Skiing and snowboarding events have felt stale in recent years.
Sure, it’s still fun to watch the best athletes go big on gnarly terrain, but I’ve felt that those big mountain competitions have been missing something to keep with the times.
Red Bull Raid, an annual competition held at Palisades Tahoe, has found what’s been missing.
The first Red Bull Raid happened back in 2019. I remember getting an email about this wacky ski competition that was going to judge skiers and riders by their uphill speed, and their downhill abilities.
I was skeptical.
Well, three years later, I made the journey out to Palisades Tahoe to see it for myself.
I had some questions- Could an uphill and downhill ski competition really be fun to watch? Was this just a glorified skimo competition? Would the athletes really be top-notch?
^KT22 basking in the rising sun. Credit: Matt Lorelli/Unofficial Networks
I woke up last Friday to a glorious sunrise just barely splashing against KT-22. It was already pretty warm, 30-ish degrees at 7AM, and the forecast was calling for a classic spring day in the Sierras. A high of 50 degrees, a very slight breeze, and not a cloud in the sky.
I hopped on the Gold Coast Funitel from the Olympic Valley base area around 8:30AM to make my way over the competition area. I could already spot the iconic Red Bull arch resting on the CII Headwall ridge high above, and could make out a few people down below preparing for the day’s competition.
I hopped off the Funitel and took a very icy groomer down to the start of the competition below Headwall.
The freeze-thaw cycle was very much in effect this morning, and the Red Bull folks decided to push the start back to allow for things to soften up.
^View of the competition area from the Gold Coast Funitel. Credit: Matt Lorelli/Unofficial Networks
The athletes were all gathered around at the start/finish area for the competition by the time I made my way there. There was some pretty sweet reggae music bumping from speakers, and lots of stretching going on. They were preparing for a long day ahead.
It’s not everyday, after-all, that you compete in a competition where you race uphill and then try to send your best line downhill.
The MC for the comp hopped on the microphone around 9:00AM to explain the rules. There were lots of questions, rightfully so, but the overall vibe seemed to be enthusiastic.
The athletes just couldn’t wait to get after it.
^Competitors get ready to ascend. Credit: Matt Lorelli/Unofficial Networks
I took this time to take notes. I had read the rules for the competition ahead of time, but I was still slightly confused. Let me break it down for you to catch you up to speed.
The competition is divided into four groups. Men’s ski, women’s ski, men’s splitboard, and women’s splitboard.
The scoring is broken down into two categories. The speed at which the athletes ascend from the base to the top, and how well they descend the zone. Three judges rate their descent by style, line, and control.
Athletes can score a maximum of 100 points for the ascent if they finish in first amongst their group. Second place gets 99 points, third place gets 98 points, and so on.
The descent is where things get fun. Athletes can score a maximum of 40 points for style, 30 points for their line choice, and 30 points for their control.
The uphill and downhill scores add up to a maximum of 200 points. Make sense? I know it’s a little bit weird, but essentially it makes the uphill and downhill segments equivalent.
^Event Participants compete during Red Bull Raid Credit: Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool
It was 9:30AM now, and the first competitors were ready to go. Part of the uphill time includes how fast the athletes can put their skins on, and transition into uphill mode.
The MC gave a countdown, and then a horn blasted. The athletes started running with skis in hand to a designated area for transitioning. It’s kind of weird to say, but it fun watching them scurry to the transition zone, and try to get their skins on as quickly as possible.
The athletes were furiously ripping skins, clicking bindings, and then full-on sprinting uphill. It was a sight to behold.
If you’re not familiar with Palisades, the Headwall area is a fairly steep section of the resort. I’m guessing the zone was probably around 800-900′ of vertical, with some sections that had a pitch no less than 35 degrees.
^Athletes race uphill at Red Bull Raid. Downhill area on the left. Credit: Matt Lorelli/Unofficial Networks
It would probably take the average person a solid 40-ish minutes to ascend the face at a reasonable speed, but the top athletes were crushing it under 20 minutes.
They were blazing up that mountain like they had to take a shit and the closest toilet was at the finish. That’s probably a crude way to explain what’s going on, but I think it paints the picture perfectly.
The athletes all gathered at the top of the competition area until the last athlete completed their ascent. I spoke with some athletes with smiling faces who said that they had just finished puking their guts out, and another athlete who boasted that it was just another walk in the park for her.
These guys and gals were legit.
^Athletes gather at the top. Credit: Matt Lorelli/Unofficial Networks
Watching the downhill segment was when the fun really started. The venue on Headwall was primo for getting different angles of the competitors. I watched a couple athletes from the very top, a dozen or so along the fencing to the skier’s left, and the rest from the bottom.
For a moment, it felt like we were in our own little backcountry zone. There were spectators all-around, but the stadium-type viewing experience was key to keeping the vibe lively.
^Zach Williams competes during Red Bull Raid. Credit: Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool
The crowd erupted with applause, high-fives, and Red Bull showers at what Williams had just done. It’s not everyday that an unknown kid beats one of the best skiers to ever live in his own comp.
Check out Daron Rahlves’ final run:
Even Rahlves himself was stoked that he had been beat by Williams.
Red Bull Raid was a competition, but it felt like more of a communal gathering. I was fortunate to play witness to this joining of like-minded athletes who were all just happy to be there.
I can’t tell you how many hugs, smiles, chest bumps, and all-around celebrations were between the athletes and the spectators. It was wonderful.
^Men’s Ski podium at Red Bull Raid Credit: Peter Morning/Red Bull Content Pool
The world feels like a shit-show at the moment, but for 9ish hours last Friday I felt peace. It was so refreshing to see skiers and riders passionate about winter sports gather for something special.
I don’t know what the future of Red Bull Raid looks like, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more events like this pop up around the country.
Check out the Red Bull Raid men’s ski competition awards ceremony:
There are hundreds of hard-charging uphill skiers and riders in communities from the Northeast, the Midwest, and other regions in the West that I’m sure would love to compete in an event like this.
Just off the top of my head, I could see Smugglers’ Notch, VT, Mount Bohemia, MI, and Alta, UT being incredible venues for competitions in the future.
I posed a couple of questions at the beginning of this article, and I want to make sure I deliver the answers for those of you waiting so patiently throughout my ramblings.
^Athletes gathering at the top. Credit: Matt Lorelli/Unofficial Networks
Yes- Red Bull Raid was extremely fun to watch. I couldn’t get enough of it.
No- Red Bull Raid is not just another skimo competition. Athletes are judged for their ascent by speed, but the downhill skills are what set this comp apart. These athletes were sending big lines in variable snow conditions, and it felt like watching a mini Freeride World Tour event.
Yes- The athletes were top-notch. Red Bull brought out the best the Sierras have to offer, and athletes from other regions. Watching them fly up the mountain, and then send big lines down was all the proof I needed.
Red Bull Raid athletes are legit.
^Looking down from the downhill start gate. Credit: Matt Lorelli/Unofficial Networks
Thanks to Red Bull, Red Bull Snow, Palisades Tahoe, and everybody else who made this trip possible. Getting to witness such a pivotal shift in the skiing and snowboarding competition scene was incredible.
Red Bull Raid is the shit. I hope to be back next year!
Results/Press Release From Red Bull Raid:
Red Bull Raid Crushes At Palisades Tahoe
First week of spring Uphill/Downhill Comp Test Tahoe Locals’ Lungs & Style
Olympic Valley, CA – (March 18, 2022) – The best all-mountain athletes converged on Palisades today to take on Red Bull Raid, the only freeride event in the United State that tests competitors on their uphill endurance as well as their big-mountain downhill prowess.
Under bluebird skies and with Lake Tahoe sparkling behind the starting chute on Cornice II, a full field of skiers and snowboarders fought through two heats to crown the winners of the third iteration of Red Bull Raid. When the dust settled, skiers Zach Williams and Kelsey Wittels and splitboarders Abe Greenspan and Alison Hardy took home the honors.
Red Bull Raid is unique for a reason: It takes the ultimate winter mountain athlete to blend the endurance of a ski mountaineer with the courage and creativity of a freerider. The event starts with the competitors at a downhill starting gate, as the field races out of a Le Mans-style start to see who can finish a 1,500 vertical ft uphill lung-busting climb first in full gear. After each competitor is measured on their time on the uphill, they send it down the rock-banded chutes and steeps for which Palisades Tahoe is world-famous. Both the uphill and downhill sections were worth a maximum of 100 points each, with the downhill component being judged by a panel of some of the best big mountain riders of all time, Mike Laroche, Sammy Luebke and Kenzie Morris. Judges looked for a experts on competitors’ style, control, and line.
Red Bull Raid is open to all, but is intensely local by design and execution, rewarding those who possess a deep knowledge of Palisade Tahoe’s moods and stashes. Zach Williams, the men’s ski winner, is a Palisades Tahoe ski patroller, and paired his local knowledge with the fitness that comes from the job. Williams said, “I’m just so stoked – this is my first time on the top of a podium. It’s my first year patrolling, but I grew up skiing here and I always considered myself an uphill athlete as well as a downhill one.”
The women’s skiing winner, Kelsey Wittels, a structural engineer, has similarly deep Palisades Tahoe roots. “I was born and raised in Tahoe City,” she said, “And my dad was a ski instructor for 35 years here.” This was Wittels’ first year competing in Red Bull Raid, and she was over the moon with the $1,000 winner’s check, “I won because I love Palisades. I love skiing here and today I just got to do what I loved!”
The crash of the day belonged to skier Bevan Waite from Truckee, who took an insane line down the main chute, launched a 40-foot air that catapulted him into a windmilling crash. And, for good measure, Waite did it all with liberated heels on telemarking skis.
Red Bull extends a thank you and appreciation to all participating partners and sponsors, including Palisades Tahoe.
Please visit redbull.com/raid for more information and final results.
For additional photo and video content for editorial use, please visit: win.gs/ContentPool-RedBullRaid
Featured Image Credit: Matt Lorelli/Unofficial Networks