Wille, Wilder and Sahn in 4th Inferno | AspenTimes.com

Wille, Wilder and Sahn in 4th Inferno

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer

As westerly winds lashed the knifish ridge of Highland Peak at 10 a.m. Saturday, blowing snow sideways with gusts up to 45 mph, more than 50 elite-division racers turned their right cheeks from the storm and headed up to 12,392 feet. Then down, via the gut of Highland Bowl, Ozone. And all very quickly.

Breaking trail in the first heat of the fourth annual Inferno race in Aspen Highlands’ attic – through two-foot-deep snow in places – leading the torturous 800-vertical-foot climb to the summit was Aspen High School science teacher Andre Wille, 42. Wille finally distanced his pursuers once on more-solid ground at the top shelf of the bowl, then unslung his skis when he hit the top and clicked into his bindings for the 1,400-foot descent through nine control gates to the finish line in the runout of the bowl.

“Skiing down was all powder,” Wille said. “There was no one near me, so I took it easy and had a great run.”

It was just after 10:30 a.m. when his ski tips crossed a dyed line in the snow. Tine clocked: 31 minutes, 25 seconds.

About the same time, the second heat of about 50 racers ” the men’s and women’s rec. divisions, and junior racers ” started the course from the bottom of Mousetrap, just below the top of the Loge Peak lift.

And as Wille’s chase pack crashed into the finish area in the seconds and minutes that followed, gasping and exhausted and waahooooing, many still managed to congratulate him, the Inferno’s men’s runner-up the last two years.

“Andre worked harder than anyone boot-packing up to the top,” Aspen mountaineer and snowboard instructor Brad Yule, second behind Wille, said in the finish area. “And then he just dropped everyone after that.”

“He deserves it, for sure.”

Similar congratulations were bestowed on women’s elite-division winner Karen Sahn, 35, a Highlands ski patroller who won the Inferno in 2002 and finished second the other two years. Sahn was timed in 35 minutes, 40 seconds.

Said Sahn, “The wind was tough but we’re out here in the wind a lot, so I just tried to think of it as another day ” just like being at work.”

Most of the leaders from the elite division had already swapped racing bibs for Inferno T-shirts and skied out the traverse back to the Merry-Go-Round when Aspen’s Rick Wilder ” with nobody else in sight ” crossed the line to win the rec. heat. And when a patroller at the finish line shouted out that Wilder’s time was faster than Wille’s, there was hardly anyone around to hear it. Let alone know what to make of it.

Unlike all the leaders of the elite division, Wilder, 50, an avid Aspen backcountry skier, had used skins to climb to the summit, instead of hiking in boots along the boot-pack trail ” which was steadily smoothing over with continued winds throughout both heats.

So Wille won the elite race over an elite field ” the likes of Yule (16 seconds back at 31:41), Alan Hyland (31:49), Neal Beidleman (32:07), brother Pierre Wille (32:13) and Travis Moore (32:31) ” while Wilder won the rec. race with a faster time, five seconds faster at 31:20.

As of Sunday afternoon, the Inferno’s organizers, the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol, were still deliberating over whom to crown as the men’s champion to succeed three-time victor Jimmy “Inhuman” Newman (out with a knee injury this year).

“Wilder won the rec. and Andre won the elite,” one patroller said when asked for an official comment.

“The trophy throws a monkey-wrench in the whole thing.”

Wilder, who has finished in the top10 in past Infernos, said at the finish line that the course conditions favored skinning, a perfectly acceptable strategy that none of the elite-division racers employed.

“It just turned out advantageous this year,” Wilder said. “It’s just luck of the draw. Those guys [the elite leaders] usually beat me real bad, so I got lucky, that’s all.”

Asked why he did not enter the elite field, Wilder replied:

“I wasn’t really quite ready yet. I showed up a little bit late. Anyway, I didn’t think I was elite ” that’s what the registration was asking for.”

Fourteen-year-old Noah Hoffman, an Aspen High freshman and promising Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club nordic racer, was the second racer off the peak after Wilder in the second heat. Hoffman, racing in the inaugural junior division (which started slightly above the rec. and elite start-line), was cruising through swaths of powder in the runout area when he crashed and lost both skis.

Hoffman managed to recover to win the junior division in 35:52, but a second men’s rec. racer, Lance Lary, skied past him, finishing in 35:55.

“Really fun,” grinned Hoffman. “You’re so tired when you ski down, yet you still gotta go fast ” and watch for crashes.”

Yesterday, Yule said the dilemma over the men’s title ” Wille or Wilder ” was unfortunate.

“I congratulate Wilder for putting up the fastest time,” Yule said, “but my feeling is that the trophy should go to Andre.”

“If it was a time-trial, it wouldn’t be an issue. But it’s not. Part of how you ran the race was jockeying your positions during the race, that dynamic of racing together with your adversaries.”