of the mountain manages to hang on to much of its snow thanks to its sheltered, northerly aspect, so although the competitors had to negotiate a combination of rocks, bogs and heather on their way to the foot of the contest zone, once there they found themselves looking up at a huge wall of perfect spring snow. They put on a spectacular display, too, making the most critical lines look like child’s play and launching huge tricks off whatever natural obstacles they could find. It might not have looked like much to anyone driving along the A82 down on the valley floor, but for the handful of spectators who slogged up the hill to see it, the Coe Cup was a mind-blowing carnival of state-of-the-art skiing and boarding.
And now, improbably, it’s an official qualifying event for the Freeride World Tour (FWT) – one of the glitziest competitions in the whole world of snowsports. Nobis was so impressed with the potential he saw at Glencoe that he contacted the FWT and urged them to consider adding it to their calendar. So thanks to Nobis’s lobbying – and the foresight of resort owner Andy Meldrum, who has been heavily involved in the event from the beginning – Glencoe now joins big-name locations like Verbier and Squaw Valley on the list of this season’s FWT qualifiers.
It sounds almost too good to be true – particularly given that Glencoe seemed to be on the verge of closing down for good before Meldrum took it over in 2009. Now, with some infrastructure improvements already complete and more on the way, the resort seems to have turned a corner – and the success of the Coe Cup is merely the icing on the cake.
The 2012 event was mostly contested by UK-based skiers. In the men’s skiing category, Dave Biggin narrowly defeated Malcolm Roy and Benjamin Styles. Tim McGregor posted the highest score of the day to win the men’s snowboard while Roslyn Newman won the combined women’s ski and snowboard category. This season, however, it promises to be a much more international affair. Meldrum has been told to expect between 250 and 300 applications from all over Europe as soon as he puts the entry forms online. As he can only accommodate a maximum of 120 competitors, he admits that “part of the challenge is going to be making sure that the UK riders who want to compete get a chance.”
Freeride competitions are still relatively new phenomena, and the judging criteria are still evolving. As things stand, however, a skier or boarder tackling a technical line down the mountain with style and flow will score more highly than one who keeps stopping in front of large drop-offs to line up monster stunts. As a result, route selection is the key to success, as Meldrum explains.
“From the Thursday or the Friday before the Coe Cup, the competition area will be closed,” he says. “The competitors don’t get to practice – they get to stand at the bottom and they get to pick their line and then they have to do their run from that.
“But these guys are pretty skilled. They’ll get binoculars out, they’ll ski down the outer limit of the competition area and they’ll work out their route in their mind so before they drop off something they’ll know exactly what they’re going to drop off and exactly where they’re going to end up.”
With so much interest expected from overseas, could a Scot still win the event?
“Yeah, absolutely,” says Meldrum. “There are some really hot local guys who know the slope and know the hill, so they’ve got a great chance.”