I must seem like a cocky guy or something, because every so often the editors assign me a story designed to take me down a notch.
One time I had to compete in the Stowe Derby. (I’m no nordie, and the Derby, a 1,000-mile race from the top of Mt. Mansfield to Stowe village, damn near wrecked me.)
Another time I was sent to hit those huge kickers into the swimming pool at Lake Placid’s Olympic aerials summer training venue. (Ever tried swimming with skis on? Ever wanted to kill a 10-year-old who makes back flips and 360s look easy?)
Then there was the time I agreed to hike up to Tuckerman Ravine with all my gear and a case of beer, to make some point about how great canned craft beer is. (OK, that was my own stupid idea, but at least I had beer at the top.)
No wiser—and obviously no humbler—after all those scarring experiences, I agreed last spring to enter as an official contestant in the nation’s most famous “citizen” bump competition, Killington’s Bud Light Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge. Sure, I said. It’ll be hilarious. Sign me up.
And heck, I love bumps. They’re fun, challenging, and really good for your skiing. They make you slow down and get the most out of each run, which is especially welcome on big-crowd days when the groomers are mobbed. They’re the best way to get in true ski shape, requiring effort from not just the usual quads and glutes, but every muscle in your body.
I ascribe the maxim: “It’s not that you can’t ski bumps; it’s that you can’t ski and bumps prove it.” And I’m known for obnoxiously making friends ski Stowe’s Goat and Lookout when all they really want is another cruise on Nosedive or Hayride.
So yes, while I’ve never competed in a single bump competition, I’m the guy for this job. With perfect confidence, I accept the assignment.
Almost immediately, doubt begins to cloud my horizon.
The Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge, of course, is more than a bump comp. It’s an excuse for a party. Not that the average Killington skier needs much of an excuse for a party. Coming as it does each year in April, it is also the unofficial end-of-season celebration, even though Killington typically spins its lifts into the final weeks of May.
I’ve never been to the Mogul Challenge, but I’ve heard the stories of how the fun-hogging Killington ski houses compete to see who can party heartiest—the best food, the most elaborate party paraphernalia, the goofiest themes and costumes, plus live music. As I’ll come to learn firsthand, it’s like a big tailgate party on snow, with some of the nicest and most fun-loving people you’ll ever meet.
But the history of the event is not without controversy. In fact, things got a little too crazy, at least as far as mountain management was concerned. At a time when Killington, under new ownership, was attempting to burnish its image with families and get its financial house in order, the event had grown too debauched for comfort. Attempts to tone it down were taken as a challenge by some veterans. The most famous example: In response to a rule prohibiting dogs, someone thought it would be funny to bring a donkey. Because no one said anything about donkeys.
Killington had had enough. Citing liquor control laws, which some saw as a flimsy excuse, The Man shut it down. That move was emblematic of how bad relations had gotten between mountain management and some of Killington’s most enthusiastic customers.
And then quite suddenly, relations improved drastically. In came a new general manager, Mike Solimano—the same handsome genius who brought the World Cup (and 30,000 fans) to Killington. With a little humility, a willingness to listen, and a series of great decisions based on what he heard, Solimano turned some of his resort’s loudest critics into his biggest fans.
“It was crazy that it had gotten so adversarial with our most loyal customers,” he admitted to me a few years ago. “It’s a ski resort. It’s supposed to be fun. We got to the point where we made too many rules, and we lost something fun.”
With regard to the Mogul Challenge party, Solimano and his team were willing to make a deal with passholders: Have fun, but behave. Leave your dogs at home. Pick up your trash. And we’ll let you have your party.
Common sense prevailed, and the Mogul Challenge was back.
I looked forward to finally getting to experience the famous BMMC and its attendant festivities. But as the date approached, I got nervous. Part of it was the weather. When I’d agreed to compete, I imagined myself heroically charging through soft, slushy spring bumps, knees locked together, corn snow flying everywhere, the crowd going wild. But one look at the forecast took a huge bite out of my confidence. Freezing temps all week. Chance of snow Friday night. In April. Great. Dust on crust. The bumps of Outer Limits would be locked up tight. You’ve heard of “vestigial pain”? Where an amputee still feels pain in an appendage that isn’t there anymore? Well, at age 55, I don’t really have any knees anymore, but they began to ache.
OK, fine. It’ll be an even playing field, right? That’s a bad analogy, given that Outer Limits, Killington’s famous bump run and the venue for the Mogul Challenge, is steep as hell and seldom groomed. But you get my point: I can cope in icy bumps as well as the next washed-up geezer.
At least, I thought to myself, there won’t be huge kickers, like in “real” mogul competitions.
More Bumps Comps: Best World Cup Mogul Runs from 2017/2018
Naturally, an assignment like this calls for a wingman. And because I’m feeling a bit anxious about the whole thing, it should be one of my more sensitive and supportive friends. But they’re all busy that weekend, and I have to settle for John.
John’s a smart guy, even if he doesn’t know, after 30 years in Vermont, that the fastest way from Burlington to Killington is Route 7 through Rutvegas, definitely not I-89 through Quechee. Anyway, after about three hours, we get there, throw our stuff in our room at the spiffy Grand Summit, and, because it’s Killington, head out in search of fun on the Access Road.
An hour later we’re bellied up to the bar at the Lookout, and how’s this for a Killington Moment? About two drinks in, I notice that the guy next to us eating a Philly cheesesteak looks familiar. I start a conversation, and holy crap, it’s the King of Spring! A.K.A. Chandler Burgess, Killington’s interactive manager. (It took me a minute, because, you know, I’ve never seen him with clothes on. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it now.)
But wait, there’s more. Our bartender—turns out she’s the owner—is a woman named Joy. She brings our food, disappears to attend to other customers, and Chandler nudges me. “You know that’s Donna Weinbrecht’s sister, right?”
Double holy-crap! Everywhere we look, Killington celebrities. We Vermonters know Donna’s from Jersey, but if you win an Olympic gold in moguls, and Killington is your home hill, we act like you’re one of ours.
These are omens! Maybe, as I push out of the start gate tomorrow, I’ll have Queen Donna on one shoulder, the King of Spring on the other, soothing my nerves, giving me the courage to just point ’em. I start to feel better.
But something at the back of my mind is still nagging me. Wasn’t there something else I wanted to ask? Oh yeah. “Hey, Chandler, this a citizen bump competition, right? So ... no kickers, right? Haha.”
He looks at me funny, like I just said, “Sugarloaf is bigger than Killington” or something.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Two big ones. One at the top, one about halfway down.
"Um, how big, would you say?”
Chandler holds a hand up at about chest height.
John starts laughing so hard he snorts. He asks Joy to bring me a double.
See, me and air, we haven’t spoken for a few years now. I blame air. We used to hang out, had a lot of fun. But around the time I turned 35, air started to get all weird and aggressive. Anyway, we lost touch.
I’m certainly not the first Killington skier who ever woke up feeling queasy the next morning. If I have slept at all, it was a restless sleep troubled by an unsettling dream. In it, a huge Mogul Challenge crowd waited to see what would happen when I hit those kickers—little kids tugging on their parents’ sleeves and asking, “Why isn’t that man wearing pants?”
I want to get there early to make sure I get a warm-up run and check out those kickers. John wants to linger over coffee and compile results for his Masters pool. Outside it looks like mid-winter in Vermont. In Augusta, Georgia, they’re playing golf on lush green grass amid blooming azaleas. I wish I was there.
As I hustle John outside and into the car, blowing snow stings our faces. On the drive from the Summit to the Bear Mountain lot, I’m hoping the four inches that fell overnight will soften Outer Limits enough to give me a little confidence, but I know better.
It’s a small relief that we’re early enough to find a parking spot close to the lodge, and it looks like I’ll have plenty of time for course inspection and my warm-up run. But there’s a catch (and here’s a measure of how freaked out I am; many months later it will still be embarrassing to admit): In my funk, I’ve forgotten something that I’m really going to need to compete in my first-ever Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge. Not my helmet (which is mandatory). Not my gloves, or goggles, or lift ticket....
When we get back to the Grand Summit, my skis are right there where I left them on the rack. The bellhop with whom I nervously chatted a half-hour earlier has the good grace to pretend not to notice me coming back and stuffing them in the car. By the time we get back to Bear, we can barely see the lodge from our new parking space.
As I pull on my Lycra bib and buckle my Nordicas, the lodge buzzes with loud, happy chatter and laughter. Outside, the sun peaks through, the temperature is rising, and the ski house revelers are industriously organizing their roped-off party areas—installing furniture and barbecues, dragging heavy coolers across the snow. No donkeys.
From the lift, I get a good view of the course, including the dreaded kickers. They’re big, but not as big as they loomed in my fears. I hustle down the top half of Outer Limits, making lots of short, sharp, skidded warm-up turns, to where the course starts. I’m just in time to get my practice run, which does not end in either death or paralysis. It also helps to see other competitors picking their way cautiously through the concrete bumps and over the jumps. Sure, some of the young studs are throwing huge threes, twister-twister-spreads, a nice double-daffy. But some people just ski right around the kickers. Others go over them without ever letting their skis leave the snow. Conditions are terrible—piles of loose powder hiding the unedgeable ice that lies at the bottom of each trough. But if that happy little girl in the princess costume can handle it, maybe I can too.
Stay on topic: Prove Yourself in the Bumps at These Resorts
At 10 a.m. sharp, the comp begins, and I’m ready to get it over with. I had thought that John might want to hang out at the start with me—keep me calm and loose, give me pep talks and maybe one of those two-hander thigh massages the racers get. He prefers to set up halfway down the course, the better to view the impending carnage. This will be remembered.
I wear bib 54, and I’m in plenty of time for my start. Maybe too early, nerve-wise. But it turns out there are lots of no-shows in front of me, and my doom impends for a shorter time than I had expected.
I’m not the only one with nerves. No. 48 somehow hooks a tip on the start gate and falls flat on his chest before reaching the first mogul. My heart goes out to him. Thank you, 48, because, hell, I can do better than that.
Now we’re getting close. “51!” shouts the starter, looking around for the missing contestant. “52?...53?”
His eyes fall on me.
“54, you ready, buddy?”
It’s a blessing. I’ll be getting this over with sooner than expected.
So how do I do in the 2018 Bud Light Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge? Well, no, I do not charge heroically through the bumps on Outer Limits, knees locked together, snow flying everywhere.
The crowd does not actually go wild. I do not win my age group. I do not qualify for an afternoon run (as far as I know; I won’t bother to look for results). And I sure as hell do not cover myself in glory. But I survive.
There’ll be a photograph of my second air—John convinces a guy standing by the side of the course with a fancy camera to email it to him. I plan to go huge, knowing John is standing there, but a tiny bobble on the last bump before the approach throws me off balance. The resulting image is equal parts hilarious and pathetic: my windmilling arms spread to almost full wingspan, knees pointed left (I was going for a mule kick), head drooping to the right, misery etched on my face. It reminds me of something. Wait, I’ve got it: I look exactly like an early Donatello crucifix. “Christ of The Red Helmet.” And I am risen... all of about 24 inches off the deck.
Whatever. I stick the landing, baby, and it’s over. I have survived.
Of course, in reality, no one cares. John is probably the only one watching my run. When I ski through the finish, I hear the emcees chattering over their loudspeakers, but they’re not making fun of me, only imploring someone over at the ski-house party sites to bring them some food.
I dart through the finish corral and lose myself in the festive base-area crowd.
Predictably, The Thing Itself has proven to be far less traumatic than The Dreading of The Thing. I have survived the Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge, and will even look back on it later with some fondness.
John, grinning broadly, slides up to me at the bottom with a fist bump and a sincere “Nice job, Big Dog.” I’m flooded with relief, and suddenly I do very much want to take some runs.
I return my bib and snag my awesome 2018 Bud Light Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge T-shirt, then we head back up the mountain. The sky is blue. Conditions are excellent. Killington is such a great ski area. I love all the people who ski there. I love skiing. I love John.
We work our way over to Superstar to admire the work of the snow- makers. It’s piled high with what looks like enough snow to last through July—The Beast, thank goodness, truly has re-embraced its rightful eminence as the King of Spring. (The 2018 season won’t end until May 26.)
Then we return to Bear and plunge in among the Mogul Challenge partiers for a while. What a scene: Everyone seems to know everyone else, and newcomers are warmly welcomed. A nice lady insists I have a hot dog. I down my first Jell-O shot since college. Delicious.
Beer in hand, April sunshine on my face, surrounded by revelers, I look up at the course, where the afternoon qualifiers are battling it out. Bump skiing sure is fun, I think. And next year, I’m gonna crush it.
Tip Sheet: Killington
Where to stay, play, and refuel at Vermont’s biggest resort.
- Sleep: For slopeside convenience, there’s no other than the Killington Grand Hotel. This full- service lodge has everything you need within reach: restaurant, coffee shop, ski rentals, game room, pool, fitness center, and more, plus easy access to the slopes via a ski bridge. Those looking for Vermont charm can’t do better than the Amee Farm Lodge, a sprawling property set on 40 acres of woodland about 20 minutes from the resort.
- Eat: On the Access Road, Lookout Tavern serves up great wings and all the other bar fare you’re craving after a day on the slopes. For a still-casual but less-pub-like vibe try Choices, where the diverse menu boasts burgers to rack of lamb.
- Drink: It’s not a Killington trip without a visit to the Wobbly Barn and the Pickle Barrel, on the Access Road, for live music, dancing, and drinking. Or go the sports-bar route at Moguls, the Irish bar route at McGrath’s, play pool at Jax’s, or just chill with like-minded friends at Liquid Art Coffeehouse and Eatery.
Originally published in the January/February 2019 Double Issue of SKI Magazine. For more great writing like this delivered straight to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE NOW.