The Fjällräven Classic | Conquering the King’s Trail in Sweden

A multi-day hike through the wilderness of Northern Sweden sounded exciting on paper. But we weren’t prepared for just how exciting things would get…

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It’s only day three of our week-long trek, but as we struggle to pitch our tent behind the shelter of a boulder it’s obvious our best-laid plans have already gone out the window – or at least the mesh flap which passes for one. With the winds gusting at over 40 knots (a force nine gale in layman’s terms) we’re lucky the whole thing hasn’t blown away.

The following morning, a grim-faced volunteer at the next checkpoint tells us: “It’s been bad. I’ve just been looking at some statistics. We had 60 tents pitched near here last night and maybe 11 or 12 collapsed.”

“The Classic was dreamt up by Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv.”

None of this, it’s fair to say, fits with the picture I’d painted to my long-suffering girlfriend Simona when I’d persuaded her to come on the walk with me a month or so before. “Hiking, camping and cooking in the open air. It’ll be fun,” I’d said. “Plus loads of people do it every year, how hard can it be?”

Started in 2005, the Fjällräven Classic is a multi-day trek along a stretch of the trail known as the Kungsleden (or “King’s Trail”) in Northern Sweden. It was dreamt up by the brand’s founder Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate not only the company itself, but also the peculiarly Scandinavian conception of adventure it embodies, known as friluftsliv.

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Twisted fire starters. Wild camping and lighting your own fire is expected in northern Sweden.

Literally this translates as “free air life” but (as you might expect from the people who invented flatpack furniture and the Tetra Pak) there are multiple layers of meaning folded into this neat little word. It’s not just a description of an activity, it’s also tied to a set of beliefs – the idea getting outside is good for you, that access is a fundamental right, and that the outdoors is for everyone, not just the hardcore.

Given the everyman ideals he’s espousing, Nordin’s idea of a fun hike looks quite daunting, at least on paper. The route stretches for 110 kilometres, beginning where the tarmac road ends at Nikkaluokta and winding through broad glacial valleys and past Sweden’s highest peaks. The finish line, which we’re told will take around a week to reach, is in the small frontier town of Abisko, nearly 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

However, I wasn’t lying to Simona when I told her that lots of people complete the trek every year. From its humble beginnings when just 152 took part, the event has grown exponentially. In 2016 more than 2,000 people finished the Classic, and as we line up at the start, it’s obvious that our fellow trekkers have come from far and wide. We see Canadians, Germans, Koreans, Japanese, many of them obviously fans of of Fjällräven, who’ve dressed head-to-toe in the company’s kit for the occasion.

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Simona, wearing the blues, not feeling them.

“There are actually people from 38 nations at the Classic this year, and only one quarter are Swedish,” says Anna-Luisa Stadelman, one of the startline volunteers, who admits to being something of a Fjällräven fangirl herself. “It’s my seventh year here,” she explains. “I’m German originally but I studied in Sweden in 2002 and first came on the Classic in 2008.”

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Toytown. On certain sections of the route, like the Alesjaure Lake here, boats ferry people and goods between huts and the few tiny settlements.

As we set off, it’s easy to see what keeps people like Anna-Luisa keep coming back to the Classic year after year. Everything is as well-organised as you’d expect a mass-participation event to be. Maps, camping gas and free freeze-dried food are handed out to participants, and there are busses to take us to the start line. When we start walking the group quickly strings out, so it never feels crowded however, and by the time we stop to pitch our tent on the first evening, we’re completely alone.

When you’re this far north of the Arctic Circle in August it only gets dark for a couple of hours each day, and even then the light never fully leaves the sky. This means the sunsets are long, drawn out and spectacular. We cook our dinner in front of an incredible display as the sun goes slowly down over the snow-capped peaks ahead of us, painting the sky orange, red and purple as it sinks.

The following morning is equally idyllic. We’re in no rush, and wander down to the shore of a nearby lake to wash before hitting the trail. The water is bright turquoise, the result of glacier run-off further upstream, and icy cold. Simona, who’s Italian, thinks I’m mental for wanting to swim in it, but the sun’s shining and I warm up quickly once I’m out.

The hiking remains relatively easy until we reach the first checkpoint the picturesque fjällstation, or hill station, beneath Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Fjallraven Classic rules forbid us from staying in the pretty wooden huts (you have to camp from start to finish for the challenge to count). But thankfully they don’t stop us from eating in the restaurant.

Named Elsa’s kök (Elsa’s kitchen) after the legendary hostess who managed the hill station from the 1930s to the 1960s, it’s impressively gourmet given the remote location, serving modern Swedish food to guests seated at long, communal tables.

Our fellow diners are a mixed bunch – day trippers who’ve flown in on one of the distinctive red helicopters that resupply the Kungsleden’s network of huts, hikers who’ve been up the mountain (a hike that’s apparently the equivalent of going up Ben Nevis) and the properly hardcore.

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Still as a millpond. Fresh water is everywhere on the Kungsleden, and you never go long without finding a drinkable source.

One side two wealthy 40-something women from Boston tell us how they come hiking in a different destination every year, travelling from hut to hut while someone else transports their bags. On the other side there’s a young Belgian couple who have already been on the trail for fifteen days. They obviously take this sort of thing very seriously. “We bought a kiln this year so we can make our own dehydrated food,” they tell us.

If the hiking thus far has shown us what attracted the Americans here, then the next few days will give us a taste of the more serious side of northern Sweden – the reason people like our Belgian friends consider the Kungsleden a challenge worthy of their attention.

“As we’re cooking breakfast, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite.”

It’s cold when we wake up, and drizzling slightly. Even through the trees that surround our tent, we can feel the wind is beginning to get up and as we set off and walk out above the treeline, both the rain and the wind get worse. Extra layers are put on, hoods are put up and rain covers are stretched over our backpacks.

We lean forward onto our poles, drop our shoulders and power on. But it’s exposed up here, and the storm seems to make the packs on our backs feel heavier. Suddenly carrying the extra camera gear, which has made my pack a hefty 25kg and taken Simona’s up to 19kg, doesn’t feel like such a good idea.

At one point we pass two fellow Classic participants, a Russian mother and daughter team from St. Petersburg, huddled behind a rock, sheltering against the wind.

They look like they’re struggling, and we’re glad when we see them make it to checkpoint two later that evening.

They’re far from the worst off though. A look at the route map on Fjällräven’s website shows images of happy hikers splashing around in a stream at the next checkpoint, Sälka. Yet it was here that the storm hit hardest, flattening all of those tents. “Some people carried on,” says Marie Olsson, the volunteer who’s been helping people pick up the pieces. “But because they’re staying in the huts it won’t count as completing the Classic.”

One couple have decided to call it a day altogether – as we’re eating our lunch one of the resupply helicopters lands next to us and they climb in, looking very grateful for the rescue. “Their tent was one of the ones that was destroyed,” says Marie sadly. “But also their boots were not good, their backpacks were too thin.” We thank our lucky stars that we’re kitted out in the right gear.

Certainly if the next few days teach us anything, it’s that neither the Kungsleden as a trail, nor the Classic as an event, should be underestimated. The terrain is never particularly steep, but the pathway is often strewn with rocks and can be tricky underfoot. For long sections the trail is just planks over boggy marshland and when the winds aren’t high enough to be an issue, the mosquitoes definitely are.

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Down from on high. The highest point on the Classic route is only 1,140 metres but this far north snow isn’t infrequent even in August.

At the Tjäktja checkpoint we find three volunteers, Mathias, Tomas and Frederick, bundled up in multiple jackets and sheltering inside the check-in tent against the weather. “You wouldn’t believe it,” says Frederick, “but sometimes it’s so hot at this time of year people are walking the Classic with no shirts on. You have to jump in the streams to cool down.”

“Hmmm,” says Simona, as we warm our hands around the cups of tea they’ve kindly poured us. Then we head back out into the rain.

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Somewhere over the rainbow. Stunning moments more than made up for the sometimes inclement weather.

But if there are moments where the Fjällräven Classic doesn’t feel like a summer holiday, they’re few and far between. More often, we find ourselves revelling in the sense of space, blown away by Lapland’s bleak beauty.

As we’re cooking breakfast one morning, with not another soul for miles around, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite. They stop just long enough for me to grab my camera and fire off a few frames, before they disappear over the next ridge.

On our penultimate day we find ourselves heading northwards across a wide open plateau, the sun dipping slowly behind the tents of a traditional Sami settlement to our left. Off to the right, we can see the tongues of two massive glaciers, reminders of the ice age that shaped and sculpted this ancient-looking landscape. “I feel like we might see a dinosaur here,” says Simona. If we did it certainly wouldn’t look out of place.

In the end, we don’t come across any sauropods. But we do come away with an appreciation of why this part of Sweden has attracted generations of outdoor enthusiasts. The Svenska Turistföreningen (the Swedish Tourist Association, or STF), has been managing and promoting this wilderness since it was first formed in 1885.

At strategic points along the trail, they’ve created what they call meditationsplats (meditation spaces) marked by stones carved with quotations by Däg Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat and author.

As the second Secretary General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld was a man who gave his life to the cause of peace (quite literally – he was killed on the job in 1961). And when he wasn’t working this part of the world, where he had a house, was where he came in search of it.

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A sun-soaked section of trail near one of the meditationsplats.

Taken from his book Markings, the quotes are carved here in Swedish and Sami. Neither are languages that I speak. Nor am I normally given to meditation. But standing next to the stones and looking out at the rugged landscape which surrounds them, I start to understand why it was that Hammarskjöld thought this place was so special.

It’s the same reason Åke Nordin was so keen on enabling other people to explore it. Friluftsliv might be a tricky concept to define in English, but spend a few days hiking here, in Fjällräven’s home country, and it’s instantly obvious what the whole thing is about.

Do It Yourself:

Getting there:

Norwegian Airlines (norwegian.com) and SAS (flysas.com) both fly from London to Kiruna via Stockholm, from £305 return.

Accommodation:

Contestants on the Classic must stay in the tent that they carry with them. However, you can stay in the STF huts along the Kungsleden if you’re not part of the event. Visit swedishtouristassociation.com for the English language version of their website.

At the end of the Classic, we stayed in the Abisko Guesthouse (abiskoguesthouse.com)

Joining the Fjällräven Classic
You can sign up for the next Fjällräven Classic Sweden (or any of their global spin off events) at classic.fjallraven.com.

As a way for international visitors to explore this unique part of Sweden, it really is hard to beat. Fjällräven provide food and gas to participants, as well as organising a finishing party. Navigation is very straightforward but it’s worth remembering that while there are regular checkpoints, you’re on your own for the most part, so make sure you have everything on Fjällräven’s helpful packing list.

The Fjällräven Classic Sweden usually takes five to six days to complete, although you can definitely do it faster – the first pair across the finish line when we took part were trail runners who completed the whole thing non-stop in under 20 hours!

Tristan and Simona’s trip was hosted by Fjällräven. For more info visit fjällräven.co.uk

To read the rest of The Remote Issue, click here.

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My Life In Pictures | Adventure Photographer Josh Cunningham’s Favourite Shots

In 2015, writer and photographer Josh spent 11 months cycling 22,000km across 26 countries

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Photography by Josh Cunningham

If you’re browsing the internet one day and you stumble across an epic shot of someone riding their bicycle across big landscapes underneath big skies, check the credit as there’s a chance it will have been taken by one Joshua Cunningham. Formerly a full-time editorial member of Cyclist Magazine and Bikes Etc, in 2015 Josh spent 11 months cycling 22,000km across 26 countries; starting in London and ending up in Hong Kong. His massive, stuff dreams are made of, adventure is documented in his book ‘Escape By Bike’.

Prior to starting his career in media, where he’s worked as a writer, a photographer, and a marketing consultant, Josh lived in Belgium as a full-time athlete. Originally hailing from the seaside town of Eastbourne, he now resides in that big old smog known as London.

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Pictured: Josh Cunningham, taking a break from riding his bike.

I studied A-Level photography, but after college I barely picked up a camera for five years. Working as a writer, and as such spending a lot of time working alongside photographers, it was then that I my rediscovered my appreciation of it. When I decided to ride to Hong Kong, it felt like the perfect opportunity to start shooting again, and so I bought an entry level setup just a week before leaving; a Canon 550d with 17-85mm and 50mm lenses.

I shoot where my interests take me. The outdoors, people on bikes, landscapes, and general travel stuff. Living in a major city like London, I’m always looking for special moments that appear amid the chaos  and so always have a little Sony RX100 ii at the ready. Generally speaking, I love looking for contrasts – be it in context, scale, light, texture, colour, emotion – and you see contrasts everywhere, regardless of the subject matter.

“Being somewhere new forces you to look at your surroundings in a different, more observant way”

When I was at school, a friend and I did a month-long cycle tour through Europe during our summer holidays. The trip shed a light upon the richness of experience that bike travel offers. Life then ran its course for a bit, but I always knew I would one day embark on a long-haul cycling adventure, and Eurasia – with the variety of human and physical geography within it – was the perfect location.

Being somewhere new forces you to look at your surroundings in a different, more observant way. This is obviously really beneficial as a photographer. I feel like this ‘enlightenment’ can follow you back home sometimes too, and can help refresh the way you look at your own street, workplace, commute, or whatever. I take a lot of inspiration from travelling.

My heroes’ work leaves me wondering “How on earth did they see that?” I look looking at the work of people like Harry Gruyaert, the painter Edward Hopper, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve McCurry, William Egglestone and Martin Parr.

There’s a collection of images shot by the explorer Wilfred Thesiger from his time in the Hindu Kush, documenting the mountains and its people during the mid 20th century, that I wish I’d taken. They provide a portal into a part of the world that is very much off-limit these days, but which has such history and natural beauty. I’d have loved to have been a member of those exploring parties – and shot some of the photos.

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Shot on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan.

Location: Pamir Highway, Tajikistan. The approaching storm and desolate nature of the landscape are quite intimidating, but the light is incredible, and both the cyclist in the road and fence to the right – the Chinese border – provide a real sense of scale. I had dreamed of visiting the Pamirs for years, and scenes like this made the wait worthwhile.

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Shot on a 1,000km long stretch of road in southern China, a journey that had it all; from the urban chaos of megacities to the rain forested mountains of Yunnan with rural scenes like this one scattered in between.

I followed this road through southern China for over 1,000km; a journey that took me from the rain forested slopes of the mountainous Yunnan province, towards the sky scrapers and urban chaos of China’s megacities. I like the way this image merges both rural and urban elements, as it is indicative of the spectrum of experience that this portion of the journey offered.

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Young monks play on the steps of a monastery in Kaza, India.

Young monks playing on the steps of a monastery in Kaza, India. I just love the playfulness and dynamism of the children’s body shapes, contrasted against the sharp lines and maturity of the monastery. Both are equally colourful though, which is an apt description of this culturally Tibetan valley in the far reaches of Himachal Pradesh.

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A young boy comes over to investigate during a puncture repair stop in the Wakhan valley of Tajikistan.

A young boy offering to help with puncture repairs in the Wakhan valley, Tajikistan. The contact with local people that bike travel offers is without doubt one of its biggest draws; not a day goes by without some sort of interaction, and most days contain many. The way he’s crouched between us inquisitively, as we fix our bikes, epitomises the intimacy of such interactions.

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Beautifully coloured skies over the Kyzylkum desert in Uzbekistan.

Riding through the steppes and deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was an incredible experience. The unchanging, infinitely flat landscape actually made for quite an introspective journey, but I like this image because looking at it just makes me wish I was there, about to set up my sent underneath that incredible sky, with nobody around for miles.

You can follow Josh on Instagram @coshjunningham, and learn more about him on his website joshuacunningham.info. His book, ‘Escape by Bike: Adventure Cycling, Bikepacking, and Touring Off-Road’, is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths, Stanfords, various independents, and Amazon.

Check out the rest of the My Life In Pictures series here. 

You can read the rest of this month’s Remote issue here.

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The post My Life In Pictures | Adventure Photographer Josh Cunningham’s Favourite Shots appeared first on Mpora.

Leaving Las Vegas | Going From Neon To Nature In The American West

Discovering an adventure paradise in southern Utah, just four hours drive from Sin City

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

I’ve been on the Las Vegas Strip for less than ten seconds before I see four women, naked save for diamante nipple-tassels and tiny thongs. They’re posing for photographs with tourists, before asking for a not-so voluntary tip.

Dance music plays loudly. Initially, I assume, from the stereo of the many nearby sports cars that appear to be everywhere. Only after a short walk south on the Strip do I realise that the music isn’t coming from a car at all. It’s being pumped out into the street, seemingly from the ether.

From a distance, the vast hotel casinos that line the Las Vegas Strip glitter and shimmer in the bright sun, creating an enticing mirage in the middle of the desert. Up close, and at street level, they’re dizzying, 250 foot tall intimidating monoliths – save for the entrances that are designed to entice you in.

“Everyone appears to be getting drunk, already drunk, or high on what I can only assume is excitement and definitely not drugs”

Away from the entrance – and therefore the ability to separate visitors from their money – they are just towering, solid white walls, only interrupted by occasional posters for shows featuring young women, the likes of who I saw earlier, or young men wearing cowboy hats and thongs, but who look like they have little experience of herding cattle. Although, arguably, maybe that’s exactly what they do.

Outside, literally thousands of people walk slowly around on the Strip, clutching over-sized cans of American lager or brightly coloured frozen daiquiris in thin, five foot long, novelty plastic containers. The air is thick with the saccharine combination of sun-beaten tarmac, generously applied aftershave, and the vapour from a million e-cigarettes. Everyone appears to be getting drunk, already drunk, or high on what I can only assume is excitement, and definitely not amphetamines and cocaine. It’s 7.30pm on a Monday evening.

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Slot-fiends feed the machines – Photo: Getty

Las Vegas casino Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Gamblers play in the Las Vegas casino’s around the clock – Photo: James Renhard

It’s like Freshers week for adults, but with cheap cider and innuendo-themed club nights replaced with the availability of anything you want, if you’re willing to pay the price for it. Vans drive past towing advertising hoardings offering the opportunity to have, what they claim to be, Las Vegas’ best looking women delivered direct to your hotel room. There are gigantic billboards advertising the chance to shoot guns, fly helicopters or a combination of the two. I’ve still only been in Las Vegas for 15 minutes and I find myself confused, and slightly intimidated.

It’s time for a drink.

Finding a drink in Las Vegas is like finding a spray-tan in Liverpool. However, what proves significantly harder is finding a bar that will sell you a beer while not encouraging you to gamble in some form or other. Getting to a casino bar involves walking past endless roulette tables and slot machines, and even then, there are gaming machines embedded in the actual bar themselves. Eventually, I opt for a sports bar that sold American lager in plastic cups. One beer later and it’s time for bed.

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“You’re under arrest, and I’m under a vest. Just.” – Photo: Getty

The next morning I head back to the airport to collect my rental car. It means a short walk south on the Strip again. It’s quieter than last night, but still busy. There are less people drinking, and more people jogging. Dance music still pumps out of, well, I don’t know where. One homeless man urinates in the street while another is curled away from the Strip, leaning up against one of the many towering walls, lighter in one hand, a glass pipe in the other. I notice people still pumping money into slot machines, some with suitcases next to them, presumably trying one last time to win big before traveling home to normality. Las Vegas, baby!

I’m leaving.

***

Driving out of Las Vegas is a little like the minutes immediately after an argument with a loved one. The noise, chaos, and mild fear that’s gone immediately before is suddenly replaced with a still, quiet limbo. As the casinos, crowds and round-the-clock music disappear, I find myself braced for it to suddenly emerge again until long after the Strip has disappeared in the rear view mirror.

On the road from Las Vegas into southern Utah and Bryce Canyon, I ponder what I’m really trying to discover. I’m staying within reach of Sin City, but want something entirely removed from it. I want peace, nature and, most of all, space. At this point, I’d have no idea how different southern Utah would be to Las Vegas. Or quite how much it would be the same.

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Fiery red rocks flank the road – Photo: James Renhard

The long nothingness of Nevada suddenly erupts into massive, otherworldly mountains of Utah. Just two hours from Las Vegas, and the road is flanked by imposing, fire red rocks. These give way to forests, then fields and plains, then rocks again. It’s a mesmerising pattern that continues until I pull into Snow Canyon State Park.

After stopping, I glance up from the map on my phone to the rearview mirror and notice a stranger approaching the car with some intent. It’s hard to tell if he genuinely looks like Old Man Marley from Home Alone, or if that’s just in my head. Either way, he’s getting closer, and I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do when this inevitably goes south.

“A natural energy seemingly pours out of the environment here”

“I can see from your licence plate you’re a foreigner” drawls the stranger, spotting the rental car’s California plates. A bellowing laugh follows a short pause, which does little to settle my nerves.

Despite my initial fear, the stranger was a Snow Canyon trail steward named Rich. Within minutes we’re both laughing, and he’s is suggesting local hikes and trails to take. His enthusiasm and love for his surrounding is obvious – something I’d later find out is not unique to Rich.

“Johnson Canyon is a nice short hike. You can go up to Scotts Cave. It’s a little bit longer, but an interesting hike” he tells me with the wide-eyed expression of a kid at Christmas. “We’ve got lava tubes!” he adds with the kind of gasp that suggests he almost forgot to mention them. “They’re really cool!”

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The walls of slot canyons tower high above hikers below – Photo: James Renhard

In fact, his childlike joy only seems to drop when I mention that, after three nights in Utah, I’d be heading back to Las Vegas to fly home. “Oh. Okay.” The disappointment is audible in Rich’s voice before he quickly shifts the attention back to Snow Canyon.

“Do you know about the petroglyphs in the area? Oh wow. We’ve got some really cool petroglyphs here. It’s not a terribly difficult hike to get to them.” If Rich had a tail, it would be wagging. His warmth and enthusiasm is infectious. And it’s not in the hope of a tip, it’s not service with a smile. It seems to be the energy he gets from his surroundings.

Eventually, Rich bounds away, and I drive in the other direction, through Snow Canyon Park, stopping to explore. Before long the massive walls of Jenny’s Canyon tower high above as I walk deeper and deeper into it. Daylight is just a scratch in the darkness above, as the rock around me is dizzyingly high.

The next morning begins early and with an unusual freshness. I tell myself it’s the natural energy that seemingly pours out of the environment here, but Utah’s strict alcohol licensing laws may also be a factor.

As the journey continues towards Bryce Canyon, the sheer otherworldliness of the surroundings gets increasingly, well, otherworldly. On the way, I stop at Red Canyon with it’s gigantic rusty rocks that line the road on either side, broken up by patches of green trees. Two arches of rock reach over the road, like arms trying to rip the tarmac from the floor. It’s a psychedelic experience – a completely natural splash of colours and vivid imagery.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once roamed this area, back when the west was wild, often hiding out for days at a time in a hut along what is now imaginatively called the Cassidy Trail. I can’t help but think that, with such wild imagery and views around me, mixed with the exciting brush of criminal history, this place feels like everything Las Vegas tries so hard to convince you it is.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The archways in Red Canyon, Utah – Photo: James Renhard

As noon approached, I’m back on the road, heading along Byway 12 to Kodachrome Basin State Park. At over 2000 acres, it’s a huge expanse of canyons and plains, disrupted by over 60 burnt orange stone spires that reach up towards the sky from the ground, some reaching 52 metres in the air.

So taken with the beauty and vivid colours of the area when they explored it in 1949, the US National Geographic Society named the park Kodachrome Flat, after the then relatively new range of Kodak film they used. It was later changed to the more literal Chimney Rock State Park, before National Geographic successfully had the name returned to Kodachrome Basin State Park.

“The three state parks we have in Bryce rival national parks in other states”

Pulling into the carpark of the visitors centre, I’m greeted by Park Manager, Jon Wikan. “Do you mind if I record” I ask Jon, taking my dictaphone out as I walk into his office. Every other American I’ve ever met has an ability to be stern, yet polite. Wikan didn’t get the memo. “I will not be recorded” he insisted bluntly, simultaneously channeling both Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and a mid-tantrum Elton John.

Wikan talks through the history of Kodachrome, the name changes, the geology, and the slightly terrifying natural inhabitants , including cougars, coyotes and rattlesnakes. None of them are as frightening as Wikan himself. However, when I ask him for recommendations for trails, he warms. It’s as if he now sees somebody who’s here to enjoy this amazing, natural playground, and not just stand in an office asking questions.

Wanting to capitalise on this change of atmosphere, I ask Wikan – who lives in the state park itself – what he does when he wants a break from it all. Confusion at the notion of not being in the park is briefly written across his face until he replies, “Well, I go and visit other national parks.” I stifle an unfair chuckle. After all, it’s clear Wikan is deeply in love with this very special place he calls home.

Risking displeasing him just as we’d brokered as close to a friendship as Wikan and I will ever have, I confess that, after my brief stay in the area, I’m heading back to Las Vegas. “Las Vegas?” he retorts in a tone with far less disgust that I’d imagined, “On your way in, check out Valley Of Fire State Park. It’s got some really good terrain.”

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The incredible red chimney-like formations at Kodachrome Basin State Park – Photo: Getty

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The arid, petrified foliage in Kodachrome – Photo: James Renhard

I leave Park Manager Wikan and continue exploring the park he clearly loves. Now well into the afternoon, I head to the two-mile Grand Parade Trail, wandering between the huge red chimneys and petrified trees, listening for wildlife rustling in the arid bushes, and really hoping not to hear those rattlesnakes.

That evening I head back on myself to Bryce Canyon to meet local resident and history buff Falyn Owens for dinner in a suitable wild west-feeling roadside restaurant. I want to know what she thinks makes this part of Utah so special.

“Honestly, I don’t think there is any place like it anywhere.” replies Falyn with gushing enthusiasm “Around every turn, there’s something different. There’s the red rocks of Bryce, the forest, the desert… ”

“People relocate here because of the energy, and the peacefulness”

Just like everybody I’ve spoken to since leaving Las Vegas and crossing into Utah, Falyn’s enthusiasm for her environment is boundless, and infectious. I try to hide what I’m sure is wide-eyed wonder on my face. With things going so well, I can’t help but see if mention of my Las Vegas origins changes the tone. Still smiling, Owens shifts to what appears to be a more diplomatic approach. “Vegas is iconic,” she admits, “ and everyone wants to do the Vegas thing at least once. Most people fly into Vegas for Bryce Canyon. It’s actually our biggest gateway city. We call it Neon to Nature!”

I try to hide my disappointment at realising this particular adventure is maybe not as original as I once thought. I broach the strange, peaceful energy that there seems to be in the area. “I think people relocate here because of that energy, and that peacefulness that it brings. A lot of people like to get out into the desert area just because of that.”

“Bryce is the hook – the three state parks we have rival national parks in other states – but we have so many hidden gems. The Thunder Mountain trail is very popular for mountain biking. Disney has a ride called Thunder Mountain that’s actually based on that trail. Canyoneering, horseback riding, we’ve hosted the Tour de Utah in the past…”

Before we part ways, Falyn recommends a few hiking trails to try, including Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is apparently a must.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Hoodoo’s in the Amphitheater at Bryce Canyon National Park – Photo: Getty

It’s the morning of my last full day in Utah and, again, I’m awake with an energy and freshness I’m not usually accustomed to, especially prior to coffee. I drive down to Bryce Canyon State Park. This natural, orange and red theatre is home to hoodoo’s: long spires of rock that point skywards, the product of millions of years of geological magic and weather erosion.

There are over 50 miles of hikeable trails, twisting and turning like veins through the network of hoodoos and other geological anomalies. However, the words of Falyn are still ringing in my ears, and the pull of Lower Calf Creek Falls proves irresistible.

From Byway 12, the pink, orange, and white rock formation that staggers up to the sky giving Grand Staircase it’s name is clear. It looks like it’s specifically designed for some deity, or a giant to use to ascend into the heavens. I’m around a four hour drive from Las Vegas, but it seems like a million years away.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is worth a lot in Scrabble if you can get it – Photo: James Renhard

I arrive at the trailhead for Lower Calf Creek Falls. Jon Wikan had told me it was an easy hike. The sign at the start of the trail said it was an easy hike. Scrambling up the side of a sandstone boulder, 20 minutes in suggested that my definition of easy differed from that of other people. The variable terrain, switching from deep soft sand, to hard rock, to small climbs was enough to eat the hours away. Being sunk deep into the gorge that makes up a lot of the trail felt slightly intimidating, but also strangely affirming, in the same way that being in the ocean, or at the top of a mountain can.

Some hours later, I find the reward for my excursion; a 65 metre high waterfall. The rock behind it shines with a thousand different colours, the afternoon sun constantly changing it like a giant kaleidoscope. I spend a few minutes there, which feel genuinely special.

These falls somehow sum up the entire Bryce Canyon area. Intimidatingly powerful, yet calm. Vast, yet intimate. Awash with incredible, psychedelic pallet that no photograph can ever do justice.

I head back to the car where, en route, a hiker stops and asks if I’ve seen any cougars on the trail. She seems disappointed when I say no, adding that they’re quite common in the area. My pace quickened.

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

The breathtaking Lower Calf Creek Falls – Photo: James Renhard

After a final night in Bryce Canyon, I find myself back on the road, headed towards Las Vegas, the town I’d been so keen to escape. I wanted to find somewhere that offered the opposite of Sin City, but stay within reasonable reach. In Bryce Canyon I certainly found that.

Gone were the crowds of slow moving, slot-machine devotees. Hell, for the most part, gone were people all together. There was no facade of service with a smile. The bluff and puff of showmanship was absent. Bryce Canyon offers the kind of space and tranquility that’s simply unimaginable when standing four hours away on the Las Vegas Strip. The two places couldn’t be more different. I was prepared for that. What I didn’t expect was to find that they were also kind of the same.

Looking up at those Las Vegas casinos is much like standing at the base of a hoodoo, or in a slot canyon, looking up at the tiny slither of sky above. Both places can easily confound and bewilder visitors, with their sheer size and vast array of options. Las Vegas has a kind of sickly, synthetic conveyor-belt energy to it. Bryce Canyon has a more holistic, natural pulse that seems to seep into your skin.

Hours pass and eventually Las Vegas appears on the horizon. My eyes are fixed on the glistening, shimmering mirage in the desert ahead, but my heart is still a few hours behind, among the fire red rocks, and the peace and quiet of Bryce Canyon.

Getting There

Bryce Canyon Utah guide

Norwegian fly a winter service from London Gatwick to Las Vegas using brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, with a choice of Premium or Economy cabins.

Economy fares start from £200 one way, £350 return. For more information see the Norwegian website.

Bon Voyage offer a seven night stay in Utah, flying from London Gatwick to Las Vegas with Norwegian from £1095 per person, based on two people traveling. The price included the above mentioned flights, three nights B&B at Inn on the Cliff, St. George, three nights room only at Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel and one night room only at the Canyon’s Boutique Hotel in Kanab. The price is valid for travel between November 2018 and March 2019

From Las Vegas, Bryce Canyon is about a four hour drive north-east along Interstate 15, via a 50 mile stretch of Arizona and on to the infinitely photogrenic Byway 12. We used Rhino Car Hire to rent an SUV. A seven day car rental starts from £190. For more information see RhinoCarHire.com

For more information about Bruce Canyon Country and Utah, see visitutah.com

Read the rest of the April ‘Remote’ issue here

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The post Leaving Las Vegas | Going From Neon To Nature In The American West appeared first on Mpora.

Ski Touring in France | The Secret Powder Stashes of the Maurienne Valley

Incredible terrain, cheap lift passes and its own microclimate. This valley really has it all

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It’s still early, my breakfast has barely settled, and yet here I am halfway up an icy, 55-degree slope, kicking footholds and digging my board in with every step to stop myself from slipping. Most guides would start a new group of skiers off with a cruisey red or blue run to assess their level. But Sylvain Rechu, who’s bounding up the hill ahead of me with the sure-footed self-assurance of the proverbial mountain goat, has no such time for such niceties.

The experience is all the more discombobulating because less than 24 hours ago I was at home in London. In between there have been two high-speed trains, a metro journey in Paris, a taxi to resort and three chairlifts rides, but it’s definitely still one of the more rapid ascents to 3,000 metres I’ve ever made.

“In winter the road is closed, so the valley remains a hidden secret, tucked away from the tourist crowds.”

In Sylvain’s defence, our group is pretty experienced, and no-one is uncomfortable getting stuck straight into this kind of terrain. Also, we have a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to show us the best that the Maurienne valley has to offer in just three and a half days.

Although it’s home to no fewer than 24 separate ski resorts, the Maurienne remains something of an unknown quantity, at least to most British skiers. Between us, our group, which includes my friends Matt, Cat and Abi, have spent decades exploring the French Alps, both for business and pleasure. Yet most of us have never been here, and none of us knows the area well.

Stairway to heaven. Matt scales the steep ascent in Bonneval-sur-Arc on our first day.

Stairway to heaven. Matt scales the steep ascent in Bonneval-sur-Arc on our first day.

The zone we’ll be exploring, the Haute Maurienne, is just a stone’s throw from some of France’s most famous mega-resorts as the crow flies. From Bonneval-Sur-Arc, where we met Sylvain this morning, you can actually drive to Val d’Isere in under two hours in the summer. But in winter the road, which winds over the Col d’Iseran, is closed. And so the valley remains a hidden secret, tucked away from the tourist crowds. As Eric Provost, Bonneval’s directeur de domaine skiable, tells us: “We have two kinds of visitors here – families who want something a bit quieter, and freeriders.”

The advantages of the Haute Maurienne’s lesser-known reputation are instantly obvious as we reach the objective that Sylvain’s set his sights on – a ridgeline just below the 3,217 metre Pointe d’Andagne. Down the other side we can see a broad, open valley which looks like it could provide a whole season’s worth of lines. Incredibly, although it’s five days since it last snowed, it’s nearly all untracked.

It’s hard not to be excited as we remove skins from our skis and splitboards. But this expectation is tempered by a certain amount of rationalisation. It’s the middle of April and it’s sunny. Even though the bowl isn’t tracked out, the snow surely can’t be fresh, can it? Yet as I follow Sylvain down into the face, I find myself letting out an involuntary whoop. It is fresh! At least a lot of it is.

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A man of many talents. Sylvain Rechu, the guide, trades in his skis for a snowboard one day and kills it on both.

The long, 600 vertical metre descent (named Anselmet after a local guide) winds its way down chutes and around ice cliffs. On the north facing aspects and in the shade of the rocks, the snow feels as if it could have fallen just hours before. Stopping to gather the group before the runout, there are high fives and broad grins all round. It’s some of the best snow we’ve had all season.

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Lads & lasses on tour. The group in La Norma, high above the Haute Maurienne.

I don’t care how hardcore you are, one of the best things about skiing in spring is the leisurely lunches in the sun. Thankfully the Haute Maurienne doesn’t disappoint. A quick tour up and a run down a more sun-affected lower slope takes us to the village of l’Ecot. Beyond the absurdly pretty stone church and down the winding streets we find Sylvain’s favourite restaurant, a converted farmhouse called Chez Mumu. It’s been a solid morning’s workout and we wash down our plates of pasta and boudin noir (French black pudding) with a couple of well-deserved beers.

As we eat, Sylvain explains more about the surrounding area and its unique microclimate. The valley benefits from a weather system called the Retour d’Est, which spirals up northwards from the gulf of Genoa and regularly dumps snow on the Maurienne even when the more northerly resorts in France are missing out. Could this place be much better for freeriding?

Our impression of the area as something of a secret backcountry paradise is reinforced the following day. Sylvain drives us down the valley (past a 19th century chateau perched improbably on the edge of a cliff) to the resort of La Norma. Unseasonal clouds swirl around the peak as we ride up the chairlift, but they begin to clear as we put skins on skis and boards and begin the tour up to the ridgeline below the peak at 2,917 metres.

From here, a series of steep couloirs plunge down towards a red piste some 400 vertical metres below, offering a whole plethora of different lines. The chute we drop into has a few tracks down it, and the snow is more chopped up and challenging than what we’d ridden the day before. But there are still some of the same miraculous pockets of fresh, and the run out – fast and open – sees us slashing and spraying each other all the way down to the piste.

Our next stop is Aussois, another of the resorts that are covered by the unified Haute Maurienne Eski-mo pass. Like La Norma and Bonneval-sur-Arc, it boasts fewer than a dozen lifts, but that still doesn’t explain how they can justify selling their six-day, five-resort passes for the ludicrously low price of €158. That’s more than €100 cheaper than a 6-day Espace Killy pass, which covers Tignes and Val d’Isere in the Tarantaise.

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Crusin’ – Cat Weakley enjoys a sunny run down to the refuge.

This difference in price between the two valleys is something Franck Buisson is fond of reminding his guests of. We meet Franck, the long-serving guardian of the Refuge de la Dent Parachée, after an hour or so of touring off the top of Aussois through the late afternoon sunshine. A jovial man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, he welcomes us with a bottle of genepi and a whole slew of stories, most of which involve the stuck up rich folks from the Tarantaise getting their comeuppance at the hands of the wily Mauriennais.

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To be franck… The man, the myth, the legend in full swing.

It’s apparently a fairly common stereotype round these parts, but Franck is such an excellent raconteur that even the guides bringing clients over from Val d’Isere can’t help but chuckle. As dinner arrives and the genepi keeps flowing he tells the story of a friend who’s a helicopter pilot stopping in for lunch one day, and accidentally taking off with one of his chickens in the cockpit. “And then I went to Courchevel and they were trying to sell me chicken and chips for €120 – not only did my chicken get taken to the Tarentaise but now they’re trying to sell it back to me for €120!” He laughs, outraged.

Sleeping arrangements in the refuge are basic – there’s one main dorm which fits around 30 guests, who have to share the wide on wooden bunks in groups of three or four. But whether it’s the genepi, the long day outdoors, or the quiet of the remote location, I sleep soundly, despite the inevitable snore-chestra that cranks into action after lights out.

“A jovial man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, he welcomes us with a bottle of genepi.”

It’s just as well because the following morning we’re out early, strapping harnesses over our ski pants and adding ice axes and crampons to our touring packs. From the refuge at 2,520 metres we’re aiming to tour to the 3,300 metre Col d’Abby. The snow here has definitely been affected by the sun, and where it’s refrozen on the steeper slopes, the ice is slippery enough that skins are no longer enough.

Strapping on crampons and using axes makes everything feel instantly more sketchy, but in the end the final ascent isn’t too taxing. Once again we’re treated to an incredible panoramic view, with fun-looking lines in all directions. Unfortunately despite Sylvain’s dynamic leadership, we’ve reached the ridge a little bit late and won’t have time to drop down the other side and make it back over. There’s a last lift we need to catch in Aussois if we’re going to make it back up the valley to Val Cenis, our final stop of this trip, tonight.

But if we’ve not quite completed the full tour Sylvain had planned, no-one in the group is hugely disappointed. Instead, we opt to take our time over the sunny line back the way we came at a leisurely pace. Arriving at the refuge earlier means we can enjoy another long, sunny lunch too, and a few more of Franck’s stories.

We might not have seen everything the valley has to offer – that would have been impossible in such a short space of time. But we’ve certainly seen enough to get a sense of the potential. With its 3,000 metre-plus peaks, its peculiarly consistent snow, and its lack of crowds, this place offers everything a freerider could want, and all at a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere. And then of course there are the friendly locals.

As the TGV whisks us back across France after an entertaining final morning in Val Cenis I reach into my bag and pull out the bottle that Franck had pushed into my hands as we left.

“This is a your payment,” he’d said with a wink, after I promised to send him some photos of the refuge to hang on his wall. Franck hasn’t bothered listing such trifles as the alcohol percentage on the homemade label, but needless to say it’s powerful stuff. Whether it’s the speed of the train, the strength of the moonshine, or simply the excellent company, the journey flies by in a blur. And when we pull into London’s crowded St Pancras station with a bump, I feel a little like Lucy coming back from Narnia. Were we really exploring a secret powdery paradise just a few hours before?

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Happy valley… The sun setting over the Maurienne.

Do it yourself:

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Getting there:

Train fares from London to Modane, in the Maurienne Valley, start at £116 standard class return. Book with SNCF (voyages-sncf.com).

Accommodation:

In the valley, we stayed at he 2-star Hotel La Clé des Champs in Val Cenis Lanslevillard (hotel-lacledeschamps.com) where rooms start at €68 per night.

Up the mountain we stayed at the Refuge de la Dent Parachée (refugeladentparrachee.ffcam.fr) which is open from March 1st and offers Bed, Breakfast, Dinner for €45.20.

Guides & Liftpasses:

We were guided by the awesome Sylvain Rechu, who kills is on skis and a snowboard equally. He works for the French/Swedish outfit Off Piste Maurienne (offpistmaurienne.com)

The 6-day Eski-Mo liftpass includes a day at each of the five Haute Maurienne member resorts (Aussois, Bonneval, La Norma, Val Cenis, Valfréjus) and a second day at the resort at which the pass is purchased. Prices range from €158-€198 depending on the time of year. Book from the Eski-Mo website (eski-mo.com)

Tristan’s trip was hosted by the French Tourist board and the Haute Maurienne region. For more info on the area, visit haute-maurienne-vanoise.com.

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David Wise Wins Gold | Men’s 2018 Olympic Ski Halfpipe Finals Result and Report

Wise pipped David Ferreira to the top prize as 16 year old New Zealander Nico Porteous took the bronze

Alex Ferreira, USA, during the men’s skiing halfpipe qualification at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo: Sam Mellish

Team USA weren’t able to take the clean sweep that many expected them to do in the men’s ski halfpipe, but they did take the gold and silver as David Wise made Olympic history by becoming the first man to land all four double corks during his final run in the Winter Olympics.

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David Wise celebrating stomping his historic run.

A score of 97.2 was enough to see him beat Alex Ferreira – who looked like he was going for gold the whole way after Wise crashed his first two runs – but even after upping his score on all three runs, Alex’s eventual 96.40 wasn’t enough to win.

16 year old New Zealander Nico Porteous made history by disrupting the American domination to take bronze with a score of 94.80, and the hugs between Porteous, Ferreira and Wise told you everything you needed to know about why we love the sport at the end of the contest.

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Alex Ferreira, the second last man down the mountain, was the first and only man to put down a score of over 90 in the first round of runs.

He got a 92.60 and after that it was just a question of whether that score would hold. Aaron Blunck followed him down to finish off round one with an albeit possibly underscored effort of 81.40 to show just how high the judges were rating Alex’s run (and Aaron wasn’t able to reach the medal spots despite landing a final run that brought him up to 84.80).

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Alex Ferreira after run two.

Alex Ferreira’s run was eventually toppled by an insane second run of 94.80 from young New Zealand star Nico Porteous, but Ferreira came back to stomp an insane run including a double 10 to flair that scored a 96.0 and at that point, it was clear that he would be hard to catch. It was big, it was techincal and clearly it was just what the judges were looking for.

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But his compatriot David Wise saw the challenge, took it up, and somehow beat Ferreira out.

Defending Winter Olympic Sochi halfpipe champion David Wise was the hot favourite in the run up to the Olympics. He’s been on fine form in the FIS halfpipe world cup in the 17-18 season, claiming a couple of gold medals already, and he won the 2018 X Games halfpipe as well, but the nerves seemed to be getting the best of him in Pyeongchang.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Men's Halfpipe Skiing Qualification finals

David Wise, USA, during the men’s skiing halfpipe. Photo: Sam Mellish

After Wise struggled in qualifying for the mens’ ski halfpipe final, crashing out in his first run and then struggling to a 79.6 to qualify in ninth with his second, some were doubting his chances of getting on the podium, and a rough start to finals saw him struggle to exercise his demons as he crashed out in both his first and second run.

If you’ve ever wondered if the pressure gets to a reigning Olympic champion, the answer is clearly yes. In his third and final run he proved they weren’t getting the better of him though. He became the first man to do all four double corks in an Olympic Games and was rewarded with a 97.20 and first place as a result.

If you think of skiing – you can ride left, ride right, right going forward and ride going backwards – and David Wise stuck a double cork in every single one of those directions.

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Alex Ferreira built on his own run again to get over the 96 mark but it wasn’t good enough to beat Wise.

The Americans dominated in qualification regardless though, with reigning world champion Aaron Blunck qualifying in first, Alex Ferreira in second and Torin Yater-Wallace in third, but the rest of the world weren’t going to let them away with it easy.

Torin Yater-Wallace struggled in run one and smashed an enormous double alleyoop on run two but crashed out again after running after running out of pipe down bottom.

In run three he nailed a right side double 1260 but then caught the edge and went down again. It’s a testimony to skiing that the people who looked most concerned about him after the crash were those waiting in the medal positions at the bottom.

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Alex Ferreira, USA, during the men’s skiing halfpipe at the Phoenix Snow Park in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. Photo: Sam Mellish

If anyone was going to trouble the USA domination in finals, the qualifications suggested it would be the New Zealand brothers Byron Wells and Beau-James Wells, who qualified in fourth and fifth – but that duo of competitors was reduced to just Beau-James after Byron crashed out in qualifiers and was unable to compete.

Nevertheless, 16 year old Kiwi Nico Porteous also qualified further down the field and proved he was certainly not there to make up the numbers when he built on a great first run with a mesmerising second run that scored 94.80 and put him into the lead. That’s a medal score.

And his face after the score told you everything you needed to know.

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On his final run Nico took is easy and sent it steezy down the course. He was settling for the 94.80, the run of his life so far, and you can see why. He laid down the gauntlet for the other riders, and only two of them were able to pick it up and beat him to the top of the table.

Beau-James turned his qualification run into a first final run of 87.40 where he sent some astronomical hits. He effectively landed his run first time and it was always going to be hard for him to build on that from there. In run two he went bigger but had a couple of flat landings, and he seemed to be using his second run to check a few things out for his final run.

That final run saw him step it up to a 91.6, sending an early switch double and then completing his usual run. He can be proud of that.

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James Beau Wells, New Zeland, during the men’s skiing halfpipe qualification at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo: Sam Mellish

Kevin Rolland put down a sick run in qualifying to rank in sixth place as well, but it came at a price. He was seen to notably be holding his left hip after his run. Whether that injury was notable or not in the final is hard to say, but Rolland did crash out in both of his first runs.

Come run three he took another huge hit, and it’s fair to say it was hard to watch. The man who has won everything but the Olympics was unable to stick a run down in the Pyeongchang halfpipe.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Men's Halfpipe Skiing Qualification finals

Kevin Rolland, France, during the men’s skiing halfpipe. Photo: Sam Mellish

His French compatriot Thomas Krief is the only non-North American to win a FIS halfpipe stop in the 17-18 season, but he couldn’t put down a run either. It was an off day for the French.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Men's Halfpipe Skiing Qualifica

Thomas Krief, France, during the men’s skiing halfpipe at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics at the Phoenix Snow Park in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. Photo: Sam Mellish

The Canadians Mike Riddle and Noah Bowman meanwhile were looking to up their game from qualifications, where they finished in seventh and ninth – though Noah Bowman’s ninth place finish was somewhat controversial – and they quickly landed their first runs to go temporarily into first and second place.

Noah Bowman’s first run of 89.40 set the pace from the get-go for the rest of the field. It was a spot that immediately put Noah in first place, and even as the higher scores kept coming in, the 89.40 kept Bowman in the third medal spot until the third and finals runs.

Bowman crashed his final run and when David Wise finally landed his run, Noah was pushed out of the medal spots.

It wasn’t to be Canada’s day. It was to be the day of David Wise. It was to be the day that Alex Ferreira almost won gold, and a day that a 16 year old kid went above and beyond what anybody expected of him to win bronze. It was a contest that will not be forgotten soon.

Suffering from a real bad case of Olympic fever? You’ll be pleased to hear that we’ve joined forces with Ubisoft, the folks behind ‘Steep: Road To The Olympics’, to provide you with the very best coverage of the PyeongChang action.

While many of us will never even get close to attempting a switch triple cork 1440 Octo grab in real life, thanks to the magic of video games, and in particular ‘Steep: Road To The Olympics’, that possibility is much closer than you think.

Get STEEP & the Road To The Olympics add-on in the STEEP: Winter Games Edition. Available now

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The post David Wise Wins Gold | Men’s 2018 Olympic Ski Halfpipe Finals Result and Report appeared first on Mpora.