On Saturday, an elite group of freeskiers will meet in Vars, France, to compete in the third annual Red Bull Linecatcher backcountry freestyle competition, taking place Jan. 15-22 at the Vars-La Forêt Blanche resort.
Candide Thovex is expected to be on hand to defend his 2010 title, but he faces stiff competition, including Sean Pettit, Chris Benchetler, JP Auclair, and others.
The skiers will have three runs each in one day on the Eyssina face, which rises to 10,000 feet, using natural features and purpose-built kickers to impress judges with their fluidity, technique, line, and style. Each run will be scored out of 10 points, and the three skiers with the best cumulative scores will share a 10,000 Euro purse.
Head judge Julien Regnier Lafforgue, who co-founded the event, spoke to ESPN recently before another day of shaping kickers on the course in Vars. "We give the athletes the opportunity to express themselves at a level where it's so hard in the freeride competitions, because everything is natural," he said. "We wanted to give them the tools to do harder tricks."
Benchetler has made room in his filming schedule with Nimbus Independent and Poor Boyz Productions to make his first appearance at the Linecatcher. "I saw all the footage [last year] and heard from all my friends that went how awesome it is," Benchetler says. "I couldn't miss it two years in a row. I thought I better make time for it this year."
Also in the lineup is Canada's Anthony Boronowski, the inaugural champ in 2009, and JP Auclair and Sean Pettit, runners-up in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Germany's Bene Mayr, Australia's Chris Booth, France's Matthieu Imbert and Richard Permin, Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, Tim Durtschi, and Wiley Miller will also be competing.
Benchetler says the Linecatcher gives the public a chance to see what they've only been able to admire on film. "It gives you a chance to use your creativity," he said. "It's very similar to what we do in the backcountry, but we're being judged."
"It's a hard competition because they only have three shots and they can't train. They can only check out the jumps and they have to give a really high performance on something they haven't trained on," Regnier says. "I think it's amazing to see all my friends trying to perform in those tough conditions."
With this set up, Benchetler says there's only one way to prepare. "I've just been skiing as much as can and making sure I feel confident and comfortable on my skis."
Skipass.com hosted a video contest to award two wild-card entries, which were awarded to Sam Favret and Guillame Sbrava. Because Sbrava is unable to attend, his spot will go to Tom Barnier. A qualifying event will take place in Vars to award two more wild cards.
Check back for more updates from the ground in France throughout the week.