Watching and learning, Olympic-style
February 14, 2002
SNOWBASIN, Utah – Imagine watching a ski race at Aspen Highlands.Now imagine watching that same race from across Castle Creek, atop Aspen Mountain. That’s what photographer Jacob Ware and I experienced Wednesday during the 2002 men’s Olympic combined at Snowbasin.We didn’t have press passes or spectator tickets to get into the Snowbasin venue area, crammed yesterday with a sold-out crowd of 20,000-plus.Lift tickets were easier to come by (very easy, as it turned out), and we’d heard that prime (read: free) vantage points for the downhill portion of the combined could be accessed by the skiing public.After all, Casey Puckett of Old Snowmass was racing in his fourth Olympics, and we intended to cover it, no matter the disadvantage.After arriving in Salt Lake City on a lark Tuesday night – and crisscrossing downtown in search of an Internet portal to transmit a story for Wednesday – we finally met up with Katie, a photographer friend of Jacob’s and our gracious, last-minute host. After sharing a few “real beers” with Katie (brought from Colorado for just this purpose), we hit the floor, literally, at 1:30 a.m.When the alarm clock sounded at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, we peeled ourselves off our foam sleeping pads, showered, then headed north toward Ogden. John, our Snowbasin media contact, told us last week that we needed to arrive at the Snowbasin day-ticket parking lot by 7 if we wanted to make it to the mountain in time for the 10 a.m. start of the downhill.John, who later handed us two lift tickets without a second glance, was right. We arrived at the lot 15 minutes late. Some 1,500 like-minded fans were already in line ahead us, waiting patiently in sub-zero temperatures and predawn darkness to squeeze past two metal detectors at the security checkpoint and onto a bus.More than an hour later, Jacob and I got through security, and a bus dropped us off at the Snowbasin lodge at about 8:45 a.m. We stowed some gear in a locker, gathered skis/snowboards, got directions to a skiing vantage point from a ski patroller, then boarded the gondola for the top.But as the magic hour rapidly approached, it became clear that we were going to miss the show. Even worse, there wasn’t anything we could do about it. From the spot we’d been directed to, a ridge opposite the one with the downhill course, Jacob could barely discern what color speed suits racers were wearing with a 600 mm lens. But with the race under way, there wasn’t time to take another lift up and try for another spot.It’s not to say that there aren’t good vantage points for the downhill on the upper slopes of Snowbasin. There are quite a few, and we know where they are now. And come Sunday, when Aspen’s Katie Monahan competes in the super G, we’ll be in position.But the skiing-ants debacle wasn’t a total loss. For the two afternoon slaloms, Jacob and I scouted out a spot beforehand, following the advice of another patroller that led us to a traverse and eventually a great spot just below the start hut. And by 1 p.m., for the start of the first run, more than 50 people were assembled along the safety netting, just above the final pitch leading to the finish area.”Who iz thiz now!?” one Austrian fan demanded of me (as the only spectator in the vicinity with a start list) every minute or so. “Whoz nechts!?”Bode Miller cruised by as the No. 7 starter (en route to a silver medal), and Puckett came down No. 11. Unfortunately, he hooked a tip at the top and skied off course in front of us.Proving that sportswriting isn’t all fun and games, soon after Puckett DQed, I hustled back to the makeshift trailer park at the base that serves as racer headquarters. An hour passed before Puckett showed up on the back of a snowmobile. We talked for about 20 minutes, and then I found Jacob and we hopped the bus for the parking lot.The second and final run hadn’t even started, and we were going to miss it too. Deadlines for film processing and writing called.On deck tomorrow: Chris Klug and the snowboarding parallel giant slalom at Park City Mountain Resort. We don’t have tickets, but we’ll be there. Somewhere. Meanwhile, we’re playing phone-tag with Klug’s parents, Warren and Kathy, who are going to sell us a couple extra tickets to the finals on Friday. We’re assuming, of course, that Klug makes it that far and we do too.