Wednesday, January 30, 2013

‘OK, let’s have a race today’

The Boulder Mountain Tour’s informal origins

Express Staff Writer

Skier Randy Meyers (294) gets a jump on competitor Mark Pearson (257) in Meyers’ winning effort in the 1982 Boulder Mountain Tour. Express file photo

    When the Boulder Mountain Tour began in 1973, it was little more than a few hardcore skiers on a snowmobile track through the Boulder Mountains. Rob Kiesel and Bob Gordon of the Snug Mountaineering Store in Ketchum got the idea to hold a Nordic skiing “marathon,” a full 32 km from Galena Lodge to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters.
    With nothing but a snowmobile to break the trail and a yen for competition, Kiesel, Gordon and about 20 other motivated skiers set out on the first Sawtooth Mountain Marathon—what would eventually become the Boulder Mountain Tour, the centerpiece of today’s Sun Valley Nordic Festival.
    Kevin Swigert, executive director of the Boulder Mountain Tour and member of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation junior Nordic team in 1973, said the race’s organization used to be much more low-key than it is today.
    “Back in the old days, we’d get an idea about having a race somewhere and two weeks later, we’d say, ‘OK, let’s have a race today,’” he said with a laugh. “We were putting on a race every chance we could. It was a simpler process then.”
    The formation of the Boulder Mountain Tour was just that informal; Swigert said Kiesel got a “wild hair” about holding a Nordic marathon from Galena to the SNRA, held entirely on public lands.
    Bob Rosso, co-owner of The Elephant’s Perch and president of the Boulder Mountain Tour board, was working for Kiesel and Gordon at the time, and said the tour has origins in Sun Valley Co. history.
    Rosso said that before Galena Lodge was a large-scale commercial operation and before state Highway 75 was open north of town in the winter, a Sun Valley concierge named Louie Steur was called on to bring medicine to the owner of the lodge, a woman who stayed there all winter despite the remoteness of the location.
    “She had run out of her medication and had to get it,” Rosso said. “So Louie skied all the way to the lodge.”
    And like the Iditarod, an Alaskan dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome spawned by a need for diphtheria medicine, the Boulder Mountain Tour sprang from a story of a mission of mercy. Rosso said Kiesel was inspired by Steur’s ski, and was determined to bring the race to fruition.
    However, the Harriman Trail was not finished until 1999, and the stretch from Galena to the SNRA was nothing but sagebrush and stream crossings. Swigert said the crew ensured the snow was deep enough to cover the sagebrush, then ran a track alongside the berm created by snowplows on each side of the highway. The course included four or five highway crossings, at which skiers would need to remove their skis, run across the highway, and clamp back in on the other side.
    Rosso said Kiesel and Gordon tried to groom the trail using a snowmobile pulling a sled—but that method proved to be less than successful the first year.
    “ [Snowmobiles] were so low-powered and funky, it was really hard,” he said. “We almost had to foot pack and ski pack the trail the whole way.”
    Rosso said that in the early years, the more competitive racers would be bunched up at the front of the pack, unable to find spots that were well-groomed enough so some could break away.  But the grooming also led to a feeling of camaraderie and fun, he said, adding that skiers used to come in costume.
    “When the grooming was funky, so was the skiing,” he said. “It’s hard to stay serious when you’re having a hard time staying upright.”
    Backwoods Mountain Sports owner and Boulder Mountain Tour veteran Andy Munter said the level of competition has significantly changed since he skied the tour in the 1970s and 1980s.
    “In the original days, a lot of people used to bring a backpack with lunch and a bottle of wine in it,” he said. “People used to stop and drink along the way. It changed when people started doing it more seriously.”
    JoAnn Levy is a Ketchum resident who has done every Boulder Mountain Tour since its inception in 1973. She said she’ll be skiing her 38th race this weekend—mostly because she feels like she can’t stop now.
    “I have this string going,” she said. “That’s why I feel this pressure to keep on doing it.”
    Levy said she’s had some great experiences, but perhaps her most memorable Tour was in 2008, when her eyelids froze open and she started getting frostbite in the fingers on her right hand.
    “It was just so cold,” she said. “I did finish! But that was the hardest one of all.”
    The race became the Boulder Mountain Tour in 1976, but was cancelled in 1977, 1981 and 1983 due to lack of snow.
    Swigert said the race took off in the 1970s and ’80s due to the fact that Kiesel and other nationally prominent skiers would tell their friends and have them come and do it. Marathon skiing took off as a sport in the early ’80s, and the race’s organization was turned over to residents Bill and Annie Vanderbilt.
    Once the Vanderbilts gave it up in the late ’80s, the organization was turned over to Wendy Jaquet, who was head of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber of Commerce.
    “They left me the huge white binder,” she said with a laugh.
    Jaquet said that by the time she worked on the race, it had expanded to the point at which things like professional timers and proper organization of starting waves were imperative. Everyone wanted to be in the first wave, she said.
    “[Some skiers] are very fast, and they don’t want to stumble over anyone,” she said. “There’s status to being in the first wave.”
    Despite that competitiveness and the caliber of skiers—Swigert said skiers are coming from 28 states this year—Rosso said parts of the race are still laid-back enough for first-timers.
    “You’ve got highly competitive [skiers], and it goes all the way through to the serious citizen types and those doing them for the first time,” he said.
    Rosso said the race has expanded to between 700 and 800 entrants, plus about 200 in the Half Boulder, an untimed event that starts at Baker Creek, halfway through the Boulder course.
    The Half Boulder is a way for people to get the feel of the race without the competitiveness, Rosso said—and both races are incredible ways for racers to experience the Wood River Valley.
    “When you have a point-to-point race like this, it gives an incredible perspective of our valley,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful skiing course. The whole time, you have a smile on your face.”


2013 Boulder Mountain Tour
For a preview of this year’s Boulder Mountain Tour, see Page B3 in this edition of the Idaho Mountain Express or visit

Kate Wutz:

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