Ruthie's Run, Aspen
Ruthie’s Run on Aspen Mountain has been the venue for classic, hotly contested World Cup and Roch Cup races over sixty years. On the mild upper section, the whims of wind and waxing have often decided the downhill winners over the years. If you’re an intermediate, you can easily cruise the upper part, and avoid the steep section by taking Ruthie’s Lift back up to the top. Or you can head down.
For racers, the real technical test on Ruthie’s starts as racers plunge into Aztec and Spring Pitch, setting up one of the most demanding sequence of high-speed turns of any downhill in the world. “It is still one of the classic runs in North America,” says ex-Olympian Tom Corcoran.
One of the most spectacular recoveries on Ruthie’s, recalled by Aspen photographer Bob Chamberlain, occurred when Buddy Werner was thrown backwards at high speed, and flew for a long time through the air. He landed on his back, then incredibly Werner recovered without missing a click and went on to win the race.
Franz Klammer won on Ruthie’s Run in the winter of 1976 after his televised spectacular Olympic gold medal downhill win at Innsbruck, Austria. Crazy Canuck Todd Brooker, who would becme prominent as a TV expert commentator, won in 1983. Wild Bill Johnson won the 1984 World Cup downhill after a sensational recovery. Johnson told ex-Olympic racer Christin Cooper that he saw one leg above his head, retrieved it, lost footing on the other ski, almost veered off the course through the bough markers, then finding both skis once again under him Johnson went on to victory. Four-time World Cup champion Pirmin Zurbriggen won in 1987. The lower sections of Ruthie’s offer one of the most severe tests of slalom and giant slalom on the World Cup today.
Ruthie’s is named for Ruth Humphries, who became the wife of Darcy Brown, long-time boss of the Aspen Skiing Company. Before the young resort hosted the 1950 FIS World Alpine Ski Championships, it was desperately short of money to promote its candidacy. Ruthie Humphries made the initial donation of $5,000 that enabled Aspen to host the first major international alpine ski championship held in North America. Grateful Aspenites, led by Dick Durrance, named the trail in her honor.
KT22 AND THE DREAM OLYMPICS. The first televised Winter Games in the U.S., the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics have never been equaled in their staging, the superb weather, and the intimacy enjoyed by athletes from dozens of countries mingling in the small virtually unknown California resort. The opening fireworks, orchestrated by Walt Disney, illuminated the Squaw peak known as KT22. Today, from its summit, you can still ski terrain remarkably unchanged from what the Olympians experienced. The women’s downhill is still called that by the Ski Patrol. Take off to the right and with Olympic Lady lift on your right, drop into the steep terrain where America’s blond Penny Pitou won the first of her two silver medals at the Games. Not far above the finish line, 14 racers crashed at “airplane corner” where the snow had iced up overnight. If you steer left onto the moguled face of KT 22, you can experience the steepness that daunted the men’s giant slalom racers in the 1960 Olympics. Here Roger Staub won a gold medal, and U.S. racer Tom Corcoran posted a fourth place that remained for the next 42 years as the best result by an American man in Olympic giant slalom. Count the number of turns you make on the moguled steep face. On this face in the 1940s, before there were any lifts or trails, a cautious Sandy Poulsen used a series of kick turns to make it safely to the bottom. Her husband, Wayne Poulsen, Squaw Valley’s original discoverer, counted them, 22, and promptly named the peak KT22.
SKI IT IF YOU CAN
What was it like to ski sixty and more years ago? Were the trails that narrow? The terrain rocky, the snow that coarse? Actually, there’s a place in Vermont where you can experience skiing as it existed in the rough and tumble 1950s. It’s Mad River Glen built on General Stark Mountain, named for the man who coined the phrase Live Free, or Die. From Stark’s Nest at 3,673 feet, you head straight down the fall line into the steep gnarly run known as The Chute and Liftline, unchanged from when they were first cut. At that time, there was no grooming nor snowmaking, and Mad River’s owners, stubbornly respectful of the past, have resisted any temptation to install either enhancement of the ski experience, nor to allow newfangled snowboarders on the slopes. In short, the skiing is exactly as it was in 1949. Even more remarkable, the single-seat chair that takes you to the top of General Stark Mountain is the same one that has operated continuously since the beginning. This is the last winter you’ll be able to ride the original. It will be removed in the spring, and replaced by an exact replica powered by new motors, gears and pulleys. Nothing much changes in the place famous for its bumper sticker, “Mad River, Ski It If You Can.” Good advice.
UPHILL HISTORY PLACE
Boyne Mountain, the Midwest’s largest ski resort, has a further distinction: it is virtually a museum of ski lifts. The collection started in 1948, according to lift historian Kirby Gilbert, when Boyne’s shrewd, machinery-savvy owner Everett Kircher bought the original 1936 Dollar Mountain chairlift – the world’s first -- from Sun Valley, dismantled it and moved it by rail car to his brand new Boyne Mountain ski resort in northern Michigan. Three years later, Kircher converted it from a single to a double chair. You can still ride it up the Hemlock Run, as former President Gerald Ford used to do when he was a Michigan Congressman in the 1950s. The top and bottom terminals are the originals made for the world’s first chairlift.
One day in 1962, as Kircher was planning his new Boyne Highlands ski area, he and his wife found themselves squeezed on a double chair with their six-year-old son John, who today is President of Montana’s Big Sky ski resort. Why shouldn’t there be a three-seater chairlift? Kircher asked. And so the Riblet company made one for him. You can still ride it today on the Heather Run at Boyne Highlands.
The triple chair was so popular that Kircher decided to ratchet the chairlift up by another seat, and a year later the Heron company installed the world’s first quad lift on Boyne Mountain.
Not to be outdone, even by himself, Kircher in the early 1990s learned of a six-seat chairlift in Quebec, and for the winter of 1992-93 the Doppelmayr company built the first six-seater in the U.S.A. at Boyne Mountain. Today, you and five friends can ride it up the McLouth slopes.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN
If you’ve read the book or seen the film The Other Side of the Mountain, you know about California teenaged ski racer, Jill Kinmont, who suffered a catastrophic injury in a high-speed giant slalom at Alta, Utah, which has left her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Kinmont was a knock-dead beauty and very likely would have become America’s best woman ski racer in the late 1950s. Instead she broke her neck in a tragic fall during Alta’s 1955 Snow Cup race You can ski the approximate route Kinmont raced by taking the Collins lift and heading down the Saddle race course. Just above Corkscrew heading to Lower Rustler, you will encounter what is known as the Kinmont bump. Here, moving at high speed, Kinmont failed to pre-jump, was flung into the air, glanced off a tree and smashed into a spectator, severing her spinal column at the neck. Catapulted to a kind of fame no one wants, Kinmont salvaged her life, becoming a schoolteacher and model of accomplishment for the world’s disabled.
The Flying Mile.
In 1938, when Philadelphia millionaire Joe Ryan decided to build the Quebec resort of Mont Tremblant, virtually every ski trail in eastern North America was a narrow winding cut through the forest. There were no chainsaws or bulldozers to make widening cost-effective, and besides the trees were desirable – they shielded the trail from sun and wind, retaining the snow. But Ryan wanted his guests to enjoy a different experience, more like Europe’s Alps where skiers enjoyed wide open slopes, on cattle pastures and above treeline. And so when he erected a single chairlift, a copy of the original at Sun Valley, from the village up the south side of the mountain, he put scores of men to work hacking and chopping to clear a vast open slope paralleling the single-seater chair. He named it The Flying Mile after a racehorse he happened to own, and at its top, he built a lovely little tea house named for his wife Mary. There was a problem, though. The Flying Mile was intersected by a rocky precipice. Rather than steer around it as his trail adviser Jackrabbit Johannsen recommended, Ryan built a massive wooden trestle down the cliff’s face, at the same time as he built a trestle under the chairlift so that vertigo-challenged guests wouldn’t be frightened about their height above the ground. The trestles have gone, the cliff dynamited, but you can still ski The Flying Mile. In 1949, it was the venue of a slalom race in which Tremblant’s ski school chief, Ernie McCulloch, famously defeated the French Olympic ski team, the most notable achievement to that time by a North American racer.
MAKE AN EXHIBIT OF YOURSELF. Sun Valley’s precipitous Exhibition, bristling like a hedgehog with jagged bumps, got its name because skiers coming down it can exhibit their skill and daring to riders on the chair going up. Exhibition’s unrelenting steepness over a distance makes it America’s most formidable mogul run today. Little has changed since it first opened. You may gasp at the idea of someone schussing straight down it, but world champion Emile Allais did so, and America’s daredevil Mad Dog Buek once did it ten times in succession, cartwheeling in spectacular crashes more often than not. Veteran Sun Valley pro Yvon Tache recalls schussing Exhibition in the 1940s, clipping the tops of the immense bumps at 80 miles an hour. “You were upright and the only check on your speed was leaning against the resistance of the air. Your chest felt like it was hitting a wall.”
Exhibition served as the venue of the annual Harriman Cup downhill, the most prestigious race in America until the mid-1960s. The 1953 race, held in fog and snowstorm, produced devastating crashes, include a leg-breaking career-ender for Toni Matt, the man who famously schussed the Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine. In 1960s, Toni Sailer and Karl Schranz both raced on Exhibition. Coming off Rock Garden on top, with bumps and only boot-packed snow, “it was as tough as Kitzbuehel’s renowned Hahnenkamm, and maybe tougher in its unrelenting steepness and speed,” says ex-Olympic downhiller Jim Moose Barrows. “Easily the most difficult downhill in North America.”
AMERICA’S Oldest Continuously Skied Trail? Here’s an historic trail that novices can enjoy! The Toll Road on Vermont’s 4,395-foot Mount Mansfield saw its first ski tracksmore than a century ago, and has been skied almost continuously ever since. It began as a summer carriage road in 1855, then Stowe tourism boosters quickly extended it to a point below the summit where they built a hotel. You could reach it on foot or by rented horse, paying a toll. The first person to ski it was Dartmouth College librarian Nathaniel Goodrich in 1914. “I had a lot of fun,” confessed Goodrich, “stops were frequent. I reached the foot of the mountain weary, but pleased.” In 1945, Stowe skiing pioneers Sepp Ruschp and Erling Strom competed in a race that started at Mt. Mansfield’s Octagon at 3,660 feet. After downhilling the Toll Road, they kicked and glided their way to the village of Stowe ten miles distant. The race continues to this day as The Stowe Derby, with as many as a thousand skiers competing. You can spare yourself the cross-country by making long easy turns down the entire Toll Road from the top of the detachable quad on Mt. Mansfield all the way down to the Toll House Conference Center.
THE SILVER BELT
For 35 years, the Silver Belt invitational race was a classic. Winners included Gretchen Fraser, the first U.S. skier to win an Olympic gold medal, Aspen ski school founder Friedl Pfeiffer, Alta’s Alf Engen, and daredevil Buddy Werner. You can still ski the course, pretty much unchanged from when it was first laid out in 1940 at the Sugar Bowl ski resort astride historic Donner Pass. Ride the high-speed quad to the top -- if you’re lucky, resident pro and ex-Olympian Daron Rahlves may be on board with you. After getting off the lift, turn right, and look for the start of the run (“Silver Belt”). This is black diamond terrain, for the Silver Belt was among the toughest giant slaloms ever to test racers such as the Mahre twins, Billy Kidd, Olympic medalists Barbara Ann Cochran, Jean Saubert and Andrea Mead Lawrence. From the steep couloir under the peak of 8,383-foot Mt. Lincoln, you drop into Steilhang gully under the lift, and finish on intermediate Silver Belt runout. Now let your imagination take hold. You come to a stop at what was the finish and dream that you’re standing in a crowd of enthusiastic long-time-ago Sugar Bowl skiers from Hollywood. Among them are Walt Disney, Claudette Colbert, Norma Shearer, Errol Flynn and Robert Stack. A nice run.
Ski the Birthplace of Nastar and Freestyle
At New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley, you can ski terrain that ushered in revolutionary changes in the sport. Ride up on the World Cup triple chairlift, then head down Upper Sel’s Choice into Tommy’s World Cup run, named for the resort’s founder, Tom Corcoran. For the winter of 1968-69, the International Ski Federation’s World Cup organization, born only the winter before, chose Waterville to host the final races of the year. Men and women raced giant slalom and slalom on Upper Sel and World Cup. History was made when dynamic Kiki Cutter took first place in the women’s slalom to become the first American to win a World Cup race.
That wasn’t the only historic happening in the winter of 1968-69. In December, when the National Standard Race (Nastar) – conceived as skiing’s answer to par in golf -- was ready to advance from an idea on paper, Tommy’s slope was the laboratory for testing the idea that time percentages could be used like par to compare skiers. Pros came from eight ski areas across the country to receive the handicap ratings they would take back to their resorts from Waterville, with Jimmie Heuga serving as the national pacesetter. The time trials proved that Nastar worked, and the program went on to embrace more than a hundred ski areas and hundreds of thousands of recreational wannabe racers.
You’re not finished with history-making at Waterville. Ride the White Peak high-speed quad to the top, and look down the black diamond True Grit run. Here in 1971, a milestone in the new sport of freestyle, occurred when Waterville hosted the world’s first Championship of Exhibition Skiing. In one continuous run down True Grit, the contestants first skied big natural moguls, then they did aerial stunts off man-made bumps, and finally on the groomed flat they performed ballet and tricks like the Worm Turn and the Polish Donut. Mogul virtuoso Bob Burns and ballet pioneer Suzy Chaffee competed, Jean-Claude Killy was a judge, and 2,000 spectators were on hand. Television and press coverage put the new competition of freestyle on the map forever.
SLEEPLESS OUTSIDE SEATTLE
Snoqualmie Pass, less than an hour’s drive east of downtown Seattle, is one of the oldest continuously skied lift-served ski areas in the United States. Today the slopes, known as The Summit at Snoqualmie, stretch along several miles, cobwebbed with 19 chairlifts. If you want to ski a piece of history, head for the lower slopes of Snoqualmie West served by the Dodge Ridge, Pacific Crest and Julie’s lifts. Here Pacific northwest ski pioneer Webb Moffett first put up rope tows seventy years ago in 1937. Just after World War II, using old gas station lights that he’d salvaged, Moffett created America’s first night skiing. Today the area claims to be the world’s largest night skiing area.
John Woodward, a 10th Mountain Division veteran, started skiing at Snoqalmie in 1930. “As a boy scout,” recalls Woodward, “I took the train up from Seattle and got off the train before the tunnel. We put on our ash skis and bolt bindings with leather straps, and climbed all day long.” Woodward and friends built a cabin with wood from abandoned railroad trestles on land they leased from the Forest Service for 15 dollars a year.
SKI THE FIRST WORLD CUP FINAL
The first season of the World Cup of Alpine Skiing was 1966-67. The final decisive races were held on what today is called the FIS Slalom Hill above the Teton Village resort of Jackson Hole. You can reach it by riding the Thunder lift.
By the time he arrived in Jackson Hole in March, 1967, a joyful Jean-Claude Killy, 24, had won an astonishing 12 of the 17 World Cup races, including all of the downhills. His season maximum of 225 points were double those of his nearest rival. The women’s overall World Cup, by contrast, was closely contested. In order to become the first woman to win the overall World Cup, Greene had to be victorious in the final slalom. After the first run, only a fraction of a second separated Greene from France’s Marielle Goitschel. In the second run, Greene took every risk as she twisted through the flags, her edges rasping on the icy snow. She flashed through the finish in a low crouch. Her time was 7/100ths of a second faster than Goitschel! The outcome of a whole winter of racing had been determined by a margin no greater than the blink of an eye!
After the Greene – Goitschel shoot-out on the slopes, the racers headed for Jackson Hole’s famous Cowboy Bar. As the racers walked into the bar’s dim interior, they encountered a counter about half as long as a football field, manned by bartenders willing to fill orders for any drink they wanted, from margaritas to boilermakers. Within an hour, the place was a Cuckoo’s Nest, jammed with intoxicated racers, coaches and officials. Following dinner, for the very first time, FIS President Hodler presented the distinctive crystal globes to the World Cup winners. The new Nations Cup, symbolizing the winning of a new team competition, was awarded to France.
After Killy’s spectacular triumph and the spectacular women’s finish at Jackson Hole, no one doubted that the new World Cup would be a huge success in the years to come.