Boulder Mountain Tour
Photography: Eric Kiel
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Energy vibrates through the field of a thousand cross-country ski racers as they wait for the starting horn to blast. Anxiously poised, held in check by the rope that spans the starting line, racers in the first “wave” or group shuffle their skis back and forth, like bulls scraping their hooves and preparing to charge. Colorful sponsor banners drape the area and music plays in the background, but most of the racers remain focused, eyes fixed straight ahead.
The horn blares, and the first wave of skiers erupts off the line. Charging up the first hill, jockeying for position, highly trained physiques flex beneath brightly colored, skintight racing suits. Cresting the hilltop, each body folds into a tight tuck and rockets down the slope, skillfully negotiating the curves and disappearing into the forest beyond. The remaining seven waves follow their lead. The annual Wells Fargo Boulder Mountain Tour has officially begun.
Flashback to thirty years ago: Twenty cross-country ski racers clad in earth-toned natural fibers—perhaps wool knickers, the fashion of the day—toe a line scratched into the snow. At least one pair of wooden skis, freshly pine-tarred and waxed, inches up to the starting line. It’s the comparatively quiet beginning of the first Boulder Mountain
Tour, an event that has since evolved into one of the most prestigious and respected cross-country races in the country.
Today, the race boasts national champions and Olympians—past, current, and future—but it doesn’t belong to the elite. As Race Director Kevin Swigert, who grew up on Wood River Valley ski trails, points out, “The race has a local history and intense local involvement.” Swigert earned national recognition as a U.S. Ski Team member and three-time national champion, and is a multiple winner of the Tour. He fully understands the expectations of the elite racer, but also knows the importance of this race to recreational and first-time participants.
Maintaining a local feel is a priority even though racers of all ages come from across the nation, as well as Canada and Europe, to participate. In 2004, the youngest participant was 10 years old, and the oldest was Wood River Valley’s Phil Puchner, who, at age 81, set a modest goal of “passing just one racer before the finish.” Jo Ann Levy of Sun Valley is distinguished as the only person to have strapped on her skis for all twenty-nine past Boulder Mountain Tours. In addition to loyal “regulars” such as these, the race always includes a number of participants new to the sport of ski racing.
Bob Rosso, owner of The Elephant’s Perch, a former Tour winner, and Chief of Course in the modern-day version of the event, was among the competitors in the very first race. In 1973, deciding it might be fun to offer a long race in the Valley, he and a few friends mounted a snow machine or two, drove south from Galena for 32 kilometers, and set the course. The following day, they raced it.
“The course went down the side of the highway, teetering on the snowbank,” Rosso remembers. “If a snowplow came by, the course was destroyed.” The early course crossed Highway 75 several times. Skiers had to stop mid-race, take off their skis, dodge any passing traffic, jump back into their bindings, and pick up the race again.
Most racers skate-ski the course today, but in the ’70s, classic was the style. Rosso recalls the waxing challenges of early Tours: “It was always a nightmare. One year it was so bad that Herman Primus, who was about 65 at the time, skied away from the field and won on a pair of mohair skis!”
Describing the grooming in those days as “epic,” Rosso says, “One year it snowed a ton. We had a big alpine snow machine, but it was wallowing in the deep snow like a boat half full of water. We were running out of time, so we got five or six people together and skied the course side by side. We went from early afternoon until about one in the morning preparing the course.” Truly tireless in their devotion, they raced it the next day.
Grooming wasn’t the only daunting task. The course crossed the Big Wood River near the finish, but there was no bridge. So, donning waders and hauling a handful of logs, Rosso and other hardy volunteers forded the river (in mid-winter!), built a pier, and constructed a temporary bridge. “It was pretty hilarious skiing across it,” remembers Rosso. “It was narrow, and if somebody fell, the whole race came to a stop.”
Today, a permanent bridge spans the water. It was put in place in honor of Dick Murphy, a man Rosso describes as an “avid cross-country skier and real volunteer” from those early days.
The racecourse, once a rough trail not much wider than a snowmobile, is now groomed into spacious smoothness by modern machines. The process is still arduous, but the racers no longer do it themselves: Jim Mayne of the Blaine County Recreation District currently manages the operation. Mayne and his staff are among the best groomers in the country, and the exceptional quality of the Wood River Valley’s Nordic trails is one of the reasons for the vast and lasting popularity of the Boulder Mountain Tour.
In the beginning, the course was set just once a year, specifically for the day of the race—and was completely erased by the next winter storm. Now, however, the trail is groomed throughout the entire season—and, as Rosso adamantly says, “The Boulder Mountain Tour is the reason.”
These days, the race still starts at Galena and follows the Harriman Trail, along the Big Wood River through a corridor flanked by the rugged Boulder Mountains to the east and the softer forested ridges of the Smoky Mountains to the west. Animated spectators cheer the racers, ringing cowbells and chanting “Hup, hup”—Nordic traditions. At three stations along the way, energetic volunteers provide the racers with food, drink, and words of encouragement.
As the kilometers pass and the clock ticks, the steady stream of racers naturally separates into groups of competitors teaming together and urging each other on. New friends are made as they share the spirit of their pursuit.
Murphy’s bridge is a welcome landmark to the racer, a sign that the end is near. The final kilometers wind through a thin stand of wintering aspens. Music filters through the trees, invigorating the racers and drawing them to the festive finish, where spectators cheer and the announcer booms out an individual introduction, name and hometown, as each racer crosses the line. The elite racers are there first, of course, battling for position in what is often a dramatic finish, with competitors hurling their bodies over the line. The recreational racers follow, continuing to ski across the line for the next few hours. The winning time in 2004 was one hour and twenty-three minutes. The final competitor crossed the line exactly three hours later. >>>