The slope isn't particularly daunting, an easygoing 13 degrees – but it is on this stretch of snow in Russia's Caucasus Mountains measuring 635 metres in length, over the mellow vertical drop of 147 metres, that some of the grandest acrobatics on skis and snowboards ever performed will be staged in the early days of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The sport, whether on a snowboard or a pair of twin-tipped skis, is called slopestyle. Athletes shoot down the slope to perform tricks off a series of rails and jumps, judged on the performance as a whole.
Slopestyle has been a favourite of fans at the X Games for years but this February marks its debut at the Olympics. And for snowboarding in particular, slopestyle arrives just as it is eclipsing the better-known event of halfpipe – think U.S. superstar Shaun White's specialty – in terms of attention received, feats performed and acclaim bestowed.
Kaya Turski, in women's ski slopestyle, could vault to considerable attention in Sochi, after winning X Games gold in late January, part of an amazing comeback from knee surgery in 2013. Fellow Canadians Dara Howell and Kim Lamarre are also contenders. Spencer O'Brien in women's snowboard slopestyle is a podium favourite.
In men's snowboard slopestyle, for which gold will be contested on the first full day of competition, Feb. 8, Canada has three of the best riders in the world – and the stakes have been established at the recent X Games. Quebecker Maxence Parrot, 19, improved on his silver of a year earlier by seizing gold, winning with a trick, and a sequence of tricks, never before accomplished in competition.
Regina-raised Mark McMorris, who had won two consecutive X Games golds and rose to some fame on those accomplishments, pushed in his final of three runs to defend his titles but as he started a trick that looked like it was going to be something new, he crashed, breaking a rib. He pushes ahead to Sochi. "No one said it would be easy," 20-year-old McMorris said on Twitter last Tuesday, punctuating the tweet with a bit of humour: "#mcrib."
The third man, 21-year-old Sebastien Toutant, was the first of the three to win slopestyle gold at X Games, in 2011, and is among the medal contenders at Sochi but he, too, is riding through injury after badly bruising his ribs in a crash in the week leading up to X Games.
Everyone knew it would take big things to win in Sochi. White, at 27 the most famous snowboarder around, won four X Games golds in slopestyle in the mid-2000s and his fifth in 2009 but has been usurped since. With slopestyle's ascent to the Olympics, White has worked to perfect a "triple cork" – which is three off-axis flips while at the same time spinning 3½ full rotations (1260 degrees) if not four (1440).
McMorris and Toutant, in 2011, were two of the first three riders to land backside triple cork 1440s. Parrot at the X Games, for the first time in competition, pulled off two triples in a row.
"We're trying to think, what's next," Parrot's coach, Max Henault, said in an interview last year. A lot of it comes from training on a trampoline – "doing the most crazy things on the tramp." Last summer, Parrot was coy about details but said: "We're trying to learn new ways to spin."
What will be seen in Sochi will depend on the course, and how big the jumps feel to the riders. Also, the course is built for skiers and snowboarders, men and women, with each of the three jib features, such as rails, offering options of varying degree of difficulty, and each jump coming in two sizes, one large, and one smaller. The X Games slopestyle course is known for being the biggest around, and Sochi probably won't be quite as outsized.
So, like in other judged sports, style will be a key. All three Canadian snowboarders are known for their smooth riding, making it look easy.
Still, McMorris and the others have secrets in their pockets, tricks to unveil depending on the situation. "My main goal is only to win a gold medal," McMorris said in an interview this month – before he hurt himself, which colours the words: "I hope to be hitting my peak by then."