“The only thing that might top that 360 is a back flip,” said judge David Babic, a former World Cup mogul medalist as he watched Noah Ranallo send it off 20-foot Castlerock, throw a heli, dab into a mogul field, land hard, recover and go blazing down the trail.
Castlerock is a hulking, nobby chunk of granite that rears up like a vexed tyrannosaurus from the Sugarbush trail that runs under the old double Castlerock chairlift. The trail is a classic East Coast run— all-natural terrain, no bulldozed flats, no snowmaking, full of moguls. It flows for nearly a mile as it drops more than 1600 vertical feet.
This past Sunday it was the site of the 20th running of the Castlerock Extreme Challenge— in the words of pretty much every competitor, the toughest event on the Ski the East Freeride Tour. “ It’s for sure the longest course we have and the signature Castlerock cliff is one of the two biggest cliff features we have on the whole tour. You see people finish and just collapse at the finish line,” says Chris James of Ski the East.
The 2017 Challenge drew competitors from around New England. More than 84 men, women and juniors signed up for the event which had been rescheduled twice due to weather. More than two feet of snow dropped on Castelrock during winter storm Stella the week before. But by Sunday, the trail delivered everything from soft snow to a fair share of rock, roots and ice.
Using criteria established by the International Freeskiers & Snowboarders Association, the judges rated skiers on five criteria: line, control, style, fluidity, technique and style and energy. Spectators were mainly looking for big air.
Just as the last competitors set off, spectators got their wish. Andreya Zvonar, an 18-year-old who skis at Jay Peak and currently leads in the STEFT standings, roared up to Castlerock. He dropped off the first small bump, then kicked into a back-flip. Like Ranallo, he landed hard, dabbing but then recovered and sped down the trail.
“Just when you thought you’d seen it all,” said Chad Borofsky, a ski patroller stationed just below the landing. “Yeah, I’ve never seen that done,” said Babic.
Babic, 37, should know. He’s been skiing Sugarbush since he was seven. His father was a liftie here and his brother is currently CFO. At 16 Babic began competing in moguls, making it to the national team by age 22. “When John Egan dreamed this event up 20 years ago we were all out charging hard and it used to be just about time: fastest person wins” said Babic. Sugarbush’s Chief Recreation Officer, John Egan helped pioneer extreme skiing with a dozen Warren Miller film credits. He used be able to ski the trail in 90 seconds.
Wayne McCue, 61, a postman from Woburn, Mass. has competed in every Castlerock Extreme event in the past 20 years. “If you can ski Castlerock well, you can ski just about anything,” he said. McCue, who learned to ski at now-defunct Horn Pond ski area in Massachusetts stays in shape by doing what he calls the “Bode Miller” workout: “Every Sunday I run uphill with a wheelbarrow full of cinder blocks and then back down.” It seemed to work. The postman sent it on pretty much every bump he could and finished 24th, beating guys a third his age.
“The guys and girls out skiing this today are just as good as some of the top trained Olympic ski racers when it comes to all-around skiing,” Babic agreed. “Growing up skiing natural terrain in the East kind of prepares you for anything – ice, rocks, trees – you name it.”
“I like to see skiers who have the whole package – style, fluidity and control,” said Alix Klein, a coach with Mad River Glen’s freeski program. “Yeah, Noah and Andreya did big airs and they are strong enough so they can land it flat and recover but there’s not a lot of self-preservation in that.”
In the end, Mad River skiers took home the top spots. Ranallo won overall with his buddy, Dylan Dipentima (both are frequent stars of Ski the East films) in second. Zvonar took third as well as the “Biggie Smalls Big Air Award” of a Bern helmet and an ugly sweater, which he proudly wore. In the women’s event, Leigh Brandenburg, 16, won with teammates Amelia Slade and Marley Tipper right behind her. The top six got prize packages of Scarpa boots, Flylow jackets, Ski the East clothing and $1000 in prize money, divided among the six.
“Leigh started out skiing down the staircase at home in our apartment in Duxbury when she was two,” said Stefan Brandenburg, her father, after the event. “She’s been skiing here every weekend and there’s no better training ground.”
“This being our 8th year, we’ve seen kids competing since they were 10,” noted James. It’s really cool to see that whole progression. Even the younger kids are year over year repeat competitors and they just keep getting better. For instance, half the guys we film now for our videos we discovered at these events.”
If you want to see the best of the east in action, there’s still one more chance. This coming weekend, the tour moves on to the finals at Jay Peak.
For full results visit www.skitheast.net
Photos by Brooks Curran