Words: Matt Barr
Photos: Sami Tuoriniemi
Life can get pretty weird at the margins of the known snowboarding universe.
In Beldersay in Uzbekistan, lift attendants have been known to sit with a bottle of vodka, plying passing skiers and snowboarders with shots. In Dizin, an hour of Iran's capital Tehran, skiers are segregated by sex, meaning separate lift queues for male and female shredders. In Kopianoik, Serbia, certain runs have been out of bounds because of dormant cluster bombs, dropped by NATO planes back in the mid-1990s.
Then there's Yabuli, China's premiere ski area and host resort for the recent 2016 WST World Championships of Snowboarding.
Populated by rich Chinese and the odd bewildered-looking western expat, this strangely empty, neon-tinged hinterland way, way up near the Sino-Mongolian border definitely marks the current edge of snowboarding's wild frontier.
Deafeningly loud Chinese pop music blares onto empty slopes from lift pylon-mounted speakers. Lift attendants rub shoulders with bored Chinese cops, soldiers and SWAT teams. It certainly doesn't leap out as the obvious host resort for the 2016 WST World Championships of Snowboarding.
So why decide to host such a prestigious event in Yabuli in the first place? While it is tempting to say 'Because it's there', the truth is a little less romantic.
We're here because China is currently seen as the biggest prize in winter sports – hell, in all sports – something that has not escaped the attention of the WST, rivals FIS and some particularly forward-thinking brands – like event sponsors GoPro and Corona Beer.
If you believe the chat at the bar in Yabuli's Club Med, home to the entire event circus for the duration of the contest, the numbers involved are enough to make any brand manager's mouth water.
Millions of new Chinese skiers and snowboarders by 2030. 25 odd resorts being built around Beijing alone. A local TV audience for this event, being shown live on Chinese state TV channel CCTV 5, in the hundreds of millions.
And so on. How true this all is remains to be seen. But at a time when everybody from Outside Magazine to the New York Times is talking about the death of snowboarding, it is easy to see why this huge and potentially lucrative new market is being courted so assiduously.
Still, in these very earliest of early days, organising an event in a place like remote Yabuli (a two hour flight and four hour transfer from Beijing) is something of a challenge. When an old industry hand like WST President Reto Lamm, a man who has spent much of the last 15 years fighting the good fight for snowboarding in various tedious boardrooms around the world, makes a statement like 'Introducing Chinese officials to freestyle snowboarding culture is the most difficult thing I have ever done', you know this is no cakewalk.
So it's to the WST's credit that, despite these difficulties, a world class snowboarding competition did take place, even if that Chinese officialdom/snowboarding culture clash did effect some significant collateral damage.
The big one? The entire half pipe event itself, which was cancelled when WST officials decided the pipe local organisers had built wasn't fit for purpose for such a marquee event.
Thankfully, there were no such logistical problems in the slopestyle and big air events – although here the headline news was a judging controversy in the men's big air event. Not involving eventual winner Peetu Piiroinen (his cab 1440 and backside 1440 gave him the win with a score of 88.80) but second-placed Kyle Mack.
The story began when Mack missed the grab on his backside triple 1440 – something inexplicably overlooked by the entire five judge panel who instead awarded him a score of 87, pushing him into second place.
While errors are inevitable in a sport where human judgement is the yardstick, this was such a blatant miscall that rumblings of rider discontent were soon audible, with many suggesting (Mack among them) that the judges should re-score the event and, if necessary, shift around the medal positions.
For the World Snowboard Tour Executive Board, such a momentous decision would be unprecedented and no small call. But their eventual decision that the results would stand was really the only option open to them, and after the event the board announced their intention to install live slo-mo replays for all judging panels at Elite events, subject to approval at the General Assembly in Austria in June, to ensure such mess-ups never happen again.
It's a shame that this SNAFU took the sheen off what was undoubtedly the feelgood story of the entire Championships: the women's events, where the level of riding was pushed to new levels.
In the women's big air event, the victor was a familiar one – Jamie Anderson. Jamie's cab 7 tail grab saw her trouser $40,000 and yet another title ahead of stylish Finnish shredder Enni Rukajarvi and compatriot Jessika Jensen.
But arguably the most interesting story of the entire event involved fourth and fifth place newcomers Laurie Blouin and Julia Marino, who qualified in first and second place – both stomping cab double underflips and hiking up the overall standard of women's competitive snowboarding in the process.
Unfortunately, for them, the final required two out of the three runs to be different, meaning a lack of riding depth counted against them and allowed the more experience Anderson, Rukajarvi and Jensen to prevail. Still, it will only be a matter of time before improved consistency makes them real forces to be reckoned with.
Over at the slopestyle course, things ran much more smoothly – and once again the main excitement came thanks to some of the most progressive female riding ever thrown down in a contest. Cab 9s and switch backside 7s are now standard in women's contest snowboarding, but this event would see it taken up a level.
Newcomer Marino was, once again, the catalyst, showcasing her intent by unveiling a run that included a cab double underflip 9, backside 3 and (eventually) a double wildcat. She didn't land it, but it was enough to serve the rest of the field notice.
Sure enough, they responded and a couple of familiar faces made their presence felt with Jamie Anderson's second run (which included a sick frontside 7) enough to put her on top, just ahead of second-placed Enni Rukajarvi, heading into the third round.
It was here that Merino finally nailed her run, her eventual score of 82.3 enough for the bronze medal. In response, Anderson scored 90.25 for a run which included a cab 7 tail, switch backside 5 and that magisterial frontside 7 mute. Not a bad week's work for the insanely consistent and popular Anderson.
In the men's slope event, three riders quickly made their presence felt: Max Parrot, Eric Beauchemin and Brandon Davis. Parrot was the early pace setter, nailing his first run (which included a cab double cork 12 mute, frontside double cork 10 mute into backside triple cork 14 mute) to take the lead.
He held this lead until the beginning of the third round, when Brandon Davis stepped up. His frontside 1080 melon, backside double cork 12 once and cab double 12 melon, and his resulting 88.65, pushed Parrot into second. From then on, it was a question of waiting to see if any of the other riders could do better.
In the event, the only shredder to improve upon his first and second round scores was Norway's Stale Sandbech, another perennial podium placer at high end snowboarding events over the years. He finally nailed his run to notch an 80.10 and slide into third place.
All of which left the hastily-organised 'exhibition' half pipe event on the final day, which saw Shaun White and others rode against local Chinese riders, with the result a thinly-veiled fix that saw Shaun and a local shredder share victory and – perhaps more importantly – a photo op that was instantly beamed to countless millions on state TV channel CCTV.
It was an event that, in it's way summed up the progressive surrealism at the heart of the 2016 World Championships of Snowboarding. What the millions of putative Chinese snowboarders eagerly watching at home made of it is anybody's guess. But the fire has been lit. Snowboarding's relationship with China is only just beginning.