Kaiya Hanepen snowboards in Switzerland

Kaiya Hanepen, a member of the Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Snowboard Team, is headed to Switzerland to compete next week. Photo courtesy Kaiya Hanepen

For many years, Kaiya Hanepen woke up at 4 a.m. on Saturday mornings in the dead of winter to hit the slopes in Lake Tahoe. Despite the four-hour drive from the Coastside to the Kirkwood Mountain Resort, Hanepen and her brother, Sloan, remained eager to snowboard.

“We’d go up every weekend, like weekend warriors,” Hanepen said. “My dad just loves it up at Kirkwood, and he introduced me and Sloan to riding there. We just fell in love with it, too.”

All that hard work is paying off.

With 13 years of snowboarding under her belt, Hanepen, a 16-year-old sophomore at Half Moon Bay High School, is heading to Verbier, Switzerland, to compete at the 2021 Freeride Junior World Championship, March 29 to April 1.

Last year was Hanepen’s first season on the Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Snowboard Team, and like countless other athletes, her season was cut short by the pandemic. She won regional events at Kirkwood and Sugar Bowl in January 2020, then won her division at the International Free Skiers Association’s Kirkwood Junior Nationals in early March. By the end of her abbreviated season, Hanepen was first in the nation for her division, and will be one of six girls competing on the Swiss Alps.

It’s a trip of firsts for Hanepen. Her first time to Europe. Her first time snowboarding beyond the West Coast. And because it’s her first go in the Alps, Hanepen knows there will be a learning curve.

In the North American competition, Hanepen said competitors get “on-venue inspection,” meaning they can preview their line with a test run and identify what maneuvers to do at the right time. But in the Alps competitors don’t get a warm-up run on the slopes before the event starts. And with most of the course located above the tree line, they don’t have the advantage of using trees as markers. Hanepen expects this “visual-only inspection” to be a challenge.

“It’s all based on how the snow looks and where the rocks are,” Hanepen said of the new format. “I’m not used to this visual inspection where you can’t go on the course, but I’ve been practicing and training for it, trying to find my markers on the mountain.”

She’ll be judged on her fluidity, control style and technique.

Along with practicing the more nuanced positioning, Hanepen had to train with an avalanche pack, something all riders must carry on the slopes during the event. It’s yet another difference for Hanepen, who is used to riding off groomed trails.

“In Europe, you have to be a lot more careful and know where you’re going,” she said.

Under normal circumstances, the Freeride World Tour sponsors would pay for transportation and accommodation. Because of the pandemic, the Hanepens had to pay their own way. Three days after creating a GoFundMe account, 87 donors matched, then surpassed, her goal of $7,500. Hanepen was blown away by the support and is looking forward to traveling to Switzerland with her father.

“It was super amazing and thoughtful,” she said. “Now I have money for the trip, which is amazing.”

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