The Frostgun Invitational 2015; a competition not to be missed, and one of the highlight's of Val d'Isère's winter calendar. On a par with the X-Games, Frostgun is Europe's only Platinum level Big Air contest and draws in freestyle champions from all around the world. Punching a total prize of $56,000 it is certainly an event worth writing home about.
Spectators were given the chance to see the crème de la crème of today's freestyle skiers and snowboarders demonstrating their daring skills on jumps, rails and hips in the centre of Val D. If that's not enough to tickle your taste buds then throw in a handful of international DJs and you've got one hell of a show. Excitement grew rapidly in the build up to Frostgun as each night piste bashers worked into the early hours to sculpt a 14m high kicker at the base of the famous La Face. With almost 25,000 cubic metres of snow needed to create it; I can see why it took weeks to build this monster of a jump.
Frostgun Invitational kicked off on Tuesday evening with the Snowboarder's Big Air contest, which was judged on the unusual combination of tech and style tricks, allowing riders a little more creative freedom in their jumps. Haling from Finland, Nuutti Niemelä took home first prize for a mind blowing backside 1080 Double Cork Mute and a backside 720 Nose to Tail. He was closely followed by last year's winner Kalle Järvilehto and Swiss rider Carlos Gerber.
Day Two saw a new addition to the Frostgun line up - the Hip contest - a quarter pipe with perpendicular landing. And what a show it was Ladies and Gentlemen! The height reached by both skiers and boarders was insane, and proves that these riders certainly have guts. French snowboarder Antoine Truchon took home the glory for Highest Air that day and Swiss Markus Knut Mathis won the best trick prize. The skiers also competed fiercely but Jules Bonnaire out rode all competition and quite literally flew to gold for the Highest Air.
Day Three's Streetfighter competition saw both the ski and snowboard rail jams as well as a visit from an infamous pioneering freeskier: Candide Thovex, who made an appearance at the event, taking the time to sign posters in the local Roxy cafe.
The final event was the Ski Big Air Contest; a three heat showdown between 14 world class skiers. The top three riders from each semi-final heat went through to the super final where they battled it out. Despite sub-zero temperatures, a huge crowd gathered at the base of La Face making the atmosphere phenomenal.
During the first two semi final heats the crowd gasped and cheered as riders threw down an impressive array of aerial gymnastics. For me the highlight was Nick Goepper's Switch Dub-side Right Nine with a Screamin' Seamen Japan - in English - an incredibly gnarly trick, requiring the flexibility of a yoga master. The judges rewarded him for his technically sound and stylish execution.
A jump of this size is bound to see some crashes, and there were a fair few during the semis; the most dramatic being when Oscar Wester fell on one leg after tweaking his ski so hard during a grab that it came off mid-air. Luckily there were no injuries.
Another highlight was seeing Jules Bonnaire attempting the Lazy Boy 180 twice, and both times being forced to turn it into a 360, perhaps because the jump is just too big for a take off lying back on your skis.
The super finalists were Elias Ambühl, Nick Goepper, Fabien Bösch, Vincent Gagnier, Kai Mahler and youngest rider Luca Schuler at just 17 years old. Canadian Vincent Gagnier pulled out an effortless 1620 Screamin' Seamen Double Grab, and the crowd went crazy for youngster Luca Schuler who jumped so high and deep that he sprayed them with snow on each landing.
Despite a rocky start during the semis and a stumbled landing in the final, Swiss rider Elias Ambühl took the top spot, and amid roaring support from the crowd accepted his $7,000 prize money. American Nick Goepper came in second place and taking third spot on the podium was this year's X Game's Gold medal winner, Vincent Gagnier.
I was overwhelmed by the standard of competition in this year's competition, which was so high that less than ten points separated all six riders, and proves that these athletes really are pushing the limits of freestyle skiing. What amazed me throughout the event was the sheer confidence of the riders to hit such a big jump at speeds of around 80km/hour, and as winner Elias Ambühl said, "It's big air, it's pretty gnarly; if you're a pussy you don't get far."
The Frostgun Invitational 2015 culminated in a fireworks display accompanied by a show stopping gig by French DJs Klingande. I danced my numb feet back to life with La Face and those mind-boggling kickers still lit up in the background. Frostgun Invitational will be back in Val D'Isère next year for what is set to be an even bigger competition than ever. I for one am looking forward to it, but personally, I'd love to see some women taking on these jumps along with the men.