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The 2020 edition of Verbier Xtreme should be beginning this weekend. It would mark the 25th year of the historic freeride event, and be the capstone to the 2020 Freeride World Tour. All that changed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and, like nearly every event in Europe and North America, the event was canceled.
But there is more to the story. The FWT20 season was a challenge from the start, with extreme conditions at all four of the completed stops. Plus, unbeknownst to the public, a large effort was made to complete the event in Verbier two weeks before its originally scheduled date. This all underscores real concerns around the whereabouts of the riders in the lead up to the shutdown, including locations that may have placed them at elevated risk of exposure spreading.
A Look Back at FWT20
In Hakuba, Japan, what many locals were calling the driest and warmest winter on record almost prevented the event completely. But a last-minute storm and change in venue made the event possible. Next was Kicking Horse. Conditions had been excellent through the season, but the days before the tour’s arrival the mountain received nearly 24 hours of ridgetop winds in excess of 100mph, followed by calm winds and six inches of powder snow. The result was beautiful-looking snow hiding hazards like rocks and wind slabs, causing trouble for the men’s ski field in particular.
In Europe, the FWT20 tour was met with one of the warmest, driest winters ever recorded in Andorra. The full weather window was used waiting for conditions to improve, and finally, at the end of the week, enough snow fell during the week to allow competition. But only three of the four competition categories were completed, as thick clouds and snow rolled back in around midday, postponing the snowboard men (who then ran two runs in Austria).
The fourth stop in Fieberbrunn, Austria, had also witnessed a historically warm winter, with precipitation falling as rain to the top of the competition face five times before the event. Luckily, an excellent storm preceded the competition, and, despite the overall low snowpack, it turned out to be the best stop of the year.
An Athlete’s Story Behind the Canceled Verbier Xtreme
After these four events, the top-ranked riders qualified for Verbier and reports were trickling in from Switzerland: The best conditions in years were setting up for the final on the mythical Bec des Rosses.
But things took a massive turn. What news had been trickling through during the previous weeks of the coronavirus suddenly exploded. Along with Iran, Italy became the next global hotspot. Northern Italy was particularly hard-hit, essentially a stone’s throw from the ski regions of Austria and Switzerland.
During the 20 day break between the Austria and Switzerland events, riders might be found anywhere. Some go straight to Verbier, either because it’s their home or to train for the upcoming final. Some hole up in Chamonix or elsewhere in the Alps. Some even go to British Columbia or Alaska for film projects. Still others go back home to Spain, Japan or Sweden, depending on their projects, time, and budgets.
For myself, I was sticking with my original plan: Head home to Seattle for two weeks. Along with some fellow riders, I traveled two hours by train from the Fieberbrunn event to Innsbruck on Tuesday afternoon and we cooked pizza at (now three-time world champ) Arianna Tricomi’s house. Goodbyes that evening were awkward as the news was changing hourly, but I told everyone, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in two weeks! See you in Verbier.”
At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, March 11, I took a flight from Innsbruck to Frankfurt and connected to Seattle. In the previous two days, Italy had all but shut down, but little sign of the pandemic was visible on my trip, neither in the train stations nor airports. Things seemed quieter than normal, but that was it.
I breezed through Seattle passport control without even being questioned as to where in Europe I’d been the last three weeks, grabbed my bags, cleared customs and was home seamlessly. “Social distancing” had yet to be implemented in the US—even though Seattle/King County was at the time the hotspot for the entire nation—but I self-isolated immediately.
I had been home for no more than 15 minutes when the FWT Riders’ WhatsApp group started going off. There was a plan taking shape to attempt to run the Verbier Xtreme in three days, on Sunday, a full two weeks ahead of schedule.
During the first half of the week, all ski resorts in Italy had closed. Austria and France followed closely behind. Switzerland appeared to be next. The director of the tour, Nicolas Hale-Woods, held emergency meetings with the appropriate regional authorities. He was able to secure approval to run the Verbier Xtreme that weekend under a modified format with no public viewing or events.
The message riders received was, “get to Verbier as soon as possible, for a likely competition Sunday.” I had to laugh from my couch.
Many other riders, however, were able or willing to make the effort. Most were in Austria, France or Switzerland already. Some began driving back from Spain despite looming border closures. Others contemplated flights back from Sweden, and one even got back on the plane from North America, having just deplaned in Vancouver.
It looked like the event might actually happen, but despite all the effort, it wasn’t meant to be. After what was reported as the best few days of skiing of the season in Verbier, the announcement came that Saturday would be the last day of operations for all ski areas in Switzerland. A Sunday event was impossible, and the event was officially canceled on the evening of Friday, March 13.
Tour winners were announced, and the 2020 season was over with the riders making their way home and into quarantine in the following days.
FWT Insider: Verbier Xtreme Canceled
Read more: FWT Cancels Verbier Xtreme
The FWT During a Pandemic
Tracking the movements and lifestyles of the tour riders through the season paints a disconcerting picture. The outbreak began in China, and, although the tour was in Japan at the time, airport travel means it wasn’t out of the question some athletes could have been exposed as early as mid-January. As in any ski town around the world, there were a few nasty coughs and respiratory illnesses going around at the beginning.
A specific bar at the Austrian resort Ischgl—a couple of hours from Fieberbrunn—became a hotspot for the spread of the disease. As one can imagine, a jam-packed après ski scene is essentially the opposite of social distancing. This week, rising concerns surround Verbier, as it seems that the international vacation crowds it draws may have turned it into one of the worst hotspots in Switzerland for the virus.
In the Freeride World Tour, and skiing in general, the conditions in nature dictate the outcomes. It seems climate change is causing conditions to vary in more extreme ways than ever before. Extreme warmth and drought cause disruptions, and also extreme storms and snowfalls. This constant negotiation with the wild natural environment is part of what makes mountain sports so engaging.
But 2020 and the dawn of the new pandemic, a variable none of us were sufficiently prepared for, has reared its head. Can we ever get back to normal? What it will mean for the future of ski resorts, public events, and global travel? These realities are changing day by day, hour by hour.
One thing is for sure—none of us will look at a long line at customs, a crowded tram, or unwashed beer glass the same way.
Watch: Freeride World Tour FWT20 Season Highlights
More from the Freeride World Tour: 25 Candles for 25 Years of the Verbier Xtreme