Bringing back the Belt |

Bringing back the Belt

Standing atop Sugar Bowl’s 8,383-foot-high Mount Lincoln with 56 other hard-core skiers, looking down on what was definitely the most intimidating “race course” I’ve ever seen, a little voice in the back of my head kept asking, “Just what the heck do you think you are doing up here?”

What I was trying to do was to get a competitor’s-eye view of one of the most prestigious ski races in United States history Ð Sugar Bowl’s legendary Silver Belt race.

From 1940 to 1975, the Silver Belt Cup race was held annually on an ungroomed, all-natural course that took skiers from the top of Mount Lincoln, through 1,300 vertical feet of rock bands, tight chutes and mogul fields to the finish line below. During its glory years, the Silver Belt attracted the best skiers in the world, and winning the genuine silver belt buckle that went to the top male and female finishers put one in illustrious company.

No doubt the thought of joining those great skiers of years past in the record books was passing through all 56 competitors’ minds, as it was through mine.

Now, I am no ski racer, so my chances of winning it all were slim to none from the beginning. But joining me in the field of 57 were some big names in skier-cross and big-mountain skiing, all of whom had a legitimate shot at taking home the belt.

Athletes like Red Bull-sponsored skier Eric Archer, X Games competitors Ryan McCullough, Brett Fisher, Aleisha Cline and Asia Jenkins, and Squaw Valley legends Jeff McKitterick and Aaron McGovern were all present, hoping to add their names to the list of Silver Belt champions.

Though traditionally a timed race, with one competitor skiing the course at a time, this year Sugar Bowl teamed up with energy drink maker Red Bull to make the Silver Belt a skier-cross-type event, with six skiers competing against each other all at once, rather than individually against the clock.

Though the qualifying round on Friday was run one at a time, just the layout of the course was enough to plant some serious butterflies in my stomach. The thought of having to battle five other guys for position while negotiating the rocky chutes, icy moguls and large jumps that the organizers had routed us down was definitely a prospect that made me jittery to say the least, and downright scared to be honest.

But, I figured, with a little luck, I might get through the first couple of rounds or so. It was a skier-cross race where anything can, and often does, happen to even the best of skiers. So my strategy was not to push it too hard and hope that other people went down in front of me, allowing me to sneak through to the later rounds.

My dreams were quickly squashed. I finished fourth in my first heat during the finals on Saturday, with only the top three finishers moving on to the next round.

In reality, me being out of the competition was for the best, as my legs had had enough after skiing approximately half of the course, leaving me holding on for dear life on the lower section.

After my competitive nature cooled off a bit, the thought of having to race down the course again sounded about as much fun as doing a face-down naked snow angel Ð that is, not fun at all .

So I took the opportunity to sit down at the spectators’ tent and watch as the real racers finished three more grueling heats (two for the women, as there were less entrants) to determine the 2004 Silver Belt champions.

Both the men’s and the women’s finals were started at the blast from an avalanche bomb set off on top of the mountain, a unique starting ritual that had many competitors nerves on edge by the time the blast went off.

The women’s final was run first, and coming across the finish line first was Aleisha Cline of Whistler, B.C.

Asia Jenkins of Aspen, Colo., took second, with Olympic Valley resident Anik Demmers bringing a little local flair to the podium in third.

Rounding out the final heat were Caroline Gleich of Salt Lake City in fourth, Ashley McIvor of Whistler in fifth, and Katie Shackelford of Park City, Utah, in sixth.

At the finish line, Cline attributed her win to the fact that she was able to avoid the collisions that cost many of the other competitors their momentum in the final heat.

“I won, but I kind of felt like I won because other people screwed up,” she said. “But I guess that’s racing, especially in an event like this. She who can stand on her feet the longest wins.”

And though tired from a hard day of racing, the significance of her win quickly sunk in.

“A minute ago I was like ‘Oh yeah, winning. That’s cool,'” Cline said. “But now, I was up there talking to Kelly and she’s like ‘You get the belt buckle, and you get to go down in history . . . ‘ You know, I’m the first girl to win the Silver Belt since 1975 … it’s frick’n cool. Now I’m stoked.”

Fourth-place finisher Caroline Gleich shared Cline’s enthusiasm for the course and format of the race.

“I think this is one of the coolest events I’ve been to all year,” Gleich said, “because [with many] big-mountain, extreme comps, the judging seems kind of subjective. With this it’s like big-mountain, but it’s still the first one down to the bottom wins. So I think it’s really cool that they do it like that. I hope they have more events like this in the future because I think they’re really cool.”

On the men’s side, University of Colorado at Boulder student Brett Fischer beat everyone else down the mountain in the final heat to take home the top prize.

Chris Mennet of Ward, Colo., came in second, with Jamey Parks of Salt Lake City in third, Cory Zila of Mammoth Lakes in fourth, and Craig Garbiel and Corley Howard of South Lake Tahoe in fifth and sixth places, respectively.

“I was a little nervous,” Fischer said about his final run, “because I knew there were some wild dogs Ð guys that really don’t make the smartest decisions, so they will run into you. So it got me a little nervous, but I’ve been skiing really well today. So I hammered out of the gate and I was in first place in a second, and then I made five or six good turns and I was way in the lead, so that took the pressure off about half-way down. And then my legs started burning, and I was just trying to stay on my feet for the rest of the course.”

Putting his win into some kind of perspective, Fischer added, “It’s a race, so everyone wants to win. They’re competitive. But there’s so much tradition. And skiing the big mountain, you’ve got the competitors, but you’ve also got that element of the mountain. It’s amazing; it’s a beautiful thing. I can’t wait to come back.”

Race organizers, including Sugar Bowl’s Marketing Director Greg Murtha, hope to make the Silver Belt race an annual event.

“We had a great day here at Sugar Bowl. We’ve had all the top athletes come out, kind of the best of the old and the best of the new,” Murtha said. “A radical course: The first natural skier-cross through the Silver Belt gully, which is one of the historic race courses in the U.S.

“It used to be run as a single course and [today there were] six-man starts through some steep gullies, rock bands, narrow chutes . . . There were some really dramatic crashes. We’re fortunate that nobody got seriously hurt, and it was just some great athletic competition up here today.”

I had to agree, and after sitting in the sun for a couple of hours and drinking a couple of well deserved beers, I left the 2004 Silver Belt happy just to have my name on the competitors list.

Maybe not quite mentioned in the same breath as legendary champions Friedl Pfeifer, Gretchen Fraser, Greg Jones, and now Aleisha Cline and Brett Fischer; but close enough.

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