It’s a good thing that Tony Harrington, the Heli Challenge organizer, scheduled two weeks for this three-day event-being a Wanaka, New Zealand local, Harro knows that there’s always some kind of unpredictable weather milling about in the Southern Alps. Aotearoa, the native Maori name for New Zealand, means land of the long, white cloud. It’s those clouds, in combination with high winds and sporadic snowstorms, that ground the helicopters and delay the Heli Challenge year after year.
After three days of hanging out at The Lake Hawea Motor Inn, the skies cleared up and we were on for Day One, Freestyle Day. From the spectacular Makarora Valley, the Backcountry Helicopters fly in and ferry all the riders up to the contest site. To everyone’s delight, we found ourselves in a nice Alpine bowl with hits, cliffs, and windlips everywhere, and even better yet, a foot of dry wind-whipped powder. Antonin Lieutaghi, the flying Frenchman, busted out early with a big Superman front flip and then a clean rodeo (not to mention all the gainers) to take the lead after the first round. Dan Coffey from “The Nation of Alaska” finished close behind with a stiffy 720 and lots and lots of hang time. Karleen Jeffries from B.C. took the lead for the women with a few clean spins and a big, old-school method.
Sure enough, the next day we were grounded again as another storm moved in off of the Pacific. Everybody laid low Kiwi-style-bungy-jumping, cruising to the coast to catch a few waves, driving golf balls during the evening, and of course everyone drank as many Steinlagers as possible to insure clear weather for the morning. There is never a dull moment around here.
The Steinlager trick worked, and off we flew, deep into the Harris Mountains of the Southern Alps for Day Two, Extreme Day. The peak chosen was Mount Albert, which is pretty extr … um, gnarly. The ramps that drop in from the summit ridge are as steep as 50 degrees, and lucky for us again, a fat foot of settled, shaded pow-pow awaited. Pepi Ahonen, last year’s winner from Davos, Switzerland, drew an early bib number and taged the line of the day: a steep, untracked ramp, a clean twenty-footer right into an untracked couloir, and high-speed Pepi-turned out into the deep bowl.
Karleen, however (known as Knarleen to the Kiwis), took top honors again on Day Two with some seriously exposed cliff-huckin’ and all-around hardcore riding. Matt Goodwill, proudly hailing from Mt. Baker, earned the top scores at Mt. Albert with the same kind of riding that has generated two King of the Hill trophies. Goody found the boniest entrance and aired onto a rib of snow that lead into a solid 30-footer. He linked a few more sketchy cliff-drops and charged down to the bottom of the 2200 foot cirque in all of three minutes.
Coffey decided to show the Kiwis how they do things in Alaska. He traversed way left on the face, out of view of the judges, and vanished for a couple of minutes. Then, boom, there was Coffey in a little dead-end chute atop a burly-looking 50-foot drop. Somehow, he ollied over the jagged take-off and dropped a huge grab. Only one problem though, he didn’t quite clear the rocks at the bottom, and after a few Jackie Chan cartwheels, he rode in unscathed-except for his board being broken in half. Although he lost points for the major wipeout, everyone bought him drinks for the huck of the week.
Two days down, one to go. More windy storms postponed the final event yet a few more days. Antonin held a narrow lead over Goodwill, and Karleen held a narrow lead over Pepi. We’d all been hanging out patiently at Lake Hawea for ten days, and granted, even though it’s about the most beautiful spot in the world to hang out, the anticipation was building for the final event.
“The Big Day Out” is how Harro bills Day Three, The Chinese Downhill. Not only is it the world’s only heli-accessed, all-out, high-speed powder, downhill race, but The Rip Curl World Heli-Challenge also intendded to hold a high-altitude Alpine rock concert. They had planned to fly The Celibate Rifles, an Aussie cult band that has played with The Dead Kennedys and Sonic Youth, up the mountain, complete with all their speakers and instruments. Throw in a catered lunch and a bunch of cocktails, and what could be a better time in the mountains. The long, white clouds kept the rock concert from getting off the ground, but the race went down, nonetheless.
In a photo-finish, Jason Onley of Oz beat Paul Elkins of California by half a board length and Goodwill by less than a second to win The Chinese Downhill for the second year in a row. The women’s race was just as tight, with Karleen sneaking past Pepi and Bordercross World Champ Marge Cossettini to sweep the event.
Two weeks and three competition days later, the final results stood: Paul Elkins, rode consistently well throughout the event, finishing third overall. Matt Goodwill, the king of the hill in Valdez, had to settle for second-only a point and a half behind. And, the winner of The 1998 Rip Curl World Heli-Challenge was … Antonin Lieutaghi, the flyin’ Frenchman, with 242.4 points. The bronze medal for the women’s division went to the bronzed Aussie Marge Cossettini. Consistent riding in all three disciplines gave Pepi Ahonen the silver medal. And, the overall Women’s Gold Medalist was, no doubt, Karleen Jeffries. Not only did Karleen win all three events for 250 out of a possible 250 points, but she also finished second overall in the Women’s ski event. Talk about versatility.
With the Heli-Challenge wrapped up, it was time to head into Wanaka and look at the KGB Street-Style Big Air. Harro and his cronies transported twenty dumptruck loads of snow from nearby Cardrona Ski Area (which barely had enough snow to spare this season), and constructed a serious stadium jump. The scaffolding take-off ramp towered 60 feet above the Wanaka Town Park, and the super-kicker launched the huckers 50 feet high and across a 30-foot gap. The Celibate Rifles rocked the South Island as some 5,000 spectators showed up on the sub-freezing Saturday night. But here on their home turf, the local Kiwi riders stole the show and took home every cent of the prize money-that’s right first, second, and third place, all New Zealand.
Olly Burke, riding for Barrow’s Tavern, had the two high scores of the night, both 42 out of 50. His opening double-grab misty flip with cat-like landing set the standard for the 30 other jumpers. But his final jump score of only 36 left the door open for Aaron Jamiesson, a local Sub 20 rider. Aaron’s 540 rodeo in the final round of eight scored a 40.8 and earned him the overall win.
While the rest of the snowboard world was sweating it out through another Northern Hemisphere summer, it was still winter down under in New Zealand. Although this past season had been the driest in a decade, there was still plenty of good turns and soft landings. Hopefully, next August will bring a bit more snow and some more ‘core riders down to the Southern Hemisphere to do it all over again.
Dan Caruso splits his time between the West Alta Alpine Club in Alta, Utah and as a guide in Alaska. He was a member of the judging panel for the 1998 Rip Curl Heli Challenge and wrote the “Trust Your Gut” Variable in Volume 12, Number 2.