“It’s putting the fun back in freestyle skiing,” says Big Mountain Head Coach Eli Sobel. “Freestyle skiing is really intimidating now. You have kids that don’t want to hit these massive jumps and don’t want to do doubles. They want to ski the mountain and they want to become a well-balanced technical skier that can take air.”
Now in its second year, the Holderness Big Mountain program is a rapidly-growing discipline that lives under the school’s Freeski umbrella
. So what makes Big Mountain different from traditional Freeski disciplines like Halfpipe and Slopestyle? Instead of boosting over the 18-foot walls of a halfpipe or grinding rails on a slopestyle course, Big Mountain athletes compete on some of the East Coast’s most difficult natural terrain. This winter, athletes will travel to competitions at Jay Peak, Stowe, Magic Mountain, and Mad River Glen. At each venue, competitors ski or ride on a designated expert trail, scoring points based on how many natural features they hit. Athletes are also judged according to several additional criteria, including control, technique, fluidity, and the overall style and energy. Past competitions have taken place on Mad River Glen’s rugged and rocky Lift Line and the nearly-vertical Face Chutes at Jay Peak. For Big Mountain athletes, competition is all about creativity and split-second problem solving in difficult terrain – not racing against the clock on a manicured course.
“Skiing is a framework for learning life lessons: commitment, dedication, persistence,” Eli says. “It’s a tool, and freeride/big mountain skiing are really cool in that it incorporates some of your own decision making into the process.” Eli should know. Before coming to Holderness, he spent seven years as a coach for the Squaw Valley Big Mountain Team in Squaw Valley, California. While there, he saw firsthand how the Big Mountain program was a perfect fit for kids who loved to ski and ride - but didn’t see themselves competing at a collegiate or professional level. “They didn’t want to go on and ski in D1,” Eli says. “They wanted to just enjoy skiing and be in the mountains and train and compete and have a community that they felt was supportive of that.”
If any community can support Big Mountain skiers and riders, it’s Holderness. With the school’s close proximity to training grounds at Loon Mountain and Cannon Mountain, Holderness is a de facto Big Mountain factory. And it’s no secret that Holderness develops some of the best skiers and snowboarders on the planet. Since 1940, Holderness has sent 17 athletes to the Olympics – most recently skiers Julia Ford ’08 and Julia Marino ’11, who competed in Sochi in 2014. The school even managed to produce one of the biggest big mountain skiers of all time - World Extreme Skiing Champion and X-Games medalist Chris Davenport ’89 - without even trying. Now, it’s trying.
Throughout the winter, Big Mountain athletes will divide their on-slope time between Loon and Cannon. At Loon, they’ll use some of the best terrain parks on the East Coast to learn valuable technical skills, like air awareness, from the school’s high-caliber freestyle coaches. At Cannon, they’ll apply those skills on the kind of rugged, natural terrain they will compete on. On-snow training will be complemented by training on campus, where athletes will use the school’s trampoline – and a planned air bag - to dial in the tricks they’ll perform in competitions. It’s a recipe for Big Mountain success, and one few other prep schools have followed. Holderness is leading the way in Big Mountain skiing and riding, just as it did when it started its Freeski & Snowboard program more than a decade ago. “We jumped on the Freeski-Slopestyle piece way before our peers did,” says Director of Snowboard & Freeski Alan Smarse. “Now, looking at trends, it’s hard to ignore that the Big Mountain piece is going to be that next thing in three years.”
With its strong focus on academics and athletics, Holderness offers the perfect environment for Big Mountain athletes to pursue the sport they love - without sacrificing their education. “Right now our peers really aren’t involved in playing in this area,” Alan says. “If you want a prep school experience and you want to be supported to the highest level that you can attain, I want Holderness to be the only place to do that.”