Highlands’ Inferno up for grabs
Aspen Times Staff Writer
In the days that followed the first Inferno ” a chest-heaving, thigh-burning uphill-downhill race in Highland Bowl ” an air hung over the Highlands, equal parts astonishment and disbelief.
How in the world, many wondered in late February 2001, did ski patroller Jimmy Newman win the race in under a half-hour? (Twenty-six minutes, 29 seconds, actually.)
Perhaps unaware of Newman’s nickname (“Inhuman”), the pleasure-in-pain mentality evidenced by his trademark black-and-white skull-and-crossbones knit hat, or the umpteen times a week that he regularly hauls loads of explosives up the ridge to Highland Peak, some observers that first year even doubted the authenticity of the Inferno’s timing clock.
The next year, however, Newman further shattered the collective imagination ” what is the human body capable of? ” when he shaved almost a minute off his already robo-mountaineer’s pace in winning the second Inferno in 25 minutes, 33 seconds, a mark that stands as the record.
It was no surprise last year when Newman, a 42-year-old patroller with 22 years of service at Highlands, remained the Inferno’s one-and-only men’s champion, overtaking a crashed-out snowboarder near the finish line to make it three for three.
“The first time, I just kind of did it for the fun of it,” Newman, a skier, said Wednesday. “I do the Town Race Series, but that’s pretty much all I do in the competitive world. But since the [Aspen Highlands ski] patrol was sponsoring it, I thought, ‘I’ll just run it for the fun of it.’
“And, of course, I ended up winning ” which I did not expect. The second year it was, ‘Let’s see if I can do it again,’ and the third year there was a lot of pressure to do it, but it wasn’t until the morning of the race that I decided I’d run this stupid thing again.”
When the fourth annual Inferno returns Saturday morning, Newman will not be toeing into the start line, though, owing to a torn ACL in his left knee, sustained during a Jan. 31 Town Series Race at Highlands.
The “inhuman” athlete’s humanity, it seems, caught up with his knees. “Thirty-five years of skiing, and it finally got me,” he sighed Wednesday of his first knee injury.
“Can’t ski, done for the season; it does kind of suck,” continued Newman, who is helping to stage this year’s Inferno with his colleagues from the Highlands patrol.
“But there will be a new champion,” he added, “and that I can say for sure.”
(And yet the poster announcing the 2004 Inferno, by Highlands patroller and artist Steve “Remo” Williams, depicts Newman, crutches, knee brace, black hat and all, leading the charge up the ridge…)
This year’s Inferno features a new division for junior racers, ages 12 to 17, and men’s and women’s elite and rec divisions. The race is limited to 125 adult racers and 25 juniors; entry costs $25 and includes a T-shirt.
Newman said the patrol is expecting another solid turnout, 100-plus racers, but as of midday Wednesday only 14 racers had signed up. Registration, handled at the Highlands ticket office, will remain open until 9 a.m. Saturday.
On Saturday, all racers should report to the new Loge Peak patrol shack by 9:45 a.m. in preparation for the 10 a.m. start. (The race will likely be run in separate heats, depending on numbers and expected finish times.)
The course starts at the patrol monument at the base of Mousetrap, below the top of the Loge Peak lift. Ascending the steep Mousetrap pitch first, racers grab their skis and boards near the top of the lift for the skate/glide/run out Loge Meadow to Highland Ridge proper. There the hiking begins in earnest, with a climb of about 800 vertical feet to the summit of Highland Peak.
In order to allow for passing on the narrow, boot-packed ridge, racers must carry their skis or boards vertically, and not jutting out from their bodies more than one foot, or face disqualification. Other than that, the only other rule of note states that racers must use only one pair of footwear, boots presumably. Helmets are recommended.
Once at the 12,392-foot mark, racers click in to their mounts of choice (and burden) and ski down Ozone ” with eight or nine control gates set up along the 1,400-some vertical feet to discourage “Chinese downhill” straight-lining ” to the finish in the runout of the bowl.
(The course for juniors differs slightly, starting at the top of the Loge Peak lift.)
The women’s division has seen different winners each year: Rene West in 2001, Karen Sahn in 2002 and Jill Pisani in 2003. (Sahn was runner-up in 2001 and ’03.)
In the men’s division, only a handful of racers have ever completed the course in sub-30 minutes. The names read like a who’s who of Aspen endurance athletes, including Andre Wille, Neal Beidleman, Butch Peterson, Rickey Gates, Ted Mahon and so on.
“Nobody was close to me the first year, but the second year, a snowboard kid was pretty close to me on the way up,” said Newman. “I never saw him again once I put my skis on, though. Then, last year, that was the closest one yet, and with all the new snow we had to break trail basically.
“Brad [Yule] was on my heels the whole way up, and he actually passed me on the way down, but he crashed in the very bottom of the basin,” Newman continued. “Snowboarders could be faster on the way down ” Brad definitely was ” but it’s just like any other race: Mentally, you have to stay with it the whole time. You can’t think you’re finished until you’re finished, or you are finished. Because, let’s be honest here, you’re exhausted by the time you get to the bottom. You’re through.
“It’s not a walk in the park by any means, and if you look at a lot of the people doing the race, a lot of them are world-class athletes from the Aspen area. I have no idea who might step up and win it this year, but hey, I didn’t expect to win it once, let alone three times. Brad [Yule] will be in the hunt, the Wille brothers will be in the hunt, and if Mike Kloser comes over from Vail, he’ll be in the hunt. Neal Beidleman ” I’m not sure if he’s back from a shoulder injury ” but he could be in the hunt, and then there’s a lot of guys on the patrol, who, if they decide to race, could definitely be in the hunt too.”
Looking cool is just the tip of the iceberg for Mikaela Shiffrin, Travis Ganong and the rest of the U.S. ski team when they debut new race suits at the world championships.