“A mixed blessing”

In 2016, smack-dab in the middle of the X-Games, a three-day storm his Aspen, Colorado. My brother and I skied at Snowmass, and then quickly showed, heading over to check out the Snowboarding half-pipe competition and the skiers’ big air. The problem was that there was too much snow. The skiers had to clear the flat after the jump. If they didn’t, they were libel to injure themselves. The fresh snow slowed them down too much. Leaving Buttermilk and heading to Aspen for dinner, my brother turned to me and half-jokingly said, “It’s not a snow sport if too much snow can shut it down.”

A picture containing outdoor, snow

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Buttermilk and the X-Game Jumps from above Burlingame, CO.

The snow did not only disappoint fans, it affected the competition itself. In Sports Illustrated, Ryan Wallerson wrote, “the storm that came over the mountains on Saturday night made the last stage of the weekend a bit chaotic.” It disrupted the event, but it also disrupted the result. Wallerson explained hot “the weather was a dominating factor, as the skiers were unable to get the kind of airtime that they wanted for their biggest tricks. That led to a host of wipeouts and subdued runs and kept podium scores lower than normal.”

The 2016 X-Games, however, was not an aberration. About 35 years earlier, Park City became the first American resort to host Women’s and Men’s World Cup Races a the same time. With televised coverage reaching 200 million people, and with “over 380 reporters, photographers, and television correspondents,” Salt Lake City and Park City used the World Cup as an example of the city’s preparedness to host the Winter Olympics. The problem was that much like in 2016, the weather refused to cooperate.

In the Desert News, Joe Costanzo and Ellen Fagg explained how “during the previous three days of the World Cup, skiers and spectators enjoyed warm, sunny, and springlike conditions. The ski runs had been covered with man-made snow for the competition.” The problem was “the resort was not open to public skiing for lack of snow, a problem at all the major resorts.” A rapid-moving blizzard, however, flipped the situation.

The storm that hit Park City highlighted the paradoxical relationship between ski racing and weather. After a heavy snowfall, Mark Menlove, Park City Ski Area’s communications director, explained how Park City now had “enough snow to definitively open by Wednesday or sooner.” To emphasize his point, he told the press “It’s snowing heavily right now.” The general skiing population go skiing, but the ski racers were delayed.

Lorne O’Connor, the International Ski Federation technical delegate for the race Sunday, explained, “We were on the mountain at 6:30 a.m. with a crew to remove the new snow from the course… The track we left was basically a toboggan chute. Because of the high moisture content of the snow, the snow sticks on the flags, and would flick in the face of skiers, making it difficult to see.” He continued, “We felt if [sic] was very dangerous, and it was a unanimous decision by the committee [to cancel the race].

Ski racing was not always this way. In the early days, ski races were not measured in seconds, they were measured in minutes. More often than not, skiers would start at the top of Civilian Conservation Corps runs in New England or open fields in the West. From there, they raced through thick or thin snow. Falling, skidding, and crashing were not only frequent, but they were almost universal. However, with such slow races, sloppy skiing did not disqualify you from finishing. Often, people simply got up and kept going.

The film Streif: One Hell of a Ride beautifully depicts the difference between races today and the past. The movie opens with a shot of snowmaking and grooming. Snowmaking reservoirs are visible within the first few minutes, and snow fans blanket the racecourse with manufactured snow. Juxtaposed, however, is footage from the first race on the Streif course. In this footage, the snow is anything but uniform. Grass and rocks poked through the thin snowpack, and there were no gates for people to go around.

Other films, such as the documentary Legends of Skiing use historic footage to demonstrate the ad hoc and irreplicable nature of ski races and snow conditions during the early days of Alpine ski racing. One of the most interesting points in the film are clips of early races at Mount Mansfield. Rushing down a narrow winding slope cut through the thick Vermont forests, the snow was rough and skiers tumbled down the slope, wiping out again and again.

Frequently, general histories of skiing assume that ski racing naturally developed into the technology-reliant sport that it currently is. Today, the old way of racing seems somewhat comical, dominated by poor skills and a lack of modern uniformity that defined skiing as a true sport, rather than a pastime. But when people laugh at these early races, when they simply serve as comedic relief or evidence of a less complicated time, they overlook the many other ways that skiing could have developed.

Racers and X-Games competitors no longer compete on slopes built from natural conditions. Rather, they compete on well-manicured ice, made from snow machines and grooming machines. In many ways, the slopes seem more like concrete than snow. Hard, machine formed, and infrastructurally sound, the slopes are evidence of an ambiguous relationship between skiing and the environment.

The comparison between snow and concrete is hyperbolic. Snowmaking depends on the weather. Droughts, warm temperatures, and rain all change artificial snow’s molecular structure, and bad weather can keep resorts from making snow in the first place. Nevertheless, the simile is instructive. From this view, skiing is a microcosm of the United States. While the United State blanketed itself in concrete, ski areas blanketed their slopes with manufacture snow. In the process, they fundamentally changed the relationship between people, land, and the physical experience of the surrounding world.

Technological adaptions are not bad in themselves. But modernization does not have to correlate with technological improvements. It might be valuable to ask how ski racing could have developed if racers were left to the whims of the weather. They would need a fundamentally different – and likely more varied – skill set, racers would have a fundamentally different psychological mentality, and watching the significantly more unpredictable sport could have brought more kids to racing and more fans to racing. Who knows, perhaps racers at the World Cup in Park City could have raced on powder skis instead – although they would have had to invent them first. Imagine them ripping through powder, avoiding sluff, and adapting to constantly shifting snow. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Published by Jesse Ritner

I am pursuing my PhD in history at the University of Austin Texas. I specialize in Native American Histories, American Imperialism, environmental history.

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