There's little about the remote Norwegian village of Stamsund,
located more than 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, to recommend
it as a snowboarding destination. While it does technically sit
atop a mountain, that mountain is mostly submerged in the
Norwegian Sea, exposing just its tip as the island of Vestvag√∏y.
There on the eastern shore, hard against rugged hills and cliffs,
Stamsund stands at an elevation of exactly zero, separated from
the mainland by the immense protein factory of the Vestfjorden, a
broad, deep inlet where codfish shoal every year from February
through April. Stamsund's 1,000 inhabitants have been famous for
centuries in Norway as fishermen, not as fakie-riding iconoclasts
who grab big air on the halfpipe. Indeed, a few miles outside
town, beyond the racks of drying fish that dot the landscape, the
Stamsund Sports Club operates the burg's lone ski run, a small
hill with a single T-bar.
Despite its seemingly unsuited topography, the hamlet will later
this month host a portion of the Arctic Challenge, an
ultraexclusive snowboarding jam presided over by celebrated
Norwegian rider Terje Haakonsen that in just five years has
become one of the sport's most prestigious competitions.
Twenty-six of the world's best riders will travel on March 27 to
the coastal city of Troms√∏, on the mainland about 160 miles
northeast of Stamsund, where they will compete in conventional
halfpipe and slopestyle events before taking a ferry down through
the fjords to the shores of Vestvag√∏y. Waiting for them on
Stamsund's slope will be the world's biggest quarterpipe, a
25-foot concavity that is basically one wall of a halfpipe. Set
up like a jump--with a steep hill as a run-in--it enables some
riders to soar more than 20 feet above the pipe's coping, as much
as twice the average height reached on the halfpipe. "I'd seen
video of it before I went last year, but when I saw it, I
couldn't even believe it," says Gretchen Bleiler, the women's
champion in the super pipe at the 2003 Winter X Games. "You have
to get so much speed going into it because you lose it all going
30 feet straight up. I probably got half a foot out of it the
To Haakonsen, putting such a unique event as the quarterpipe in
such an unlikely locale as Stamsund makes perfect sense. In
addition to being snowboarding's best freestyler for most of the
past decade, he has been the sport's leading antiestablishment
figure. Most famously, he has spurned the last two Winter
Olympics, saying that the Games stand for everything snowboarding
supposedly stands against. In the fall of 1998, after the sport's
Olympic debut in Nagano, Haakonsen and fellow Norwegian rider
Daniel Franck came up with an idea for an event in their country
that would take riders away from the rigid formats of
international competitions at big Alpine resorts. "We didn't have
any expectations," says Haakonsen of the first Arctic Challenge,
in 1999. "We didn't really even have a formal competition that
first year. Our goal was to have an event by riders, for riders."
To be sure, the reasons for the testy relationship between
snowboarders and the Olympics run deeper than just
countercultural angst. While the Games have turned a few of them
into something close to mainstream stars, most riders still
bristle at the notion of being regulated by the Federation
Internationale de Ski (FIS), the sport's governing body. To
snowboarders, the skiers who run FIS know nothing about them and
aren't prepared to deal with the rapid changes of a sport still
in its developmental stages. As Exhibit A they point to the
slalom and giant slalom events, which are still a part of Olympic
competition but have been dropped from the sport's other most
prominent competitions, such as this week's U.S. Open in
Stratton, Vt. "We did those way back in the day, but then we did
away with them to do boarder cross, and then we did away with
that to do slopestyle and rail events," says Liam Griffin, the
events and entertainment manager for Burton Snowboards, which
runs the U.S. Open. "Well, the Olympics just added boarder cross
for 2006! We haven't done that for three years!"
The Arctic Challenge comes at the end of snowboarding's
competition calendar, and the good-natured atmosphere is akin to
that at the NFL's Pro Bowl. Events are loosely organized to
follow a jam setup, in which riders get seven or eight runs to
show their stuff. The format encourages the athletes to take
bigger chances than they might at an FIS event, in which they get
only two runs. "A lot of people do their safe, standard runs for
years," says Haakonsen. "Here you have to have variation and show
you can do more than one run. We just want to let the riders have
Last year, for the first time, slots in the Arctic Challenge went
to snowboarders who qualified at one of nine competitions around
the world not subject to FIS rules, including the U.S. Open and
the Vans Triple Crown at Bear Mountain, Calif. It has come to be
known as the Ticket to Ride Tour, and this year 17 snowboarders
who follow it will earn their way to Troms√∏ and Stamsund.
(Haakonsen will still handpick eight wild-card entries, and one
final slot will go to the winner of an Internet poll.) "We are
trying as much as possible to focus on the best snowboarders and
not any politics," says Henning Andersen, the event's chief
executive officer. "If you're good enough, you're good enough."
Only five members of the media showed up at the first Arctic
Challenge, and Haakonsen actually got mad at Andersen for
inviting them. This year more than 200 credentials have been
issued to media from the U.S., Europe, Japan and New Zealand. For
Haakonsen, who has spent around $1 million of his money on the
event over the years, it is a surprising sign that his enterprise
might someday turn a profit. For now his show gets by on money
from sponsors and from host towns eager for television exposure.
"We can only afford to have four slots for women this year,"
says Haakonsen. "We'd definitely like to do more for them."
"The Arctic Challenge is getting bigger and bigger," says Ross
Powers, the halfpipe gold medalist in Salt Lake City two years
ago, who will be going to his second Arctic Challenge this year.
"It's definitely an honor to go because of Terje. Just his being
involved makes it a huge event."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ESPEN LYSTAD QUARTER MASTER Despite his duties as event organizer, Haakonsen still finds the time to ride Stamsund's monster pipe.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ESPEN LYSTAD VISIONARY Haakonsen has invested nearly $1 million in the Challenge.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ESPEN LYSTAD ALL ABOARD Olympic halfpipe champ Powers got in some fishing during his first Challenge.
"We are trying as much as possible to focus on THE BEST
SNOWBOARDERS AND NOT POLITICS," says Andersen.