World Heli Challenge
After a brief stint competing in extreme ski competitions around the world, I found myself at the World Extreme Skiing Championships (WESC) in Valdez Alaska in April 1995. The events I'd participated in up until then were all in resorts. The snow conditions often weren’t great. The snow was often tracked out and the landings were boney. WESC opened up a whole new world to me. And it was to change my life, and many others.
The competition arena for WESC were remote peaks accessed by helicopter. The people there were like me. They lived for this stuff and loved being in the mountains and doing something that pushed the limits. I got to thinking. I was living in Wanaka in New Zealand at the time. It was a sleepy quiet town on a magnificent lake and ringed by mountains.
We had helicopters, mountain peaks blanketed with powder and some of the most exciting terrain on the planet to frolic in. So the idea was born to create a heli event that grew to become the World Heli Challenge - still today renowned as one of the most legendary freeride events of all time.
We'd bring a bunch of skiers and boarders together in Wanaka, up to five helicopters and create a snow event that grew into something like nothing else on the planet. The event combined heli accessed events which included the Extreme Day, a Freestyle Day and a Chinese Downhill race. The athletes battled it out to get the best combined overall score marking them the best all-round freeride athlete - and boy did we have a lot of fun in the process. It was as much about a carnival atmosphere of celebrating life and our passion for snow with our tribe as it was about the competition. But believe me, it was competitive! The list of Heli Challenge alumni reads as a Who’s Who of snow and I cannot go anywhere in the world without someone asking “when will you bring back the World Heli Challenge?”
We launched careers in snowsports with that event, created a few marriages, a few good stories and footage and images of New Zealand that went around the world putting the South Island on the map for many European and US athletes.
To bring some of the vibe of our on-mountain events to town I trucked a little bit of snow into the centre of Wanaka for a Big Air and music event. It grew and grew and grew, and in the end we brought in over 60 loads of snow from Cardrona, built a massive scaffolding structure as the run-in and created a jump sending skiers and boarders flipping and flying through the night time sky in front of 8,000+ people and international headline bands. Still today, the biggest snow party the Southern Hemisphere has ever seen. And a personal highlight was working with my Dad to make so much of it happen.
The funny thing is, before I ran that first competition I had zero event management experience. My vast sports event credentials were limited to getting dragged by the wetsuit collar by my surfing elders after competing in a local surfing surf event, and they’d get me to sit with sand and salt dripping down my nose and score the kids competing in the next heat.
I am so proud of what the World Heli Challenge achieved for our sport, for my community, for my tribe. I believed in the idea, as crazy as it was, and threw everything I had at it to make it happen. Nothing ventured and all that. I couldn’t have done it alone and I am so grateful to everyone who supported me in what I am sure they thought was a hare-brained idea and together we made something legendary.