Claire Smallwood is the Executive Director of SheJumps, but before all that, she was just a kid from northern New Mexico who loved to ski. She also happens to be the only repeat winner of the Taos comp’s “Spirit Award”…
“Hands-down my best memory of the Taos comp is from the very first one. My brother Joey and I were given the “Spirit Award” by Jim Jack. We were so rowdy and so stoked, he felt like we deserved something. It’s obviously wonderful to be recognized for that, and by such a great and legendary man like Jim Jack.
“But in the following years, the award went to our late, great friend Tobias Lee. After his passing in 2006, the award is now the “Tobias Lee Spirit Award.” It’s a special award that is only given away at Taos, and I feel so honored to be a part of the tradition, and to have received the award again in 2010.
May the memories of both of those amazing people (Jim Jack & Tobias Lee) live on through this special part of the Taos Freeride Comp.”
Q: And as for the venue itself?
“Taos is a fantastic venue because it forces you to ski fluid, fast, and fall-line. A lot of other venues seem to encourage competitors to traverse in order to connect features. The fall-line skiing at Taos makes it just as fun for the spectators as it is for the competitors.”
Aside from being a living legend and one of the nicest people you will ever meet, Taos Ski Patroller and Blister reviewer, Justin Bobb, has won the Taos comp twice—he’s the defending Snowboard champion—and is setting his sights on the Freeride World Tour. He also loves this mountain as much as anyone.
“The venues at Taos are some of the more diverse venues around. The West Basin offers seriously steep and committed terrain that is difficult to scout. Plenty of rocks and trees are often in the way of nice lines. Kachina offers an alpine venue where speed is the key and large drops can be found.”
“It’s the contrast between the two venues that makes Taos truly unique. All types of extreme terrain are highlighted in this comp, which gives credibility to the wide range of Freeride styles for all the athletes. All styles can be successful in the Taos Extremes.
Kachina is a super special venue and previously was hike-to only. That gave the event a very big-mountain feel, and made your 1 run down feel extra special. It kept the legs warm and gave me some nice peace of mind before dropping in. The lift to the top, however, allows a deeper exploration of the Kachina venue, and athletes will be doing things up there that previously had never been thought of. I am pretty excited to see the developments.
But in the true spirit of the event and the peak, I think it would be great if they still made us hike to the start gate at Kachina. It’s a tradition to hike, and the view from the hike really shows the vertical drop of the venue.
Aside from the technicalities of the terrain and features, the Taos comp has been a favorite for many athletes as well as spectators. Taos is a pretty loose place, and people realize that and come here to have a good time. There is a huge repeat contingent of athletes, and I’ve competed with many of them since 2009. Dave Watson and the LaRue brothers are a few that stick out.
The athlete perspective, or at least how I gauge it, is that these events are competitive, but they are more importantly about the comradery. I have made some good friends through freeride events, and have learned more about my riding style by riding with a bunch of people with other styles. No style better than the next, just all different and equally capable.
And it was at the 2013 Taos event where I met Colin Boyd and Chris Galvin, which started a conversation that resulted in an impulse journey to New Zealand for freeride events. After Chris and I had a comp cancelled down there, I realized how lucky we were to have travelled for a cause that allowed us to snowboard together across the planet, regardless of the cancellation.”
Q: A final thought on the Taos Championships?
Taos is currently a 4-star event, offering the highest point values per place as a qualifier for the Freeride World Tour. From the snowboard perspective, this event is super significant. The two athletes with the highest combined score of three events at the end of the season get invited to the Tour. If you do five events, only the three best will be counted. So the more events you participate in, the better your chances of getting three high scores.
The tricky thing this year is that there are only three events at this level in North America; the fourth on the list has been cancelled due to conditions. So the cancellation of one event suddenly makes the other three feel much more important for athletes trying to get a tour invite.
Understandably, events get cancelled due to conditions, and it’s never fun. Taos is a place that is very capable of pulling off an event even in low-tide conditions, which is huge. Outside of the venues used in the past, there are other options farther down West Basin ridge, as well as other options off of Kachina, such as Hunziker Bowl for a qualifier day. This mountain could host a new venue for all three days of the event in most conditions.
The fact that the event at Taos is one of four scheduled 4-star events in the entire North America region should suggest its importance to athletes going for the tour, and for Taos as an event host. Athletes from all over the world come to Taos for the points and the festivities.
Tom Winter was the founder of the Taos comp, and he’s directed all 10 of them. This overview would be seriously incomplete without his take on this event, so here’s what he had to say:
“Taos came onto the radar as a potential host of a freeride event in 2004. I was an editor for Freeze Magazine at the time, and we were shooting a story for the magazine. I had skied at Taos before, but I’d started doing freeride events first at Berthoud Pass, and then when that ski area closed, over at Snowmass. Snowmass was good, but I was missing the kind of venues we had at Berthoud. And it was obvious that Taos had a lot of venue choices and killer terrain.
Chris Stagg was the guy who I had been coordinating with in regards to the magazine assignment, so we took a couple of lift rides together as I pointed out the potential. I must have sounded like I knew what I was talking about, because he green lighted the project.
We ran the first event in 2005, and got lucky with the snow. The mountain ops guys took ownership of the event, and I can’t say enough about the support we’ve gotten from ski patrol, the volunteers, and the events staff. It’s been amazing. The whole organization at Taos has embraced the competition, and that’s a big reason that it’s been so successful. It’s also why we were approached by the Freeride World Tour to become a Freeride World Tour Qualifying event.
When you have a group of passionate, committed people running an event with the kind of effort and professionalism you find at Taos, word gets out. The FWT heard about Taos from the athletes—they’re the ones who spread the word about what was happening down here—and they knew a good thing when they experienced it.
Taos is a very, very good thing and I feel so lucky and grateful to be a part of what is going on down here. It’s an honor.”
A couple years ago, I received one of my all-time favorite texts, and it came from Rob Dickinson.
Rob Dickinson lives in Crested Butte, and he’s a damn good skier. He placed 2nd here in both 2011 and 2012, and he is back in Taos, competing again.
Anyway, Rob had come down for the comp, and I don’t remember if we were on a weather delay, or if he’d just stuck around after the comp to ski. But I do remember the text he sent me:
“You out skiing? This place is so f—— rad!”
Coming from someone who skis as hard as Rob does, that’s high praise.
And Rob is right.
Tune in to the comp today at SkiTaos.org/freeride