UPDATE: Jess Hotter has become the first New Zealander to win the Freeride World Tour, despite a major crash in the final stop at Verbier, Switzerland, overnight. Hotter spoke to David Leggat before the tour’s grand final.
You could say Jess Hotter’s season on the 2022 Freeride World Tour didn’t start so crash-hot. As the Ohakune freerider puts it matter-of-factly, she fell down a cliff.
At the opening event in Baqueira-Beret, Spain, Hotter tumbled down some huge rocks before hitting one with her back.
“Luckily, I landed on my backpack and the shovel blade took all the impact on the rocks. I didn’t end up paralysed or in hospital. Super, super lucky,” she says.
By way of explanation, competitors wear a backpack as a brace and to hold important equipment, such as a shovel in case they’re caught in an avalanche. For those who get baffled by the different disciplines, Hotter is one of those who takes off down perilously steep slopes in skiing’s back country, swerving round or leaping over bare rocks on their way to the finish line.
Less than a week after that frightening crash in January, Hotter was back on her skis, and scoring her first of two stop wins on this year’s tour.
Now she has a chance to imprint her name in New Zealand’s rapidly expanding group of elite snow sports exponents, as she heads the field going into the fifth and final stop on the Freeride World Tour this weekend at Verbier, in southwest Switzerland.
Going into this event, Hotter leads the women’s ski section by about 7000 points. And she’s a good chance to become the first New Zealander, male or female, to win the title since it began in 2008.
Don’t be misled; 7000 points sounds a lot, but if, hypothetically, Hotter had a bad run and either of those in second or third, Austrian Hedvig Wessel and American Lily Bradley, pull out a cracker, they could pip the New Zealander.
She knows only too well that anything can happen. In the most recent event at Feiberbrunn, Austria, just last week, Hotter won the first run but in the second, she had “a horrendous crash… I tweaked my knee just a bit.”
Nevertheless, she won the stop, and she’s raring to return to the slopes as favourite in the grand final.
(Hotter reckons the worst injury she’s had, a shoulder dislocation, came while learning to kayak. “I’ve definitely been chewed up and spat out a few times, hit my head a few times.”)
Ask Hotter the obvious question about the fear factor and she’s honest enough to admit she does get bouts of nerves at times.
“But everything we do is calculated risk and for me that’s what’s drawn me to the sport, pushing myself in a sport I enjoy. It teaches you a lot about yourself,” she says.
Hotter, 28, started out as a standard ski racer. She spent her time in Ohakune and New Plymouth. At about 14, she discovered this other form of skiing and got the bug.
Asked if she still enjoyed having a regulation shoosh down the slopes with friends at Tūroa or Whakapapa after the lengths she has pushed herself to, and wouldn’t it seem a bit, er, tame?
She seems surprised. “Not at all. You can always find something fun to be had out of your experience on the mountain,” she says.
“Skiing is one of those things when you can always go back to basics, and that’s skiing properly, making nice turns and carving on the slopes – and Ruapehu has some amazing terrain.”
In a nutshell, there you have Hotter. She simply loves skiing, whether super challenging, and dangerous, or routine.
She started competing on the Freeride World Tour’s qualifier circuit at 22, but finally made it to the top tour in 2019.
Hotter missed last year due to the Covid situation but got back through a wildcard this year, where she’s had two wins – in Ordino-Arcalis, Andorra, and Feiberbrunn – and a second placing at Kicking Horse, British Columbia.
The World Tour consists of competition in four categories – men and women skiing and snowboarding. This weekend at Verbier the four section winners will be crowned.
Athletes are judged in five categories – difficulty of lines, control, fluidity, jumps and technique. So you need to be a good skier, have a clear thought processes and be prepared to take on the terrain.
This year there were 11 women skiers at the start of the competition. After the third event the field is chopped back. The bottom five return to the qualifying process for next season, the rest carry on.
She had her fair share of tumbles, but on those occasions when she feels a twang of pre-run nerves, she talks to others around her, who have seen her ski and know her ability.
“[You ask] so is this my skill level? Sometimes you do push it too far past your skill level and it’s a condition thing as well — making decisions in conditions. Like choosing to do a back flip in slushy snow and not thinking about the fact that the jump is going to be slower and not having enough speed and hurting yourself,” Hotter says.
“But a lot of it is competing in things we know we can do. We wouldn’t be biting off more than we can chew. It’s confidence vs skill.
“If your confidence is too high and your skill too low, that’s when you get hurt, so don’t get too far ahead of yourself.”
Young Kiwi snow sport athletes topping the world charts, like Olympic gold medallists Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous, are leading the way for the up-and-comers. Hotter admits she feel inspired watching their achievements.
“These guys are super inspired in what they’ve achieved and how hard they have worked,” she says.
“Zoi is an absolute powerhouse. I’ve skied with her and her skills are so strong. That girl can cross over, she can ride the pipe, do Big Air, she does back country, and jumps off stuff. I find that really inspiring.”
Told other young skiers could take similar inspiration from what she does in her chosen field, and Hotter pauses a moment. She hadn’t thought of it like that.
“I still think of myself as little old Jess from ‘Kune. The thought other people might look up to me is foreign,” Hotter says.
“I just try to keep pushing myself, pushing women’s sport, and if other people look up to that it’s super cool, pretty chuffed.”
One thing saddens Hotter about the sport – the costs which make it inaccessible for many people.
“Before I got on the Free Ride Tour, there was a lot of working really hard and being stressed about money to make it happen,” she recalls.
“It’s very unaffordable for a lot of people. I am aware the whole sport is becoming more and more expensive and it shouldn’t be like that.”
This particular discipline doesn’t have the star power of the other branches of alpine skiing. You won’t find it on the Winter Olympic programme any time soon because of its physical inaccessibility.
After Verbier, she’s thinking of popping over to London to see her elder sister, or staying on to do some training and take up filming opportunities before heading home to Mum and Dad in Ohakune.
She hopes, fitness and health permitting, she may have five more years of competing at this level.
“But it really depends where I am in my life. But there’s all the beautiful things about it. It’s been a crazy journey.”
One which can reach a fresh height overnight.