Speed skiers descend on Snowmass | AspenTimes.com

Speed skiers descend on Snowmass

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

In the world of speed skiing, 150 mph is a notable benchmark.

Besides being a mind-bending concept for most recreational skiers, it’s the threshold that all speed skiers aspire to, but few reach. In a speed skier’s career, the opportunity to even attempt 150 mph only arises every few years for the lucky ones. Conditions must be perfect, with no wind, good visibility, fast snow and a long, steep course.

Only five men have hit the 150 mph mark in the history of the niche skiing sport. The first to do so, Jeff Hamilton of Aspen, also owns the unenviable record for the world’s fastest wipeout, a 151 mph tumble that happened moments after he became the first skier to break the hallowed mark in April of 1995.

Hamilton, a four-time world champion, headlines a group of speed skiers who are descending on Aspen today to kick off four days of racing on the Slot course at the Snowmass Ski Area. In the 150 mph club, Hamilton is joined by one other legend of the sport, France’s Serge Perroud.

Today and Tuesday, the event is the U.S. Speed Skiing National Championships; Wednesday and Thursday it’s the first stop on the FIS Speed Skiing World Cup tour. The racing format is similar all four days, starting lower on the course and moving higher up the course (and thus faster down it) as the day progresses.

Each day, the first run will begin at 10 a.m., with the second run to follow at 1 p.m. If time and weather allows, a third run will be staged later in the afternoon.

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Fans are invited to attend. Prime vantage points are available at the base of the run, near the base of Sam’s Knob lift, and along the course all the way to the top of Slot, where the lift ends. An announcer will be calling the event at the base area.

“You can see the whole track from the bottom, or you can ski right next to the track,” said Hamilton. “I’d recommend skiing right up next to the speed trap” – where racers are clocked twice over a 100-meter “trap” to determine average top speed – “and just listen as they go by.”

“It’s going to be a spectacle,” continued Hamilton. “Nowhere else in America does this occur. To see skiers going by at 100 mph is impressive, and people can have contact with the racers too. They’ll sign autographs and talk to you. It’s not like a typical alpine World Cup. There’s full access here.”

About 80 racers are expected to compete all four days, with $10,000 in prize money at stake. Additionally, several snowboarders and even a few cyclists are expected to straight line the course.

Hamilton expects top speeds in excess of 120 mph, nearing the course record of 123 mph. “We’re shooting for 125 mph, but because of conditions – new snow and not a lot of base so there’s a lot of rollers and terrain – I don’t think we’ll get more than 120 [mph], but you never know.

“There’s a couple big rollers, so there could be excitement, meaning there might be a couple more falls than we’d like,” he continued.

Aside from Hamilton, local athletes expected to compete include John “Mad Cow” Hembel, who was fifth in the world championships last season. Cyclist Charlie Tarver will try to improve on the 104 mph mark he hit several years ago, and snowboarder Andrew Wilz of Hamilton Sports will try his luck on a snowboard.

Denver’s Mark Rupprecht is also in the field of racers. Rounded up, Rupprecht’s top career speed – 149.73 mph – would make him the sixth man in the speed skiing’s most elite club.

In the case of snow or foul weather today through Thursday, Hamilton said the speed skiers will be “waiting it out” at the restaurant at the top of Sam’s Knob.

“We’re very weather dependent obviously, so if there’s too much snow, or if it’s snowing, we won’t run,” he said. “But we’ll be hanging out and waiting for a good window, and we’ll be racing whenever it gets good.