Vagneur: The race is on
It was 1950 and I was sliding around the finish line of the FIS Alpine World Championships on my first pair of skis. Thought I was a big shot, too, on those old boards with the nipples on the tips and leather straps holding my feet in the bear-trap bindings. The baskets on the poles were big enough to pass for Frisbees and were heavier than hell. Someone in my family took a couple photos of my mom with Zeno Colo, but they didn’t get any of my big moves on the mountain. Just as well they didn’t try — I was probably too quick for them.
It sparked the thrill of big ski races in my mind, I reckon, and certainly instilled a love of skiing in my soul that I’ve fed every year since on Aspen Mountain. It wasn’t my intention to create such longevity; it just happened. Oh, the hell it wasn’t.
Now it’s 2017 and the FIS World Cup Finals are coming to Aspen, a 67-year spread from 1950, and you absolutely know that a lot of ski racing and Aspen Mountain action have occurred in that all-encompassing span. I’m no expert on any of it but offer the following recollections from the perspective of sometimes being close to the action.
Every winter weekend, us little kids were on the mountain, playing ski patrol, or ski racer, or just skiing our hearts out. At some later point (still 1950s and on), my ski buddy Jimmy Gerbaz and I started to look forward to the Roch Cup races, mostly because we knew some of the competitors, girls from high school like Sharon Pecjak and Jimmy’s sister, Cherie Gerbaz Oates. We had our men favorites, too, like Dick Buek, Buddy Werner, Max and Billy Marolt.
Back then, Strawpile was anything but the nice, smooth corduroy cruiser that it is today. It was interspersed with mine tailings and natural terrain traps. There was a large hump coming out of the bottom of Strawpile, a ridge of mine duff that would put your knees up around your ears if you caught it just right. Jimmy and I always took up our position in the island of trees between East and West Fifth Avenue, exactly where we could catch the downhill racers coming over that large hump. If they missed their pre-jump, it could get a little ugly, and we witnessed several of those guys catching some major air. Plus, we saw a few good wrecks, too.
One year, late ’60s, early ’70s, I situated myself on the skier’s right of Strawpile, just looking for an uncrowded place to watch. (There was a looser attitude about course security in those earlier days, or maybe I was on the trail crew.) Shortly thereafter, I noticed a lab panting his way up the trail, directly in the middle of the course. It was about the right interval for another racer to be coming along and I whistled, hollered, did everything possible to get the dog out of the way but to no avail. It was ugly, to put it mildly. The dog was killed by the impact, the skier suffered a compound spiral fracture of a lower leg and the idea of dogs running around loose suddenly wasn’t so cute anymore.
In the ’70s, my tenure on the ski patrol was in full force, and we got close and personal with the line, just like we did when we were kids. For a couple days prior to the race, we’d compete in the patrol room, vying for the Ruthie’s clear so we could section the downhill at the same time we cleared the mountain. Robin Perry always sent an extra guy or two along so we could have the experience of running the Roch Cup without shirking our duties. That and powder snow probably kept me on the patrol longer than it should have.
On inspection and race days, patrollers would rotate through the course every few minutes, just like they probably do today, and we got to see the world’s best up close. Through it all, we got to know some of the international racers — Franz Klammer drank a few beers with us after his win and there was a certain woman racer from the French team who will always be remembered in my mind.
In the end, though, maybe it isn’t so much about the skiing as it is about the volunteering. There’s a certain excitement of knowing you’re part of something special, something memorable that will be remembered for the ages. It transcends ego, the idea that you won’t necessarily be remembered for your efforts, but that the end result of your efforts will never be forgotten. That keeps me in the game.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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