The Juneau Ski Club’s FreeRide Team on the top of Eaglecrest on Saturday. Left to right: Eero Wooldord, McKenna McNutt, Sophia Caputo, Gabi Griggs, JoJo Griggs, Austin Smith. (Courtesy Photo | Randy Bates).

The Juneau Ski Club’s FreeRide Team on the top of Eaglecrest on Saturday. Left to right: Eero Wooldord, McKenna McNutt, Sophia Caputo, Gabi Griggs, JoJo Griggs, Austin Smith. (Courtesy Photo | Randy Bates).

‘FreeRide’ program blazes new trail for skiers, boarders

Six-week class teaches how to ski difficult terrain

Eaglecrest Ski Area is known for its advanced skiing and riding terrain.

Nearly half of the mountain’s three dozen marked trails are designated as “most difficult” or “experts only,” which is reflected in some of the trail names: “Insane,” “Waterfall” and “Steep Chutes.”

Many of these steep runs are littered with boulders, cliffs and spruce trees, fun — and sometimes dangerous — obstacles that give even the most experienced skiers and riders challenges.

For the second year in a row, the Juneau Ski Club is hosting two six-week “FreeRide” courses that teach youth ages 12-18 how to navigate these obstacles in a safe, smart and stylish manner.

“There’s freeride teams all over the nation now where kids actually learn properly from coaches rather than learn by mistakes like we did,” Juneau Ski Club President Bruce Griggs said. “It’s a little more dangerous to learn by your mistakes.”

Griggs created the local program last year, and along with coaches Kyle Paddleford and Nathan Ord, teaches skiers and snowboarders skills like terrain selection, air awareness and snow safety — things you won’t learn in a traditional ski lesson.

Griggs, whose two daughters make up a third of this year’s class, grew up heliskiing in Juneau and competed several times in the World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, the beginning of what he terms the “freeride revolution.” Freeriding is any kind of skiiing or snowboarding done on natural terrain, and in the past couple decades, the sport has taken on a life of its own as athletes compete in internationally-televised events.

“There’s so many excellent, world-class, big-mountain skiers who come from Eaglecrest in Juneau, snowboarders and skiers who are world-renowned,” Griggs said. “We needed to get a program to teach kids the safe way to approach (freeriding) because everybody was doing it anyways. We’re just lucky that we haven’t lost anyone.”

The class runs every Saturday for the next two and a half months. The first session started last Saturday and continues until the first week of February. The second session begins in mid-February and runs until the end of March.

Currently, there are six registered FreeRiders, all skiers. About half of the team, such as Sophia Caputo and JoJo and Gabi Griggs, are past JSC racers. JoJo Griggs, who appeared in U16 Western Region Alpine Championship Series last year, is excited to try something new.

“Freeskiing is a good skill to have, especially on a mountain like this,” she said.

Caputo, who was also did the class last year, was amazed at how much better she got over a short amount of time.

“Freeride just focuses a lot more on really building your confidence, especially when it comes to jumps and going over the cliff-things,” Caputo said.

Others who have taken the class, like Austin Smith, 16, and McKenna McNutt, 14, did not come with a racing background. Both freeskiers said they were glad they overcame their initial reservations to join the team.

“I feel more confident skiing areas that I would’ve looked at before and said, ‘No way,’” McNutt said.

Overcoming fears and taking on risks has brought the team closer together. Smith said his teammates have become his close friends.

“Everyone’s friendly, very inviting. I was really surprised about that,” Smith said. “I was kind of nervous going into it not knowing what to expect, but as soon as I got into it, it was like a family.”

With any luck, the season will culminate with a freeride competition and ski video (videography is also taught) to showcase everything that’s been taught.

Know and Go

Who: Skiers and snowboarders ages 12-18

Where: Eaglecrest Ski Area

When: Saturdays 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Cost: Single session (Jan. 5-Feb. 9; Feb. 16-March 30): $200. Both sessions: $300

More info: juneauskiclub.com


• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or nainsworth@juneauempire.com. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.