By Bob Peters (originally published in Powder Magazine)
About a hundred years ago, an adventurer by the name of William Frederick Cody built quite a reputation for himself by tracking elusive game all over the West. He came to be known as Buffalo Bill and among the towns and monuments named after him is a spectacularly beautiful mountain bowl in the Teton Range of Wyoming. Every winter, in addition to 400-plus inches of snow, Cody Bowl attracts a few dozen modern adventurers seeking tracks of a different sort; perfect pairs of linked turns in powder snow …. Powder 8’s!
Table of Contents
- February 8, 1986
- The Week Prior
- That Night
- Contest Day
- The Jackson Hole Ski Patrol
- The Snow is Nice
- Evening Now
In years past, I used to get nervous standing at the top of Cody Bowl waiting to make our Powder 8 run. Just knowing that a few dozen skiing friends were watching from the bottom was enough to give me major butterflies. Now, with an ESPN crew filming and media people outnumbering the contestants, my butterflies have metamorphosed into B-52’s.
It’s been said that no field of endeavor becomes truly a part of American culture until it has received national television exposure. By that yardstick, 1986 may become known as the year the Grand National Powder 8 Championships came of age. This little contest that started 12 years ago with teams assembled in the bar the night before has developed into a major event replete with sponsors, prizes, lots of planning, and some of the finest powder skiers in the Rockies. Best of all, the whole thing revolves around the almost sinfully enjoyable practice of two skiers making turns together in untracked powder snow.
This morning 58 skiers - 29 teams from resorts all over the West - have made the climb up the shoulder of Cody Bowl and await the run. My partner, Les Gibson, and I are thrilled to be here. Cody is off-limits all season and the chance to ski it in fluff is a powerful draw. Last year, Les and I had finished fifth in what we all called the Powder/Crud/Windslab/Avalanche-debris 8’s. The Championship was won by Steve Monfredo and Scott Gerber of Crested Butte with a superb display of skiing 40 turns together in the weirdest mix of conditions most of us had ever seen on one section of mountain.
Even getting into the Championships is tough enough. Jackson Hole teams have to advance through a local qualifying round, a round that always involves very serious competition. The week of January 20 found Les and I practicing when we weren’t working with clients. The conventional wisdom around Jackson is that it’s almost as difficult to make it through the qualifying round as it is to finish decently in the contest itself. By cutoff time for sign-ups, 28 teams had entered to try for the seven available openings in the Championships. It would take awfully good skiing just to get in.
There are a lot of ways for two skiers to make eights together, but most everyone agrees on a few basics. First, the partners must have comparable skiing styles. A big-unweight bouncer and a down-unweight submariner might make excellent tracks together, but the visual effect of their styles would clash and the judges would clobber them in that category.
Secondly, the start is critical. Teams have different methods of starting, but the goal is the same; to have the cadence established and be locked in synch by the second turn, which is the first real turn you make. When a team has a poor beginning, you can see them struggling for several turns. A team that really nails the start, meanwhile, will often stay in the groove all the way and have a great run. The start makes the run.
Lastly, you have to settle on who will lead and who will follow. The leader establishes the rhythm, the radius of the turns, and the line. It’s essential for the leader to be as consistent as possible, thereby making life easier for the follower. The follower has to be able to ski the same rhythm and radius as the leader, but also has to worry about matching the synch, crossing the track in the right spot, and sometimes just being able to see through the snow plume trailing the leader. If the follower concentrates too much on matching the synch, he might not cross the track in the right place. Many is the team that has skied flawlessly together only to look back up and see what we call spaghetti 8’s – matched S-turns slithering down the face. Of the two positions, the follower’s job is much tougher. The leader gets to relax and have fun, the follower has to pay attention. I lead, Les follows.
On the morning of the qualifying round, we all stand at the top in bright sunshine listening to our last-minute instructions. The valley floor lies hidden beneath an early-morning cloud layer, and the tops of the buttes stand out like islands in a frozen silver ocean. A storm has gone through the last two days, leaving behind about 18 inches of fluff. The Ski Corp and the Patrol have cooperated by closing the Cirque and Tensleep Bowl the day before, and our lines lie smooth and untouched in the sunshine. These are the best conditions we’ve ever seen! Our turn comes…
…It’s really hard to concentrate on anything serious when you’re dropping through knee-deep feathers that float up across your chest and swirl around your elbows. The snow is so perfect that by the third turn I’m just out for the ride and hoping Les stays with me. At the bottom of the Cirque, his big smile tells me we’ve had a good run.
The qualifier goes flawlessly and everyone gets a fair chance. There are a few excellent runs, a few falls, and a lot of good skiing to make things difficult for the judges. We feel good about our run, but after watching so many great skiers making 8’s, we spend the rest of the day sweating out the judges’ decision. At 4:00pm in the Bear Claw, they finally post the results and we find our names among the qualified teams. A big sigh of relief, congratulations to the other teams, and a collective “See you on Cody!”.
Now is when my nerves start jangling. Then, Monday afternoon, someone walks off with my powder skis. A hacked-up old pair of K2 712’s, they are my go-anywhere guide skis. They and I have made thousands of turns in every imaginable type of snow, and I never have to think about which direction they’re headed at any given time. I’m devastated. Not only that, I just can’t believe anyone would want to steal those old beaters. What I fear most is that as soon as the thief takes a good look at them, he’ll pitch them in the nearest dumpster. I spend the next 24 hours asking everyone I know to be on the lookout.
Oh sure, I know you’re sitting there thinking, “What a wimp! Quit whining and just ski on something else.” Well, it’s not that I’m superstitious or anything. For instance, I just happen to peel my breakfast orange with my left hand on race days because it’s the natural thing to do… on race days. I’d do that - on race days – even if I were superstitious. Which I’m not. Really.
So we spend the middle of the week skiing great out-of-bounds powder with clients while I try to convince myself that I can make consistent powder turns on my race skis. Then, Wendesday night, salvation arrives. Benny Wilson finds my K2’s in the basement ski room of the HostelX and returns them to me. I welcome them home like a runaway daughter and spend all day Thursday getting reacquainted.
The week has gone by cold, clear and calm, but on Friday morning a hard wind kicks up from the north. The site of the Powder 8 contest is a broad shoulder of Cody Peak that faces almost due north and is highly susceptible to slab conditions when the wind blows from the north. Early Friday afternoon, I ski across the East Ridge Traverse to the edge of Tensleep Bowl. Tensleep has the same elevation and exposure as Cody Bowl, and serves as a bellwether for predicting conditions on Cody. I stop shortly before crossing the ridge and watch the wind break crust chunks the size of dinner plates break off the ridge and send them flying 30 feet into the air. Hmmm…
The organizational meeting. We gather in the bar of the Inn before the meeting – familiar faces and new ones, drawn together by a love of powder skiing. Sadly, one very familiar face is missing. Eric Peltonen and Flint Smith, two patrollers from Aspen, were perennial favorites in the contest. They had won two of the last five Championships with top-five finishes in the others. Unfortunately, Eric was badly injured in a chairlift accident in December and is beginning a long recuperation period. Flint arrives for the contest with another patroller, Bob Cunningham, and we all send along best wishes for Eric.
The meeting goes smoothly and quickly. The starting order is drawn, with Les and I getting slot twelve of the twenty-nine teams competing. We’re very pleased because the first half of the teams usually get a few more turns and a slightly better fall line than the last half. It would be hard to ask for a much better start position.
The judges are introduced. Sarah Hahn, a coach for the Jackson Hole Ski Team; Bill Briggs, Director of the Snow King Ski School and the person to ski down Grand Teton peak; Dave Moe of POWDER Magazine; and Dave Hanson of Dave Hanson Whitewater Trips. They spend a few minutes explaining the scoring criteria.
Points are given in five categories. Consistency involves constant and equal distance between the skiers. Style points are gained by a smooth and quiet technique with no jerky movements. The styles of the two skiers should be as identical as possible. Synchronicity means both skiers should turn in unison – at the same time and in the same direction. Roundness of the turns counts more than elongated, comma-type turns. Symmetry of the turns demands that the shape and radius of all the turns should be constant throughout the run. Also, the judges can give discretionary bonus points for teams that skillfully deal with adverse conditions such as avalanche debris or bomb holes. Finally, stopping for any reason, falling, or crossing another team’s tracks all result in automatic disqualification.
As the meeting breaks up, I talk with one of the guides from High Mountains Helicopters and learn that they’ve found a lot of thick wind slab on high-elevation north-facing exposures. Cody Bowl could be interesting tomorrow. Les and I share a pizza and a pitcher at the Calico and each head home to get some sleep.
Saturday morning, breaks clear and cold. Contestants, media people, and officials start loading trams at 7:30 am and by 8:30 we’re all at the top station looking across Rendezvous Bowl at Cody Peak. A couple of shot holes from the recoilless rifle bombing the day before are the only marks on the entire bowl. But there’s a small pillow of wind-deposited snow high in the center of the contest area and the Ski Patrol is worried. The High Mountains chopper flies some patrollers over to the shoulder of Cody where they set up an air blast to see if they can shake out the pillow.
We all watch as the charge explodes. About the time the sound from the blast reaches us, we see a 30-yard wide stretch of snow start to slide. Almost in slow motion, it slumps two-thirds of the way to the bottom of the bowl and leaves behind a ragged splotch where untracked snow had been.
Always in the past, a team has been required to ski the line next to the team ahead of them, regardless of the snow conditions. This slide looks to have taken out the new snow about where teams 8 through 15 will ski. Les and I scowl at each other. As we start the 45-minute traverse to Cody Bowl, slot 12 doesn’t look nearly as good.
Finally, we’re standing at the top of Cody looking down on a small army of people on the flat below. The walk over from Rendezvous and the climb up Cody have done little to warm me; I jump up and down and swing my arms trying to stay loose. The officials get us all lined up on the traverse in start order. We all talk nervously amongst ourselves, killing time, waiting. Finally, radios crackle and the word is given to send the first team.
Members of the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol are always the first and last teams to go, and patrollers Jim Roscoe and Stuart Kernnedy bounce down in good rhythm and set the tempo for the contest. The Crested Butte guys, defending Champions, go next and draw a big cheer from the crowd. Heavy competition.
Cody Bowl is slightly convex, and we can’t see all the turns as the teams flow down. The team from Big Sky, Montana, peels off a good run. They disappear from us, but once every second we see two hats bob in unison above the slope of the snow. Judging by the hats, they have an excellent run.
Every year, one of the first ten teams draws the line that includes one of the rifle shot holes. The shot is necessary for avalanche control, and the rules say if you draw it, you have to ski it. Spectators love to watch teams try to handle a 3-foot deep by 8-foot wide crater and still stay together. That hole has been the undoing of many good teams. This year team six, the Bridger Bowl, Montana, Ski Patrol team of Jim Humphries and Tim Foote draws the line. They take off together and then widen their tracks just slightly to perfectly encircle the hole. They then lock right back into synch and turn together all the way down to the flat. No team has ever nailed the shot hole so nicely, and the crowd goes crazy.
By the time team nine, from Vail, makes their run, we are into the avalanche track. The top eight inches of snow has peeled out, leaving a jagged surface of irregular wind crust. The Vail guys ski well but have trouble with the debris. As team ten, a husband/wife team of Jay and Sue Moody of Jackson, readies to go, the judges call a conference. After much debate, they decide there’s enough room to resume the lines on the other side of the avalanche so that everyone gets untracked snow. The Vail team will be given a rerun. Much relieved, Les and I move across the slope and watch as Jay and Sue make a smooth run that will place them in the top ten.
More jittery than ever now, I barely watch as the Aspen team makes their run. While they ski, I move into my start position, looking up at Les to gauge the proper distance between us. I take a couple of deep breaths and look across at the Grand, trying to relax. The official clears us and I give the signal. Three… Two… One… and… Turn!
From the very first turn, the snow is mid-calf deep, consolidated powder with a smooth base underneath. I throw Les a quick “Good snow!” over my shoulder and then try to settle into rhythm. On my left, the tracks of the Aspen team mark the line. Below me lies smooth, ripple-free powder. I start to relax and enjoy the ride, letting the legs and skis perform the movements that have been imprinted there through years of making this kind of turn. The brain wants to worry about falling or not doing well or letting my partner down; the body just wants to have fun. The sheer physical joy of powder skiing overrides any attempt by the conscious part of the brain to freeze up and choke. The body wins. The turns come nicely.
Most of the way, at least. Halfway down the run, sinking into the weighted portion of a right turn, my skis come down on a hard base only six inches down instead of twelve-to-fifteen. The change gives me a little jet that extends the turn just a fraction, throwing us slightly out of synch. Les adjusts beautifully to the sudden motion, but it takes two more turns for us to get back to that locked-in feeling. The rest of the run is smooth and easy and we cross the line marking the end of the run with smiles on our faces. Not the proverbial perfect run, but certainly a respectable one.
From below, we scrutinize our tracks as the next team, a local favorite, comes down. Rick Frost and Gregg Martell had put in a super run in the qualifier and even though Frosty is skiing with an extremely sore back, they are considered solid contenders. They make shorter turns than we do, and manage to scribe more than 50 excellent 8’s down the face of Cody.
From the bottom, we can see all the turns of the remaining runs, and we watch as team after team comes down making good tracks. We see no unquestionably perfect runs, but there is a whole lot of great skiing that would be terribly hard to judge. By the time the last Ski Patrol team of Joe Larrow and Larry Detrick have run, everyone agrees it is the strongest overall field in memory.
Ordinarily, the last contestants down signal the end of the contest and time to head down Rock Springs Bowl. This year, however, the organizers have a special treat in store. Several mono skiers and snowboarders give an exhibition in the untouched snow that remains on the south edge of Cody. Individually and in pairs, they come ripping down the slope at twice the speed of conventional skiers. Their energy and exhuberance are infectious, and when the last pair highlights the demo with two straight lines down the edge of the slide path, we are all screaming and hollering and promising ourselves we’ll try those silly-looking things.
The banquet room at the Inn is a mass of noise as everyone crowds in to watch the video of the contest. Speculation on the winners flows as freely as the beer, and everyone is relaxed and loose now that the skiing is over and the decision is in the hands of the judges.
When Shirley Jones of the marketing department announces the results, local folks are pretty pleased as Jackson teams take many of the top ten spots and three of the top five. Dave Fett and Jack Curry, guides for High Mountains Helicopters, take fifth; Frosty and Gregg Martell are fourth, and Les and I wind up in third place.
The top two spots are swept by Montanans, however, as Hans Schernthaner and Franz Fuchsberger , ski instructors from Big Sky take second. And the reigning Grand National Powder 8 Champions, after topping off an otherwise super run with that fantastic sashay around the bomb hole, are ski patrollers Jim Humphries and Tim Foote of Bridger Bowl. Bill Cody, who spent a good share of his career in Montana, would be proud.