Energy vibrates through the field of a thousand cross-country ski racers as they wait for the starting horn to blast. Anxiously poised, held in check by the rope that spans the starting line, racers in the first “wave” or group shuffle their skis back and forth, like bulls scraping their hooves and preparing to charge. Colorful sponsor banners drape the area and music plays in the background, but most of the racers remain focused, eyes fixed straight ahead.
The horn blares, and the first wave of skiers erupts off the line. Charging up the first hill, jockeying for position, highly trained physiques flex beneath brightly colored, skintight racing suits. Cresting the hilltop, each body folds into a tight tuck and rockets down the slope, skillfully negotiating the curves and disappearing into the forest beyond. The remaining seven waves follow their lead. The annual Wells Fargo Boulder Mountain Tour has officially begun.
Flashback to thirty years ago: Twenty cross-country ski racers clad in earth-toned natural fibers—perhaps wool knickers, the fashion of the day—toe a line scratched into the snow. At least one pair of wooden skis, freshly pine-tarred and waxed, inches up to the starting line. It’s the comparatively quiet beginning of the first Boulder Mountain
Tour, an event that has since evolved into one of the most prestigious and respected cross-country races in the country.
Today, the race boasts national champions and Olympians—past, current, and future—but it doesn’t belong to the elite. As Race Director Kevin Swigert, who grew up on Wood River Valley ski trails, points out, “The race has a local history and intense local involvement.” Swigert earned national recognition as a U.S. Ski Team member and three-time national champion, and is a multiple winner of the Tour. He fully understands the expectations of the elite racer, but also knows the importance of this race to recreational and first-time participants.
Maintaining a local feel is a priority even though racers of all ages come from across the nation, as well as Canada and Europe, to participate. In 2004, the youngest participant was 10 years old, and the oldest was Wood River Valley’s Phil Puchner, who, at age 81, set a modest goal of “passing just one racer before the finish.” Jo Ann Levy of Sun Valley is distinguished as the only person to have strapped on her skis for all twenty-nine past Boulder Mountain Tours. In addition to loyal “regulars” such as these, the race always includes a number of participants new to the sport of ski racing.
Bob Rosso, owner of The Elephant’s Perch, a former Tour winner, and Chief of Course in the modern-day version of the event, was among the competitors in the very first race. In 1973, deciding it might be fun to offer a long race in the Valley, he and a few friends mounted a snow machine or two, drove south from Galena for 32 kilometers, and set the course. The following day, they raced it.
“The course went down the side of the highway, teetering on the snowbank,” Rosso remembers. “If a snowplow came by, the course was destroyed.” The early course crossed Highway 75 several times. Skiers had to stop mid-race, take off their skis, dodge any passing traffic, jump back into their bindings, and pick up the race again.
Most racers skate-ski the course today, but in the ’70s, classic was the style. Rosso recalls the waxing challenges of early Tours: “It was always a nightmare. One year it was so bad that Herman Primus, who was about 65 at the time, skied away from the field and won on a pair of mohair skis!”
Describing the grooming in those days as “epic,” Rosso says, “One year it snowed a ton. We had a big alpine snow machine, but it was wallowing in the deep snow like a boat half full of water. We were running out of time, so we got five or six people together and skied the course side by side. We went from early afternoon until about one in the morning preparing the course.” Truly tireless in their devotion, they raced it the next day.
Grooming wasn’t the only daunting task. The course crossed the Big Wood River near the finish, but there was no bridge. So, donning waders and hauling a handful of logs, Rosso and other hardy volunteers forded the river (in mid-winter!), built a pier, and constructed a temporary bridge. “It was pretty hilarious skiing across it,” remembers Rosso. “It was narrow, and if somebody fell, the whole race came to a stop.”
Today, a permanent bridge spans the water. It was put in place in honor of Dick Murphy, a man Rosso describes as an “avid cross-country skier and real volunteer” from those early days.
The racecourse, once a rough trail not much wider than a snowmobile, is now groomed into spacious smoothness by modern machines. The process is still arduous, but the racers no longer do it themselves: Jim Mayne of the Blaine County Recreation District currently manages the operation. Mayne and his staff are among the best groomers in the country, and the exceptional quality of the Wood River Valley’s Nordic trails is one of the reasons for the vast and lasting popularity of the Boulder Mountain Tour.
In the beginning, the course was set just once a year, specifically for the day of the race—and was completely erased by the next winter storm. Now, however, the trail is groomed throughout the entire season—and, as Rosso adamantly says, “The Boulder Mountain Tour is the reason.”
These days, the race still starts at Galena and follows the Harriman Trail, along the Big Wood River through a corridor flanked by the rugged Boulder Mountains to the east and the softer forested ridges of the Smoky Mountains to the west. Animated spectators cheer the racers, ringing cowbells and chanting “Hup, hup”—Nordic traditions. At three stations along the way, energetic volunteers provide the racers with food, drink, and words of encouragement.
As the kilometers pass and the clock ticks, the steady stream of racers naturally separates into groups of competitors teaming together and urging each other on. New friends are made as they share the spirit of their pursuit.
Murphy’s bridge is a welcome landmark to the racer, a sign that the end is near. The final kilometers wind through a thin stand of wintering aspens. Music filters through the trees, invigorating the racers and drawing them to the festive finish, where spectators cheer and the announcer booms out an individual introduction, name and hometown, as each racer crosses the line. The elite racers are there first, of course, battling for position in what is often a dramatic finish, with competitors hurling their bodies over the line. The recreational racers follow, continuing to ski across the line for the next few hours. The winning time in 2004 was one hour and twenty-three minutes. The final competitor crossed the line exactly three hours later. >>>
All who cross the finish—from competitive racers to casual beginners—enjoy the camaraderie and accomplishment of completing the undulating course. Wood River residents Taina Raff and Karen Johnston skied the race for the first time last February. Neither had raced before, much less skied 32 kilometers. Full of determination, they sought to learn all they could about the sport and the race, collecting every thread of information that could lead them to success.
The two women enrolled in Masters Champion Muffy Ritz’s VAMPS program, familiar to many women in the Valley as a focused and fun way to improve skiing technique and fitness. They began training with Tuesday’s novice group, but were anxious to advance to the more demanding Thursday training sessions. An invitation didn’t materialize, however, so they advanced themselves by simply showing up—and quickly discovered that Thursdays were indeed different. When Ritz instructed the skiers to “V2” (an advanced skiing technique) around the perimeter of the golf course, Raff and Johnston immediately fell behind the group and found themselves isolated with their instructor, who good-naturedly dubbed them the “Remedials.”
Ritz encouraged Raff up the hills, commanding, “V2! V2!” As Raff fought desperately to employ the technique, Johnston strategically kept a safe distance behind, watching in dismay and content to stay out of Ritz’s sight while inventing her own unorthodox methods in the struggle to keep up.
At the end of the training session, Ritz offered an unsolicited evaluation of the Remedials’ abilities. Turning to Raff, she said simply, “Taina, you’re out of shape.” Casting her eyes on Johnston, she added, “And you have no technique.” The two laugh about it now, but at the time, they were crushed.
Raff and Johnston could have quit in shame, but they were determined to improve. They respected Ritz, who is well known for accurate assessments and untiring motivational encouragement. Her advice was typical: honest, and meant to be constructive. Both women now recognize that it was the best counsel they received from anyone in preparation for the Tour.
Raff took a balanced approach, increasing her training and sacrificing wine for the ski season. Johnston, on the other hand, went on an aggressive rampage to develop technique, taking private lessons with former Olympian Tessa Benoit and training with a mixed-gender group at Galena. As race day approached, Raff and Johnston, now fit and technically sound, concerned themselves with one final detail. “We had to put together matching outfits.”
Recalling her appearance at the starting line, Johnston lets out a howl of laughter. “I was equipped like a commando, with Hammer Gel hanging off me like bandoliers of ammunition. And I was wearing big alpine ski goggles. What a dork!”
Racers typically warm up before a race, doing accelerations and easy skiing to raise their heart rate and prepare their muscles. But, between final adjustments to their outfits and numerous runs to the latrine, Raff and Johnston found little time to prepare properly. They nearly missed the start of the race.
Jittery and distracted, Johnston had been expecting to hear an announcement; instead, she just happened to notice that the waves of skiers were moving. The seventh wave was on its way, and the eighth wave—theirs—was preparing to leave. She rushed to the starting line and anxiously searched the crowd for Raff, who, she realized, “was in the ‘head.’ Again!”
Finally, standing together at the start, nerves crackling, the Remedials indulged in a little comic relief. “We looked at each other and proclaimed, ‘You look good!’” Johnston says. Raff laughs, “Yeah, that’s all we could say: ‘You look good . . . your outfit, your hat.’”
When the horn sounded Raff sprinted off, leaving Johnston behind, frozen to the snow. “I couldn’t move my legs!” she says. “I just stood there, waiting for someone to call me names or run over the back of my skis. I was petrified that I was going to crash. But then I said to myself, ‘If there is anything I have, it’s technique!’”
And with that, Johnston launched herself into her race. Realizing that she was finally skiing the Boulder Mountain Tour, she relaxed and enjoyed herself. “It was a blast,” she says, “and a huge accomplishment. I know now that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. Once you take ownership of that, it lives with you throughout your life.”
As Raff and Johnston crossed the finish line, they joined other racers crowding around a large outdoor buffet, feasting on bread and orange slices, spoonfuls of steaming soup and sips of hot chocolate. Faces aglow with effort and satisfaction, the racers recounted their individual tales as the music cranked. Handshakes, pats on the back, and peals of laughter spread through the fraternity of finishers.
The racers’ abilities were widely varied, but they had skied the course together and shared the experience: Olympians and novices, young and old, the serious and the not so serious. They had embraced the challenge of the Boulder Mountain Tour, each competitor striving to ski his or her best. As they congratulated each other, the gathering around the buffet seemed more like a reunion than a competitive event. And in a sense it was, since many racers were veterans of several Boulder Mountain Tours.
Race Director Kevin Swigert says he’s impressed with each competitor’s effort, from the seasoned Olympian to the first-timer. He measures the success of the race based on each skier’s experience: “I think it’s important that the average racer walks away at the end of the day saying, ‘That was really fun, really worth it.’ That is the single most important goal for me.”
Taina Raff and Karen Johnston wholeheartedly agree that Swigert achieved his goal in 2004. And it’s almost certain that he’ll find the same success this winter, in the thirtieth running of the Wells Fargo Boulder Mountain Tour.
The 2005 Wells Fargo Boulder Mountain Tour will be held February 5. All registration fees and forms must be received by January 31, 2005. Space is limited to 1,000 skiers. For additional information, check out the Web site www.bouldermountaintour.com or email [email protected]
Greg Wilson, a former professional mountain guide, has spent the last quarter century guiding clients on mountains all over the world, including the highest peak on each continent and two successful ascents of Mt. Everest. Greg is no longer guiding, but embracing new challenges as a writer, and working toward a Master’s degree in English Education. He lives in Hailey with his wife Liza and stepson Dawson.