Daring Kiwi skier on precipice of greatness

New Zealand has another emerging snow sports star - one who goes where few others dare to tread.

Given the ease with which she navigates mountainous terrain that to most humans would prove utterly impassable, it’s easy enough to assume Jess Hotter’s path to the pinnacle of competitive freeride skiing must have been smooth.

Hotter, as numerous YouTube clips highlight, is among the very best in the world at skiing slopes most sane people would take one terrified peak at and go: ‘yeah, nah, I think I’ll go around’.

Freeskiers – or extreme skiers (and snowboarders) as they sometimes known – are the masters of the back country; the off-piste daredevils whose predecessors trace back to the 1930s, when adventurous Europeans began conquering the gnarliest faces of the French Alps.

Extreme skiing carved its way into (or at least closer to) the mainstream in the 1980s, thanks to the arrival of VHS players and movies that chronicled the exploits of the likes of mohawked party boy Glen Plake, Scott Schmidt and Shane McConkey - legends of the slopes whose daring was matched in intensity only by their cool (and fluro one-pieces).

These days the sport has evolved into a competitive global circuit. The sport’s pinnacle is the Freeride World Tour – which features just 50 athletes competing across five events in five different countries on the most incredible slopes on the planet.

Those 50 athletes consist of nine male snowboarders, seven female snowboarders, 24 male skiers and just 10 female skiers. Next year, one of those female skiers will be Hotter - a Mt Ruapehu ski patroller, whom fate had tried strongly to suggest she do something else with her life.

A competitive alpine skier in the Ruapehu College team, Ohakune-raised Hotter came across free skiing late in her college years when she became friends with Freeride World Tour veteran Sam Lee - and decided to compete in Export Xtreme at Whakapapa.

“That was the first time I’d heard of freeride,” she says. “I would have been 17 at the time. I decided the next year that I wanted to give it a go. But I couldn’t enter because I was too young. You had to be 18.”

A year later, now old enough, she again decided to enter the Whakapapa event, only for mock exams for her final school exams to get in the way.

After finishing school, she moved to Canada for a year, working at a ski resort in the winter and then as a gardener in the summer. When she returned she took a job at Whakapapa working on trail safety.

This time she was determined to finally have a crack at Ruapehu’s freeride event. She took a week off to concentrate on the competition - only for it to be cancelled due to poor weather.

“I was like ‘okay, either I am going to have to make a massive effort to do one of these competitions – or I won’t do it’,” she says.

So she headed south, to the North Face Frontier Two Star event at the Remarkables.

And so, with a brilliant run, a brilliant career finally began. Well, not quite.

“Actually, I crashed and broke my helmet,” says Hotter.

Luckily the snow gods finally intervened, and she was handed a wildcard entry into the Four Star event a couple of days later. She placed third – “and that kind of started things off”.

That result gave Hotter her first ranking points – and provided the platform to enter Freeride World Tour qualifying events. She ended her first season ranked 16th in Europe/Oceania, and her second in sixth – thanks in part to a victory back on ‘home’ snow at the Remarkables.

This year she rocketed to first, thanks to three Four Star victories on the world qualifier circuit (including Nendaz in Switzerland and Silvretta Montafon in Austria).

Now the World Tour proper beckons.

“In freeride competition, that is the absolute highest you can go," the 26-year-old says. "I’m super, super chuffed. Very excited and nervous.”

Speaking of nervous, anyone who has skied or snowboarded knows the feeling of standing at the top of a new slope and thinking they might just have bitten off a bit more than they can chew.

Multiply that by about 1000 when you factor in some of the terrain the world’s best freeriders routinely shred.

“I’m definitely nervous,” says Hotter of the experience of weighing up a new face.

“It really depends whether you have picked a line that you are concerned that maybe you might run into issues with.”

At the North Face Frontier – which she won again at this year’s Winter Games – she’s more or less at home.

“I don’t get scared I get nervous. I’m more familiar with that face. I feel comfortable I can navigate it.

“But I think it is going to be very different at venues where I am going to for the first time on the world tour. I did have a fair amount of nervousness competing in Europe for the first time this year. Because I haven’t seen the faces before and I’m not really one to watch previous competitions, I was like ‘show up and figure it out’.

“It was awesome. It wasn’t terrifying.”

Jess Hotter (centre) on top of the podium at the North Face Frontier Freeride World Qualifier, ahead of Swiss skiers Eva Battolla (right) and Sybille Blanjean. Photo: Neil Kerr/Winter Games NZ.

Being able to pick her own route provides a level of comfort; unlike other disciplines, there are no mandatory jumps or tricks.

“If I'm uncomfortable with something, then I don’t have to hit it. I can navigate to something that is safer," she says.

“As far as managing the fear, though, if there is something that you are particularly nervous about trying or doing, then there is going to be a fear aspect in there."

Getting lost is the most dangerous situation. Intentionally jumping off a cliff is one thing; falling off it, quite another.

“And of course not landing an air, not landing a cliff and crashing over more exposure,” Hotter says. 

For exposure, read 'rocks'!

Hotter has had her share of crashes, smacking her head in the process: “Which is not a lot of fun. But there has never been anything that has really messed me up.”

While competitors do have the option of choosing discretion ahead of valour, freeriding undoubtedly rewards daring.

Runs are judged for their lines (the level of difficulty and technical demands), control, fluidity (not stopping) and jumps: “how big you go and how much style”.

“If you send it to the moon and put a grab in, or send it to the moon and do a back flip, that is going to get way better points than going off it quite small,” says Hotter.

A helpful Red Bull ski term guide explains that ‘Send it’ is ski talk for a line that provides the potential for a particularly gnarly run.

Unsurprisingly, Hotter has always been drawn to slopes with the potential to 'send it'.

“Before I started competing I was always skiing the fun, steep lines; things that challenged me. I like to be challenged, I like to feel like I am improving. And that naturally sent me into more gnarly terrain.”

Despite her obvious talent, Hotter’s deeds are unlikely to achieve recognition far beyond the snow sports community. Free riding isn’t an Olympic – or even X-Games discipline – and isn’t ever likely to be. Based, as it is, around natural terrain, the sport doesn’t lend itself to being a part of a major, multi-discipline event. You can’t just build a quality freeride slope in close proximity to a Games village.

For Hotter and the rest of the New Zealand freeride team, the knock-on effect of that is a limitation to the level of High Performance Sports NZ funding likely to flow in their direction.

“Sometimes I wonder if people view freeride as just a fun sport. But once you get to a level of competition, Four Star competition, you are there for fun, but you are still training, still competing at a high level of competition. You are exposing yourself to dangers and the possibility of injuring yourself. So it's kind of sad it's not viewed as high a level of sport as racing – or anything that is an Olympic sport.”

Hotter has funded her exploits through jobs that have included picking vegetables, sponsor contributions and a Give-A-Little campaign.

She confesses to LockerRoom that she doesn’t know how much prizemoney will be on offer on the World Tour. We checked. The total prize pool across events in Japan, Canada, Andora, Austria and Switzerland is US$380,000. Divided evenly (which it most certainly won’t be), that equates to $US7,600 per competitor.

Hotter’s assessment that she probably won’t make a living out of her sport “quite yet” seems accurate.

“It is something that I am working towards – but at this stage I am still working to help fund everything. I am not 100 percent sure how much this next season on tour is going to cost me. I’m going in hopefully having saved a lot of money. If I qualify for another year, I’ll have more of an idea of what kind of budget I need," she says.

“The way I see it is that anything that comes from it is a bonus. That’s awesome. But for me it is about the experience; being able to say that I have travelled around the world and competed in the highest level of competition in [my] sport. That means a lot to me.

“I can be like ‘oh man, three years ago I was on the ski patrol at Ruapehu and I decided to do a competition. Now here we are – on tour’!

“It feels unbelievably amazing.”

She may have reached the peak – but Hotter knows she didn’t get there alone.

“There is no way I would be able to be in the position in any way, shape or form without the support of people who donated to my Give-A-Little page, without the support of mentors, anybody who has given me advice, given me work. My sponsors. And, of course, Mum and Dad.”

The rewards might be limited in comparison to some snow sports, but there is one intangible that needs to be factored. There has always been a special admiration reserved for extreme skiers. They were the coolest of the cool long before the X-Games.

Hotter grew up marvelling at the likes of Plake and McConkey, and had a poster of Schmidt on her bedroom wall.

“We definitely know them as the legends of old,” she says via text when LockerRoom checks if those 1980s and 90s icons were influences on today’s free riders.

Come January, when the Northern Hemisphere winter is well and truly set in, Hotter will be out to carve her own place in history.

“There are definitely some crazy people out there.”

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