Hazel Birnbaum hadn’t set foot on snow in three months when she arrived in Chile, but apparently ski practice is overrated.
The former Kirkwood ski patroller scorched the El Colorado slopes for first place, and the highest score among all competitors, this past weekend during North Face Chilean Freeskiing Championship by Cristal Light. The competition was the first stop of the 2014 Freeride World Qualifier, or FWQ, a 4-star qualifying event for the SWATCH Freeride World Tour.
Birnbaum plans on skiing in five elite qualifying competitions this season in hopes of securing a spot on the 2015 Freeride World Tour. To earn a spot, she needs to accumulate enough points to rank in the top three among women freeskiers.
A top finish in Chile, the only South American stop, was crucial for Birnbaum. She was hoping to collect points early. Last year, she finished fifth in overall qualification, two spots shy of a 2014 FWT spot.
“Last year was a learning curve, learning the venue and what the judges want, and this year I have a better handle on that whole situation and the competitive atmosphere because it’s not just about skiing,” Birnbaum said before heading to Chile for the competition.
Basically, this is the year the Kirkwood skier was waiting for.
Nearly a foot of new snow crammed the Santa Terese face, a 2,500-vertical-foot venue in the Chilean Andes backcountry, as the women freeskiers prepared to drop in for the finals.
Among the 16 women, Birnbaum was ranked fourth overall after the first day of competition, but she had saved her best for last.
She charged the powdery and exposed backcountry cliffs flawlessly for her final run. When she reached a double cliff drop near the end of her line, Birnbaum sent it with speed and confidence.
“Hazel skied a lot stronger than the rest of the women’s field and displayed she had the strength and talent to ski the run top to bottom,” said head FWT judge Hugo Harrison. “She finished her run with a nice double drop, which she executed with no hesitation. She was the only skier that didn’t have any mistakes, explaining why she earned the highest scoring run of the day.”
Birnbaum’s final run was worth 87 points. That score added to her Day 1 score gave her a total cumulative score of 159. Birnbaum’s total was 17 points ahead of the rest of the female competitors, 14 points ahead of the nearest male competitor and earned her 1,800 FWQ points for the 2014 season.
“I just wanted to ski something that looked like fun and that I was pretty sure I could ski and stay on my feet,” Birnbaum said. “I was nervous going into Day 1 having only skied a handful of runs before the event, but I was very excited to ski the 2 feet of new snow that we got on the venue.”
Birnbaum’s final run earned her the coveted Backcountry.com Sickbird Belt Buckle.
“It is a major honor to be the third women ever to win the Backcountry Sickbird Award,” Birnbaum said.
Continuing on the women’s freeski podium in second place was Laia Castellarnau Plaza of Spain. Plaza earned a total score of 142 and 1,400 FWQ points. Alaina Huestis out of Snowbird, Utah, skied an aggressive top to bottom run which landed her the third place podium spot with a total score of 135.67 and 1,100 FWQ points.
Among the men’s freeskiing competitors, Jim Sorbe of France claimed first place when he dropped a fall line into Santa Teresa face. Sorbe also was the only male competitor to attempt and successfully hit a mandatory 25- to 30-foot air at the bottom of the venue, earning a cumulative score of 145.67 and 1,800 FWQ points toward the 2014 season.
Andrew Rumph of Aspen, Colo., took second by skiing a fluid run, which was capped with a 20-foot air for a total score of 143.33 and 1,400 FWQ points. Zeno Cenon of Italy landed the third podium position.
Mountain Sports International, Inc. contributed to this report.