The thrill of competition

The world’s five best ski/snowboard events for regular people

The 2015 Derby de la Meije held in La Grace, France.

You feel it in your veins. The pulse of competition, the yearning for glory, the desire to best all comers, the need to push your limits, the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory. Well, if not victory, then the thrill of participating.

The truth is that most of us will never be elite athletes. We’ll never sit on an Olympic podium and we’ll never hoist a golden medal into the sky as thousands of photographers jostle for our picture. But that doesn’t matter. Because winning really isn’t the only thing. The only thing, the real thing, the thing that anyone can do is to be there, to be present and to go down fighting or trying their best and then, once the blood, sweat and tears have finished, to go have a beer with everyone else who just lived through the same harrowing experience. That, my friends, is winning.

Derby de la Meije 2015
Derby de la Meije 2015 Courtesy B. Boone

Because we here at the Boulder Weekly have this rather askew take on competition and winning and sports in general, and because it is winter and it’s snowing and there are a lot of reasons to go slide down snow-covered hills for both the joy of it and the thrill of competition, we’ve complied this list of the best participatory events in the world for skiers and snowboarders. Some of them are local, some a bit farther afield. They range from the chance to get very, very wet and cold in Vail to international affairs like St. Anton’s Weisser Rausch. But they all have some things in common: the fact that they’re open to everyone and that the party afterwards is nearly as important as the competition itself.

The World Pond Skimming Championships – Vail, Colorado
It’s spring. It’s sunny. You have a costume. You “might” have consumed a bit of liquid courage. Now all you have to do is tuck down Vail’s Golden Peak in front of thousands of screaming spectators, hit a kicker, land on the water and coast safely across to the snow on the other side. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything and nothing, really.

The World Pond Skimming Championships is “hugely fun,” says former Boulder County resident William Burke, who has competed in the event three times. “The crowd is amazing, and they love it when someone makes it across.” Still, the loudest cheers are for those who crash and crash hard in the icy water. And since most people crash hard, that means that the crowd will most likely be cheering for you.

Weisser Rausch – St. Anton, Austria
This end-of-the-year mix of pandemonium and speed is the perfect punctuation for the last Saturday of the year at the birthplace of skiing, St. Anton, Austria. According to Monica Gröaching, an Austrian who has competed in the event, the race is “absolutely terrifying.” Athletes are put into three groups, each of which is subjected to a chaotic mass start from the top of the ski area’s Valluga 1 lift. The competitors then plunge down the mountain, their speed interrupted by two short hikes, one in the middle of the descent and another right at the finish, when legs and lungs are deep into protest mode and the brain has checked out. “People completely fall to pieces at the finish,” says Gröaching, who adds that while a small percentage of participants do the event for fun, most are “definitely racing.”

Given the abundance of skiing and snowboarding talent in Austria, we suggest that you have your skis waxed up for this one.

Derby de la Meije – La Grave, France
La Grave, a tiny town with a unique ski area, hosts the Derby de la Meije each year at the start of April. The ski area is legendary among serious aficionados of skiing and snowboarding. Untamed, with a massive 7,000-foot vertical drop accessed by a unique pulse-gondola, La Grave is a powder paradise, with hardly any grooming and a ski-at-your-own-risk philosophy that is both scary and liberating.

Derby de la Meije 2015
Derby de la Meije 2015 courtesy B. Boone

While this French ski area remains sleepy most of the season, it’s overrun in the spring when the legendary Derby de la Meije comes to town. Capped at 1,000 competitors, the Derby is a three-day party punctuated by the race itself, a Chinese-downhill style event that anyone can enter, with any kind of equipment, and which sees waves of ten competitors start a minute apart until the entire field has blasted off from the top of the Girose Glacier high above the town. With no grooming, no set course and only one goal — to get to the bottom as fast as possible on whatever you’re riding — the event is an exercise in controlled chaos.

“It’s maddening and exciting and stressful and fun,” says Boulder resident Aileen Gilmour, who ended up the top North American female finisher when she competed a few years ago. “There are some very serious, very fast people there, but my favorite is the party after the race, when you share wine and a picnic with people from all over the world at the bottom.”

The Enduro – Arapahoe Basin
Take the gnarliest terrain in Colorado’s Summit County area, add a dose of hardcore locals who ski said terrain every day, all year long, keep the lift open for 12 hours, make people pair up in “teams” and then see how many laps they can do in those 12 hours and you have the recipe for Arapahoe Basin’s legendary Enduro, scheduled for April 13, 2016.

This race is a test of speed (you’ve got to keep the throttle down), endurance (you just can’t stop) and teamwork (you’re only as fast or as strong as your partner). Held on Arapahoe’s most challenging terrain — the runs of the mountain’s famed Pallavacini chairlift — this year’s event rewards those with rubber knees the satisfaction of helping out a good cause, supporting Arapahoe Basin staffer Maddie Walton in her fight against breast cancer.

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