X Games Aspen 2021: Looking back on 20 years of ’peak human potential’ at Buttermilk
This year’s competition marks the 20th anniversary of Buttermilk Ski Area being the host of ESPN’s signature winter event
After two decades as host of Winter X Games, Buttermilk Ski Area has undeniably become holy ground for skiers and snowboarders. When the scaffolding is raised and the lights are turned on, the oft-unheralded Aspen mountain emits a divine-like energy that few in the snowsports world can resist.
“Driving by Buttermilk and seeing that halfpipe lit up, there is a presence to the place now, especially after 20 years,” Aspen’s Gretchen Bleiler said. “It’s not just the lights and the cameras and the terrain, but there is now repetition of 20 years of peak human potential that has gone down at Buttermilk every year. It will always feel that way.”
If Buttermilk is in fact holy ground, that would make Bleiler a saint. One of the best female halfpipe snowboarders of all time, she won four X Games gold medals over her illustrious career. Not only did she witness firsthand the rise of X Games into what is it now, but she helped mold it into the fabric of Aspen’s very existence.
In many ways, X Games gives Aspen life during the winter. And that’s exactly why it was brought here in the first place.
“I was a real student of mountain towns and mountain resorts, and I was struck by how Colorado felt like it was in decline. Meaning the energy was seeping away,” said former Aspen Skiing Co. executive David Perry. “The whole reason we brought X Games to Aspen was just to bring energy and buzz and fun to the valley. That was the whole idea.”
When X Games Aspen gets underway Friday — with a condensed schedule and no spectators due to the pandemic — it’ll be the beginning of the 20th annual competition at Buttermilk. Aspen first hosted ESPN’s signature winter sports event in 2002, the sixth Winter X Games in history. As it had done up to that point, Winter X Games was expected to stay at Buttermilk for only a couple of years and then move on, but as Perry said, “it was a partnership made in heaven.”
“Doing anything for 20 years, especially as it relates to a partnership, is really unique,” said Tim Reed, the current vice president of X Games who oversees the day-to-day operation of the franchise for ESPN. “That’s just what speaks to the relationship we have with Aspen Skiing Co. and our partners there, but also the county officials and the city. I think there is a really strong relationship in place and I think that’s really allowed us to go from Year 1 to Year 20. We work together and we work real closely. There is almost a family-type feeling between the two groups.”
THE PLACE TO BE
How X Games first got to Aspen had a lot to do with Perry. The first Winter X Games was held at Snow Summit Mountain Resort in California in 1997. Crested Butte then hosted for two years in 1998 and 1999 before moving to Mount Snow, Vermont, for 2000 and 2001. During this time period, X Games was taking a hard look at Canada’s rising, hip resort, Whistler Blackcomb, where Perry was then an executive.
However, the late-January timing of X Games coincided with another big event in Whistler, and it just couldn’t be done. But, in 2000, Perry relocated to Colorado to head Colorado Ski Country USA and essentially dragged Winter X Games along with him.
“I said, ‘The best place for you would be Aspen,'” Perry recalled having told the ESPN executives about X Games. “The Aspen team here at the time deserved massive credit for embracing the idea of completely shaking things up and bringing X Games to Aspen.”
Perry joined Aspen Skiing Co. in 2002, shortly after Aspen hosted its first X Games, as its senior vice president. He was eventually promoted to chief operating officer in 2014 and left Skico in 2017 to help start what would later be named Alterra Mountain Co. He still lives in the Roaring Fork Valley and works for Alterra.
While many of the prominent Skico names who Perry credited with bringing X Games to Aspen are no longer with the company, such as former Chief Executive Officer John Norton, many still are, including current President and CEO Mike Kaplan and current Senior Vice President John Rigney, who both had much different roles at the time.
“To have X Games choose Aspen, I remember feeling, ‘Oh wow, that’s a huge deal. This is the biggest event in snowboarding and it’s in my hometown,'” Bleiler said. “At the time, X Games was literally just hanging around for a couple of years in different locations and moving on. I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to get a couple of years in Aspen, so that’s my time to shine in front of my home community.’ Little did I know back then that it would just stay forever.”
Bleiler’s first X Games appearance was in 1999 in Crested Butte. Her second came two years later in Mount Snow and third was Aspen’s debut as host in 2002. A year later, at Winter X Games VII in 2003, Bleiler won the first of her four gold medals in Aspen. Of note, legendary snowboarder Shaun White also won his first two X Games gold medals in that 2003 event, winning in both superpipe and slopestyle.
As an athlete, the feeling of riding to the bottom of the Buttermilk course to hundreds, if not thousands, of screaming fans is among the most surreal experiences there is in the sport.
“The one that sticks out the most was just being a rider and airing out of the pipe and looking down at all the fans. I’ll never forget that experience of how fulfilling that is,” former halfpipe snowboarder Jack Mitrani said of his favorite memories. “That is something I’ll live with forever.”
Mitrani is now entering his fifth year as the official host of X Games, a role long held by Selema “Sal” Masekela, who hosted the first X Games Aspen competition in 2002. That inaugural Aspen event included the debut of ski slopestyle and ski superpipe as disciplines and drew 36,300 spectators. Recent X Games Aspen competitions have drawn just shy of 120,000 total visitors over the four-day event.
“I feel like when you have an event in one place for that amount of time, it really gets embedded into the culture. I hope it never leaves,” Mitrani said. “I feel like the future is so exciting because it’s naturally going to take shape the same way it has for the past 20 years here.”
WHERE EVERYTHING IS GOING
Evolution is an important part of X Games. It looks a lot different than it did in 2002 and will likely look a lot different two decades from now, no matter who is hosting. Today’s X Games is less a competition and more of a winter sports festival, complete with big time musical acts that attract college students from across the country to help give downtown Aspen a Mardi Gras-like vibe during X Games weekend.
“It always felt like there was this constant ability to be challenged and innovate and produce the next best show you could,” Reed said. “The ability to progress and innovate and really think about every year being a blank canvas is what has always given me a lot of motivation to want to figure out where everything is going.”
At the end of the day, the progression sought in skiing and snowboarding remains paramount. After all, in this year’s competition hampered by COVID-19, only the skiing and snowboarding events made the cut, the motorsports and concerts being stored away for the time being. X Games has long been home to this progression. If someone is going to perform a trick that’s never been done, there is a good chance it could happen at X Games.
“X Games and the extreme sports culture has been my life for 20-plus years and it’s amazing to have the best venue and the best place to host X Games in your backyard,” said Carbondale’s Peter Olenick, a four-time X Games medalist who is considered one of freeskiing’s X Games pioneers. “My first X Games will always stand out to me. I was pretty much a nobody the other competitors had never heard of and I ended up getting two medals, so that was pretty cool. It shocked me that that happened, but I always knew I could do it and just needed a chance and I got it.”
The current contract between Aspen Skiing Co. and ESPN has Buttermilk hosting X Games at least through the 2024 event, which would make it 23 years straight in Aspen. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but for an event that wasn’t supposed to stick around but for a couple of years, it’s certainly found a home.
“I never expected to even get to 10, let alone 20, to be honest,” Perry said. “The real thing was convincing them to stay and not move around every two years like they did. And they loved it here. The town embraced them.”