Like most people of my generation, my first and only glimpse of the Powder 8 contest was through the movie “Aspen Extreme”. The climactic final scene in the movie featured the heroics of T.J. Burke and Todd Pounds (Pounds replaced Burke’s hard-charging partner Dexter Rutecki, who died in a training run). They eschewed the course ropes to spread eagle and shuss their way down the backside of the mountain, opening and closing one another’s turns while laying down perfect figure eights in blower pow on their way to victory. As I grew older, the movie became a bit of a poster child for Hollywood’s perversion of mountain culture. For one, the only thing “extreme” about Aspen is the price of, well, just about anything. At the time, the idea of “extreme” was yet to be commodified into everything from deodorant to soft drinks. As skiing progressed throughout the 90’s, the limits on what was humanly possible on snow seemed to exponentially extend into the stratosphere… or at least somewhere up in Alaska. Before long, slopestyle and big mountain freeriding took center stage as the Powder 8 contest faded away.
That’s why I took interest when I heard that Jackson Hole was reviving the Powder 8 Grand National event as part of their 50th anniversary reunion weekend. The event had ceased 15 years ago. After some prodding by ski patrol, the JHMR marketing folks revived it with a little help from GoPro. Despite the attention I was still skeptical. Does the contest have a place amongst the many diverse disciplines in competitive skiing? Or was this just a nostalgia event for old timers akin to catching a Doobie Brothers concert at the local casino? It seemed to be a bit of a contradiction to have a judged contest amongst the freedom that is the backcountry, where the ultimate goal was conformity. I wanted to solve these conundra, not to mention have an excuse to expense a trip to Jackson Hole.
You know the experience when the tram door opens on a powder day and everyone rushes out to be the first to revel in the glory. February 6 was one of those days.
Like its previous incarnations, the contest was held just out of bounds underneath Cody Peak, on the appropriately named “Powder 8 Face”. To get to the Grand Nationals, teams had to qualify in a series of local and regional qualifiers until there were 22 remaining. They had one run, one shot to show the judges that they deserved the $5,000 oversized cardboard check.
The field of contestants was easily the most diverse of any ski contest I’d seen, which was part of the charm. Local pro Lynsey Dyer competed in the only all-girl duo with her cousin, former world extreme champion AJ Cargill. “What was so special for me was to be on the hill with some of my biggest heroes,” Lynsey said. “I’m used to competing on the big mountain tour and whatnot, and this event is so inclusive as opposed to exclusive. It was just a really special day.”
The youngest team was twins Bart and George Flynn, two ski instructors in their early 20’s who have lived in Jackson Hole for 4 seasons. They’ve skied together their whole life, and know each other well. “Being the same size, same weight, with the same equipment definitely helps in an event like this,” Bart said in between sips of beer at the mandatory aprés-contest video session in the base area. But they considered the whole “Twin factor” to be more of a novelty than anything when compared to some of the other duos. “A lot of these teams have been skiing together for as long as we’ve been alive,” George says.
Other teams included a husband and wife, a father and daughter, and brothers Jon and Rick Hunt who had a 40-year head start on the Flynn Bros. The team aspect is what truly makes the event stand out – it transforms an otherwise solitary sport. Winning requires attention, rhythm, and a bit of telepathy to be able to consistently make textbook turns with your partner for the entire run.
Amongst a stacked field of locals and legends, the judges chose Jim Schanzenbaker and Thomas Roennau as the 2016 Powder 8 Grand National champions. Indeed it was a pair of ski instructors from Aspen Colorado who took the win, etching the result with a bit of “you can’t make this shit up”– true Hollywood synergy. TJ and Dex would be stoked.
Yet despite the competition and the $5,000 prize, the whole judging aspect was a sideshow to the excuse for everyone to come together and celebrate powder skiing. For me the real event came at the aprés party with everyone’s run projected onto the video screen. The crowd maintained a noisy ambiance throughout, cheering for the good runs, with warm-hearted razzing for those who lost rhythm and splattered their lines. The whole event gave me hope that it’s possible to have a judged contest, with money on the line, and be completely devoid of the usual ego trips. Instead I was fortunate enough to take part in celebration of a pastime that people spend their whole lives pursuing: making epic runs through deep snow with the people you care about most.