A Brief History of Freeskiing in NZ

In the early 1990s the first Extreme Championships were held at Cardrona Alpine Resort. These were organised by Geoff McKeown of Gravity Sports, and the NZ Freestyle Association. The first freeski event (as the sport came to be known) in New Zealand was the Heli Challenge, first run in 1995 by Tony “Harro” Harrington. With changing title sponsors, Harro’s event morphed through several name changes over the years: The Rip Curl Heli Challenge, The Rip Curl World Heli Challenge, The World Heli Challenge. 

The mid-1990s was the formative time for freeskiing. Ski movie production companies such as Teton Gravity Research, Matchstick Productions and Poor Boyz all debuted films featuring new ways of riding big terrain, backcountry booters and snowboard parks (as they were then known). At the same time, rather than being a type of competition, freeskiing was taking shape as a counter to the existing ski industry aesthetic and its various highly-structured competitive formats. It was more about expressing the freedom of skiing, in all its facets.

It started to become clear, as it had with skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding, that one didn’t necessarily need to compete in alpine or freestyle disciplines to gain industry attention and attract sponsors. Skiing freely over the mountain, expressing yourself and your learnings on the terrain you chose was what it was all about. If you could do this really well, someone might just find value enough in it to pay you to do it more. 

‘The free part of Freeskiing will likely always be at risk. This is of course natural, but a sadness none-the-less. Freeskiing came from a counter movement, as it did with its predecessor Freestyle (Moguls, Ballet, Aerials). It was an effort to break away from the convention of the times; a turn back towards being able to express oneself freely on a chosen piece of terrain.’ – Nick Mills 

In 1996, freesking visionary Shane McConkey came to New Zealand with Chris Davenport, the current World Extreme Skiing Champion, and Kent Kreitler, ski movie hero of the day, to take part in the Rip Curl Heli Challenge and film segments in New Zealand’s outstanding natural terrain. With a strong belief in what the industry could evolve into, and the help of newly-minted fat skis, they heavily inspired those who would become the key actors in New Zealand’s nascent freeskiing movement. 

Wanaka backcountry skier Brigitte Mead; the only female in the 1996 Rip Curl Heli Challenge field, ran amongst the male skiers and placed fifth on the Big Mountain day, defeating several high performance male freeskiers, including Chris Davenport (down the same line). Brigitte, along with Bridget Rayward and Sarah Newman, became an inspiration for skiers in New Zealand. On the same day, Todd Windle took out the overall Big Mountain title, cementing, along with the likes of Geoff Small and Sam Hall, New Zealand’s strength in the new sport. An injured Shane McConkey sat in as head-judge and trained NZ freestyle skier, Nick Mills in the IFSA judging format.  

The combination of new-school tricks, high-speed fluidity and big-mountain mettle provided a vibrant new aesthetic for the sport. With it encompassing so much new ground, however, it remained difficult for people to get a handle on exactly what freeskiing was. In the summer of 1997-1998, Nick Mills and Tony Hitchcock formed the Freeskiing Association of New Zealand. Primarily, this was set up to provide a forum for skiers to decide for themselves what the sport should become. It also assisted in developing an internationally recognised judging format, built media interest and engaged with prospective sponsors. 

1998 became a big year for the fledgling sport. Along with the continued development of fatter skis, came the first twin tips. With these, people found creative ways to ski both existing and completely new terrain. In the same year, FSANZ ran the inaugural ‘Series of Sessions’, so called because, as an association of skiers from varying backgrounds, many were still undecided whether the competitive element was the most important part or not. The idea behind the Sessions was to bring everyone together with open minds and develop a vision of what the sport might look like in New Zealand. Many good things came out of this time: Chill events, Big Air, national tours, images, identity, Kiwi champions, a new ski culture, the next generation… 

The first freeski halfpipe competition was held in New Zealand in 2000. Two years later, the first national championships for halfpipe, slopestyle and freeride were held. This was also the first time that an event had included all three disciplines. In this same year Snow Park NZ opened near Cardrona. This was an area especially designed for freestyle skiers and snowboarders. At the other end of the country, Snowplanet opened in Auckland. This was the first indoor ski field in New Zealand and attracted a lot of international athletes to New Zealand. 

In 2005 the first Freeski Open was held at Cardrona. The Freeski Open did not include the juniors like the nationals, it was only for adult skiers aged 18 and up. Even in its first year the Freeski Open attracted a lot of international athletes. There were 12 nationalities represented at this event. 

The first New Zealand Winter Games were held in 2007. A year later The Stash terrain park opened at The Remarkables in association with Burton. This was a new place for athletes to train. 

In 2010 the Freeski Association was replaced by Freeski NZ and later the same year Snow Sports NZ took over from Freeskiing NZ.

Freeski Halfpipe and Slopestyle were included on the Olympic agenda for the first time in 2014, at the Sochi Games. Six Freeskiers were included in the NZ team: Jossi Wells (4th place Halfpipe, 11th place Slopestyle), Beau-James Wells (6th place Halfpipe, 21st place Slopestyle)  Byron Wells (Halfpipe DNS due to injury in training), Lyndon Sheehan (9th place Halfpipe), Janina Kuzma (5th place Halfpipe) and Anna Willcox-Silfverberg (15th place Slopestyle). 

History was made at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea when 16-year-old Nico Porteous earned a bronze medal in Freeski Halfpipe, only NZ's third ever Winter Olympic medal.

The 2022 Olympic Winter Games will also feature Freeski Big Air as well as Halfpipe and Slopestyle.