‘Hell’s Angels on skis’ party on in Vail
Aspen, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colo. – It had been years since Champagne Charlie broke out his “colors.” Yet there he stood Wednesday morning at the base of the Golden Peak chairlift, resplendent in his sleeveless jean jacket with a flaming skull patch stitched to the back.
After going “underground” for years, a group called the Ravinos are reclaiming the very mountain they scandalized in the ’70s by introducing upside-down flips.
“We were the original Hell’s Angels on skis,” said 60-year-old Champagne Charlie, whose nickname refers to his now-defunct tradition of carrying Champagne bottles on the chairlift to celebrate his birthdays.
Famous for their St. Patrick’s Day parties on Vail Mountain, the Ravinos fell off the radar after Vail management banned their annual shindig in 1981. Now, a new generation of Ravinos want to rekindle the St. Patrick’s Day bash – in a tamer form.
Gone are the days when 5,000 people would crowd Vail Mountain to watch the Ravinos launch off cliffs. But 28-year-old Ace McKee managed to rally Ravinos old and new for a St. Patrick’s Day skiing outing on Wednesday.
“I just want to keep the spirit of the Ravinos alive,” he said. “It’s a huge part of Vail’s past that has been forgotten.”
Two generations of Ravinos trickle onto the mountain Wednesday morning. Champaign Charlie, whose real name is Charlie Donalson, leafs through a scrapbook of his Vail memories.
Seventy-one-year-old John Faas from Vail, also known as the “Wizard of Faas,” arrives wearing a sleeveless jean jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and gold fringe around the arms.
From the younger camp, 18-year-old Hunter Schleper represents “second generation” Ravinos. His dad, Buzz Schleper was an original member. Although some of the veteran Ravinos resign themselves to “judging,” the younger crew launches into a series of jumps.
Schleper, a member of the U.S. Ski Team, launches a backflip in the Golden Peak terrain park. Shortly after that, the Wizard of Faas weaves neat turns through the halfpipe. “Yeah, I’m the oldest guy in the pipe,” he chuckles at one point to a young snowboarder admiring his skull patch.
Trying to piece together the Ravinos’ history is tough because the facts are tangled up in lore. But here it goes:
In the early ’70s, a group of guys started skiing together on Rib Mountain in Wisconsin. Some of those skiers migrated to Vail, where they teamed up for bouts of extreme skiing on the mountain – often to the dismay of authorities.
“We started building jumps around and the ski patrol would make it their project to go find our jumps and blow them up,” the Wizard of Faas said.
Getting invited into the Ravinos was and remains a nuanced process that takes into account not only skills, but also style and personality.
“It’s like dating,” McKee said.
One thing is not negotiable. Ravinos must be able to go “inverted,” as members like to call it. That’s flipping upside down.
Once accepted into the group, Ravinos are expected to add their own personal touches to their “colors,” a patch depicting a flaming skull inside a ravine. Attaching the patch to a sleeveless jean jacket is optional but encouraged. In the 70s, it was considered appropriate to cut the sleeves off the jean jacket with a dull knife, the Wizard of Faas said.
In the ’70s, the Ravinos were most well-known for their St. Patrick’s Day party.
“You put together 200 hippy hairbags together and they get excited,” Champagne Charlie explained.
Mountain authorities were not as excited about the event’s growing crowds upside-down theatrics.
“They put the kibosh on it,” the Wizard of Faas said.
Although the Ravinos tried to relocate their annual bash to various locations, including Meadow Mountain and Vail Pass, clashes with forest officials eventually lead to the event’s demise, he said.
The Ravinos like to describe what they did next as going underground. Champagne Charlie, after serving as a lift operator, cook, artist and newspaperman in Vail, moved away and stowed his colors in his closet. There have been very few times, until recently, that he has dusted off his jean jacket.
Wednesday’s turnout proved the St. Patrick’s Day bash is back in a watered-down form.
“I don’t think it will ever be what it once was,” McKee said. “And that’s not our goal. We’re not doing this to create tension or drama. We just want to keep it alive.”
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Bluebird skies, spring-like temperatures and a few inches of snow from Monday night’s storm helped Snowmass skiers and snowboarders cruise into the season Wednesday for opening day.