A lot more than the name has changed for the second year of 48 Straight, the event formerly known as the Honda Ski Tour.
And without a doubt, the Wood River Valley is buzzing with anticipation as event organizers gear up for the last of this winter's three stops.
"With this enthusiasm, we can make this better every year," said Ketchum resident Kipp Nelson, co-founder of 48 Straight.
So far, this has been achieved in part by a consolidation with the Jeep King of the Mountain Series, which has doubled the number of competitive events that will take place on Dollar Mountain.
Whereas only male skiers were featured in the inaugural tour, a women's bracket has been added to the ski cross competition, as well as men's and women's snowboard cross, which will kick off the on-hill action this year.
Spectators will have a full agenda starting with snowboard cross qualifying on Wednesday, March 12, followed by ski cross qualifying on Thursday, snowboard cross finals on Friday and ski cross finals on Saturday.
The competitions culminate on Sunday with men's ski halfpipe on the slope just above Warm Springs Lodge.
"The ski and snowboard cross course is a significant improvement over last year," said Ketchum resident Zach Crist, who competed in last year's ski cross race and now works as a 48 Straight ambassador. "We've been working on the layout all winter, making sure to keep the spectator in mind."
According to Crist, who won a gold medal at the 2001 X-Games and spent seven years on the U.S. Ski Team, this effort is about to pay off with spectacular results.
"The course on Dollar is by far the most spectator-friendly venue I've seen in my 15 years as a pro," Crist said. "It's more technically demanding than the X-Games course in Aspen, and the athletes will have to be completely on their game to stay out in front."
And those athletes are some of the best in the world, such as Czech Republic native Tomas Kraus, who opted to race in Sun Valley rather than remain in Europe to accept his forthcoming World Cup ski cross title. No doubt, the prospect of taking home the $15,000 winner's purse plays a role in that.
"This tour is the premier stage for ski and snowboard cross because it takes place at the best venues and offers the most prize money and most media coverage," Crist said. "And there's no better stop on the tour than Sun Valley."
With the 2010 Olympics looming around the corner, at which ski and snowboard cross will debut, the importance of the King of the Mountain Tour is not lost on the American athletes, who will be here in force. Crist said that although nothing has been formalized yet, he expects the tour to be part of the Olympic qualifying process for the U.S. Ski Team.
"There's such a strong heritage here for competitive skiing and snowboarding and I think we've reached a critical mass of energy that will keep bringing people back," Crist said. "There's such an appetite for this kind of event that it's already becoming a classic."
But the athletes won't be the only ones getting attention.
With 14 live concerts, three days worth of environmental symposiums and other cultural events taking place in Ketchum, there's no shortage of activities for those venturing away from the slopes.
Highlights include the "Green Your Scene" environmental talks taking place from March 11-13 at the Community Library and Saturday night's musical lineup at the Basecamp Music Pavilion on East Avenue in Ketchum, featuring Ky-Mani Marley, Michael Franti and Spearhead, and Swollen Members.
"This is different from anything else in that we offer something for everyone," Nelson said. "This is not just a party. If you want that it's there, but you can also go to a Company of Fools play, go on a gallery walk or head to a fashion show."
While this year's tour will get five times more television coverage than last year's, three and a half of which will be on CBS, Nelson emphasized that the "gathering" is much more than getting 48 Straight national media attention. He said that while events such as the X-Games focus on the TV audience and parties for industry insiders, 48 Straight is geared to include anyone who identifies with mountain culture, whether that be outdoor recreation or meeting interesting people.
To make that work, Nelson said, it takes a public that wants more events, as well as city officials and a resort willing to provide the necessary resources, from mountain slopes to extra emergency service personnel, to pull off an event of this scale.
"This place is phenomenal right now," Nelson said of the Wood River Valley. "We're going through a renaissance and this is our way of contributing."
Looking to expand on the immense popularity garnered in the event's birthplace last year, organizers flipped the order, making Sun Valley the final stop after Telluride, Colo., and Squaw Valley, Calif.
Judging by the droves that turned out to brave near-zero temperatures last year to take part in the entertainment, it's not difficult to imagine that sunshine and warm weather will make this weekend the best stop yet for the young event.
"It's great to close it out at home," Crist said. "There's honestly no better place."
How to get there
- Both Mountain Rides and Sun Valley Co. will be running special buses, in addition to regular routes, during 48 Straight to alleviate parking problems.
- Where to park for bus transportation to events at Dollar Mountain, Wed.-Sat.: Sun Valley Inn and Mall, River Run parking lots.
- Where to park for bus transportation to Warm Springs, Sunday: Warm Springs Ranch (look for sign on south side of Warm Springs Road). In downtown Ketchum, Simplot lot (located across from the Ketchum Post Office on Second Avenue).
- Parking prohibited on Sun Valley streets and Horseman's Center pasture.