words: Pat Harrington
photos: Sami Tourinemi
captions: T. Bird
This past Saturday, January 31, Laax, Switzerland played host to the 2015 Burton European Open slopestyle finals. After months of meager snowfall and poor conditions, the skies finally opened up and blanketed the Swiss mega-resort with a hefty amount of fresh snow. While the powder starved public rejoiced, the timing proved to be quite troublesome for contest organizers and riders alike. Friday's elimination round was cancelled due to high winds and heavy snowfall, leaving Saturday as a winner-take-all affair, giving the riders only two runs to prove who would be crowned as this year's European Open champion.
With expectations of poor weather and nasty temperatures for the final swirling around the village, everyone was extremely relieved to wake up to blue skies and perfect conditions on Saturday morning. The legendary Laax park crew and the contest organizers worked throughout the night to ensure a flawless contest day and the premium conditions only fueled the motivation of the thirty-two men and sixteen women that would be competing in Europe's largest snowboard contest. The beautifully designed course, perched on top of Mt. Crap Sogn Gion, consisted of a rhythm-like section of jibs and rails up top, which fed directly into a whale tail/halfpipe feature which proved to be the difference maker later in the day, while a massive three-pack of jumps finished out the run. Due to the sheer size of the features and the rapidly changing snow conditions, speed was ultimately the key to success on this year's course. The riders had to execute each trick perfectly to ensure that they would have enough speed for the jumps in the lower portion of the run and any bobble certainly proved fatal.
In classic Swiss fashion, at promptly 10:30 AM the ladies descended upon the course and wasted no time in letting their intentions be known. The clear favorites included Silje Norendal, Spencer O'Brien, Jaime Anderson, Enni Rukajärvi and Christy Prior. Anderson was looking for redemption after her second place finish behind Silje at X Games and New Zealand's Christy Prior was eager to ride the momentum of her podium finish in Aspen and hopefully arrive on top in Laax.
Veteran rider Cheryl Maas was the first to stomp a clean and stylish run including a gorgeous switch backside 180 and a frontside 720, which placed her in first position with a 70.10. Just behind Cheryl, sixteen-year-old Japanese rider Miyabi Onitsuka landed a cab 900, but her run was ultimately thwarted by lack of speed just like fellow riders Enni Rukajärvi, Spencer O'Brien and Laax local Sina Candrian, nullifying their strong trick selection.
After anxiously waiting through the first half of competitors, the favorites of the event were set to drop. Silje Norendal greased her standard backside blunt 270 out and cleanly linked a frontside rodeo 720, backside 540 and switch backside 180 to put up a respectable 66.40. Immediately understanding what needed to be done, Christy Prior broke down the course with one of the best women's slopestyle runs that we have ever seen. On the top jib section, a smooth, yet accidental, 540 bonk projected her switch stance into the pyramid, where she boosted a massive half cab to nearly flat and stomped it as though she was channeling MFM circa 2002. With the top section handled, Christy charged through the jumps, laying down a frontside 540 on the whale tail, a cab underflip into a massive frontside rodeo 720 and finishing with a flawless backside 540, earning a hefty score of 84.00. That run parked Ms. Prior confidently in first position.
The only rider left to take her first run was also the only rider that could step to Prior's technicality and amplitude. Jaime Anderson, whose second place a week earlier was still fresh on her mind and was clearly motivating her in Switzerland. Her first run was made up of a smooth combination of tricks including a switch blunt 270 out, cab 540, frontside 720, and a backside 540 which placed her in second position with a score of 78.55.
The finals then played out in exciting fashion with the ladies' second runs. Unfortunately, Spencer O'brien couldn't overcome the speed issues, preventing her from throwing her highly publicized backside 900, leaving the door wide open for Enni Rukajärvi. Enni took the invitation and stomped a clean jump combo comprised of a frontside 720, an extremely stylish backside 540 stalefish and a cab 540, landing her in third position with a score of 75.20. Still sitting in the top spot, Christy Prior was the second-to-last rider to drop. She calmly looked at the massive peaks on the opposing side of the valley and dropped in. She laid out a very similar run to her first, but once she approached the final jump, she quickly exchanged her final back five with a classically huge method, exclaiming her confidence with style and grace.
With one last chance, Lake Tahoe's golden girl, Jamie Anderson took to the course with a slightly different run in an attempt to take down her Kiwi competitor. Her sleepy style on the rails led her into the jumps, where she put down a cab 720, switch backside 540 and a backside 540, resulting in a 75.80 from the judges.
After having earned a bronze medal at her first-ever X Games a week earlier, Christy Prior came to Laax and quickly let the snowboard world know that she is no flash in the pan. The twenty-four-year-old New Zealander was the clear winner, and she couldn't have been more stoked. While her whole run was very impressive, the trick that really set Christy's run a part from the get go was her massive a half cab off of the pyramid feature. "I wasn't planning on going 540 on the first jib and all of the sudden I was going switch into the wall. If I had to hit that feature switch again, I probably wouldn't be able to do it," Prior stated with a huge grin on her face. Again, the ability of a contest rider to adapt naturally during their run and lett their snowboard instinct take over landed Christy Prior on top of the 2015 Burton European Open Slopestyle podium, which was rounded out by Jaime Anderson in second and Enni Rukajärvi in third.
After a quick course clean up, the bad boys of international slopestyle were ready to put on an impressive show. Thirty-two riders including the likes of Ståle Sandbech, Mark McMorris, Max Parrot and Torstein Horgmo all had two chances to make their mark at this elite stop on the World Snowboard Tour. Just like with the ladies, the rapidly changing snow conditions proved to be tricky in the speed category, forcing riders to either do slightly more conservative tricks, or trust that they would land each hit perfectly. First run highlights included Jaime Nicholls' switch wildcat off of the pyramid, Alek Ostering's transition skills combined with a front five in the whale tail zone, and Sven Thorgren's backflip tuck-knee on the pyramid to cab twelve on the first jump.
Through the first thirty riders, we saw the lead change hands several times. Riders like Alek Ostering, Sven Thorgren, Brandon Davis and Kyle Mack, had all held the top spot at some point and were all putting down powerful combos of 1080's and 1260's, in addition to technical rail tricks. The volume was turned up after Torstein Horgmo threatened with two double cork tens and a switch backside 1260, yet he fell on his final hit and nineteen-year-old Canadian Tyler Nicholson took first place. He was the only rider to complete a run consisting of three 1260's. He broke out in succession a switch backside 1260, double backside rodeo 1260 and a cab 1260, and snagged a 79.8. Tyler's moment in the sun didn't last long however, as Sven Thorgren promptly answered with his strong and compact style, posting a score of 80.4.
All the while, the three most dominant slopestyle riders of the past year were sitting in the rider's shack calmly watching the contest on the television. Maxence Parrot, Ståle Sandbech and Mark McMorris were the last riders to drop and their thoughts were firmly focused on the podium. Parrot led off with his signature backside hardway 270-on-270-out and approached the jumps with maximum velocity. His first hit was a ballsy cab 1260, which led him to slam really hard on the first landing. Opportunity was now abundant for Sandbech and McMorris to duel it out.
Ståle calmly flipped his goggles around, strapped in and commenced his run with a technical combo of back-to-back 540 jibs on the first two features, followed by a proper front blunt sameway and then an unexpected double crippler out of the whale tail feature. His trajectory took him a little further than anticipated, which forced him into a backside 180 on the first jump due to lack of speed. He then stomped a cab 1260 and frontside 1080, but with the lack of rotation on the first jump, Ståle received a 76.05 which would not see him to the podium.
It was then time for Mark McMorris, affectionately known as Sparky by all of his friends in the contest. With an almost mysterious air of confidence, Mark quietly stepped into the start gate and dropped in, just as though he was taking a lap at his local hill. Like a video game character, Mark bounced through the course landing a Wildcat late backside 180 off the pyramid and a backside 540 on the whale tail, which set him up for a jump sequence of switch backside 1260, frontside double cork 1080 and backside double cork 1080, ensuring him the lead with an 85.6.
After the first run, the podium had McMorris, Thorgren and Nicholson sitting one, two, and three. Now that the tone had been set, a barrage of technical trickery was employed by the entire field in an attempt to knock the top three from their current positions. Twenty-two-year-old Swedish rider Niklas Mattson climbed into podium contention with an impressive 80.9 after having washed out on his first run. But it was Torstein Horgmo, who in typical clutch style quickly stole second place with his barrage of tricks, this time stomping his cab double cork 1080, switch backside 1260 melon grab and front double cork 1080, snagging an 83.3. Finnish powerhouse Peetu Piiroinen threatened with a score of 80.8 after his first run fall. But, it was no match for the young Sandbech who had fire in his eyes, knowing that he could stomp a perfect run. Ståle proceeded with the same run that he attempted on his first go, only this time he landed the now infamous double crippler perfectly and traded the backside 180 with a backside 1260 mute grab and followed it up with a flawless cab 1260 and frontside 1080 indy, posting a massive 91.4 and taking the lead.
McMorris was the lone rider waiting to drop and was the only one who could silence Sandbech's thunderous run. At this point, Sparky's only option to outdo the Norwegian was to attempt his triple cork 1440. Mark replicated his first run perfectly and sped into the last hit. With the crowd standing on pins and needles, McMorris lashed out with his 1440 attempt only to misstep and washout on the landing, sending Ståle Sandbech and his fans into an uproar or cheers.
After taking home gold at the Air & Style, Ståle again took backseat to McMorris at X games last week, so to finally breakthrough in an elite slopestyle contest, especially in Europe, was extra special for the young Viking ripper. "The European Open was the first international contest that I ever competed in and Laax was the first place that I ever snowboarded at outside of Scandinavia. It's my favorite mountain, so to win here is pretty special. It's in my heart you know," said Sandbech, his Tiki trophy in hand and surrounded by adoring fans.
Despite the threatening weather and all possible logistical issues that could have happened, the 2015 Burton European Open went off with out a hitch. As the marquee snowboarding event in Europe, it is always a pleasure to see how passionate and welcoming the locals are and how willing they are to show off their home resort. A huge thanks goes out to everyone at Burton Europe, Laax resort, all the volunteers and the riders who made this event such a success.