All you need to join a ski bum race league is a few hours during the week, a pair of skis, and a thirst for après-ski parties.
I’m scrambling to get out of the office and up to the Middlebury College Snow Bowl. At 2 pm on a frosty Friday I speed the 17 minutes from town to the Snow Bowl parking lot, toss my ski pants on over my khakis, exchange loafers for ski boots, grab my gloves, helmet, skis and poles and head for the lift.
I’m usually late, but I have it timed to get my two runs in before the course is pulled at 3:15.
I skate off the lift, stop a moment to tighten my boots, shake the day’s lethargy out of my bones, and head down the top half of the Allen.
“Afternoon, Ronnie,” I greet the starter, who deadpans his usual response. “See you just made it, again. Better get going if you want a second run. Three of your teammates have already clocked in, and you’re going have to be on your edges to beat your daughter… You got a clock, racer ready, go.”
I hate the way I start.
I always imagine I’ll rock up on my poles, ski tails lifted high and then explode out of the starting gate with guns blazing. I’ve studied how the pros do it a thousand times and one day, I think, I’m going to nail it. In my dreams.
I waste a half second prematurely tripping the wand and sputtering down the ramp, leaving me to pole and skate frantically to build speed through the first gate and into the second. I try to clip each gate with my shoulder tucked low and forward, remembering to anticipate two turns ahead, picking the straightest line, keeping on edge — hands forward. Soon, there’s an icy stretch. Gates are coming faster and faster. Hang on down the steep! Shoot, shoot, shoot, I almost missed that gate. I jump back on the edges. Don’t get behind, there you go, pick it up, up, clip the gates. I straighten the line through the finish, and bam, done.
I catch my breath and hear the announcer call out the time: 33.48. Ugh. The top three were 28 and change; a few in the low 30s, and me in seventh out of 23 that day. Not too bad for a kid who grew up in Texas and Kansas and rarely skied until he was 20. But I know I can do better.
I first learned about racing at Steamboat Springs as a 23-year-old ski bum in the 1970s when I worked as a liftie for a season, then as part the NASTAR race crew for the next two winters. Only I didn’t race, much. I ran the timing equipment, set up the start and finish, and got to race (well, kind of) only occasionally with the pros — Hank Kashiwa (1975 World Cup winner), Billy Kidd was sometimes around, but mainly it was Moose Barrows (1968 Olympic downhiller). My highlight? Well lots. I got to help Moose with the Cowboy Downhill each year and partied with the world’s top bull and bronco riders (that was fun), and I skied with Billy Kidd several times when we were both a lot younger.
But what I remember most was a brief time when Hank was there training. He let me hang around — timing his runs and carrying one or two pairs of his skis slung over my shoulder — white PRE’s, probably 200 cm, with heel-less Spademan bindings — as he tested different cambers and flex; things I barely knew about. During those weeks, I tried following on his heels down a course set with slalom gates (at his suggestion), but I’d get going too fast and blow out of the course every time. Still, I was stoked just to be skiing with him, and soaking up any tips he offered.
Not long after, he left to go on tour, I ended up with a free pair of test-model PRE skis and those Spademan bindings — and I was on Cloud 9, determined some day to learn to race.
But I never got any good. I did learn how to ski, but jobs are jobs and most of my time on the racecourse was in the timing shack.
Years later, we moved to Vermont. My three daughters started racing with Middlebury Ski Club as 5-year-olds, and they each kept at it through high school — each captaining her high school ski team — with me faithfully following every race I could for the better part of eight years. I watched them get better and better with me on the sidelines, until the last left for college.
So there I was, in my early 50s, a racer wannabe for all those years. Then, 12 years ago, the Middlebury Ski Bum League was resurrected, and offered me my chance at greatness.
Well, at least that’s the story I tell at après ski.
For most of us, the ski bum league is what gets us out of the office and up on the slope. It’s the thrill of trying to do better, to go fast, to carve a solid turn without your edges slipping. It’s the challenge of weighting the ski so it arcs and shoots you across the turn and into the next one so fast you have to be quick or you’ll be back in your seat and then it’s all hell to pay.
But it really doesn’t matter how good you are at racing, how old you are, or whether you are on tele-skis, a snowboard, or your 25-year-old PREs. Most ski bum leagues have some sort of handicap system, or reverse point system, that makes the 72-year-old novice competitive (at least in scoring) with a NCAA champ.
And the reason to be part of a ski bum league is the camaraderie: the hooting and hollering; the slaps on the back; the high fives, or merciless ribbing, and the chance to gather at the bar afterwards with like-minded souls. It’s all part of the not-so-serious culture, which, for starters says you can’t be a proper “ski bum” without taking off at least a couple hours during the workday.
We’re all part of this semi-irreverent culture that comes up with team names like “Bode Miller,” “Meat Bucket,” “Black Sheep,” “Easy Riders,” or, to keep priorities straight, “Team Après Ski.” Of the 75 or so signed up in our smallish group, there are a couple dozen former racers; a college team or two (we’d like more); a couple dozen racers in their 30s-40s, and several more like me.
“I race to satisfy my competitive nature,” says Middlebury builder and former high school racer Jed Malcolm. “It also is simply a great small-town activity that you don’t see everywhere else, and it helps us all take advantage of where we live.”
Snow Bowl manager Peter Mackey seconds that sentiment: “It’s just good fun. There are some god racers out there, and some real novices, but they’re all having a good time. It brings people together on the hill — and off the hill.”
Many of the ski bum leagues, including Stowe’s and Bromley’s Innkeepers Series, were started by innkeepers and barkeeps as a way to get out on snow during the quiet time – weekdays. And they know how to throw an after party. The tradition at some of the leagues is to rotate the après ski parties around various town restaurants. Ours is no different: Holmes and Beale Jacobs, owners of Middlebury’s Two Brothers Tavern, helped start the Middlebury league about a dozen years ago and have been instrumental in keeping it going, but today a half-dozen other restaurants and several businesses are equally invested.
“Here it’s all very casual and it builds a sense of community and camaraderie,” says Holmes, who raced competitively for a few years, while Beale was on the ski team at Colorado University in Boulder, and has raced in the Master’s series for years.
Over in Stowe, Marion Baraw, who helped start the ski bum league there more than 40 years ago and has stayed involved, captured the essence of what ski bum racing is all about in an earlier Vt. Ski + Ride story. “If there’s anything that can bring people of all ages, incomes and professions together, it’s skiing… It’s part of the magic of the sport,” said Baraw. “I call it the Peter Pan syndrome. You never grow up. After the races, the 20-year-olds are hanging out with the 76-year-olds.”
Back in Middlebury for the after party, we’re an hour into some rollicking good times, a video of the day’s race is rolling in the background, and someone passes out the race times and the team scores. There’s the typical team bluster, trash talking along with cheers for the top individuals, prizes and local gift certificates.
And then we head back to the fold — happy to have lived the carefree life of the ski bum for a few hours, indulging in a fantasy long-shot that was never in the cards for most of us anyway.
“The best thing about skiing is you get a few runs in and hang out with good people,” says Middlebury ski bum Gordie Eaton. Now 78, Eaton was a NCAA downhill champ for Middlebury College who went on to ski on the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team and helped coach the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. “Skiers always want to have a good time and that’s what we do.”
A LEAGUE OF YOUR OWN
You don’t need to have ever skied a gate to join a ski bum league—and a few welcome weekly drop ins. Scoring is either weighted based on an individual’s handicap, or via a system that equalizes an invidual’s points regardless of ability. In short, a novice racer can often score as high for his or her team as a pro, and it’s best for teams to have mixed talents. You can join for the season (there’s usually a charge that goes toward race costs, parties and awards), and usually a ski ticket or pass at the resort is required. Here are a few of the most active leagues in Vermont. Racing is usually for the 8 to 10 weeks between early January and March.
Bolton Valley (Corporate Race League)
It started as a night-racing competition between Burlington-area companies, but these days most teams are a little more loosely formed, with team names such as P-tex and Patchouili. It’s a big ski bum league with 200 or so gathering each Tuesday at 6 p.m. to race under the lights. boltonvalley.com
Bromley Innkeepers Series
On Wednesday mornings (9:30 to 11:30) teams of 3 to 5 racers compete on progressively harder courses. Bromley’s race pass costs $115 per person, but that includes a full day of skiing each Wednesday, racing and the après ski party at the Wild Boar Tavern. bromley.com
Killington’s Dos Equis Ski Bum Race Series
Racers meet each Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the steeper Highline trail. It’s a challenging course that racers finish in about 30 seconds. The league attracts about 200 racers to “A” and “B” divisions and is run through the Killington Ski Club. killingtonskiclub.com.
Middlebury Ski Bum League
Each Friday, from 1:15 to 3:15, the giant-slalom course is held on the lower half of Middlebury College Snow Bowl’s Allen. As with most leagues, racers pay a fee for the year ($20), and need a ski pass on race day ($25 for half-day). Middlebury College students ski free. firstname.lastname@example.org
Okemo Innkeeper’s Race Series
Ludlow’s ski bum series started in 1976 and continues on Tuesdays, 10 a.m. til noon, running about 40-50 racers through the course on Wardance. email@example.com
Stowe Ski Bum League
Locals of all ages meet every Tuesday morning for two runs from early January through March on the Slalom Hill at Little Spruce. The Mt. Mansfield Ski Club runs the race and it started more than 40 years ago — with a storied past that includes rivalries with the Sugarbush ski bums. Today, the dual NASTAR-like course is down Slalom Hill at Little Spruce with the best racers completing the couse in 20-25 seconds. mmsc.org
Hosted by the Sugarbush Racing Club, weekly races are held on the NASTAR course on Racer’s Edge Trail each Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in a dual giant slalom format. All racers should register with NASTAR and have a NASTAR number. sugarbushracingclub.com
Above photo: Polly Schmid gets serious in the A division at Killington’s Dos Equis ski bum races, held every Wednesday starting in January. Photo by Jerry Leblond