PHOTO BY TOM DAHER, FREERIDE WORLD TOUR

George Rodney is stoked. He’s high on a ridge in Alaska, the Chilkat Mountains spreading behind him—glittering peaks against a perfect blue backdrop, bejeweled with endless, beautiful blue glaciers. But he’s not looking at them, or even taking in the vast valley floor far below, the braided channels of the Chilkat River glinting in the sunlight. He’s laughing and stoked and smiling. “That was the best run of my life!” he says, and then laughs again.

Haines, Alaska, is the place where many skiers have had the best run of their lives. The snow here is deep, cold and stable. The mountains are spectacular, steep and challenging. The skiing and snowboarding is, by most accounts, the best in the world. Accessed primarily via helicopter, the terrain is untouched and empty and on a good day—and there are many good days here—it’s one of the few places in the world where fantasy becomes reality, and even the most jaded of skiers find nirvana, if even only for one run.

As such, Haines provides the perfect location for the only North America stop on the elite Freeride World Tour (FWT), a five-event competition that also stops in Vallnord Arcalis, Andorra; Chamonix, France; Fieberbrunn, Austria; and Verbier, Switzerland.

Rodney, a Littleton Colorado native, was on his first year competing on the tour when the circus pulled into Haines last March. And the event would prove to be the defining moment of a rookie season that surpassed everyone’s expectations. Fresh off a win at the Andorra stop, Rodney would put down the run of the year in Haines, a flowing, high consequence on the edge ride that featured huge airs. It would be enough to cement his grip on the overall title as the Tour moved into the final event in Verbier.

“It was the coolest run of my life,” said Rodney after chalking up the win in Haines.

The wild child would go on to take third in Verbier and clinch the FWT overall title, a feat even more impressive when you take into account the level of competition. “It’s rare for a rookie to do so well their first year on the tour,” says Berti Denervaud, the FWT’s head of sport development. “It usually takes a season or two for new athletes to figure out the venues and adjust to competing against more experienced pros.”

It’s also impressive when you learn that Rodney suffered knee and foot injuries three years ago. While the knee injury was serious—a torn ACL isn’t an uncommon injury for skiers—it was the foot injury that could have been debilitating. Lisfranc fractures end careers, and while the damage and subsequent reconstructive surgery didn’t ruin Rodney, they did force him to miss the 2012-14 seasons.

That won’t be the case this year when Rodney returns to defend his overall title. It won’t be easy. Repeat winners are rare, in the last five years not one of the men’s ski champions has been able to defend their title. With unpredictable snow and weather, the slightest errors open the door to your competitors and a fall can knock you out of the title race for good.

Still, the Colorado native isn’t stressing. “I just want to have fun,” he says. “That’s the most important thing.”