By Joseph T. O’Connor and Emily Stifler ExploreBigSky.com Editors

This article was written when Moonlight Basin Resort was its own separate entity. Last October, CrossHarbor Capital Partners, owners of the Yellowstone Club, and Boyne Resorts, owners of Big Sky Resort, announced a collaboration to bring Moonlight Basin out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The result: The biggest skiing in America: 5,750 acres and 4,350 feet of vertical drop. This year, the Subaru Freeride Series runs from April 2-7 at Big Sky Resort.

MOONLIGHT BASIN – At 8:07 a.m. on March 15, clouds shrouded the 1,500-foot-vertical Headwaters cirque. The air was warm, but a cool breeze would keep conditions in the venue hard and unforgiving on this first day of competition.

Scoping the line. PHOTO BY BRIAN NILES

Inside the athlete tent, Mark Chapman of Colorado Springs was buckling his boots.

“It’s a little bare, but the snow was pretty soft yesterday. As long as I choose a line wisely, I should be good,” said the 25-year-old. In this comp last year, Chapman missed qualifying for the Freeskiing World Tour by two spots.

It’s a fine line in these qualifiers: athletes travel on their own dime and compete with some of the world’s best skiers in a high speed, high risk venue, vying for a chance at stardom – and, in this event, prize money totaling $10,000.

The athletes delivered.

During the two days of the Freeride World Tour Qualifier on March 15 and 16, conditions were shrugged aside.

Dropping out of the Lilly Pad. PHOTO BY ERIC SCHULZ

Big air and top-end speed dominated as skiers put their fate on finely tuned edges and a will to win.

“Moonlight is a really strong venue, probably one of the heaviest ones in the U.S. because of the steepness, the continuousness and the amount of rock,” said Daryn Edmunds, a writer for Unofficial Networks and an 11-year veteran of the tour. “There isn’t a place on the Day 1 venue where you can fall and not get tomahawked into rocks. There’s no safe zone anywhere.”

Sickbird winner Conor Pelton. PHOTO BY BRIAN NILES

But high stakes situations like this bring people together, and the competitors are one big family. The fear can grip them, the terrain and conditions intimidate, but after each run, they shout support and wait to hug each other at the finish line.

MEN

First place: Patty Baskins, Vail, Colo.

Second place: Christian “Little C” Boucher, Whistler, B.C.

Third place: Randy Evans, Bridger Bowl, Mont.

WOMEN

First place: Hadley Hammer, Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Second place: Sasha Dingle, Bozeman, Mont.

Third place: Katrina Devore, Aspen, Colo.

_______________

FWT judging

As explained by Joe Turner, a judge at Moonlight

With the combination of the Freeride World Tour and the Freeskiing World Tour this year, the point system has changed to a 100-point scale. Leaving the starting gate, every competitor has 50 points; from there, it’s up to them to either maintain or build upon that.

The way they can do that is through five different criteria:

Line score

Fluidity

Technique

Control

Air and style

Time

If you just ski straight down without hitting any features, you get a 50. If you ski down and hesitate, you lose points. If you hit a cliff, rock band or another feature, you gain points. If you stop atop a cliff or don’t land cleanly, you lose points.

The judges try to award using as much terrain and as many features on the mountain as possible, but doing it within your abilities in a smart way, being smooth and aggressive, not skiing out of control. Don’t scare the judges – if you do, you’re going to be docked points.

We want to see people who can utilize the mountain from top to bottom as effortlessly as possible, using as many features as possible.