By Jordan J. Michael
WILMINGTON –– Freeskiing has taken the slopes by storm, and Ben Irving is right in the thick of the snow. As a fifth-grader, he watched the Winter X-Games and was immediately hooked. Irving, now 15, wanted to land the big tricks like the athletes he saw on television.
During that initial viewing of one of the world’s most important freeskiing competitions, Irving, of Altamont, saw skiers like Simon Dumont and Tanner Hall landing mesmerizing stunts on skies with curves on both ends. At last month’s X-Games, Irving watched as Henrik Harlaut won a Gold medal with his “nose butter” maneuvers.
Irving was influenced by Harlaut while practicing his nose butter 540 last Saturday at Whiteface Mountain in preparation for Sunday’s Empire State Winter Games slopestyle event. He landed the trick the previous weekend at Windham Mountain during another competition.
A nose butter is when the skier leans on the tips of his skies, starting to spin before leaving the jump. Snow sprays as the skier flies through the air.
Making the X-Games is a tough goal to achieve, but Irving has a lot of time ahead of him.
“I want to have all of that coverage and meet super good people,” said Irving on Saturday, sitting easy on a chair inside Whiteface’s lodge. “I want to consider myself in that realm, having people watch me on TV. It would be the coolest thing.”
Jonny Jost, Irving’s coach, remembers, when he was growing up, watching skiers like Seth Morrison and Shane McConkey. Morrison and McConkey were the first skiers to become popular for vastly pushing the limits.
“They did the craziest things on skies, like hucking entire cliffs,” said Jost, who was raised by ski patrollers in Old Forge. “I’ve been skiing since I could walk. It’s been part of my life since day one.”
By trade, Jost is a big mountain skier, but he can throw down tricks when he needs to. He’s been living in Colorado, but came back last November to teach kids the ropes. Jost will move back to Colorado in March.
“Jonny has taught me how to stay squared up for jumps,” said Irving. “Before, I had this mentality to just go for the biggest spin, and I set myself way back. Now, I keep myself square.”
Since training with Jost, Irving has landed some excellent stunts like a front flip. Jost says that freeskiing is one of the fastest progressing sports. A front flip is standard. Still, a front flip is huge, and Irving landed a few on Saturday.
“This is being taken to new heights and new levels,” Jost said of freeskiing. “Ben is a guy who has the heart and wants to do this stuff. I tell him how to be patient when you catch the air and throw a trick. He does it, and that’s where the joy comes in.”
Irving, Jost, and Stephan Washburn, Irving’s friend from Malta, were blissful on Saturday. The weather was near perfect, sun shinning bright. Whiteface had a fresh coat of powder from a snowstorm that dropped a foot of snow from Friday into Saturday morning.
However, powder can make the park terrain slower than normal. This is tough for skiers who are used to courses that are consistently groomed. Irving and Washburn would need a good waxing for Sunday.
“It’s amazing for shredding,” Jost said of the fresh snow. Out West, it’s all powder all the time. “It’s been an amazing morning, but the park is slow,” he said. “We’re trying to dial in on the speed.”
For the slopestyle competition at Whiteface on Sunday, skiers were judged on maneuvers performed from three jumps and two separate rail/object sections. Jost said that the judges would be looking for skiers who can spin both ways off of a jump.
Irving told The Enterprise that he wanted to land switch, or backwards, off the first rail, then ride in backwards for a 540 off the first jump, then spin right for a 360 on the second jump, and then throw a front flip on the last jump. He wasn’t sure of his plans for the bottom rail section.
“The rails here are pretty tough,” said Irving of Whiteface. “It depends on the mountain.”
In a bind
Jost said that Irving would have a chance to medal in the 13-to 15-year-old age group, which had 15 participants, if he landed all of his tricks. Irving came in 14th place with a score of 2.80 after an equipment failure with his bindings kept him from completing the bottom rail section. Washburn came in 11th with a score of 3.70.
Irving had an issue with his DIN (the Deutsches Institut fur Normung sets the standard for ski bindings), which is the standard for the release settings on the ski bindings. The DIN setting is determined by a combination of the skier’s height, weight, boot length, and skiing ability. Adjusting the DIN determines how much force is required for the bindings to move and release from the ski boot. Irving’s DIN was too low to handle the power caused by his front-flip landing on the final jump.
“He came home very, very frustrated,” said Irving’s mother, Maria, on Monday. “He had two decent runs, but the ending of those runs were unfortunate. The bindings were, in a sense, too safe for this situation. It was a hard lesson learned.”
Irving was hoping to make a name for himself at the Games. He’s trying to accumulate enough points this season to attend the United States of America Snowboard Association nationals in Colorado.
“A lot of the time, I clear my mind and don’t think of anything,” said Irving of approaching a jump. “I just know what I need to do. It’s all in my muscles. Everything is there; I just need to remember.”
Mrs. Irving said that she’ll drive her son “just about anywhere” to compete, or to check out local spots where Irving and his buddies can build jumps or pull tricks. Irving said his friend’s mother works at Siena College, so he’s been eyeing rails there. He wants to make videos of his freeskiing endeavors.
“I have enough confidence in Ben’s athleticism and ability to support him and not be nervous about him getting hurt,” said Mrs. Irving. “I don’t get overly invested. I want him to have fun. He’s learned a lot, and has goals. Everything is OK as long as he doesn’t kill the budget.”
Irving and his friends call their local ventures Urban Rails, which would most likely be the name of the film if it were ever finished. Jost said he messed around in Burlington, Vt. when he was attending the University of Vermont.
“You have to talk to the right people,” Jost said of pulling tricks on public or private property. “I mean, you can just go for it, but you’ll probably be told to leave.”
Freeskiers share the same do-it-yourself outlook as snowboarders. They hock shovels on their shoulders and hike to that perfect spot to build a jump. They do it for love and adventure. Snowboarders and freeskiers share a culture of being unordinary.
“We’ll get looks from the older folks, like, ‘What are they doing?’” said Irving, who wears baggy, stylish gear. “We don’t get a lot of respect from the traditional skiers.”
“All one love”
Snowboarding slopestyle competitions came before freeskiing ones. Where would freeskiing be without snowboarding?
“Who’s to say?” said Jost. “Everyone started picking up snowboarding and taking it to new limits, and then skiing started to sneak back in.”
“First, skiers stole tricks from snowboarders,” Irving added. “Now, snowboarders are stealing stuff from us.”
Freeskiers and snowboarders share the terrain and a state of mind.
“In the end, its all one love,” Jost said.
It’s all about landing that huge stunt.
“I love how stoked everyone is when they land that new trick,” Irving said. “When you land something you’ve never landed before, it’s the best feeling.”
When a stunt is visually appealing in freeskiing, it’s usually referred to as “steezy,” which is another way of saying “dope” or “rad” or “epic.” Jost thinks that Irving’s style is pretty steezy, as well as that nose butter 540 he’s been landing lately.
“I believe Ben has the drive to get as far as he wants as long as he works hard,” said Jost, who had a black eye from a failed trick attempt earlier in the day. “The kid is fearless. You tell him to do something and he goes for it. He doesn’t over-think it. If he doesn’t land it, he’ll hike right back up the hill and try it again. That’s huge and what this sport is all about.”
X-Games athletes are beyond courageous. They make tricks look so easy, but that didn’t happen overnight.
Irving is a pretty laid-back guy, but outgoing at the same time. When he listens to the Wu Tang Clan while going though a park run, he feels like a thug. He feels like a steeze.
“Basically, we’re telling the world that we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Jost said. “We have the most fun.”
There’s this weird silence right before the competition starts, Jost said. Everybody in the freeskiing sector is friendly and hyped, but everyone gets focused and quiet when medals are on the line.
“When it’s competition time, I’m all business,” said Irving. “I may not seem that way when I’m talking to everyone, but, as soon as I drop in, I have my mind set.”