Vagneur: Aspen embraces its ski-racing roots
March 18, 2017
Have you ever seen Aspen at night from Lift 1A? Makes you want to be in the electricity business. In case early-morning darkness gives you a taste of vertigo, the snaking line of bright lights meandering up Highway 82 quickly reminds you of reality.
Work on the World Cup Finals starts early in the morning. We pass in the darkness, amorphous shapes without personality, all headed to the same early-morning gathering place, a phalanx of volunteers and paid personnel with one thing in mind — the FIS World Cup Finals. After a couple days of working together, we begin to discern the dark-enshrouded shapes of those with whom we've shared duties, and brief hellos are said as we head into the tent at the top of Aspen Street.
Volunteers are always a curious group, and the leaders never quite know what they've got, especially our group, the "slipper crew," until they get us out onto the downhill course. Slippers need to be able to sideslip at 30 to 40 miles an hour over some very slick terrain without screwing up, but more about that later.
The first morning, we head to the Ruthie's lift (a high-speed, three-person chair) and the guy in front of me suddenly does a 90 and stops in the middle of the maze. Good thing it's getting light out. As luck would have it, we get on the same chair together and the first thing out of his mouth is, "Wow, I've never been on a lift this fast." Oh, oh. I have to ask, "Where the hell are you from, anyway?" and without hesitation, he replies, "Arizona." He quickly got reassigned to a job that didn't require skiing skills.
Slipper crew volunteers came from all over the place to participate in the finals on the slopes of Aspen Mountain, places like Italy, France, Wyoming, Austria, Canada and yeah, you guessed it, Vail. Some of these volunteers follow the FIS like some people used to follow the Grateful Dead, dedicated and committed to ski racing in its highest form.
You get to work with guys like my good friend, Dave Durrance, who was a member of the race jury this year. Incredibly, Dave competed in the first World Cup Finals in 1967 and 50 years later, is still participating in the finals. Ever the grand historian and observer of ski culture, he tells the story of running down that first World Cup Finals course all those years ago and wondering who the anonymous old men were standing along the fences, observing the race.
He then imparted the following take on the evolution of ski racing in a person's life. First, you're a young competitor, then a coach, then you contribute as a parent. After that, you become an administrator, and finally, you become one of those anonymous old men participating from the fences on the side. The only thing is, Dave, you're not old and anonymous — you're an icon in the ski-racing world and we're proud to call you our own.
Being a "slipper" on a World Cup course is a great honor and a privilege, as well. The job is simple enough — at a high rate of speed, side slip behind the racer who just went through, smoothing out his/her tracks left in the snow and removing any excess snow that might have accumulated behind that one racer. We do it in two-person shifts following each competitor, working four or five gates before we pull off the course and wait for the next racer to fly by. The racers only get one shot at the downhill gates per day — we sometimes get six or seven passes down the course, albeit sideways.
As race director Jim Hancock might tell it, it's like being asked to run the bases during a World Series game, making sure there aren't any clumps that might trip up a runner. Skiing is the only sport that does such a thing on such a high level, and the object is entirely plausible — making sure the course is as fair as possible for each competitor. As a credit to course slippers, it should be remembered that some years ago in Aspen, a downhill competitor, whose name escapes me at the moment, started in 64th place and won the race. That speaks highly of the job Aspen course slippers accomplish, plus it also is a record come-from-behind finish on the World Cup circuit.
We've done the two speed events; this weekend we get technical with the slalom and giant slalom. What a great week it's been so far — I haven't seen this many smiling faces or huge crowds for a long time, maybe ever, in our ski town. Everyone deserves a great round of applause for pulling off a spectacular event. With luck, we'll get back into the permanent rotation. The European racers, as well as the U.S., have a high degree of respect for Aspen Mountain, and they like it.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.