An Early Morning
The alarm rings at 5:00 am. The cold darkness of winter presses in from the windows and pools on the floor. My sluggishness transforms to hurried clumsiness as my bare feet touch the floor. I rush to pull on my clothing. Long underwear, two layers, woolen socks, a zip neck ski turtleneck – check – I’m now ready for the penetrating cold of an early winter morning. I don my brand-new Birds of Prey Talon Crew jacket (courtesy of the Vail Valley Foundation), load up on outer-wear (helmet, gloves, balaclava and ski boots) and head outside.
You don’t meet many folks walking through Avon, Colorado at 5:30 in the morning, but as I am walking toward the Beaver Creek shuttle, a car slows down.
“Good morning,” my crew chiefs, Sean and Kevin, practically sing out. “Can we give you a lift to the shuttle?”
“Sure!” I reply as I open the rear door.
“Nothing like a World Cup Ski Race to make it snow.” Sean, the sterner of my two crew chiefs as he observes the large flakes falling from the dark sky.
We pull into the nearly empty parking lot at Beaver Creek Resort. As more Talon Crew volunteers arrive, voices get louder, and conversations pick up. Soon 30 or 40 of us board the next bus. When we reach the Covered Bridge at Beaver Creek Village it’s 6:00 am.
We grab our skis (no poles) from storage. When we hit the Centennial lift for our ride up to Spruce Saddle, it’s still dark. At the mid-mountain lodge, I grab hot chocolate and a donut, and head to my crew’s table. There’s a volunteer I don’t know, so I introduce myself. With a long white beard and red knit cap, he looks like an extra-large version of one of the dwarves from Snow White. I am unsurprised to learn that he works as a miner.
“The mine closed down recently, so I’m unemployed,” he explains. “So, I though I’d come down give you guys a hand for a few days.”
What happens next is so casual I almost don’t process it. A second Talon Crew volunteer sits down next to the miner. This second volunteer lives in a 10 million dollar slope-side home. And if you imagine these individuals from two very different walks of life have nothing in common, you’re wrong. They’re just both a couple of locals pitching in because they support their community and love their sport. It turns out they have volunteered together for years, and animatedly begin catching up.
During the morning briefing, the security folks warn us where the winch cats will be working, the race officials catch us up on relevant race details, and the day’s goals and trouble spots are enumerated.
“Saddle up!” Sean hollers out at the meeting’s close. We don our layers and head outside. It’s just past dawn as we board the Cinch Express lift and ride to the top of the mountain.
On the Hill
Over the next few days, our job is to transform this double-black-diamond ski slope to vertical ice-skating rink. Having been thoroughly doused with 2.5 million gallons of water over the past two days, the racecourse now requires thousands of hours of manual labor to accomplish this transformation. By race day, it will be smooth, hard ice. We grab a variety of shovels and rakes from the Tuff-Shed (the on-hill HQ for the race crew). It is time to go to work!
I’ve heard racers describe The Brink as the portion of the course where the earth falls faster than you do. It’s the steepest piste I’ve ever skied. I still get a tingle in the pit of my stomach each time ski it. It’s that steep.
At The Brink, we cautiously nudge onto the course, single file, skis sideways, alert. I grasp my shovel, look at the local pro for directions, check uphill and take off. With last night’s snowfall on this steep of a pitch, it’s something closer to surfing an avalanche than skiing. I let my skis go, getting as much sideways speed as possible. As the snow starts to build up around my skis, I shuffle my feet, trying to bring the snow with me. I ride the mini avalanche like a surfer down the hill and am rewarded with a cheer from the crew waiting on the sidelines with shovels.
The Bucket Brigade
We ski snow off the race line through the Talon Turn and Pete’s Arena. At Screech Owl, we stop. Following our local race pro’s instructions, we start shoveling. Working like a bucket brigade, we shovel snow toward an odd contraption. Anchored in the snow is a 10’ plastic chute connected to something that looks like a 50 ft clear garbage bag. As snow enters the chute, gravity pulls the snow downhill through the tube. Snow exits the tube like water from a firehose! Course workers below us on the hill direct this blast off the edge of the ski slope into the woods. Once an area is clear, we move downhill 50 feet and do it again. The racecourse is 1.5 miles long and about 150 feet wide.
It’s very, very hard work. In this age where much work is virtual, the average person rarely experiences true, physical labor. The experience of building something with your own sweat, with a group of several hundred other dedicated souls is unprecedented. On the Talon Crew, our shared effort bonds us, creating an instant kinship. During this week, I work harder than I do at any other time during the year. I also feel closer to my fellow volunteers after spending one week on the slopes with them than I do to folks I work side-by-side with 50 weeks per year.
Polishing the Race Line
The snow abates mid-day. The Talon Crew manages to clear the fresh snow from the race line, down to the ice. We make a final lap, returning all of our tools to the Tough Shed. On our final run, we’ll do my very favorite bit of work, polishing the race line. Our crew sets up in a half ‘V’ formation. Sean starts at the middle of the course, his inside leg pointed straight down the hill and his outside leg at a 45-degree angle across the hill. He sets off at a face pace, lightly skimming off a layer of ice from the top of the race course. He leaves a fine dusting of snow (ice powder, really) behind, pushed toward the edge of the course. The next skier starts where the chief finishes, skimming off his own layer of ice and pushing the icy fluff toward the edge of the course. We follow in a line, ski tip to ski tail, Kevin (at the rear) pushing the fluff right to the safety fence lining the course. Over the next few days, Talon Crew volunteers will lap the course thousands of times, tempering it into a World Cup race course.
The End of the Day
When we reach the village at the bottom of the hill, we stow our skis and walk to the Coyote Cafe, the unofficial race hangout location. I recognize several retired World Cup skiers and even a few current racers. Gradually the bar fills up and eventually overflows into the village sidewalk. Race circuit folks greet old friends while hill workers (volunteer and professional) swap stories about the day. In all that chaos, a World Cup racer approaches a Talon Crew volunteer and quietly says, “Thank You.”