Clubhouse Chronicles: Check out the AVSC venue

Before Aspen Highlands’ opening day on Dec. 8, Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club (AVSC) offers our athletes the opportunity to train early-season, directly in their backyard, and weeks before the lifts start turning for the public.

Founded in 2014, the Stapleton Training Center is conveniently located behind the AVSC Clubhouse on Thunderbowl at Aspen Highlands. Our groomed-to-perfection facility provides opportunities for our Alpine, Freestyle, and Snowboard athletes to access a world-class training center and racing facility with Alpine training lanes, a mogul course, rails, and airbags. Early-season snowmaking helps our athletes train locally, mitigating the need for early-season travel across Colorado to access suitable conditions. This allows local kids to sleep in their own beds, eliminates expenses associated with travel, and takes out the potential hazards of winter transportation.

AVSC is committed to providing our athletes with convenience by creating an environment where they can balance their academic and athletic pursuits seamlessly. Athletes access the Five Trees lift, a short walk from the Aspen public schools. Kids can go from class to the lift in under ten minutes, giving them more valuable time on snow at the end of the day. In a world where races are won or lost by a hundredth of a second, maximizing snow time can make all the difference in the world.

The Stapleton Training Center has evolved into more than just a local hub for AVSC kids, attracting national and international athletes as well as providing youth the chance to train alongside and observe the world’s best, including members of the US Ski Team.
AVSC/Courtesy Photo

The Stapleton Training Center has evolved into more than just a local hub for AVSC kids, attracting national and international athletes as well as providing youth the chance to train alongside and observe the world’s best, including members of the US Ski Team.

Gill Hearn, AVSC’s Alpine youth coordinator, explains: “We are fortunate to keep kids at home and around the best skiers in the world. During the World Cup, kids love watching their heroes ski the same slopes they train on daily. The kids really get an idea of what high-end racing looks like. We see inspired skiing as a result.”

The training center not only caters to training, but also serves as a competition venue that hosts international teams, collegiate teams, and neighboring clubs. The continued hard work of Aspen Skiing Company’s snowmaking crew, AVSC’s operations team, and the community has elevated the center to one of the best venues in the country. While parts of the venue are closed during training, there is still public access to Thunderbowl where you can ski down and watch athletes – young and old, Olympians and aspiring Olympians – hone their skills. Don’t be shy, and say hi to a couple of kids, or better yet, grab the chair with a few, and you will learn why Aspen is still the ultimate ski town.

The Stapleton Training Center not only caters to training but serves as a competition venue that hosts international teams, collegiate teams, and neighboring clubs.
AVSC/Courtesy Photo

Clubhouse Chronicles is a behind-the-scenes column written by the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club that runs periodically in The Aspen Times sports section.

Kilde up close: Superstar talks Birds of Prey, Mikaela Shiffrin and how he’s fighting for Norwegian athletes’ rights

Aleksander Aamodt Kilde has set a high bar for introspectively evaluating what a successful Birds of Prey World Cup weekend looks like. But the 31-year-old Norwegian knows standing on the top step of another podium isn’t the only prerequisite for a good time in Beaver Creek.

“I always had a very joyful moment skiing this hill — it’s one of my favorite destinations throughout the year,” said Kilde, who won back-to-back Birds of Prey races in both 2021 and 2022. “And I think that’s one of the reasons I also can just let go and ski it fast without having any issues.” 

Should he fail to win a fifth-straight time in Beaver Creek, Kilde will find comfort in the inherently minuscule margins often separating first and fifth — and 25th.

“It’s tiny margins. You miss one turn and you’re out. So, (not winning) is easy to swallow,” he said.

“I’m not saying you can blame something always, (but) it’s not cross-country where if you’re out of shape, you’re out of shape.”

Even without a preceding World Cup downhill to prime the pump, as the Zermatt-Cervinia event on Nov. 12 was canceled, mental and physical fitness won’t be an issue, Kilde said.

“It’s a little bit different,” he said regarding his confidence opening the year on Friday instead of say, Lake Louise a week ago. “But it’s a very good start, too, because it’s good snow, it’s fun to ski, it’s challenging — but it’s not dangerous I would say. Going straight into Kitzbühel would be a bit different.” 

Then he aptly added, “And of course, this is a place where I’ve been fast before, so for me, it’s just ‘do the normal things.'”

Kilde has certainly cracked the Colorado code. He said the Birds of Prey course — with its mix of technical steeps favoring GS guys and big jumps and long gliding sections benefiting the true downhillers — accentuate his identity, which he characterized as a “technical skier within downhill.”

“I’m not just a glider, but I also can do fast turns. And this is a place you can really pull them off because the snow is so fantastic,” he said.

“You have the capability of going super clean, a tight line, and executing it. That’s something I’ve loved by being here.”

When he’s navigating features at 60 miles per hour, Kilde said sometimes he doesn’t realize how lost momentum from a pinched gate or errant line cost him podium-altering hundredths until he’s looking up at the finish-line big screen. Other times it’s obvious, like his “big mistake” during Wednesday’s training run, where he finished fifth.

“There, I lost a lot of time, and to the best guy I lost a second. That I could feel right away,” he said.

The two-time defending downhill crystal globe winner always tries to maintain a mindset of “next one, next one, next one” when he’s going from Russi’s Ride through The Abyss and over the Redtail Jump.

“I think one of the most important things as a skier, especially during races, is to try and focus on what’s coming,” he said. “Not what’s happened.”

Klaebo and Kilde at odds with the Norwegian Ski Federation

Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde skis during Tuesday’s downhill training session.

For the last three seasons, Kilde said he has been working to create a “new structure” to athletes’ Norwegian national team contracts. Kilde, along with 2023 slalom crystal globe winner Lucas Braathen (who unexpectedly retired at the age of 23 this October) and the all-time winningest male cross-country skier, Johannes Klaebo, have made Norwegian news headlines because of a disagreement with the Norwegian Ski Federation over image rights. After winning a record 20 World Cup races last season, the 27-year-old Klaebo, who shares Kilde’s lawyer in the dispute, left the national team last spring because of a “difference in values.”

“Right now in our contract, it says the Ski Federation owns our image rights 24-7, 365 days a year. And we as athletes, we think that’s not right,” Kilde said. “We need it to be a better solution.”

Kilde said he can’t, for example, make Instagram posts with private sponsors unless Telenor, a national team sponsor, is visible as well. He believes the changing landscape of social media-based branding opportunities is something the Norwegian Ski Federation has been slow to recognize and adapt to.

“It’s not only about TV and newspapers like it was before — now we have other platforms where we can have value for every athlete,” Kilde said. “I think it’s just an old-fashioned structure that we need to change. We tried to do without ruining anything, because in the end, it’s about finding a win-win situation.”

Kilde said athletes understand national-team sponsors allow them to “do what we do, do what we love.”

“But we need the freedom to build our own brand, too,” he added. “We also want to be humans on the side where we can do what we want on social media on our own platform.” 

Surprised by Shiffrin?

Mikaela Shiffrin, left, and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde attend the Time100 Gala, celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world, at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 26, 2023, in New York.

Mikaela Shiffrin has looked sharper than ever — winning two slaloms and placing third, fourth and sixth in her other three races this season — despite a less-than-perfect prep period and a practice crash, which eliminated another training week before a surprise win in Levi, Finland. According to Kilde, however, the Edwards skier, whom he’s dated since 2021, didn’t exactly emanate GOAT-like vibes prior to the Nov. 25 Killington World Cup.

“I talk with her every night and I get a sort of feeling of how she is and if she’s ready or not, and honestly, before Killington, she wasn’t ready at all,” he said.

“She said to me she didn’t feel good. I also felt like she was a little bit down, and I was just like, ‘Well, yeah, then just try to enjoy this weekend.'”

The World Cup career-wins record holder took third in the giant slalom and won the slalom — her sixth victory in the seven Killington World Cup slaloms ever held.

“And then I’m just like, ‘Wow, this lady is amazing.’ I knew that from before, too,” Kilde said.

“I never get surprised about her performances anymore because her capabilities of delivering when she needs to is unreal.”

Even with Shiffrin’s intention to add more speed events to the schedule, Kilde said the couple’s conversation around skiing organically remains tethered to the task at hand.

“Whatever we do, we talk about it and we try to exchange experiences and take advantage of being someone in a good position of delivering good results,” he said. “Right now, I feel it comes more natural than anything else.”

Still, Kilde said neither person is a one-track soul incapable of veering the conversation away from the ins and outs of course profiles or obscure sector stats.

“Probably a lot of people think that. But, no. We turn off, too,” Kilde said. “Like everyone else, you get sick of what you’re doing sometimes, and we need some distance.”

Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, at left, celebrates on the podium with artist Anne Price after winning the World Cup downhill last year in Beaver Creek.

When asked if a royal wedding for the king and queen of Alpine skiing was in the near future, Kilde smiled, then indicated the press wouldn’t be the first to find out such intel if there was.

“We talk about the future for sure. The future is what we live for. We have a really good time together, and that’s what’s important, and if that turns into a marriage and having kids, then that would be awesome,” he said before adding that the couple is “taking it one step at a time.”

“Being able to share a life on the road together with someone who lives the same life is just amazing. And the next step will be something more exciting I guess. We’ll figure that out when it comes.” 

While Shiffrin goes for career win No. 91 and 92 in Tremblant, Canada Saturday and Sunday, Kilde will eye No. 22 beginning Friday at 10:45 a.m. If history is any indication, he might leave Beaver Creek Sunday with No. 24, too. But he’s not stressing too much about it.

“I know that if I feel like I’m ready, I’m ready. If I win, then, awesome. Everything worked,” he said.

“If I don’t win, then I look back and say, ‘ok, today didn’t work the way I wanted it to, but I still have the confidence that I can win, and I’m on the right track and keep on working.” 

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New norm for uniforms: Vail Resorts rolls out employee-designed kits with an eye toward the future

By now, you may have noticed a new look among staffers at Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek resorts.

Gone are the days of the spectrum of colors guests once saw on the mountain. Vail Resorts has rolled out a new line of Helly Hansen jackets and pants for employees that are, for lack of a better term, more uniform across the company.

Mountain safety is still in yellow, maintenance workers are still in black, but managers and ski patrollers will now be in crimson-over-black jackets with black pants, while all other operations workers will be in a simple blue-over-black uniform. The old gray jackets, affectionately known as “Siberian special forces,” are now a thing of the past along with the green “EPICkles” and all other same-color pant-and-jacket kits.

Jeff Babb, senior director of Resort Operations for Vail Mountain, has been working on Vail Resorts’ uniforms since 2010, when a request for proposal was first put out for outerwear brands to design uniforms for the company’s thousands of on-mountain employees.

Making it simple

One of the main motivators for the effort was, simply, finding a pair of pants that workers wouldn’t complain about.

“Pants are the biggest pain point,” Babb said.

A fluorescent accent around the neck of Vail Resorts’ new uniforms will help guests recognize workers from a distance.
Courtesy image

But there’s a lot more to it, including that full spectrum of colors you once saw among employees.

“One of the reasons we did this was to get rid of all of these different colors,” Babb said. “That was part of our conversation with Helly as we looked at this new program — we really thought that the guest doesn’t particularly care what color things are, they just want to find an employee; so we’ve made the garments where they are easily recognizable with the big logos, so that a guest can find an employee and get their issue resolved.”

Reducing the carbon footprint of the process also played a major role in the uniform overhaul. He says if you really want to be sustainable, then you need to take care of your gear and use it for a long time. So he got to work on a program that will include regular tune-ups to keep gear lasting long and an end-of-life process that ensures that the gear will be reused in other products once it has outlived its useful life as an all-weather garment.

Helly Hansen presented itself as an attractive option for Vail Resorts through its partnership with Recircled, a Denver-based company with a plant in Sidney, Nebraska, that deconstructs old uniforms and turns them into countertops and construction insulation.

Helly Hansen’s European roots made the company appealing when it came to the carbon footprint, Babb said.

“Being a European-based company, the European standards are a little ahead of our standards in the United States, so Helly Hansen had already been working diligently to meet the European standards — the Bluesign standards, et cetera — that existed in Europe,” he said. “So they were a little ahead of the game already.”

He said the new uniforms — which consist of a jacket, pants, a mid layer, and in some cases, a utility vest — are made with some recycled materials and will be 100% recyclable at the end of their useful life through the Recircled facility in Nebraska.

Putting the kits to the test

Helly Hansen was also responsive to feedback, Babb said, meeting with him on a monthly basis to incorporate Vail Resorts’ suggestions into the new designs. Feedback came from Vail Resorts workers who put the uniforms to the test and reported back to Babb, he said.

During the winter of 2022-23, Vail Resorts maintenance workers and ski patrollers tried out the garments at 17 different resorts.

“We had the manufacturer send us about 150 kits worth of test garments, and we put those on employees across our enterprise,” Babb said. “We wanted to make sure we covered all of our geographic regions as they’re obviously different, to hopefully garner as much feedback as we can for different resorts, for different regions and different climates. We asked those employees to fill out a report for us on a weekly basis.”

When the ski season ended in North America, the testing continued in Australia, he said. And at the end of it, they were able to work together to engineer pants that fit everyone.

“The fit was our biggest hurdle because garments are very personal, how they fit and how they work, so a uniform program has to be kind of dynamic,” he said. “We incorporated a great amount of adjustability into our pants for our uniforms; the pants can be very easily lengthened, the pants can be very easily shortened, they have quite a bit of adjustment in the waist, plus with a new fabric that is more payable, more conforming and even has a little bit of stretch to it in some instances and allows for a greater range of fit for different body types.”

Of course, there were many other modifications made to the various Helly Hansen garments as a result of Vail Resorts’ feedback, as well. Design elements like a gusset on the neck, a walkie-talkie antenna holder, and loops for radios were also added, to name a few.

Vail Resorts’ new uniforms are designed by Helly Hansen using feedback from employees on the mountain.
Courtesy image

One of Babb’s favorite elements is called a life pocket which, for some, really lives up to its name.

“It’s an insulated pocket for your cell phone or your radio, but we’ve even had a few employees who need insulin pumps, and that life pocket allows those insulin pumps to stay warm and perform more efficiently,” he said.

For this year, the company has implemented the new uniforms at its five Colorado resorts, along with Whistler-Blackcomb, and by next year, you can expect to see employees wearing the new Helly Hansen kits on the West Coast and Park City, as well. Full implementation across all of Vail Resorts’ 41 properties in North America, Australia, and Europe is scheduled to be complete by the 2026-27 season.

Vail Mountain spokesperson John Plack, who has doubled as a new uniform model in recent months, said Babb put a level of dedication into the uniform project which will benefit workers for years to come.

“Jeff’s been working on this really hard for a very long time, and I think it’s a program that the company’s pretty proud of,” Plack said.

Birds of Prey World Cup training runs get underway at Beaver Creek

Bluebird skies welcomed the world’s fastest skiers on Tuesday in Beaver Creek as the Birds of Prey World Cup races got underway with an opening downhill training run.

All the heavy hitters were present, along with a fresh class of podium-caliber pros. Among them were a number of Colorado skiers just happy to be spending a week back home.

“It feels amazing,” said River Radamus of Edwards after completing his first training run of the week. “It’s a special feeling, you know, you really feel like you’re on home turf here.

“The hill prep is phenomenal,” he added. “The snow is really good; it’s a little bit hard to get used to. I mean it’s grabby, it’s aggressive, but it’s really smooth. I mean, I ran 81 today, still phenomenal conditions, so yeah, it’s going to make for some really good, really fair racing this week.”

Ryan Cochran-Siegle of the United States skis during Tuesday’s men’s World Cup downhill training run at Beaver Creek. Cochran-Siegle posted the fastest time among the American men.

The Ski and Snowboard Club Vail alum finished with a strong statement at the 2022 event, rocketing to a 16th-place finish in the closing super-G. He was the only American to gain points in the race. The local favorite has taken the lessons learned from his last performance and has been applying them to his progress since.

“It’s been a really good prep period. Our whole team has been skiing really strong. I feel very confident in where we are and what we are able to do here,” he said. “There’s a chance I might race this weekend in the downhill, so I’m building up to that. In super-G, I feel really good right now – I feel completely in command of what I want to do, so I’m going to try and throw one down again, you know.”

Littleton’s Kyle Negomir, another SSCV alum, has a long history with the Birds of Prey event, dating back to his days of working on the course, instead of racing on it.

“I would be up there slipping, pulling B-net, shoveling snow, doing whatever needed doing with the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail crew. My parents have worked here god knows how many years. My mom’s up there Wednesday and Thursday this week. They usually put her as a gate judge somewhere scary on the brink or something, you know, they’re like, ‘Ah she’s tough, she can handle it.'”

Kyle Negomir completes his first training run on the Birds of Prey downhill course on Tuesday.

“It’s pretty special to be able to be at your home race and you see your parents doing inspection,” he said. “They’re on the hill working with everyone else. But it’s cool that you know there’s such a big community with the Talon crew and everyone that puts their time and energy in to help us and to help pull this race off, so I really appreciate seeing my parents as a part of that.”

And while not technically a “local” — being Mikaela Shiffrin’s boyfriend does still earn partial credit with the home crowd — Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, who had a dominant performance in last year’s races, topped Tuesday’s results by posting a 1:39.68 time, followed by Cyprien Sarrazin of France and Andreas Sander of Germany. Switzerland’s Marco Odermatt, a usual heavyweight of the event who was recently sidelined at the Copper training sessions due to back pain, posted the eleventh-best time.

Training continues on Wednesday at 10:45 a.m. The Thursday training session is canceled, according to event organizers.

The World Cup men’s field is preparing for the first speed race of the season after previous speed events in Zermatt, Switzerland, were canceled due to poor weather conditions.

Canceled Soelden Men’s GS added to Stifel Aspen World Cup in March

The canceled men’s Audi FIS giant slalom World Cup race in Soelden will now be added to the Stifel Aspen World Cup on Friday, March 1, 2024, according to a Nov. 19 news release from U.S. Ski and Snowboard. This is in addition to the scheduled giant slalom and slalom March 2-3 in Aspen. 

The men’s giant slalom World Cup in Soelden, Austria was canceled abruptly on Oct. 29 after strong winds made it clear that the race could not take place in a fair way. A total of 47 racers made it down the Soelden track in the first run before the race was put on hold and ultimately called off. 

“We are thrilled to bring the canceled giant slalom race to Aspen for an additional day of racing,” said Sophie Goldschmidt, President and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard in the release. “It is exciting to bring another opportunity of racing to our domestic crowd and see our men compete on home soil.”

Aspen Snowmass is seasoned in welcoming the world’s best alpine athletes to its venue with the Stifel America’s Downhill — a downhill and super-G — in the 2022-23 season and World Cup Finals in 2017. Aspen Snowmass has hosted more than 80 World Cup races over nine decades.

“Aspen’s passion for World Cup ski racing is decades old and runs deep,” said John Rigney, Senior Vice President at Aspen Skiing Company, in the release. “To secure an additional men’s GS race only adds to the excitement around the upcoming Stifel Aspen Winternational and helps make our season kickoff this week even more special for our community.”

The tech races — slalom and giant slalom — will bring a different group of skiers to Aspen than last March, when it hosted downhill and super-G races. Instead of speed stars like Aleksander Aamodt Kilde and Vincent Kriechmayr, who finished 1-2 in the downhill standings this past season, Aspen will likely welcome names like Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, who uses Aspen Highlands for training early each season.

“We’ll get to see the other half of the tour by going with tech races instead of speed,” Rigney said in a previous Aspen Times story. “This is the kind of event that our entire town takes pride in; so being able to count on it, at least for the next year, not only is it good news, but it’s a feather in the cap of everyone who came out to support it.”

According to the FIS archives, Aspen has not hosted men’s tech races — outside of the 2017 finals — since November 2001. That included two slaloms, the first won by Croatia’s Ivica Kostelic. In the second slalom a day later, American icon Bode Miller rallied to finish second despite wearing bib No. 54. Austria’s Mario Matt won the race.

Prior to the 2017 finals, Aspen had been a regular stop for women’s tech races for many years. The highlight was seeing Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin, who won the last non-finals women’s race on Aspen Mountain in November 2015. Those races effectively moved to Killington, Vermont, which has become a mainstay on the women’s calendar in recent years.

Colorado fans will be able to cheer on local favorites in the giant slalom, namely Stifel U.S. Ski Team athlete, world champion and Colorado local River Radamus, as well as world champion Tommy Ford. The race comes shortly after another domestic tech event, the Stifel Palisades Tahoe Cup held Feb. 24-25 in Palisades Tahoe, California.

Aspen Skiing Co. season pass prices increase for the coming season

Aspen Snowmass season pass prices are up from the prices of last season, according to a Tuesday press release from Aspen Skiing Co.

Skico announced its Premier Pass, which comes with unlimited skiing and no blackout dates, among other benefits, is $1,809 for chamber members, up $110 from last season, if it’s purchased by the super-early deadline of Sept. 15. Non-chamber members will be charged $2,779 for the Premier Pass if it is bought by the same date.

Chamber members are considered workers in the Roaring Fork Valley whose employers belong to their local chamber of commerce.

Along with access to all four Aspen Snowmass resorts, other Premier Pass benefits include a complimentary Ikon Base Pass, an Uphill Pass, unlimited summer gondola and chairlift sightseeing access, transferable vouchers providing discounts on lift tickets, lessons, and rentals for friends and family; passholder discounts on ski/snowboard lessons, rentals, parking, and dining; as well as 50% off passholder discounts on lift tickets at other Mountain Collective destinations.

Other options for the upcoming season include the Alpine Pass, which can be used for one or two days a week. The one-day pass is $1,119 for chamber members if they buy before Sept. 15, up $70 from last season, and the two-day pass is $1,564 for chamber members if they buy before Sept. 15, up $95 from last season. Non-chamber members will pay $1,324 for the one-day pass and $1,944 for the two-day if purchased before Sept. 15.

The Valley Pass is also back, which entitles Roaring Fork Valley area residents to seven days on the hill. The pass runs for $496, up $52 from last year if bought by Sept. 15.

Skico will offer a one week, in-person sale of the Valley Pass. The sale will take place Oct. 23-29 at the Aspen Mountain Ticket Office, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and is open to residents outside the Roaring Fork Valley, no ID required. Individuals must be present to purchase, and there is a one pass per person limit.

An Uphill Pass will continue to be required and is back with the same $69 price tag, with $10 going to Mountain Rescue Aspen. The pass allows users to hike or skin up Skico’s lift-served areas during designated hours. Like last year, users will be required to wear their Uphill Passes on their sleeves, so they are clearly visible.

Super-early pricing on passes will be available through Sept. 15, early pricing on passes will be available through Dec. 1, and regular pricing begins after Dec. 2.

Passes are available for purchase at or at Skico’s ticket offices. The Aspen Snowmass app also can be used to expedite the process.

Aspen Mountain and Snowmass Ski Area are scheduled to open Nov. 23, and Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk will open Dec. 9.

This season is Skico CEO Geoff Buchheister’s first after taking over from Mike Kaplan.

“This is an especially exciting winter season as we unveil our new Pandora’s terrain on Aspen Mountain,” Buchheister said. “I couldn’t be more excited to kick off my first season with Aspen Snowmass, and I look forward to getting out on the hill with our community and passholders this winter.”

Bleiler: Life in ‘the middle zone’ and opening up about athletes’ mental health 

Gretchen Bleiler, Olympian and Aspen snowboard superstar, was dominating her sport, winning pop culture and icon awards, and racking up thousands of miles crisscrossing the globe.

She also was racking up concussions, at first few and far between, but then four back to back in 2012 that began to change everything. She retired in 2014, still struggling to recover from a training accident in 2012 in Park City that shattered an eye socket, broke her nose and, yep, in which she suffered a serious concussion.

“It’s been a tough time since I retired,” she said. “The bigger picture was everything that was my life — career, community, marriage, health — all went away all at once.”

The pillars holding her up in life were crumbling around Bleiler. She was now in what she calls “the middle zone.”

“Everyone told me it would be hard transition. I didn’t realize it. I was on that train,” she said. “My whole life had been snowboarding, my whole community. I didn’t realize how much I was ‘on’ for 15-plus years. I was just on all the time, whether it was competing, working with sponsors, hosting, photo shoots. It didn’t quit, nor did I.”

She added, “It took me a long time to slow down. I didn’t know how to live. I was used to hotel rooms and constant travel and schedules. It was a relearning process. How do I live in one place?  I didn’t know how to do that.”

People had forewarned her, sure, but she still wasn’t prepared for what would follow her high octane, globe-trotting snowboard career. That, along with new mental health struggles from the back-to-back concussions.

“Post-concussions, I worked with lots of doctors, and I haven’t gotten too far,” she said. “I think we are still in the dark ages when it comes to the brain and concussions.”

The go go years

Bleiler began snowboarding at 11, and the young star’s trajectory took her around the globe and to worldwide fame. 

The Ohio native and her family relocated 1991 to Aspen, where she attended middle and high school.

“I joined AVSC when I was 15 years old in 1996,” she said. “It was the first time I had people to push me and give me technique and teach me how to compete.”

She was a pro by 2000. In 2003, she had eight straight wins: the World Superpipe Championships, X Games Halfpipe gold medalist, U.S. Open champion and the Overall Grand Prix title.

By 2006, she was Olympian, a silver medalist in the half pipe, overall Grand Prix Champion and an FIS World Cup first place.

Gretchen Bleiler began snowboarding at 11, and the young star’s trajectory took her around the globe and to worldwide fame over her career. 
Aspen Skiing Co./Courtesy photo

The medals, and hits, kept stacking up. In 2008 Bleiler was the X Games Halfpipe gold medalist and Winter Dew Tour Superpipe champion. 

She qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and took 11th place. She won the X Games Superpipe gold that year.

In 2014, she announced her retirement after struggling to recover from the 2012 training accident, which had thwarted her from making the 2014 U.S. Winter Olympics team. 

This marked the end of her snowboarding career and a monumental shift in everything Bleiler had known or ever done before. 

A darker reality

She was already on the athlete speaking circuit, where she had honed her story about challenge and success in the sport. However, she recognized the entire story wasn’t being told. 

“It’s about the middle range and those struggling with mental health,” she said. “We need to be talking about it and not feeling so alone in the experience. We must bring people out of the shadows. There is a link between mental health, cumulative concussions and what we are learning about CTE.”

Athletes like herself who had dedicated their bodies to a sport only to be physically and mentally crippled at such a rapid pace, post career, are slowly starting to open up to the public.

“It’s such a sad end-of-life story. These athletes who we were all so inspired by, who made the impossible possible, their mental and physical health can be so deteriorated and debilitating. Their life can become tragic. It should never be like this,” said Bleiler. 

“No one knows how to treat CTE. So many people are not talking about what they are going through. It’s shameful and isolating by yourself. And there’s delayed changes, many times years later. It’s confusing, what is happening to my personality, why is this happening, am I going crazy?”

To rebuild the pillars in her life, Bleiler began that deeper journey she had ultimately been craving. She had already received her mediation certification in 2014 through the Chopra Center. She was ready for more.

The shadow side of glory

Bleiler has suffered mental ailments from her choice of profession. At first, it was typical athletic nerves before competitions. 

“I learned at a very early age that I wasn’t safe feeling as deeply as I felt. I learned how to be an emotional avoidant,” she said.

More than a couple of times, she vomited in a garbage bag while waiting for her turn to hurl herself down an ice sheet, at times reaching heights of over 30 feet above the ground, upside down.

Bleiler would somehow pull herself to the start gate, breathe in the energy, and make her many, many practice runs come to fruition in front of thousands of people, hundreds of times.

“Trying to qualify for the Olympic team for the first time was a pivotal experience for me,” she said. “I wanted to go to the Olympics so badly. It was a childhood dream since I was 7. I so tightly clenched onto this goal.”

Bleiler and her best friend ended up in a record-breaking triple-way tie for the Olympic spot, and she didn’t make the team.

“I brought back the joy into what I was doing. That became my blueprint for success,” Gretchen Bleiler says.
Aspen Skiing Co./Courtesy photo

“I was relieved it was over,” she said. “That experience to me was disturbing. I made this choice then to try and find joy out of the process. I am going to enjoy this thing I love, whether I make it to the Olympics or not.”

A lesson learned

The future Olympian learned how to take a step back and take the fear out of the moment and instead breathe in gratitude and enjoy a larger purpose, she said. 

“I brought back the joy into what I was doing. That became my blueprint for success. This is what was responsible for getting me to the Olympics and winning medals. A huge part in how we do anything is equally important to the goals that we have,” said Bleiler.

She changed her intention the following season. She was now 100 percent connected to what she was doing. Her mental game was on track. She was enjoying the sport. She had shifted her state of consciousness. 

Gretchen Bleiler’s been living in the valley full time for the past seven years. “I’ve created community again,” she says.
Julie Bielenberg/The Aspen Times

Finding community

Bleiler’s been living in the valley full time for the past seven years.

“I’ve created community again,” she said. “I grew up in Aspen, I went to Aspen High School, and it’s surprising how many people from high school are living back in the area. My closest friends are now parents and running in different circles, but we are just as close as before. I’ve got my new community mixed in with old childhood friends. It’s great.”

Now focused on bringing to light the impacts of concussions, she’s telling a new story for the first time. She’s finally getting comfortable and making a contribution to dealing with scary topics such as CTE and mental health.  

She is still active in transformation coaching and teaching meditation in Aspen. 

Bleiler also has some larger-scale projects around mental health, concussions, CTE, and that middle zone between professional athletics and creating a new rest of life. 

Gretchen Bleiler remembers, “It took me a long time to slow down. I didn’t know how to live. I was used to hotel rooms and constant travel and schedules. It was a relearning process. How do I live in one place?  I didn’t know how to do that.”
Julie Bielenberg/ The Aspen Times

Zen den

The only remnants visible of the former Olympian’s halfpipe life are a snowboard and boots outside her front door. And a set of skis.

“I skied for the first time yesterday,” said Bleiler. “I mean I’ve skied before, when I was younger in fifth and sixth grade. Look, here’s me going down the mountain,” she said as she showed off her first ski endeavor in three decades on her phone. 

It was apt on her 42nd birthday last Monday that she was open to old challenges with a new mindset.

She’s still riding, though not nearly as much as she used to.

“I go out when I feel like it, definitely on powder days,” she said. “There’s nothing like the Highland Bowl with fresh powder. Skinning up Tiehack is good exercise and a meditative experience in of itself. I’m into split boarding in the backcountry, when conditions are safe.”

Bleiler’s home is the exact opposite of the loud and vibrant personality she brought to the halfpipe all those years.

Gretchen Bleiler at home.
/ Julie Bielenberg/The Aspen Times

Sure, it’s white like snow, but the soft music, bubbling water feature, stacked self-help and healing books at the center of the living room, and sophisticated, sleek white furniture and storage throughout her space create a Zen den. 

Looking beyond the bouquet of spring flowers, her window seat overlooking trees with ever-changing views of the outdoors, is her happy spot. 

She’s had her Aspen condo since 2003. Over the 20 years, Bleiler has made the space more airy and bright with vaulted ceilings and new lights, but the charm of the home keeps her content. 

“It’s still great, the perfect little place,” she said. “I have neighbors who have been here just as long.”

World Cup in Aspen shows young skiers what they can achieve through right steps

Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and the Audi FIS Ski World Cup have gone hand in hand for as long as the club’s alpine program director, Johno McBride, can remember.

“We love being a part of it and love helping,” McBride said. “Anything we can do above and beyond to help with the World Cup is really kind of special just to be part of it and see it and feel it.”

The club helps with many aspects of the World Cup, including putting up start tents, setting up gates, and watering the course. The kids, mostly the 16-and-older age group, will be on slip crew while the younger kids help out in other ways.

“The little guys mostly help carry the flags for the flag ceremony and help during the bib draw,” McBride said.

Thursday evening’s bib draw was particularly entertaining as AVSC kids paraded out carrying flags. Other kids followed behind wearing cowboy hats that had a bib number taped underneath, while some walked out wearing the bibs the athletes were waiting to draw. It was easy to see the enthusiasm in each of their eyes as they raised their hands hoping one of the racers would choose their hat.

The role AVSC plays in the World Cup is vital to the success of the event. Although many people volunteer their time for the World Cup, AVSC coaches have a eye out for what needs to get done because they know what they’re doing around gates and steep, icy hills.

“It’s stuff we do all the time. Most of it’s kind of old hat for us,” McBride said.

Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club Alpine Director Johno McBride watches as U.S. ski team athletes sign autographs on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, at the AVSC clubhouse. McBride is a former coach for the national team.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

The group consists of about 250 kids, and he said just about all of them will be on the mountain for race days, whether they are cheering on the athletes or helping out on the course.

“I think for the kids, probably the most important thing that they gain from this is perspective,” he said. “They get to see what a World Cup course looks like. They get to understand how much work goes into it. They get a chance to see the best skiers in the world in person, up close and personal. They get to hear them go by at 75 miles per hour, which is a different experience than watching it on TV.”

He may be president of the AVSC Board of Directors now, but Ryan Smalls was once one of those kids lining the fences to watch the races.

“To have been one of those little kids when the World Cup came to town and to be able to dream big that one day you could be a champion of the future, it’s really special,” he said. “I have no doubt there will be a bunch of little kids lined up at the fence at the airplane turn during the races.”

Smalls is an Aspen native who grew up alpine racing for AVSC. This is his first winter as board president, though he has been on and off the board since 2002.

AVSC post-graduate athlete Cheyenne Brown talks with friends after she was a forerunner during the men’s downhill at the Aspen World Cup on Friday, March 3, 2023, at Aspen Mountain.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“We always like to think of ourselves as the best ski town in the world, and we can’t be the best town in the world without having the best skiers in the world here. So (World Cup’s) huge for the club, and it’s huge for our community,” he said.

Cheyenne Brown, a member of AVSC’s post-graduate program who works with McBride and AVSC coach Casey Puckett, was one of four forerunners for Friday’s downhill race.

“(Forerunning) has been one of the most incredible experiences, and I feel so honored to be a part of it,” she said. “I pinch myself every time I step in the gate, every time I’m anywhere near the course …. It feels so special to be here.”

Brown grew up in Lake Tahoe, California, and spent three years racing for Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs. She joined AVSC’s post-graduate program this winter and raced as one of the 16 professionals in AVSC’s annual Audi Ajax Cup in December.

U.S. ski team athletes sign autographs on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, at the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

She described herself as a sponge when she’s around the World Cup racers because she wants to learn as much as she can in the time she spends with them. She participated in the opening ceremony Thursday night, parading out to the ice rink carrying the American flag alongside the AVSC kids.

“I remember being that age and being so starstruck by these people and in awe of how amazing they are. I remember the feeling of standing in front of Julia Mancuso and Lindsay Vonn and how special that moment was,” she said.

Attending World Cup events, especially ones in the United States, reminds Brown of her love of the sport — both now and when she was growing up. It’s also what motivates her to get better, so she can get closer to them, she said.

“Seeing your heroes ski the same slope you ski on is insane,” she said. “It gets me fired up for ski racing.”

Aspen Skiing Co. announces early opening day for Aspen Mountain, Snowmass

A few weeks of cold, stormy weather has allowed Aspen Mountain and Snowmass to move up opening day, sparking excitement in local skiers and snowboarders itching to get on the mountain.

Though originally slated for Thanksgiving Day, Opening Day will now take place five days earlier on Nov. 19, Aspen Skiing Co. announced Friday.

“We’ve got all our staff on board and we’re ready to go,” said Jeff Hanle, Vice President of Communications. “It’s an excellent opportunity for our teams to get out there and get things going before the visitors begin to arrive.”

Hanle said it is not uncommon for Aspen Snowmass to open early. With cold weather on the forecast from now until opening day, snowmaking will be key to improving conditions on the slopes and Skico plans to keep going with it at full speed.

“We’ve always been of the philosophy that if we have good snow and good skiing and we can get a good product out there, we open early and we close late,” he said.

Pass sales continue to be strong so far this year. Hanle said he strongly suggests picking up passes early at ticket offices open at the Riverside Building in Basalt, Aspen Mountain and Snowmass Base Village Gondola to avoid the opening day crowds. The easiest way to pickup a pass is by downloading the Aspen Snowmass App and scanning your QR codes at one of the Pickup Boxes located at the base of Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, and Aspen Highlands. 

“It’s going to be fun. Our crews are going to be working the snow, moving it around and grooming it. It’s going to be a fun opening,” Hanle said.

Langland is only American to make snowboard finals in big air World Cup

California's Hailey Langland competes in the women's snowboard slopestyle contest of the U.S. Grand Prix and World Cup in March, at Buttermilk Ski Area in Aspen. On Thursday, she was the only American snowboarder, male or female, to make the finals of the VISA Big Air qualifer at Steamboat Resort.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The VISA Big Air World Cup kicked off Thursday at Steamboat Resort with snowboard qualifications, including two men’s heats in the morning and one women’s heat in the afternoon.

The top 10 men made the finals, scheduled for Saturday, while the top eight women qualified for the finals.

Hailey Langland, a U.S. national team member from California, was the only American athlete to make the finals in the men’s and women’s competitions. Langland finished fifth with a score of 89. Reira Iwabuchi of Japan won the women’s qualifier with a score of 98.25.

Each competitor in each heat took two jumps. Six judges scored each jump. Then the highest and lowest scores were scratched. The remaining four scores were averaged, and the best score was used to determine the standings.

Anna Gasser of Austria, Annika Morgan of Germany, Kokomo Murase of Japan, Katie Ormerod of Great Britain, Jasmine Baird of Canada and Norway’s Hanne Eilertsen will also compete in the finals.

Norwegian Marcus Kleveland and Chinese boarder Yiming Su led the men’s snowboard big air qualifiers on Thursday afternoon. Su won heat one with a score of 93, and qualified alongside Hiroto Ogiwara of Japan, Nike van der Velden of the Netherlands, Canada’s Max Parrot and Norway’s Mons Roisland.

Kleveland won heat two with a score of 94.75 and will compete in the finals alongside Mark McMorris of Canada, Enzo Valax of France, Takeru Otsuka out of Japan and Austria’s Clemens Millauer.

Jake Canter was the closest American to qualifying in the heat and took 11th.

VISA big air continues Friday with freeski qualifiers. The men compete from 9:55 a.m. to 12:50 p.m. and the women compete at 2 p.m.