They held a kick-ass snowboarding contest on New Zealand’s South Island and–would you believe it–no spectators showed up. Actually, they weren’t really supposed to. You see, The Rip Curl World Heli Challenge isn’t your run-of-the-mill resort comp.

Combining elements of freestyle and freeriding with an extreme competition and the world’s burliest Chinese downhill race, the Heli Challenge is definitely a unique event. Within a designated two-week waiting period, competitors, event staff, emergency medical personnel, and media hangers-on are delivered by helicopter up to the awe-inspiring backcountry of the Southern Alps for three days of competition.

And as the snowboarders and skiers–yes, there are both snowboarding and skiing divisions–did their thing this past summer (winter in New Zealand) in the fifth running of the Heli Challenge, the cameras were constantly rolling. Akin to surfing competitions held at remote reefbreaks in the South Pacific, you could say the Rip Curl World Heli Challenge is a made-for-TV event. Although hardly live-spectator friendly, the idea’s to provide top-level athletes with the most challenging venues available, capturing the action on film and broadcasting it to the masses.

The event attracted an eclectic mix of well-rounded snowboarders from around the globe to the idyllic lakeside hamlet of Wanaka, which served as ground-zero for all manner of peripheral Heli Challenge craziness on down days, from blow-the-roof-off parties to the most happenin’ big-air contest the Southern Hemisphere has to offer. Americans Matt Goodwill and Jeremy Jones, Canadian two-time defending Heli Challege champ Karleen Jeffery, reigning King of the Hill Axel Pauporte from Belgium, and Aussies Marguerite Cossettini, Jason Onley, and Tim Vlandis were among the talented riders looking to come out on top.

But despite a stacked lineup in the men’s competition, it was a trio of unsung Alaskans and one quiet, unassuming Spaniard who surprised the hell out of everyone. While youngsters Andre Spinelli, Ashley Call, and Chuck Clasby turned heads with their fearless AK bravado, finishing second, fourth, and sixth overall, it was Spain’s David Pujol who put together the winning elements in the 1999 Rip Curl World Heli Challenge. Australian madman Tim Vlandis finished third while Axel Pauporte took sixth place.

To no one’s surprise, Karleen Jeffery nabbed her third Heli Challenge crown in as many years, while New Zealand’s own Julianne Bray took runner-up honors, and Marguerite Cossettini, the second-ranked boardercross racer in the world, finished third.

Things may have ended differently had Mother Nature not shut down the third and final day of competition–the extreme portion–before the final eight competitors had a chance to execute their descents. Despite a favorable weather forecast and a bluebird morning, inclement weather moved in late in the afternoon, forcing those still yet to ride to be pulled off the top by helicopter and shuttled down to safety. Swallowing a bitter pill, contest organizers had no choice but to combine the point totals for the two competition days that were completed to determine the champions. Although unfortunate, the fact that everyone involved was safe and sound in the pub that evening far outweighs any regrets over opportunities lost.

At the start of the 1999 Rip Curl World Heli Challenge’s official waiting period, the weather forecast called for uncooperative conditions in the surrounding backcountry, causing contest-organizer and unofficial mayor of Lake Wanaka, Tony “Harro” Harrington, to push off the start of the competition until the weather picture brightened up. Competitors were instructed to relax for a few days (not a tough request) by freeriding at the nearby commercial ski fields of Treble Cone and Carona, getting in some golf, bungee jumping, or sightseeing.

Not needing much of an excuse, the Rip Curl crew seized the opportunity to get things going with a proper beer bash. As I walked into the party, the wooden sign above the door of Rip Curl’s soon-to-be-infamous lakefront digs read “Faulty Towers,” and nothing could’ve been more apt. Between the unexplainable antics of the French skiers, the natural party skills of the Kiwis and Aussies, and the Moroccan hash spliffs being passed around by members of the Spanish snowboarding press (one of whom was pretty smooth on the turntables), this party was a certified rager.

I counted at least five separate food fights, the raw-sausage war being the most notable. Aussie-rider Jason Onley was swooped up by a mob of no less than six Kiwi perpetrators and tossed over the patio railing into a hot tub ten feet below, sustaining a nasty hipper in the process (the full-size gas barbecue somehow ended up in the hot tub as well). Colorado snowboarder Julie Larsen and Swedish skier Johanna Mattson slithered into Rip Curl Elasto wetsuits for the occasion. Above all, I’m convinced the linchpin element of the party was a tub of ice-cold Red Bull, strategically placed on the edge of the dance floor.

Sneaking away at three in the morning, I felt like a wuss–it was still going off hard. Conspicuously absent from the party were Karleen Jeffery and Matt Goodwill, who told me afterward they were dialing in the race tunes on their Chinese downhill boards.

A few days later I made an absolutely breathtaking early morning drive to Makarora, a remote sheep station 40 minutes from Wanaka that served as the helipad for first day of competition–freeride day. Slightly misleading, the “freeride” competition’s more accurately described as a freeriding big-air contest.

We were flown to a run the locals call Mr. Clean, which consisted of over a thousand feet of cornices, gullies, and natural-terrain gap transfers, spiked with a handful of well-placed man-made kickers. Riders had two runs to make the most of it, and while it was called freeride day, the emphasis was definitely on what happened on those jumps, natural or otherwise.

While going big was a prerequisite for those in it to win it, consistency and clean landings separated the wheat from the chaff. Spaniard Pujol had two clean, technical runs, stomping a rodeo-five off a large, mid-mountain booter and a clean 540 off an even larger cornice (a series of stylie, old-school layback slashes couldn’t have hurt the judges’ impressions either). Alaskans Andre Spinelli and Chuck Clasby took second and third on freeride day, while the Belgian Hellion, Axel Pauporte, finished fourth.

A series of clean airs landed local-favorite Julianne Bray in first place after day one of competition, with Karleen Jeffery right on her heels.

There’s nothing like flying deep into the glacial majesty of Mt. Aspiring World Heritage Park to get a snowboarder amped to make turns. As we hopped out of the heli for the Chinese downhill race, the view across the serrated waves of subranges to the park’s namesake pyramid-shaped peak, 9,932-foot Mt. Aspiring, was something special. The privileged feeling I experienced standing above 7,000 feet atop Mt. Brewster was laced with a wild undercurrent as I imagined 25 snowboarders bombing the mile-long slope en masse in a no-holds-barred Chinese downhill. It set me on edge in a big way–I can’t even imagine what the competitors felt.

Brewster, officially being ridden for the first time thanks to the special permission Harro and Co. finagled from park authorities (the claim was total B.S.–a handful of crafty locals had already poached it), was a steep bowl emptying down onto a glacial snowfield, separated by a string of cliffs and yawning crevasses. Below the steep face and moderate midsection, the final third of the course flattened out–an absolute wax race–promising an interesting finish.

After a couple hours of anticipation as the racers scoped their lines and mustered their courage, it was all over in just a few minutes’ time.

Calling on her ski-racing experience and big-mountain-riding prowess, Karleen outclassed the women’s field in a relatively clean race, moving ahead of Bray in the standings.

The men’s Chinese downhill was a different story. A handful of crazies straight-lined it from the top, quickly reaching speeds clocked at 60 mph. As they reached a sizable rollover a third of the way down the course, defending Chinese-downhill champ Jason Onley was in the lead, a tight pack–which included Jeremy Jones, Matt Goodwill, Axel, and a few others–right on his ass. The whole lot of them blew apart on impact after launching 50 feet of air off the drop-away. A second pack led by young Alaskan Ashley Call took a less-direct line, blasted through the wreckage and down onto the flats. Call held off the field to claim the win and move into fourth place in the overall standings.

It’s worth noting that Goodwill, who’d ragdolled going freeway speeds with the rest of the lead pack, recovered and reeled in five or six racers on the flats, finishing second. Seems like the extra attention Goody and Karleen spent on those race tunes paid off in spades.

Pujol’s top-ten finish in the Chinese downhill allowed him to hold onto first place overall after two days of competition. Amazingly enough, the toll Mt. Brewster exacted on the field was relatively minor: Jeremy Jones suffered a smashed-up nose, and Axel Pauporte cranked an ankle. Although it was over in seconds, the Rip Curl Heli Challenge Chinese Downhill was the most exciting snowboard competition I’ve ever witnessed, bar none.

Despite the fact that eight competitors didn’t get a chance to perform on extreme day, the majority did. Some mind-blowing descents were thrown down on a steep, horseshoe-shaped face called Odyssey, an ideal extreme venue featuring several tight chutes and cliffs. We’ll never know the scores the riders earned that day, but I know the respect from all who witnessed their runs. Much respect is also due to contest organizers Tony and Kathy Harrington and the crew from Backcountry Helicopters, who collectively made the tough-but-right decision to pull the plug when I’m sure it was tempting not to. And just because we’ll never know the scores doesn’t mean we can’t watch the tape and judge for ourselves. That’s the beauty of a made-for-TV snowboarding contest.

e and moderate midsection, the final third of the course flattened out–an absolute wax race–promising an interesting finish.

After a couple hours of anticipation as the racers scoped their lines and mustered their courage, it was all over in just a few minutes’ time.

Calling on her ski-racing experience and big-mountain-riding prowess, Karleen outclassed the women’s field in a relatively clean race, moving ahead of Bray in the standings.

The men’s Chinese downhill was a different story. A handful of crazies straight-lined it from the top, quickly reaching speeds clocked at 60 mph. As they reached a sizable rollover a third of the way down the course, defending Chinese-downhill champ Jason Onley was in the lead, a tight pack–which included Jeremy Jones, Matt Goodwill, Axel, and a few others–right on his ass. The whole lot of them blew apart on impact after launching 50 feet of air off the drop-away. A second pack led by young Alaskan Ashley Call took a less-direct line, blasted through the wreckage and down onto the flats. Call held off the field to claim the win and move into fourth place in the overall standings.

It’s worth noting that Goodwill, who’d ragdolled going freeway speeds with the rest of the lead pack, recovered and reeled in five or six racers on the flats, finishing second. Seems like the extra attention Goody and Karleen spent on those race tunes paid off in spades.

Pujol’s top-ten finish in the Chinese downhill allowed him to hold onto first place overall after two days of competition. Amazingly enough, the toll Mt. Brewster exacted on the field was relatively minor: Jeremy Jones suffered a smashed-up nose, and Axel Pauporte cranked an ankle. Although it was over in seconds, the Rip Curl Heli Challenge Chinese Downhill was the most exciting snowboard competition I’ve ever witnessed, bar none.

Despite the fact that eight competitors didn’t get a chance to perform on extreme day, the majority did. Some mind-blowing descents were thrown down on a steep, horseshoe-shaped face called Odyssey, an ideal extreme venue featuring several tight chutes and cliffs. We’ll never know the scores the riders earned that day, but I know the respect from all who witnessed their runs. Much respect is also due to contest organizers Tony and Kathy Harrington and the crew from Backcountry Helicopters, who collectively made the tough-but-right decision to pull the plug when I’m sure it was tempting not to. And just because we’ll never know the scores doesn’t mean we can’t watch the tape and judge for ourselves. That’s the beauty of a made-for-TV snowboarding contest.