KIRKWOOD, Calif. - Hero conditions would have been nice, but they weren't mandatory.
The only things mandatory Wednesday were massive airs and knees of rubber to ride out the boilerplate landings.
That's what separates the Freeride World Tour riders from the rest. They don't need two feet of fresh powder, or try even one inch, to slay The Cirque. They are the elite of big mountain shredding, and on Wednesday they dropped into Kirkwood Mountain Resort to shred some raw and exposed terrain, laden with mandatory cliff drops straight to concrete-stiff landings.
"You pick your line out from down here, but things always look different down on the bottom than when you're skiing off of them," said Josh Daiek, a Kirkwood skier and 2012 Freeskiing World Tour champion. "Sometimes all of sudden you're in the air and the landing doesn't look as good as you thought it did, and you've just got to square up for it and use all your suspension. Flex the knees, ankles, compress some vertebra and hope for the best."
Daiek was among 61 big-mountain skiers and riders hoping for the best Wednesday. The conditions were less than ideal as they converged on The Cirque for the fourth and only U.S. stop of the SWATCH Freeride World Tour (FWT) by The North Face 2013.
The competition was as steep as the terrain, but U.S. athletes managed to claim first in men's skiing, women's skiing, men's snowboarding and podium in women's snowboarding. Squaw Valley skier Jackie Paaso and snowboarder Ryland Bell, who also rides out of Squaw, both took first in their divisions.
Kirkwood snowboarder Casey Lucas kicked the competition off, taking the first run of the day under early-morning, icy shadows.
"The top section on the ridge to get to chicken shoot was boiler plate ice. Up there you're trying to just stay fast and fluid and strong," Lucas said.
Lucas cleanly landed her first air and shot over solid ice to get into her second air. From the spectators' view, it looked like a clean landing, but she landed on an icy bulge and kicked back a little. She road it out, but the judges deducted for the bobble, giving her a 59.33 for fourth place.
Current women's snowboard tour leader Margot Rozies from Pyrenees, France, took first (64.00), with a fast and fluid run despite being sick.
"I woke up this morning and considered not competing actually. However, I managed to get myself pumped for competition," Rozies said.
French snowboarder Elodie Mouthon linked two airs at the top and chose a creative line for second (63.67). Shannan Yates, of Snowbird, Utah, picked the trickiest line among the women snowboarders and landed in third (61.33).
Iris Lazzareschi of Squaw Valley got off to a solid start, but a fall halfway through her run dropped her to seventh.
"I came down into the next gut and hit a cliff on the way out and then tomahawked. My nose just went under the crunchy snow," Lazzareschi said. "After that, I just went through my line and hit four more airs, tried to do some grabs and tried to recover from the tomahawk."
Up next was women's skiing, and team Squaw Valley had better luck in this round.
Paaso toned down her usual massive airs and skied a smart and controlled run. She linked a number of airs through technical sections for a first-place finish (71.67). Paaso fell in the two earlier FWT stops, and needed to earn a podium position to improve her overall ranking on the tour and potentially progress to Verbier.
"Luckily, I had three cliffs that were kind of easy to find, easy to get into, and once I got into there I kind of tamed it down a little, and skied smart," Paaso said. "It feels good to finally stay on my feet."
Rounding out the women's ski podium was Pia Nic Gundersen of Norway in second place (67.00) and Ashley Maxfield of Vermont, who landed in third with 63.00.
The men's skiing competition was up next as the sun started to slightly warm the icy Cirque. It was a fiercely competitive field of 31 skiers, but it came as no surprise that a skier from the East Coast handled the shaved conditions best.
Lars Chickering-Ayers, of Mad River Glen, Vt., was the first skier to navigate through a tricky route in the heart of The Cirque. Once he smoothly sailed through the rocky section, he charged through an incredibly technical chute for a winning score of 75.33.
"I wasn't really planning to win here," Chickering-Ayers said. "I just came out to spend time with family and have fun. I have skied these type of conditions in competitions in the past and knew how to deal with them. The skiing was my favorite part of the day."
Julien Lopez of La Plagne, France, took second place (73.00) with his signature giant back flip. Representing the Southern Alps of New Zealand, Charlie Lyons landed the third podium position (72.00) with a playful run consisting of a big air off the top and several significant cliffs.
Daiek threw down a massive run, but kicked back on one of his landings, dropping him to 12th by the end of the afternoon.
The men snowboarding field wrapped up the afternoon with Bell, a wild-card recipient, scoring 87.67 and picking up another first place for Squaw.
Bell faced the most difficult conditions of the day. The late afternoon shadows cast low light and by this point any give in the snow was firmly stomped out or carved off. Bell left nothing on the ice, throwing a backside 360 at the top of his run, a frontside 360 in the middle and another backside 360 with a grab toward the bottom of the venue.
"This was my first win ever," Bell said. "My stoke level is really high. I wanted to do tricks, try to flow and have fun."
Also out of Squaw Valley, Sammy Luebke finished in second place (80.00), launching a method at the beginning of his run. He maintained high speeds through the run and smoothly navigated the middle rocks, the most technical section of the venue.
The final podium spot in the men's snowboard category went to Emilien Badoux of Valais Alpes, Switzerland (73.67), who threw a 540 rodeo near the bottom of his run.
The FWT will continue on to its final stop at Fieberbrunn Pillerseetal, Austria, on March 9. From their the top three athletes in each field will continue on to Verbier, Switzerland, on March 23. Follow the FWT on Facebook at www.facebook.com/freerideworldtour.
- Mountain Sports International contributed to this story.