Smokin’ Aces Slopestyle Tour stops in Big Sky

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor
Photos by Kat Green Explore Big Sky Contributor

It all started in the Bierstube, last March, after a day of spring corn skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Billy Marcial and Zak Anderson were talking over beers in the classic base area bar, with Marcial lamenting the fact that Montana’s junior freestyle ski circuit isn’t what was used to be.

A Whitefish native, Marcial, 28, competed in junior mogul and upright aerial events as a teenager, was a first team All-American freestyle in halfpipe at the College of Idaho, and competed at the 2009 U.S. Open. As a kid, he loved traveling to different ski areas in Montana every weekend, competing in events sanctioned by the United States Ski Association – Northern Division.

But with the rapid changes to the ski industry in the early 2000s – notably with influences from snowboarding and the invention of twin tips – the sport of freestyle skiing metamorphosed into slopestyle alongside the evolution of modern terrain parks, with their jumps, rails and boxes.

“Nobody really knew what slopestyle was,” Marcial said. “A lot of people still don’t… It took time for [them] to catch up.”

Although there are still small moguls teams scattered around the state, he said the U.S.S.A. freestyle contests in Montana are no longer and the junior circuit has all but disappeared.

“[Now] if kids want to qualify or compete, they have to travel,” said Anderson, also a Whitefish native and an alpine ski racing coach. “That was shame because in Montana we have great ski hills and good skiing, and a lot of talent.”

To prove his point, he explains that Montana Olympic freestylers Heather McPhie and Bradley Wilson both live and train in Park City, Utah, as does Whitefish’s Maggie Voisin, a 15-year-old slopestyle skier who qualified for the Olympics.

Marcial is also a sponsored athlete for Montana Ski Co., a custom ski company Anderson co-owns with Will MacDonald. After mulling it over, Anderson concluded they should take things into their own hands.

“Sometimes it takes someone to just step up and just do it, because otherwise it gets lost in the shuffle,” Anderson said.

Thus the Smokin’ Aces Freestyle Tour was born. A four-stop slopestyle competition that’s new this winter, it aims to draw skiers and riders from around the state, allowing them to accumulate points throughout the season and win prizes and cash.

Starting at their home hill, the first event hosted 50 competitors in Whitefish’s Fishbowl terrain park under sunny skies on Feb. 1. Dubbed the Ace of Clubs Slopestyle, it drew approximately 1,000 spectators over the course of the day, said Marcial, now the Smokin’ Aces Tour Director.

Loath to choose a highlight, Marcial said he was nonetheless impressed with the level of competition in the 13-16 boys’ skier division in Whitefish. “It was some of the higher level skiing for those youngsters I’ve seen in a while,” he said.

The tour goes next to Great Divide for the Jokers Wild Rail Jam on Feb. 21, and the Ace of Diamonds Slopestyle on Feb. 22. Located outside of Helena, Great Divide is a small ski area with a strong park scene and a down-home vibe.

The Ace of Hearts Slopestyle comp will be March 8 at Big Sky Resort’s Zero Gravity Terrain Park, an event Marcial said a number of Whitefish skiers will attend. The tour wraps up back in Whitefish for the Ace of Spades Championship Slopestyle competition on March 22.

“We’re trying to give some of those young kids that are 12 or 13 years old… an opportunity to do more [events], to travel different places, and feel the experience of what it’s like to be a pro,” Marcial said.

Competitors will earn points in one of 10 different divisions – from 12 and under to 21 and over – and are rewarded for participating in multiple competitions, said Marcial, who organized fundraising events in college. After the final event, they’ll name a tour champion.

In addition to Montana Ski Co., tour sponsors include Omnibar, Montucky Cold Snacks, MacKenzie River Pizza Co. and American Bank.

“It’s the kind of thing we like to support,” said Chad Zeitner of Bozeman-based Montucky Cold Snacks, a startup beer company that donates 8 percent of its profits to charities and nonprofits throughout the state. “[We] love to ski, so anything that assimilates us with that culture and helps people along the way is great for us.”

That sentiment is a theme with the tour.

“The future of the sport is in these kinds of events and the young athletes,” Anderson said. “It’s about having fun, which is a big part of what [Montana Ski Co. is] all about.”

For Marcial, it’s about bringing the Montana ski community together.

“We’re striving to bring Montana together,” he said. “It’s a small event now, but who’s to know if we get this ball rolling, years to come maybe we can make this into something bigger and better, to where our phenomenal skiers don’t have to leave.”