Author's note: I know what you're thinking: "Another Nine Knights story? Give me a break!" Well, ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that this will be the last article you'll see from this year's Nine Knights (unless my esteemed colleague MvR has another press release broadside for you - you're doing a great job Mark). Hopefully it does justice to the term "saving the best for last." Enjoy.
Words & photos: Ethan Stone
I'm standing halfway up the Nine Knights kicker, furiously raking down fresh snow, when Matt Margetts comes blasting past me no less than three feet away. It's Saturday afternoon and supposed to be the Nine Knights Big Air contest, which the fickle weather has now turned into a jib session on the castle's lesser features. Completely undaunted by the unpredictable speed and variable weather conditions, Margetts has announced that the jump is good to go, and now he's dropping in, dodging the shapers raking the kicker as if they're slalom gates, and boosting the jump clean with a safety grab. "We're here to give these people a show!" he announces, then adds, "Where the single ladies at?"
Matt Margetts putting on a show for the crowd.
My Nine Knights began about two weeks before this moment, when I joined the crew from the German park design company Schneestern to help build one of the most spectacular snow features the freeskiing world has ever seen. When I first arrived in Livigno, the castle was still just an enormous mound of snow with more elevation than some Midwestern ski resorts.
The unofficial measurement of the pile was 100,000 cubic meters. That's enough snow to fill 40 Olympic-size swimming pools; if all that snow were spread across a football field, the field would be buried over 50 feet deep. Or if you imagine the snow as a cube, that cube would be 15 stories high.
Our job was to transform this ponderous mass into twin 75-foot kickers, a 26-foot quarterpipe, twin halfpipes descending on each side of the feature, and a bevy of jib features as garnish.
Michi gets ready to cut out the arch.
We had snowcats, excavators, snowblowers, chainsaws and a bunch of other snow shaping implements... but sometimes a plain old shovel is the best tool for the job.
This is how to shape a 26-foot quarterpipe by hand...
...the whole 60-foot width of it.
Slowly but surely, the walls grow deeper. Deep enough yet? Nah...
That's more like it!
The finished product.
After two weeks of work, "Il Castello" was finally ready for the riders. On Monday, April 15 the first group came up to ogle the feature and start to test its possibilities. "Wanna Be a Knight" video contest winner Nicky Keefer guinea-pigged the jump, then rodeoed on his second hit to start off the jump session, while the pipe riders started picking their way through the maze of transitions.
Catching a tow up.
"Where the hell should we drop? There's too many options!"
Matt Margetts gets down with a cork 360 blunt.
Austrian am Dennis Ranalter unwinds the first double cork 10 on the jump.
Day 1's morning session ends with a jam on a small hip in front of the Red Bull tent. If the riders are having so much fun on the smallest transition in the whole castle, then we're in for a good week.
Marg flexes on the hip.
After an afternoon break to enjoy some fine Italian food, the week's first sunset shoot got underway. A diverse crew of talent laid down a hurting on the jump as the sun sank behind Livigno's peaks, as us camera types snapped away, hardly believing that we were in for a week more of this feature and this scenery.
Fabio Studer and his classy cork 3.
Jakob Wester rodeos.
Nicky Keefer floats a switch 5 blunt.
Prerequisite group hit.
After the riders had completed their job for the day, a different kind of work started: reshaping the castle into perfect form for tomorrow.
As it is wont to do, the sun came up again, and with it the shift change: shapers get to chill, riders get to shred, both under a welcoming blue sky.
On Day 2 the riders delved deeper into the castle's transitions, finding new possibilities that not even the shapers had imagined. The day's most-sessioned feature was a spine just underneath the Mottolino pipe gap rail, where the crew started boosting an undervert section of the pipe to a micro-tranny on the backside.
Joffrey Pollet-Villard boosts the quarterpipe.
Kevin Rolland, not to be outdone even by JPV.
Keefer guineas again - this time the Mottolino pipe gap rail.
Pressing it out like a G.
More pressing from Keefbox.
Austrian OG Luggi Brucic grabs seatbelt on the spine.
Germany's Roy Kittler was boosting huge 900s on the spine.
Margetts getting rowdy in the pipe.
After a rousing day session, it was time to get the kickers ready for the week's second sunset shoot - this time with the heli.
During the second sunset shoot, many a blunt was grabbed.
Lots of tandem hits went down.
More blunts were grabbed.
Lolo Favre displayed the world's flattest 360.
Luggi with a nice seatbelt 360.
Did I mention that blunts were grabbed?
David Wise's majestic double misty 10.
"Ski boss" Tanner Hall held it down with cork 9s, cork 3s and smooth flatspin 3s.
Day 3: Another reshape, another sunny day, another heli session - this time early in the morning.
Looking good after the reshape.
Goooood morning Livigno!
The riders ready for more.
Henrik's comment on seeing this photo angle: "Looks like Wu-Tang!"
Margetts, catch the blast of a hype verse
My glock bursts, leave in a hearse, I did worse
Raffa and Keefer come rough, tough like an elephant tusk
Ya head rush, fly like Egyptian musk
Aw shit, Roy Kittler spark the wicks an'
However, I master the trick just like Nixon
Causin terror, quick damage ya whole era
Zacek is locked the fuck up, or found shot
P.L.O. style, hazardous, cause I wreck this dangerous
I blow sparks like Ranalter Dennis
Okay, enough cheap usage of Clan lyrics. Suffice to say, the Day 3 morning shoot was filled with bangers, complete with a stomped triple cork 1620 from young-gun Italian Christoph Schenk.
One of the morning's highlights: tandem backflip and switch backflip from Thomas Hlawitschka and David Wise.
The action was so off the hook, even cameramen like Mark von Roy had to hit up Stefan the physiotherapist.
The afternoon shoot on Wednesday was one of my personal favorites from the whole week. Almost every transition in the castle was soft after a sunny day, and it seemed like almost everyone in the crew had a new line or approach to the feature to try out. Lolo Favre started boosting over the halfpipe gap rail, sending cameramen scurrying in his direction, while Christoph Schenk and Elias Ambühl started working an innovative new halfpipe transfer. Oh yeah, and David Wise superman front-flipped the kicker with a huge broadsword in his hand. At times it seemed like every transition in the castle was being ridden simultaneously, from the rails to the pipe to the jump.
Also, a "swap session" goes down as the media crew grabs their skis and sessions the mini-hip while a few of the riders pick up the cameras. David Malacrida and Mark von Roy from Downdays get down, the Headbud filmer has a mean seatbelt grab, and even French photog Louis Garnier gets into the action.
Lolo gets pissed when he misses his grab. "Dude, I'm a judge!" he exclaims. "I take away points for shit like that!"
Undiscovered tranny over and out of the pipe.
"Wow, that looks way better than I thought it was going to look!" says Margetts, scoping the photo. "I'll go bigger next time!"
Jakob playing in the pipe, shortly before tweaking his knee. Hope it's nothing serious Jakob.
Dennis working the stairsets.
David Wise is a medieval superman.
Nico Zacek looking pretty stoked about the session that's going down.
On Thursday, a team of electricians and pyrotechnicians rigged the castle with pyrotechnics worthy of a Metallica concert during the day, while us shapers got a welcome morning off. Henrik Harlaut had arrived yesterday from Whistler, and immediately started bumping Mobb Deep in the hotel lobby to stoke out T-Hall. Meanwhile I got a chance to inspect the daily party at Camanel di Planon. Italians are so into apres-ski, they start it at 10am.
Camanel di Planon, site of our Nine Knights chill area as well as a daily onslope party. "I heard people ride the lift up here just for the party," said Tanner Hall with disbelief. Believe it ski boss.
This guy was the life of the party.
After a relaxing afternoon of burying cables all across the castle in preparation for the night shoot, then re-burying them after certain shapers who will remain unnamed chopped them up with a snowblower, it was time for the Legs of Steel night spectacle to get underway.
The castle ready to rock.
My friend Rene spent seven hours building a perfect Red Bull logo out of daisy-chained pyrotechnics that burned for exactly one minute. Hope it was worth it Rene.
Night shoot, blah blah blah, fireballs, blah blah blah, Legs of Steel group hits blah blah blah.
E-Dollo throws an epic slash across the top of the quarterpipe.
The night shoot drags on and on. When I finally head for the valley at around 1am, a group of riders are just heading back up to start sessioning the jump again. Legs of Steel, indeed...
The weather is shit all day on Friday, pissing rain in town and snowing on the mountain. In other words, perfect conditions for the annual Nine Knights soccer tournament!
Elias Ambühl squares off against Matt Margetts.
The defending champions Team Schneestern is knocked out early, leaving a chance open for a new squad to rule. Although the athlete and media teams give their best, the well-organized 9K organizers' team "WEIS EAM" has been preparing for months, and has brought a secret weapon: the towering German machine Möhnsen, whose shots rain like fire from the sky. This Germanic superman propels Weis Eam through the finals with ease. Next year it's on punks, I'm training already.
It's been dumping all evening up at the castle, meaning the shape crew gets to head up at 3am to start preparing the castle for the planned Big Air event on Saturday. I stay up until 1 drinking whiskey with the crew in the hallways, then prepare myself for the long day ahead with a shaper's breakfast of Red Bull and cigarettes. And when we roll up the hill, this is the sight that awaits us.
Castle? It's somewhere around here....
...Ahhh, found it! Perfect conditions for a big air!
The snow has collected so deep in the halfpipes that we're able to swan-dive off the deck and land in a bathtub of fresh. No time for fun and games though, we spend the next six hours shoveling out the castle and praying for the snow to stop falling.
Cleaning off the stairs.
Slowly, day breaks, the whiskey drunk is wearing off, and the weather shows no signs of clearing. The decision is made to scrap the big air and hold a jib session instead.
Great weather for a contest, eh boys?
E-Dollo gets right to work on the rails...
...and an undiscovered hip tranny.
Despite the weather, a large Italian crowd turns out to watch the action.
T-Hall doing his thing on the spine.
Lolo Favre doesn't want to wear ski boots due to a shin injury sustained during the soccer tournament, so he shows his skills on a board instead. Just imagine if a pro snowboarder showed up on skis at a snowboard comp...
And this brings us full circle. The weather slowly breaks in the afternoon, and Margetts single-handedly rallies the crew for a jump session. In what seems like no time, he's throwing a double cork 10 as the crowd oohs and aahs, Christoph Schenk lays out his signature layback double backflip, and a few other riders toss in their tricks to put the nails in the coffin of the 2013 Nine Knights. Roy Kittler is crowned the winner of the jib session with his rail wizardry, E-Dollo displays amazing prowess in popping champagne bottles, Nicky Keefer is voted "Ruler of the Week" for his ceaseless and immaculate domination on every feature, chanting takes place, at least one shoe is drunk from, and then we all get drunk in the club into the wee hours of the morning.
The jib session podium: Fabio Studer (3rd), Roy Kittler (1st), Henrik Harlaut (2nd)
Time for some goddamn cake!
It's been an incredible week spent with a diverse crew of skiers, from local rippers like the Headbud crew, to the Frenchie and Scanner heads, to the Inspired crew - all brought together by Nico Zacek to a remote valley in Italy on a feature the likes of which have never been seen before, and perhaps won't be seen again... until next year's Nine Knights, that is. See you then.
The ruler of the week blunts into the sunset.