It’s easy to take things for granted once they’ve been around for a while. For the past four years the eyes of the freeskiing world have been drawn each April to Livigno, Italy, where Suzuki Nine Knights has promised insane ski action on huge snow creations that are as much architectural feats as they are next-level ski features.
After a certain period of time, you’d think it might get old—the longer an event goes on, the more likely it is to lose steam, stagnate, and eventually roll up and die. But Nine Knights still continues to surprise, year after year.
For me it’s more personal. As a shaper helping to build the features, then as a journalist covering the event, I spend weeks in Livigno each year. Each time I come home exhausted, thinking maybe I’ll take a nice vacation to a beach somewhere at this time next year. But Nine Knights just keeps on pulling me back. Here are a few of the reasons why.
Mottolino Fun Mountain in Livigno has been the host of Nine Knights since 2012.
The location can’t be beat. In a remote valley of the Italian Alps bordered on three sides by Switzerland, Livigno takes hours to approach from any direction. The most direct route from the north involves a rail tunnel in Switzerland (you drive onto a train that carries you through the tunnel), followed by an odd one-way car tunnel into Italy that’s only open in one direction at a time.
The one-lane tunnel from Switzerland into Livigno. Time it right on weekends, or you could end up waiting for hours to get through.
But it’s exactly this isolation that has allowed Livigno to flourish as a tourist destination. Those who manage to find their way here are welcomed by a special tax-free zone—a centuries-old perk intended to stimulate the economy of this formerly impoverished, hard-to-reach area, that plays out now in the form of dirt-cheap booze, gas, cigarettes, and whatever else you may want to buy. In Livigno a liter of Jack Daniel’s costs about 13 euros—that’s almost half of what you’d pay anywhere else in Europe. No wonder the party scene is real here.
Miky’s Pub: Slide on in!
Add in Livigno’s bountiful freeride terrain and flourishing freestyle clout (Mottolino Fun Mountain has hosted not only Nine Knights and Nine Queens, but Nine Knights Mountain Bike as well, and Billy Morgan’s recent first quad cork on a snowboard), and it’s easy to see why Livigno in general, and Mottolino Fun Mountain in particular, are on the fast track to becoming stars of the European freestyle scene.
Then of course, there’s the Nine Knights feature. Last year’s feature was hard to top: side-by-side kickers separated by a halfpipe with an audacious 30-meter transfer over the pipe, and more transition options than you can shake a stick at.
Jesper Tjäder’s double backflip over the death gap last year, in case you’ve forgotten.
This year’s design moved away from the idea of a central, everything-in-one element, instead spreading four unique features across the hill in a style more “Nine Knights park” than “Nine Knights castle.” It was a banquet for the senses, both for the riders and the media who came to document them.
Four elements – endless possiblities. The 2015 Suzuki Nine Knights setup.
It’s been a constant challenge for the designers of the Nine Knights feature to come up with something new and progressive each year.
“For the first castle, we had ten ideas in about a minute,” says Dirk Scheumann of Schneestern, who has designed Nine Knights features together with Nico Zacek since 2007. “For the next one, we had five ideas in five minutes. For this last one, it took us a lot longer to come up with something.”
This year’s triangle-shaped castle maximized rideable area, with the two front walls functioning as hip and redirect landings. The castle was followed directly by a massive 10-meter high hip, with a skateboard mini-ramp plopped on top for good measure. Two additional transition-minded features (cannon rail with side QP takeoffs, and the “Unreasonable” feature with a super-steep takeoff to landings on the left, right, or straight over the top) completed the offering.
Approximately 200 double backflips were stomped during the week – many in quick succession.
Oystein Braaten boosts a huge flair over the O’Neill “Unreasonable” Feature.
Christof Schenk almost maxed out the hip throughout the week.
But above all else, what really made this year’s Nine Knights more spectacular than ever before was the seamless integration of snowboarding into the program for the first time. Heavyweights like Halldor Helgason, Sage Kotsenburg and Max Parrot dropped side-by-side with their colleagues on skis, bringing a fresh perspective to Nine Knights that had been lacking before. Boarders drove the pace of progression throughout the event, with Sven Thorgren guinea-pigging the main jump and dominating it all week before topping the podium of the big air.
Nick Goepper and Sebastian Toutant air it out side-by-side.
The big air finals on Friday, April 10 were truly a rare spectacle. Never before have snowboarders and skiers thrown down side-by-side at such a high level. More mixed big airs should be held like this, with separate teams of snowboard and ski judges officiating while both sports session together. Huge triples carried the day (all the podium finishers in both ski and SB landed at least one), but a “style trick” requirement brought out a fair share of über-stylish 180s, 5s and 7s.
Fabian Bösch styles out a cork 720 blunt.
“2015 was the step from a really good event, to a really good big event,” said Nico Zacek. “I’m super happy about having snowboarders here for the first time, it felt so natural and it’s definitely the way we want to go with it. We are the luckiest people in the world, with the good weather, the snowpark crew, and the resort partner we have here on-site to be able to realize all this. And then you have 200 people here for a week, and they all have smiles on their faces. These riders do the biggest comps on the planet, but they’re still like little kids when they see a setup like this.”
And how about the design of next year’s feature? “I dreamed of next year’s feature last night,” says Nico with a grin. “So it’s already halfway done.”