words: Mary Walsh
photos: Aaron Blatt and Mark Clavin
Halfpipe finals at the Burton US Open Snowboarding Championships have long been one of the most iconic days of the winter calendar. As the longest running contest in our sport, it was the Open that legitimized competitive snowboarding when the mainstream media and general population would not recognize the activity as anything more than a rebellious nuisance. The stories that have played out between the two walls have been momentous, beginning in 1988 when halfpipe was introduced at the event and Terry Kidwell won the first competition. Craig Kelly, Todd Richards and Terje Haakonsen staked their claim on finals days and dominated the podium in the early nineties. Beginning in 1999, Stratton local Ross Powers was a diplomat of modern halfpipe riding and as the 2000s began, Danny Kass, backed by the legions of Grenade, would be the first to link back-to-back tens and dominate pipe riding alongside Shaun White, the two tying one another as the male riders with the most Open wins. Kazu Kokubo would become an endemic household name after a victory in 2010. And of course Nicola Thost, Natasza Zurek, Gretchen Bleiler, Torah Bright and Kelly Clark would grow the legacy of women pipe heroes within the USO transition. Not to mention the culture that has swarmed on the decks of the pipe and grown alongside the pros within it has a league of legacy in its own right.
Over the past three decades, as the walls of the pipe have increased in size to the 22-foot behemoths that are the current standard, the riding itself has of course intensified, too. But throughout the evolution of pipe riding and the proliferation of a multitude of global competitions, the US Open pipe has remained an institution unlike any other in snowboarding, and an arena that consistently catalyzes evolutions in riding. With the heritage that is present in this competition every March it is not surprising that the contest remains so beloved by both spectators and the riders themselves. And on days like Saturday, March 7, 2015, when bright blue skies and spring temps graced finals, the bottom of the pipe crowded with spectators and was alight with excitement. The standard that was set back in the day, when pipe riding was in its infancy, continues to be elevated in Vail, Colorado.
For Kelly Clark, the USO holds plenty of significance, resonating with this Southern Vermont-raised snowboarder not only for the event's tenure at Stratton, but also because of Clark's long-standing position on the Burton team. This year, when Kelly prepared to drop in second-to-last in the start order, she was doing so as the reigning 2013 and 2014 pipe champ, looking to extend her twofer into a hat trick. Kelly is, without a doubt, the reigning queen of halfpipe, as not only is she the most dominant riders in the discipline, she's also the winningest contest rider of any gender, in any arena. On her second run, Kelly solidified a lead that she would carry to the end of the contest, boosting a gargantuan frontside air on the first hit and stomping a back five, front ten to cab seven and a lofty crippler before ending her run with a textbook method. She earned a 91.00 for her efforts.
Over the course of Kelly's tenure of halfpipe sovereignty, she has continually one upped herself, going bigger, adding more spins, and linking more technical tricks. To her credit, she is surely a large influence on the two riders who were vying for their own spots in the top three on Saturday. And at Vail, those two young women, Chloe Kim and Arielle Gold were poised on the precipice of progression, ready to close out the competition year with a bang. Chloe Kim, who has traded podium position with Kelly over the past two years, debuted a brand new trick at the USO, a clean front ten of her own. Her third run would be her best, going method to frontside ten tail, cab nine, switch backside 720, McTwist, and frontside 540. She was awarded an 88.74 and moved into second place.
The third spot on the podium would go to Arielle Gold, whose first attempt scored at an 83.87. It was a banner run for the Colorado native, with solid amplitude and clean style. Arielle led off with a method, stomped a front 900 into a back 540, linked back-to-back sevens, and finished with a crippler. Securing a top spot on her first run allowed Gold to attempt a front ten of her own on her last go, but the landing eluded her. She has yet to ride away from the trick, but the in conjunction with Kelly and Chloe’s runs, the bar had been set.
As Kelly reached the bottom of the pipe post-victory lap, she was tackled by Chloe and Arielle, the women all so stoked not only on their individual successes, but on the trick progression that had gone down. Said Kelly, "Part of me today saw these girls doing tens and said 'yes, that's what I have been waiting for.’" Kelly's ability in the halfpipe is matched by her eloquence outside of it as she continued to share her excitement on what the day's collective runs means for women's pipe riding, noting that it's additionally unique that the boundaries are being pushed in a non-Olympic year, when it is even more organic. The Open pipe is clearly an indication of what's to come next season, and the future is looking very bright.
On the men's side, Danny Davis threw stunning quad overhead McTwist chicken wings, but wasn't able to land a run that would place one of snowboarding's favorite halfpipe riders on the podium. As further testament to Davis' unique brand of pipe riding, he performed some legal poaching in between his own runs, throwing style out with every hit. Master turner Ben Fergurson qualified first into finals and sent enormous front seven Japans on his first wall, but also didn't link a run that would move him up in ranking. Swiss rider Jan Scherrer ended the day in fourth with a very respectable run that included a front double cork ten truck driver, front twelve tail, and an alley oop 360 stalefish.
While the methodology for all of the ten riders was heavily rooted in style, warm conditions and snow variation did cause some consternation for many who dropped in. The top three emerged unscathed, though, deftly combining tech tricks with proper style and riding cleanly throughout.
In 2011 at age twelve, Ayumu Hirano dropped into the US Open halfpipe at Stratton for two different events. While he took the coveted position as the winner of the Junior Jam halfpipe, he also narrowly missed men's finals, landing himself in eleventh place. Since then, the young Japanese rider has captivated spectators with his ability to send it into orbit and today he rocketed into third place, his first USO podium since 2013. It was Ayumu's first run that would put him in contention and keep him there. A positively enormous backside air on the first wall lined him up for a frontside double cork ten truck driver into a cab double cork ten mute. He continued with a front twelve tail, backside nine, and an alley oop 360. He received a score of 84.75 and set to better his rank in his final two attempts, but was not able to do so.
Second place went to Frenchman Arthur Longo, who after spending the past month filming in the backcountry for his movie part, arrived in Vail for his second appearance at the Open. Longo is a rarity in the halfpipe circuit nowadays, as he fully splits his time between stacking hammer video footage and stomping tricks in the stunt tube. The duality suits him, as he brought significant style with each drop, landing some of the nicest-looking tricks of the day. His third run began with a massive mute to fakie, followed by a cab ten to frontside nine and a proper method, wrapping up with a front double cork 1080 and a switch alley oop double rodeo 900. It was a run he had never done before, in competition or otherwise, and he had only landed the rodeo twice in contests previously. Said Arthur, "To be honest, I'm not really used to podiums, so when it happens, I'm really happy."
The 2015 men's pipe champion was first time USO podium topper, Taku Hiraoka. This Japanese rider has been a competitive presence on the halfpipe circuit for his ability to gracefully pair overhead airs with plentiful spins. At the 2014 Open, he landed in second place to Taylor Gold. In 2015, Taku cemented first with a run that bested all others with a front 540 to back 900, back-to-back double cork tens (frontside and cab) and a big front twelve tail. Amplitude was high, landings were pristine and nineteen-year-old Taku earned a 90.99 and a champagne shower for his efforts. With Taku's win, he also contributed to a Japanese sweep of the men's competitions, alongside his fellow countryman and slope winner, Yuki Kadono.
With that, the 33rd Annual Burton US Open Snowboarding Championships has come to a close and after a week of riding, two days of finals, and heaps and heaps of collective rotations, the 2014-15 contest season is officially wrapped. Once again, the Open has provided a uniquely progressive and exciting environment and that, combined with some of the best weather conditions seen in recent years, catalyzed banner moments in every round of finals. Congrats to all of the riders who competed this year and thank you to everyone at Burton who makes this iconic event such a success year after year.