AVSC’s Audi Ajax Cup returns to Aspen Mountain with impressive list of pros | AspenTimes.com

AVSC’s Audi Ajax Cup returns to Aspen Mountain with impressive list of pros

Racing is Friday throughout the day on The Little Nell run

Vail's Abby Ghent, a former national team ski racer who is also the defending Audi Ajax Cup champion, takes part in the team draw on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, inside Casa Tua in downtown Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Hanna Faulhaber’s race strategy is pretty straightforward. She’ll show up with her halfpipe skis — she doesn’t own racing skis — slap some fresh wax on them, point them downhill and “see where it takes me.”

And with the Audi Ajax Cup’s handicap system, that might be all the plan she needs.

“I think I’m more scared of this than my actual competitions,” the halfpipe star confided during Wednesday night’s private team draw at Casa Tua in downtown Aspen. “It should be super fun. If anybody watches me ski down, just look the other way and see me in the halfpipe when it’s that time again. … We are here for a fun time, and that’s the main goal.”

Faulhaber, the 18-year-old Basalt High School graduate and 2022 Winter Olympian, is for the first time competing as one of the 16 professional skiers in this year’s Ajax Cup, the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club’s annual fundraiser that takes place Friday on Aspen Mountain. Like so many of the pros this year, Faulhaber grew up with AVSC and is more than happy to give back to the club whenever she can.

“AVSC has done so much for me in the past and throughout most of my life,” Faulhaber said. “It’s great to do anything to give back to them because they’ve been so amazing to me.”

Faulhaber isn’t the first halfpipe skier to step into the Ajax Cup race gates. Aspen’s Alex Ferreira, who is a two-time Olympic medalist and two-time X Games champion in the halfpipe, is back as one of the pros this season. He won the Ajax Cup — each of the 16 teams is led by one of the professionals — alongside NASCAR icon Jimmie Johnson in 2019. Much like Faulhaber will, Ferreira raced that year with questionable equipment and a lack of real race experience, only to wind up winning the coveted Gorsuch Cup in the end.

“It’s wonderful to be able to have AVSC alums come as pros, because we have a high standard for the pros in this race,” said five-time Olympian Casey Puckett, who on top of being one of the 16 pros has long helped organize the Ajax Cup as an AVSC coach. “To have the kids that come through here and be homegrown and go out in the world and make a name for themselves and then come back and give back, that’s huge.”

Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber, an AVSC alumna and 2022 Olympian in halfpipe skiing, takes part in the Audi Ajax Cup team draw on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, inside Casa Tua in downtown Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Other notable locals competing as a professional in this year’s event include 2018 Olympian Wiley Maple, Katie Ryan, Elle Murphy, Galena Wardle, Bridger Gile and Tristan Lane. Even Cheyenne Brown, a late roster addition from California, currently trains with AVSC in its post-graduate program.

The non-local pool of pros is equally as impressive, with American downhill icon Daron Rahlves and the legendary Bode Miller, arguably the greatest U.S. male in Alpine history, returning to the Ajax Cup.

“The amazing thing about Aspen is you don’t need to go look around the world sometimes to find the best pros. They are right here,” said AVSC development director Miah Wheeler. “Having Daron back and Bode back, they are great because they get the other teams excited, they get the other pros excited. They get this community excited. What I find really special about everybody is they are coming out here to help benefit the kids.”

This is the 13th annual Audi Ajax Cup. The dual giant slalom races — i.e., head-to-head — has become the club’s staple event and largest fundraiser. For the past two years it was held at Aspen Highlands on AVSC’s own Stapleton Training Center, a move first made in 2020 because of the pandemic. This year it’s returned to its original home at the base of Aspen Mountain.

“I’m just really impressed that it’s had this kind of staying power. I remember when we first hatched this plan 13 years ago and we had no idea how long it was going to last or how successful it was going to be,” said Puckett, who is back taking part after a brief stint coaching with the U.S. ski team. “And here we are 13 years later and it really has gotten to that point where we are getting great pros every year and we continue to have great team owners that keep signing up. It’s essential for AVSC to be able to fund its programs. I couldn’t be happier with it.”

Wednesday’s team draw at Casa Tua paired the teams with the pros — with the option of bidding on a pro to make sure they made your team — as well as determined which side of the bracket each team was going to start on. The handicapping will take place Thursday on The Little Nell course on Aspen Mountain, while the heart of the competition is throughout the day Friday, with the finals slated for that afternoon.

Other than the VIP section and post-race party, general spectating is free, including alongside the course, accessible to skiers and snowboarders as they make their way down the mountain toward the Silver Queen Gondola.

“One thing I think is really cool about this year is the kids and the staff are taking a day off to help run coats, to help slip the course, to help make it all run smoothly for our guests,” Wheeler said. “A lot of these kids are pretty used to maintaining the courses. But what they are getting to see is how a high-caliber event is run. The kids who are racing, they get to feel what it’s like to ski on a race course with the TV cameras on, with all the sponsors around them and a couple hundred people cheering them on at the finish.”

Vail’s Abby Ghent, alongside Team Alps, enters this year’s Ajax Cup as the defending champion. Ghent edged out Wardle and Coldwell Banker Mason Morse in last year’s final. That was Ghent’s first time competing at Ajax Cup, and said she’s not feeling the pressure to defend her crown.

“No, mostly because I know there are probably faster girls here, faster pros here, so the handicapping is going to be key,” Ghent said Wednesday. “I got super lucky with my team. My team was really high energy, had a lot of fun. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into, but we had a really good time. The parties and the atmosphere and the professional wisdom of the entire event, it’s fun.”