Aspen Powder 8 icons still look to uncork perfect run
Erik Peltonen and Flint Smith of Aspen were among the greatest Powder 8 skiers in the competition’s golden era in the early 1980s, winning North American titles in 1981 and ’82.
Even so, they always felt their best run was yet to come. They entered an “old school” Powder 8 event in Jackson, Wyoming, earlier this month — 30-some years after last competing — determined to uncork that perfect run. Instead, disaster struck.
Smith and Peltonen started skiing together in the mid-1970s, when both were members of the Aspen Mountain ski patrol. Peltonen joined the famed force in 1970 and honed his skills as an elite skier. Smith joined the Crested Butte ski patrol that same year.
“That’s when we first started hot-dogging,” Smith said. He got into moguls, aerials and even ski ballet. He came to Aspen Mountain in 1974. “I’d ski behind the other patrollers and imitate them.”
It was a skill that came in handy in Figure 8 skiing, where one skier trails another in as synchronized of a style as possible. The lead skier sets the rhythm and speed and tries to make the perfect, rounded turned. The key for the leader is consistency down the entire run.
The trailing skier mirrors the first with precise turns at the same time.
The figure 8 name gave way to Powder 8 after Powder Magazine started sponsoring competitions in the 1980s. It’s somewhat of a misnomer. The skiers compete in whatever snow conditions they encounter.
The best that Smith and Peltonen can recall, they first tried figure 8 skiing on the steep Aztec trail on Aspen Mountain when it was particularly smooth and powdery in 1979. They were enamored with the precision required and the discipline to pull it off.
“It’s like putting your signature on the slope, like painting,” Peltonen said.
Practice made perfect
Once smitten, they practiced their new style of skiing whenever patrol duties would allow and on days off. Famed Aspen Mountain ski instructor Scooter LaCouter helped them smooth their skiing. While many Powder 8 skiers bobbed up and down while skiing downhill, the upper bodies of the two Aspen patrolmen were still, as evidenced from old videos of their competitions.
LaCouter helped them perfect submarine turns, where their skis stayed weighted and under the snow. The skiers that bobbed tended to float their ski on top of the snow.
Smith said they would make 630 turns starting right outside the door of the ski patrol shack at the top of Aspen Mountain down to the base of Little Nell. They would practice in all conditions.
“We’d find the crud of the day,” he said.
Smith and Peltonen entered their first competition in 1980 in Jackson Hole, “pulling strings” with compatriots on the patrol to get in. The result didn’t go as planned, even though they felt they skied great.
“It’s the one we don’t talk about,” Peltonen said, with his signature slight grin and a subtle nod of his head.
They felt they won but the judges favored the hometown boys, Smith said.
It was about the only time in the next three years they didn’t win. Smith said they competed in 12 events overall from 1980 to ’84. They logged eight first places, four second-place finishes and two world championships. The world championships were earned in competitions in British Columbia.
“We just did it for fun,” Peltonen said. “There’s no money in it.”
Return to Jackson
Peltonen always was the lead skier and Smith always followed, each playing to their strengths. Peltonen said he couldn’t do what Smith does.
“He’s got fast feet. He covers my mistakes,” he said.
Smith said his partner always was consistent, so that made it easier to follow him.
“We were connected,” he said.
They pride the figure 8s they carved into the snow.
“We’d finish out turns more than other people,” Smith said. “They looked more round.”
Peltonen said they didn’t emulate anyone.
“We were it,” he said.
Their competitive days came to an end after the 1984 season. Peltonen broke his back in a lift accident on Aspen Mountain the following season. Smith later broke his back in an on-job accident and was off the patrol for a time, though he’s back on the force now. They remain frequent ski partners.
Peltonen visited Jackson last summer and heard about the old-school Powder 8 competition this winter. The former partners started practicing again and secured an invite due to their prior accomplishments.
They were feeling good about their chances in Jackson Hole’s famed Cody Bowl on Feb. 13.
“We never felt we uncorked our best run,” Peltonen said. “Maybe this would have been it.”
They didn’t get a chance to find out. They were free skiing the day before the competition, checking out Tower Three Chute when Peltonen stepped out of a binding after a handful of turns. (He later learned a local ski shop improperly set it.) He was near the top of the incredibly steep chute and went rag-dolling downslope. He lost a ski and a pole and was hurling downhill, head first, at a high rate of speed. He used his other ski to eventually arrest his speed but only after bashing a mogul and busting a collarbone.
Smith recovered Peltonen’s other ski and they exited the chute onto a groomer. Peltonen’s skiing was finished and their attempted return to glory was delayed, maybe indefinitely.
“I think we could have placed,” Peltonen said. “I don’t think we would have won.”
They said they were happy another Aspen-area team won the competition. Thomas Roennau and Jim Schanzenbaker, ski pros for Aspen Skiing Co., took the title.
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