We Are the Champions?

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"I've got two words for you: blue balls," said Crested Butte's Jon Johnston in a bar in Valdez, Alaska. "We flew in, looked at it, and flew home."

It was the end of the first clear-weather day of the 2000 World Extreme Skiing Championships (WESC), and what had Johnston and the other competitors complaining of skius interruptus were the worst avalanche conditions the Chugach Mountains had seen in seven years. Slides were ripping all over the range. Local ski guides were shaken.

But WESC was running under even heavier burdens. A week earlier WESC's former sponsor, Red Bull, and its former sanctioning body, the International Freeskiers Association (IFSA), had staged a rival championship (the Red Bull Snowthrill of Alaska) 100 miles to the west, at Alyeska resort. Big-mountain stud Chris Davenport had won, and he and a host of other big-name athletes had added Alaska points to their IFSA records.

Not so in Valdez. After nine years as freeskiing's marquee big-mountain event, the World Extremes had suddenly been brushed aside, dropped by corporate interests who preferred Alyeska's cush amenities to the chronic uncertainties of flying a helicopter event in some of the world's stormiest mountains. ("We get 80 feet of snow a year," points out WESC president and 1995 winner Dean Cummings. "That stuff comes with some weather.") As a result, competitors had to face the Chugach's gnarliest terrain without assurances that the winner would rightfully be called world champion.

But a small, committed crew stuck it out. The weather cleared, the slides stopped, and the athletes eventually got to ski. On the final day, Utah native Spencer Wheatley flashed a series of airs and straight runs on a supersteep, double-fall-line face to win. ("Phenomenal," said judge Kristen Ulmer.) He may not get to call himself undisputed world champion, but he and his competitors did remind everyone watching that the spirit of freeskiing has little to do with championships, anyway.